Historical essay
Sex on the Border: Policing Women in Red Light Districts

Sex on the Border: Policing Women in Red Light Districts

In 2001, a Dallas Observer reporter stepped into a shadowy, smoke-filled room and narrowed his eyes to see through the blinking neon lights and deconstruct the American traveler’s fascination with the modern sex industry along the border. The image he projected, of women lined up against a crumbling wall in a run down bar, tells a border story between two countries with different ideas about regulated prostitution, and one of American men flooding across the Rio Grande where commercial sex is medically regulated.

The reporter sensationalized the scenes of women leaning on the wall, the cheap booze, and the bartender whispering, “Many gringos on Friday and Saturday … Do you want a woman?” Yet it is his detailed explanation of the required medical passports, or medical registers, that speaks volumes to the medical history of governments policing women’s bodies and of promoting sexuality to entertain men.1

Most state governments in Mexico promote the registration of prostitution by arguing that quality health is necessary to attract tourists that trek across the border looking for sex. Since Mexican sex workers pose a problem for the tourist industry if they spread venereal disease, government officials consider it necessary to control the industry in two ways: one, to sanction red light districts within or on the outskirts of the city, and two, to archive the entire history of the women sex-workers in the boletas de registros, or pink passports, to determine if they are “carriers” of venereal disease. The latter places another stigma upon women as unhealthy and criminals.

In recent months, immigration reform and control, represented in chants of “build that wall,” has woven its way into the rhetoric of groups that seek to use immigrants as a platform. One reason immigration reform is such a hot topic is the effect it has on various government groups, including law enforcement, public education, and economic interest for border states. Current law, however, does not focus on the humanization of immigrants, but only on the criminalization of those seeking a better life for their families. Nor is there much discussion surrounding the US citizens who cross the border to access the services of the people trying to make a living along the border.

A black and white photograph of the front of a house, with two women peering out the window.
Prostitutes “roping” in the window of their house. (Rothstein/Library of Congress)

Sex tourism enticing American men to Mexico is not a new phenomenon. The nightlife of cities like Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo attracts a broader audience, but the sex industry has appealed to tourists along the US-Mexican border for a century. The red light districts in the border areas of Mexico, sometimes referred to as Zona de Tolerancia or Zona Rosa, were carefully constructed to help promote sex as an industry throughout the twentieth century.

In The Mexican Border Cities: Landscape Anatomy and Place Personality, Daniel Arreola argues that the zonas are categorized in two ways, as districts and compounds. The district design, exemplified by Tijuana’s “La Coahuila,” is designated within the city but still segregated spatially from the other districts. Arreola argues that red light areas play an important role in attracting tourism into the downtown districts. Compounds such as the one in Nuevo Laredo are located outside the main city and have a wall built up around the district to hide it away from the surrounding public. Arreola argues that “Zonas vary over time as well as space. Decisions to close or relocate zonas reflect shifts in public opinion and social attitudes, changes in local and regional economies, and political considerations.” The spatial layout of the red light districts, and their promotion as tourist attractions, financially serve both the cities and businesses such as bars and exotic dance clubs, but do not empower the women who occupy the space.2

On any given day a person could sit outside one of the red light districts in a city along the United States-Mexico border and view the influx of women checking into clinics to receive their compulsory exams for venereal diseases, paid for with their own money, in order to get the stamps in their medical passports and other medical registers that allowed them to continue to work as legal sex workers.

A young white woman stands in a mini skirt looking down a night street.
Sex worker, Mexico. (Haku/Flickr)

What is not necessarily noticeable is that the entire medical history of the women is housed in the register, so that regulation officers have instant access to their medical history. Why? The Mexican government put these policies in place to protect American men crossing the border seeking sexual services from Mexican women. This method of surveillance ensures a “safety factor” prevention from venereal disease for the Americans who pay for sex.

The history of regulated prostitution is wrapped up in Progressive Era ideology of whether men could control their sexual desires or needed access to women for sex. By World War I, the United States government shut down red light districts in American cities that contained a training camp for soldiers. Additionally, government agencies created departments to help maintain the morality of American soldiers by introducing athletics into their daily routine. These policies shifted from controlling the health of the women to managing the activities of the men in just a few short years.

