Bodies as Commodities

Bodies as Commodities

Prostitution in Costa Rica


Sex tourism in Costa Rica, where prostitution is legal, is a significant draw for the tourism industry and sometimes the only way for some Costa Rican women to earn a living. Despite this, prostitutes have no legal protection and are often scorned and ignored by general society. Susana Sanchez Carballo uses sculpture and public art to bring these women front and center.

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Photographs by Susana Sanchez Carballo

In my work, I'm inspired by the characters we see every day when we walk the streets of San Jose, Costa Rica: alcoholics, drug addicts and especially prostitutes who have been excluded because of their condition, transformed into marginalized beings who represent an entity that is neither operative or functional, but an empty weight for our society, where commerce rather than humanity is the most important.

These marginalized groups are essentially invisible to the rest of society. Their "invisibility" also permits us to ignore the way in which many of them earn a living. For example, in the case of prostitution, the women perform a service that has long been part of the black market because of the moral and social condemnation that falls upon these women. Accepting it would be a form of condoning it, which the rest of society is not prepared to do.

Regardless of the social conditions and the subjective reasons that bring a woman to enter prostitution--poverty, a lack of opportunities, sexual abuse or free choice--it's a market that represents the supremacy of commerce over bodies. Using their bodies as their livelihoods is the only source of income for thousands households supported only by women. Notwithstanding the ethical discomfort that it can create, many women, not having sufficient emotional and economic resources, decide to work in prostitution as the only way in which they can raise their children.

Here, I present two pieces inspired by the prostitutes we see every day in San Jose. The first is called "Te Divierto,?" or, "Do I entertain you?", a collection of four hand-crafted wood puppets depicting the marginalized people in our society, posed in a variety of positions that will seem familiar to us.

The second is called "Vestigios," or "Vestiges." Anyone walking at night in San Jose's "red light district" will see silhouettes-shadows of people trying to survive day by day in the streets. These marginalized shadows are sex workers, who signal their presence to clients with the beat of her heels and give anyone with a few bills in their hands access to their bodies.

Indeed, these silhouettes were the basis to create "Vestiges." I created a design that I then laid on walls and streets in a neighborhood of San Jose. I worked on this project in collaboration with the program "In the street," a public art project organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design.

One of the reasons I created these designs is to prompt us to think about the reality of sex workers in Costa Rica. Most people in society judge these women as unnatural or immoral, but this is a simplified way to look at the issue. These silhouettes represent these women who survive in the shadows, invisible beings who carry a very heavy burden on their shoulders that prevents them from being confident or assured. Their bodies--ignored by some, abused by others, their only commodity-are the model for these permanent shadows that we should no longer ignore.


Prostitution is not illegal in Costa Rica, and hundreds of women-both Costa Rican and of other nationalities-make their living in the country's thriving sex tourism industry. However, prostitution is also not regulated, meaning many sex workers face dangerous or abusive working conditions. Child prostitution and sex trafficking are also common in Costa Rica, despite government efforts to crack down on the problem. To learn more, read our Costa Rica Regional Essay.

Susana Sanchez Carballo has exhibited work in Costa Rica, Mexico, and Nicaraguan. Her work has ben included in exhibitions at Costa Rican Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in Costa Rica, and the National Gallery in Costa Rica. Susana has a BA in Painting and an MA in Cinematography from the University of Costa Rica. She lives in San Jose, Costa Rica.


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