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The dilemmas of lying and caring

Ana P. Gutiérrez Garza

Dilemma - Dino Caruna.jpg

Dino Caruna/Dilemma 


A few weeks after I met Denise, she invited me to her home, which she thought was the safest place for us to talk. She lived with housemates and her boyfriend; people she described as part of her ‘normal life’. I knocked on the door and two men greeted me. When I asked for Denise, they looked at me, surprised, and asked, ‘who are you looking for—Denise who?’ In that moment, I realised I had made a huge mistake as I was using her working name. I then tried Margot, thinking that her second name was probably her ‘real’ name, but their reaction was the same. It suddenly dawned on me that I did not know her real name. Feeling nervous I apologised and said that maybe I had the wrong house number. Suddenly one of the men said, ‘the only Brazilian girl that lives here is Rita.’ Mortified by my mistake I replied, ‘Oh yes, Rita, I forgot her name, I am an English teacher but because I have so many students I constantly forget their names.’ At that moment, Denise phoned me to say that she was running late. I told her I was at her front door, but that I would wait for her on the corner of the street.

When Denise-Margot-Rita arrived, I was pale and mortified, but did not have a chance to say anything as she ordered me to remain silent until we entered the house and got into her room. Closing the door behind her, Denise sat on the floor next to me and asked me in whispers if I had spoken to the blond guy, her Polish housemate. I replied yes, and she became visibly anxious, exclaiming ‘nossa!’ (shit!). I explained to her that in order to rectify the mess I had unknowingly created, I had pretended that I was an English teacher meeting her for the first class, and had mixed up the names of my students. To calm her down, I said that they seemed quite convinced by my explanation and had not asked any further questions. Denise then explained to me that she thought that the blond housemate was already suspicious, as he was always asking questions about her whereabouts. Worried that her boyfriend would find out about her real job, Denise told me she had to be cautious in hiding and lying about her working identity.

Denise (35) was from Brazil and had migrated to Portugal in 2002 but was deported two years later. In 2004 she decided to emigrate once again, and this time she chose London due to the expanding social networks of co-nationals in the city and the few immigration restrictions on Brazilian nationals. In contrast to other countries in Latin America, Brazilian nationals do not need to apply for a tourist visa in advance; they are granted the visa at the point of entry. While telling me her story she explained how her journey had been a combination of filial obligations towards her elderly parents—she was helping her siblings pay for the construction of their parents’ house back in Brazil—and wanting to have some freedom to experience new things.


On a personal level, she wanted to travel within Europe, learn English, enjoy London life and, with luck, find a nice man to marry and have kids (preferably a white European or British man). When she first moved to London, she started working as a domestic worker for a Brazilian woman who administered several households in north London. As a domestic worker she earned an average of £300–350 a week, working eight hours a day, six to seven days a week. The work was hard, the hours were decreasing, and gave her only just enough money to live in the city. After a year of ‘barely surviving’ in London and not being able to send remittances back to Brazil, Denise decided to follow some of her friends who were working as strip dancers and/or sex workers. Moving to sex work was a difficult decision, but one that enabled her to earn more money and achieve some of her migration dreams. For women like Denise, with an undocumented status, very little English, and no recognised qualifications in the UK, working in domestic or sex work were choices made in the face of a lack of better alternatives.

Yet, choices are never free of constraints. Both domestic and sex work are part of a transnational care industry that maintains the flow of  cheap, informal, highly gendered and often racialized labour that attracts and shapes the lives of women like Denise in fundamental ways. Denise did make a decision but within structural constraints that framed and shaped her existence. Moving into sex work was a better option than working in domestic work; it allowed women like her to pursue their socioeconomic aspirations and achieve migration goals, as they would earn at least double or triple the wages they made as domestic workers or cleaners.

For Denise this choice was linked to the obligations she had towards her family and the role she had to fulfil as a good daughter. Yet, Denise’s ‘choice’ posed significant problems for her personal life and aspirations. For instance, Marcello, her boyfriend, was oblivious to Denise’s occupation, but because they shared a room it was particularly complicated for her to hide it from him. When we met in her house, and once she had relaxed after I almost disclosed her other identities, she told me how tiring it was to work in sex work as it required such a complicated administration of different characters which at times clashed with each other and complicated her ability to have a ‘normal’ life. ‘I am so many different persons that sometimes I even get confused and do not know anymore who I am,’ she said.

By contrast, she felt the need to tell the truth to some people about her work; this she said relieved her from the shame and the moral conundrums that she felt for being a sex worker. By telling the truth about her occupation to people at church, Denise was working out her moral conflicts. Denise belonged to the Igrejia Universal, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Besides praying for forgiveness and letting other people pray for her, telling the truth allowed her to fashion herself into an appropriate religious person, who she claimed was closer to her ‘real person’. This “real person” was explained to me as the person who she was before migration, a person that she would eventually recuperate, once she had fulfilled her migration aspirations.

