What happens to Mexico’s sex workers when they grow old?

For Tough Love (Las Amorosas Más Bravas), Bénédicte Desrus and Celia Gomez Ramos created a photography story about Casa Xochiquetzal, a sparse building in a rundown neighbourhood near Mexico City’s historic quarter – the only shelter for elderly sex workers in the world’s most populous city.

There, in relative peace and quiet, 26 elderly women live out their end days. They write poetry, do yoga, embroider. They read trashy novels or the Bible. They gossip, share stories and reminisce, argue and occasionally fight, dredging up grievances from decades back. They try, often forlornly, to find and connect with lost children or estranged relatives. Sometimes they talk about their childhood.

These women were – and some still are – sex workers. Their working lives were spent, day on day, hour on hour, in backstreet motels, “selling love” to men who likely don’t know the word. When they grew old, when their bodies started to fail them, they wound up sleeping on the streets.

The shelter began decades ago, when Carmen Muñoz, herself a former sex worker, found a group of ageing women – who had evidently worked the corners that day – sleeping under the plastic tarpaulin of a dormant marketplace. After 20 years of lobbying, in 2006 Mexico City’s municipal government finally agreed to cover the basic costs of the shelter. A civil association was created, and the funding for Casa Xochiquetzal – which is named after the Aztec goddess of sexual love – now comes from a loose group of artists and writers, whose work inspires public donations.

More than 250 former sex workers have lain their heads there; some have died there, others have gone back to the streets, some have simply disappeared. Today, 26 women live there. Many have known each other for decades. “But you wouldn’t call them friends,” Desrus says. “They’re rivals, they’re territorial. They still talk about how one encroached on another’s territory decades ago.”

There are rules at the shelter; nightly check-ins, weekly pow-wows, a housekeeping rota and bans on drugs and gentlemen callers. But fights still break out on a regular basis. “Sometimes they’re happy and childish; they’re very sweet women with a lot of glamour,” Desrus says. “But they fight a lot. They have a lot of dirt on each other. They know how to defend themselves.”

Desrus grew up “in the forest” in France, and now lives in Mexico City after a stint in East Africa and New York. When I call, she’s preparing to visit the shelter, camera in hand. She first came across the women after getting a commission to photograph Carmen Muñoz for Elle magazine. “As soon as I got there, I just wanted to know,” she says of her subjects. “They have no money, they’re abused – they have lived everything. They get old, they can’t compete, and they end up on the streets. I wanted to know that story.”

Desrus has spent seven years socialising, befriending and finally photographing the women of Casa Xochiquetzal, but today she will take a series of images to upload onto an Instagram page founded that day. She’s close to them now, and the women accept Desrus as one of their own. “I’ve lived with them, I’ve shared with them, I respect them,” she says.

A book of images and text taken at the women’s shelter was launched in March 2014, created in collaboration with Mexican journalist Celia Gómez Ramos, and its profits will be dedicated to the shelter. The woman of Casa Xochiquetzal have not known an awful lot more than the most desperate back alleys of one of the most unforgiving cities in the world. And now they’re going global.

From a formal perspective, these photographs are conventional documentary portraiture; spontaneous moments with natural lighting and straight framing, but Desrus is able to get intimately close with these damaged survivors, and they give themselves to her camera with such freedom. The results speak of an intensity of experience – a total sense of expressionism.

But for Desrus this isn’t just an exercise in emotionalism and empathy. It’s an attempt to look at how and why women discover themselves in such a dangerous, exploitative and soul-destroying line of work. “Their home lives felt too small,” writes Ramos, who collaborated with Desrus. “They didn’t want to limit themselves or be confined to their narrow existences. So they fell into, or chose, sex work. But they never realised how exhausting life’s final trajectory would become after the energy of youth had evaporated – leaving them riddled with diseases and no place to live. Nor did they realise that in this material culture of ours, their bodies were marked with an expiration date, though this is a notion they continue to reject.”

This, though, is the one time Desrus and Gómez Ramos allow themselves to talk in general terms. The Tough Love is a study of specifics, of documenting tiny human details that, like a microcosm, reflect the lives of women who, in Mexico City and across the world, are actively ostracised in righteous condemnation.

They show Norma, still well-known at “the office” – a rundown plaza populated by the transactions between working girls and their punters. They tell us about Victoria, who at age 81 is the oldest resident of Casa Xochiquetzal. They show Canela, who has Down’s Syndrome and came to Mexico City from Oaxaca as a child. She’s now 72, and the only woman at the shelter not to have a child. They show Paola as she decorates her face with makeup before going to work in 2008. On 01 January 2011, Paola left the shelter without word and never returned. Her whereabouts are unknown.

Maria Isabel fills notebooks full of poetry, which she keeps fiercely to herself: “When my children realised what I was doing, they left me,” she says. “They never questioned where I got the money to help them start their careers and cover their needs. They only ever took.”

They show Sonia, who was raped at 13. Afterwards, her rapist pulled out a gun and shot her. She survived – the right side of her body paralysed. “I began working as a waitress when I was a young woman,” Sonia tells them. “Everyone came on to me and asked for sexual favours. One day I decided that if that’s what people wanted, I might as well get paid for it.”

“But they don’t talk to you about it in a tragic or dramatic way,” says Desrus. “They’re survivors, throughout everything. They’re strong and positive, they look to their future. They want peace in their old age, and that is all. And they have taught me about tolerance.”

Las Amorosas Más Bravas is available for purchase. Contact proyecto.xochiquetzal@gmail.com for more information. The proceeds of the book will be donated to Casa Xochiquetzal, a shelter for elderly sex workers in Mexico City.

To see more of Bénédicte Desrus’ work, visit her website

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Tom Seymour

Tom Seymour is an Associate Editor at The Art Newspaper and an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication. His words have been published in The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Financial Times, Wallpaper* and The Telegraph. He has won Writer of the Year and Specialist Writer of the year on three separate occassions at the PPA Awards for his work with The Royal Photographic Society.