Prostitution at the World Cup: Another Brazilian challenge

It is imperative for Brazil to distinguish between prostitution as a profession and sexual exploitation.

Brazil is renowned for its Carnival festival, but it is also a big attraction for sex tourists [AFP]

In the past months news about Brazilian prostitutes learning English in preparation for potential international clients during the World Cup has hit worldwide media circuits. There was a mocking tone in the news, with some resorting to sensationalist headlines as: “Brazilian prostitutes keen to learn the lingo“, which added a certain sense of absurdity to the fact. Yet again, what was so funny about these women taking legitimate steps to increase their earning ability similar to what businesses are doing across the country to maximise their profits from this high profile event attracting big spenders from around the world? The tone of the news not only reflects an attitude of preconceptions about prostitution but also an assumption of cultural superiority by ridiculing the idea that Brazilian prostitutes could actually learn English. For the upcoming World Cup events, it is crucial to tackle this issue, since it is exactly these types of attitudes that play a big role in constructing Brazil as the exotic getaway location attracting a large number of sex tourists alongside avid football fans.

In Brazil, employing prostitutes or running a house of prostitution is a criminal offence, however there are no Brazilian laws incriminating individuals who wish to practice it. Although not technically a crime, the profession is looked down upon as immoral in the country, especially due to its strong Catholic following. The state does not regulate prostitution, hence there are no mandatory health checks or legal rights for prostitutes similar to those of other workers.

There have been attempts [PT] in the past from left wing politicians, such as Green Party Deputy Fernando Gabeira, who pushed for labour legislations by legally recognising prostitution as a “service of a sexual nature”. Currently, prostitution is on the list of the Brazilian Classification of Occupations, which allows prostitutes to contribute funds to social security and become eligible to receive pensions. Yet, from a societal perspective, prostitution is generally ignored – almost no one talks seriously about the problems that prostitutes face, much less consider prostitution to be a legitimate profession.

Attacking the stigma

The Brazilian prostitution scene contains various strata of professionals; a “luxury prostitute” (“prostituto de luxo“) is not to be confused with a street prostitute, or the women that work in so-called dance clubs. Brazil’s most famous luxury prostitute is Raquel Pachecho, who uses the penname of Bruna Surfistinha. She became an internet celebrity by documenting encounters with her wealthy clientele on her blog. She also published her best-selling autobiography The Scorpion’s Sweet Poison, the Diary of a Brazilian Call Girl in 2005, which in 2011 was made into a much-discussed film starring famous Brazilian actors.

Carnival celebrations begin in Brazil

In another initiative, the ex-prostitute Gabriela Leite founded the organisation Davida [PT], an NGO whose mission is to support sex workers in Brazil by defending the rights of prostitutes, regulating the trade, and opposing the demeaning image of victimisation. 

Gabriela Leite’s approach was different than that of most NGOs, which are without humor and generally lack creativity. In 2005, Leite, on behalf of prostitutes, launched a fashion brand brazenly called Daspu – short for “das putas“, meaning “from the whores”. The name was a clever play on the Brazilian luxury brand “Daslu”, that is, “from the Lu’s” based on the names of the two owners, Lucia and Lourdes. Daspu was a spirited and defiant reaction to the anti-prostitution pledge that the US government had insisted Brazil take in order to receive a USAID of $40 million dollars to help in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The DASPU movement is an expression of what might be called prostitute pride, a sort of analogue to gay pride.

In an orgy of self-irony, Davida prostitutes presented the DASPU fashion line at the 2008 Sao Paulo Fashion Week. DASPU later took part in an art exhibition, which was showcased at the 27th Sao Paulo Biennial. Yet, this wasn’t just a movement of performance art appreciated by few intellectuals in the fashion and art circle; DASPU marked its presence in traditional media (it was showcased in Vogue Magazine in 2008). Its mission was to break taboos around prostitution and make it visible to society through an expression of unabashed self-assertion. By calling themselves “whores” instead of using more formal descriptive labels such as “sex worker” or “prostitute”, they were implicitly challenging the hypocrisy of society towards prostitution by exposing the contradictions between widespread indulgence and marginalisation, highlighted by the negativity evoked by referring to prostitutes as whores.

