Based on ethnographic research in San José, Costa Rica, this article analyzes the relationships that sex workers have with an evangelical Christian nongovernmental organization (NGO) aimed at helping them exit the sex industry. Sex workers participate in a form of emotional labor that I call “pragmatic penance,” the strategic performance of victimhood in exchange for support from the NGO. I argue that both how sex workers are helped and how sex workers take advantage of the help being offered have been shaped by the broader structural context of neoliberalism, which favors paying attention to individual problems rather than systemic issues. The aim of this article is to contribute to the literature on the dynamics at play in a particular location in the global South, where these international policy trends are empirically enacted. While much has been written about sex workers and their clients, this article breaks new ground by offering an empirical rendering of the relationship between sex workers and the evangelicals who help them in a context when labor politics are on the decline in favor of entrepreneurial self-improvement.

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Journal Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society
Rivers-Moore, M. (2018). We fight with god’s weapons: Sex work and pragmatic penance in neoliberal Costa Rica. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 43(4), 851–876. doi:10.1086/696626