According to Arreola, United States General John J. Pershing is credited with creating the model of the zonas along the border in Mexico during his military occupation of the state of Chihuahua. Arreola writes, “During Pershing’s punitive expedition in 1916, Chinese and Mexican entrepreneurs pursued the military, following their camps and offering women and liquor.”3 As his soldiers filed across the border to set up a camp in Ciudad Juárez, women surrounded the camp looking for work as prostitutes. Worried about the threat of venereal disease, a local bishop suggested to Pershing that he set up zones outside the military camps to separate the men from the readily-available women.

By 1916, Texas already possessed a history of controlled prostitution throughout the state. Regulated districts existed by 1890 in both El Paso and San Antonio, and more than likely Pershing familiarized himself with the methods necessary to guard the health of his soldiers. Reports from his administration showed that the instances of venereal disease greatly diminished within the military camps, providing border cities with a model for separating the women from the general public. As in today’s zonas, the men of Pershing’s army did not have to undergo medical examinations, only the women did, showing that medical responsibility had shifted back to the women.

Photo of a pink store front with the words "Erotica Sexshop" across the top.
Sex Shop in Distrito Federal, Zona Rosa. (Snow/Flickr)

Continuing into the early 1980s, city officials in places like Tijuana searched for ways to manage prostitution and make it safer for tourists by enacting laws to control women’s bodies, perpetuating the Progressive Era notions that only women provide sexual services and spread diseases. Therefore, men that come across the border to have sex do not have to register as sex tourists, nor are they required to submit to medical exams to leave or enter the country. According to anthropologist Yasmina Katsulis, medical passports in Mexico are only given out to women, which creates a layered history of gendered criminalization and registration in border prostitution.4

This dynamic makes the idea of pink medical passports so intriguing since the color pink represents the gendered construction in the laws. In her article “Archives, Bodies, and Imagination,” María Elena Martínez argues that “human bodies can be linked to knowledge and memory,” and within the archives, the women are documented as sex workers. The medical archive then subsumes their identity, making the women silent and only visible through their occupation, essentially disappearing into the document, which they can never completely leave behind.5

The pink passports, the boletas de registros, construct the women as sexually deviant objects, not only silencing them between the layers of authority and regulated space, but marginalizing them even further into the criminalized system that promotes the welfare of American men.

This medical archival construction of prostitution in Mexico generated a relationship between the women and American men that turned the women into a visual economy. In her book Seeing Her Sex: Medical Archives and the Female Body, Roberta McGrath argues, “Modern medical gaze was forged in relation to the woman’s body as a spectacle, as a sexual object,” and also notes that the collection of medical archives on prostitution represents assemblages of knowledge that produced the way governmental structures view women in the sex industry, as objects that need regulation.

She writes that “by turning flesh into paper” and inscribing women’s bodies into representations of their occupation, the pink passports encapsulate the notions that prostitution needs order, and medical histories need immediate access by authorities to protect men from deviant women.6 By viewing the regulation of women through the lens of gender and geography,  we can extract the humanity from the pages of the registers and change the discourse surrounding border migration.


  1. Joe Pappalardo, “Trick Town,” Dallas Observer, May 31, 2001. Return to text.
  2. Daniel Arreola and James R. Curtis, The Mexican Border Cities: Landscape Anatomy and Place Personality (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1994), 109-17. Return to text.
  3. Arreola and Curtis, The Mexican Border Cities, 110. Return to text.
  4. Yasmina Katsulis, Sex Work in the City: The Social Geography of Health and Safety in Tijuana, Mexico (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2009). Return to text.
  5. María Elena Martínez, “Archives, Bodies, and Imagination: The Case of Juana Aguliar and Queer Approaches to History, Sexuality, and Politics,” Radical History Review no. 120 (Fall 2014), 177. Return to text.
  6. Roberta McGrath, Seeing Her Sex: Medical Archives and the Female Body (New York, NY: Manchester University Press, 2002), 1. Return to text.

Leah LaGrone Ochoa is PhD student at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. Currently, her focus is on the history of working class women, including the politics of labor, prostitution, and morality in Texas. She is also the author of “In the Public Eye: Texas Governor James Ferguson’s Fight with the Press,” in Impeached: The Removal of Governor James E. Ferguson, A Centennial Examination, ed. Jessica Brannon-Wranosky and Bruce A. Glasrud (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2017).