La Casa de Lila presents the results of a sociological study done in a Costa Rican house of prostitution for male homosexuals. Lila's house is a rather particular center. Most of the clients are older men who seek out young boys; some of the prostitutes are as young as 10. The prostitutes are "cacheros" a term describing men who provide sexual services for homosexuals but consider themselves as either straight or bisexual. They have girlfriends, wives and many of them have children. Most have problems with alcohol, crack cocaine and gambling. It is the necessity for money to support these activities that motivates their work.
The book's main focus is the question of sexual identity. How do a group of heterosexual men deal with the reality that their livelihood depends upon prostituting themselves with other men? Schifter concludes that sexual identity is determined by power relations and not by what one does and with whom. Men are dominant, women are submissive. One can be dominant (masculine) while sodomizing another man; the person sodomized becomes feminine. Sex expresses the social dynamic of male oppression.
Schifter's team interviewed 25 prostitutes (aged 13 to 27) during the first half of 1997. Lila, the (male) homosexual, who runs the house was also interviewed and the investigators obviously spent time observing the activities at the casa. Schifter is a prominent AIDS and gay rights activist in Central America. While I find that some of his other work is nearly impossible to read, this book is quite readable. [I should note that I read the Spanish edition of La Casa de Lila. ]
Clients were not interviewed in this book and this is a major weakness. Schifter recognizes that the stories told by the cacheros were not very accurate. I would have appreciated greater detail on exactly how the house functioned. What time did it open? How did clients come? How were the cacheros scheduled? What exactly did they do? It might have helped to describe in detail a few days in the life of one of the cacheros. There was no information on venereal diseases among the prostitutes, the relationship of the casa to the local police, government officials and a wealth of other topics that are of interest. This information might have served as a reality check on the interviews.
Despite these shortcomings, this book remains a well written and well researched study on the construction of a sexual identity among a very particular group of male prostitutes.