While talking about her friends at church, Denise emphasised the fact that these friends knew who she really was. Her honest, repentant religious persona  was compatible with other peoples’ identities at church. Nevertheless, there were important contradictions in her life, as she could not possibly tell the truth about her occupation to other people outside church. Confession and repentance offered her a temporary space in which she could live a more liveable life, a moral life, recognising that some things could not be changed for the time being. For now, sex work offered the best option to make real money and help her family from a distance. In addition, the temporariness of her occupation and the prospects of the future in which she would no longer be a sex worker also helped her in dealing with the moral conundrums that the occupation represented.


On an everyday basis, Denise’s biography had to constantly adapt and transform, particularly in regard to her relationship with Marcello. Her two biographies and different names co-existed uncomfortably close to each other. The danger of the inevitable mismatch was a constant threat. As a result, she had to be careful about where to work in order to protect her secret and chose to work only at ‘swing parties’ instead of working full time in flats. These ‘swing parties’ were different from those attended by couples wanting to switch partners; they were events organised by madams or pimps for sex workers and clients to interact in a collective space and to engage in quick sexual exchanges. At these parties, women were required to interact, that is, to provide sex, to a certain number of clients for shifts of four to five hours, and earned £150–250.


Due to the nature of swing parties, sex workers and clients found it difficult to exchange anything more than sex. This contrasted sharply with work in brothels and private flats, where clients demanded intimacy and emotional labour, which was not only exhausting and time consuming, but could jeopardise the biographies and emotional relationships that women like Denise were trying to sustain. Working at swing parties meant that Denise only had to work a few times a week, depending on demand, and avoid other types of exchanges with clients. They offered her the opportunity to earn more money than she used to make as a domestic worker, while maintaining the separation of her private life from sex work. 

As far as Marcello knew, Denise was a babysitter for a rich family in west London and a saleswoman of Avon products. Although she sold Avon products for real, this could not bring enough money to live in London and send remittances home. Both the salesperson and the babysitter personae served as facades to protect her identity as Marcello’s girlfriend and, hence, her ideal of love and plans for the future. Besides lying to Marcello, Denise also lied to her family back in Brazil who did not know about her real occupation. Although lying provoked a moral conflict with her religious beliefs, it was a necessary choice and, more importantly, ethically justified.

Why am I suggesting that lying was ethically justified? We could make the case that Denise justified her actions in order to ease the guilt attached to the act of lying. However, it is more complicated than that. My reasoning emerges from the understanding of morality as a set of rules, norms and conventions against which human behaviours are judged; and of ethics as agency. Through this distinction, we are able to understand that ethical choices can break norms and rules and appear immoral. We must try to understand the rationale behind an ethical choice—in Denise’s case, how lying is inextricably connected with notions of care.

Denise lied about sex work because she felt, in some sense, that she was doing something immoral. Lying and caring appear to be contradictory pulls, yet they signal an important ethical practice: that of an ethics of care which is grounded in daily experiences and moral problems of people in their everyday life. By lying, Denise was protecting herself and those she loved, as well as her future with Marcello, from the stigma of her occupation. Her choices—of engaging in sex work and of lying about it—were undertaken to meet moral expectations, for instance those of being a good daughter who cared for her family. In other words, to do what she felt was right—to care for her family and her future with Marcello—Denise behaved in ways that were simultaneously immoral and ethical.

Doing fieldwork with Latin American migrant sex workers like Denise made me acutely conscious of myself as a moral person imbricated in delicate relationships—where power imbalance is inevitable—with my informants. As a result, I found myself enacting an ethics of care through lying in order to protect my informants’ identities and their relationships with different people. I had to learn how to lie about them and about myself. I became part of their different biographies and of different lies and, without realising it, I fashioned different characters that needed to be adapted to the scripts that women wrote of their own biographies in London. My tactical lying became part of my research methodology and, simultaneously, a reminder of the effects and the impact that our research has in peoples’ lives. In this sense, lying is indeed an ethical choice, based on notions of care and the recognition of others with whom one is interdependent and always involved in social relationships. For me, lying was inextricably linked to the ethical obligation of care and responsibility that I had towards my informants.

For Denise, who lived a life that contained important contradictions with her sense of morality and with who she ‘really was’, these choices were necessary to deal with the situation at hand in the present. The various biographies and identities she developed in London were temporary; they were after all, destined (or at least assumed) to disappear in the near future. And although her choices collided with what she thought of as right and wrong, it was necessary to make these choices to maintain herself as a moral subject. During such ethical moments, Denise was able to reconcile her past life with a present she regarded as a temporary phase that would eventually change, and hence to imagine the possibilities of a future in which she would be able to constitute herself as a different person—a real person

The names of individuals who appear in the text have been changed to protect their privacy.

Ana Gutiérrez Garza is a social anthropologist at St Andrews, where she is also director of the Centre for Amerindian and Latin American Studies and  the Gender Institute. She is the author of Care for Sale (2019, OUP), and her work focuses on migration, gender, labour and ethics of care in the UK, Spain and the United States. 

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