Cashing in

Of course not all prostitutes in Brazil are celebrity entrepreneurs with books and film projects under their belts like Bruna Surfistinha or Daspu. The truly dirty side of the sex industry is also part of the reality. The increasing number of child prostitutes in the country has put Brazil in the notorious company of Thailand. Brazil has become one of the most desirable destinations in the world for sex tourism, with cities like Rio de Janeiro or the northeastern cities of Recife and Fortaleza becoming the centres of the activity. Such a development has disturbed Brazilian officials, who have been trying to fight against these crimes in the preparation for the World Cup – an event promising to bring a huge influx of tourists including, some searching for child prostitutes.

Brazil’s exotic and sensual image is a double-edged sword. It lures in an increasing number of tourists drawn by the vivacious quality of the culture in all its aspects, at the same time presenting itself as a “faraway escape” for those ready to pay to satisfy their exploitative sexual appetites in an “anonymous” environment.

One of the strongest representations of “Brazilian beauty” spread across the world is the mulatta (a woman of mixed race) dancer of Carnival. The half naked samba dancer’s body has been subject of films, posters, TV screens, magazines and sold throughout the world as the defining image of Brazil, seducing tourists with promises of festivity and scantily-clad women. Carnival, Brazil’s ultimate tourist attraction, is an event where “wildness” of all sorts is not only accepted but celebrated. The Brazilian equivalent of Las Vegas, the crazier one acts during Carnival – entailing sessions of heavy drinking, passionate dancing and sexual promiscuity – the more one’s in tune with the Carnival spirit. Needless to say, Carnival is a big attraction for sex tourists.

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The fashion industry also cashes in on Brazilian beauty. Take the world’s most famous top model, Gisele Bundchen. Brands like Victoria’s Secret capitalise on this image by sexualising product lines, such as “Cheeky & Brazilian Bottoms”, a name that cleverly alludes to the infamous body of the Brazilian woman, at the same time suggesting a sort of exotic “playfulness”.

Regulation of the industry

Brazil is both proud of and afflicted by its image of beauty. With all the poverty and problems of education in the country, especially when connected to the massive drug problems in urban areas, prostitution ends up offering a way of sustenance for the poor. The avid sex tourist arriving with cash in hand is a rare opportunity for the unfortunate. It remains a sophisticated challenge for Brazil to present itself as a desirable destination, and attract global attention for its cultural and natural wonders without becoming an enclave for exploitative sex tourism.

Human trafficking has also been a great problem for Brazil, the increasing concern reflecting itself in the plot of the country’s prime time soap opera Salve Jorge. The tremendously popular TV show, watched widely across social classes in Brazil, deals with the story of Brazilian women subjected to sex trafficking by criminal gangs to foreign countries such as Spain and Turkey.

Ultimately, it may be a good place to start thinking about state regulation and legitimisation of prostitution in Brazil to fight its problematic side, such as the exploitation of children. Jean Wyllys, the country’s first openly gay Deputy Federal, promises exactly that before the 2014 Cup. He wants to legalise houses of prostitution and recognise the rights of prostitutes under a state-controlled environment. Given that establishments of prostitution are illegal and almost no prostitute works autonomously, criminal organisations currently control individuals under threatening conditions.

It is imperative to distinguish between prostitution as a profession and sexual exploitation. And it is the latter that Brazil needs to wage war against for the 2014 World Cup. In order to do this, Brazilians will first need to get over their own preconceptions and admit existence of prostitution in society. Only then the state – together with civil society – may find a legitimate way to control the industry and protect its citizens against exploitation.

Zeynep Zileli Rabanea is a freelance writer and translator currently living in Brazil. With a TV and film background she is working on innovation and creativity projects in Brazil and Turkey.