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The Olympics won’t be a boon for sex workers, and not because of Zika virus

Fears of increased ‘sex trafficking’ during the World Cup in Brazil proved unfounded. Could the lessons learned in 2014 be applied to the Rio Olympic games of 2016?

Patrick Semansky/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Brazil is about to once again play host to a major sporting event, with the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympic games to take place later this week. This sporting extravaganza has once again been accompanied by sensationalised media reports regarding an anticipated explosion of human trafficking. Moral panics and sporting events have been closely linked for over a decade now, with remarkably similar media reports regarding ‘a big spike in sex trafficking’ having accompanied coverage of international sporting events in countries such as Germany, South Africa, and the United States.

One of the most depressing features of the media reports is that they get debunked time and time again, only to rise unscathed from the ashes with each new event. Brazil is a particularly powerful example of this trend, because it only recently hosted the 2014 World Cup, and therefore should have immediate experience to apply to the Olympics. Journalists and commentators need to reflect on this recent history before once again publishing another round of repetitive articles on sex trafficking and sporting events.

The sex traffickers and sex tourists are coming!

In the run-up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, topless protestors from the Brazilian chapter of Femen took authorities by surprise inside the Rio de Janeiro airport with their signs and chants that “Brazil is not a whorehouse!” They claimed sex tourism would go up at least 30%. During the same period, visiting evangelical Christians from the United States partnered with 500 Brazilian churches in a prayer campaign aimed at warning the locals about sex trafficking and prostitution, which they understood to be basically the same thing. There was even a popular telenovela about a single mother from Rio’s favelas who is sex trafficked to Istanbul by some swarthy and licentious Turks. Journalists from the Telegraph and other news outlets reported that sex workers in Brazil were learning foreign languages to prepare for the coming masses of customers.

These sensational media reports had very little to do with what actually happened during the World Cup. Researchers associated with the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s Observatório da Prostituição (Prostitution Observatory) spent over a month doing interviews, surveys, and field observations in commercial sex venues spread across the city. Our team of twelve primary researchers from institutions in Brazil, the US, Canada and Portugal spent approximately 2,000 hours collecting data, with 116 formal long-form interviews and many more informal ones. Fieldwork was conducted in numerous locations. These ranged from the low end – yet stadium adjacent – brothel district of Vila Mimosa, where over a thousand women work amidst the smell of sewage, all the way to upper-tier venues like the one the pop star Justin Beiber was photographed leaving a few months before the World Cup began.

Yet local business actually went down, rather than up

I thought I would make money, but no one wants programas [tricks]!

One of the key findings of our research was that demand for sex work was much weaker than anticipated. Aline, a sex worker in Vila Mimosa, kept a video diary the first week. It follows her trajectory from early hopes of finally having some money to the moment a few days later when she gives up, declaring, “We’re fucked with these games. There’s no business!” Priscilla, a sex worker in her forties, explained to me one night in the touristy red light area of Copacabana, “I thought I would make money, but no one wants programas [tricks]! They only want to talk, maybe buy a drink, and then take selfies with me for their Facebook”.

Downtown brothel venues resorted to giving out free beer on game days if people would come, but still could not coax clients to enter. Eventually, business was so poor they simply closed down during matches. To avoid the crowds of foreigners, local clients preferred to stay home with their families or friends. So women across the city moved to the more visible area of Copacabana, but this in turn created much more supply than demand. Full details of the research can be found here, but our team of social scientists concluded that business was down about 15% overall. Only a handful of elite venues saw stable or slightly higher numbers.

Almost everyone we interviewed formally or informally turned out to be an experienced local sex worker. This finding was important, because there was an expectation that we might find migrant sex workers from elsewhere in Brazil or from other South American countries in the brothels. We also found no cases that bore hallmarks of sex trafficking or forced prostitution in indoor venues. This is consistent with what Paul Amar found in his analysis of anti-trafficking operations in Rio. Amar’s study concluded that where exploitation in the sex industry does exist, it is almost invariably in venues run by or with the police and not in the safer legal venues found in tourist areas.

Police were the problem, not the solution

The 2014 World Cup did stimulate violence against women, but most of this violence originated with the police, rather than pimps or clients. Police raided over a dozen venues in the year before the cup, and the government shuttered the Help! Discotheque, the largest club for sex tourists in the city, in 2010 in order to turn it into a new Museum of Image Sound (which has still not yet opened). In one particularly infamous example, the police violently raided a building where some 300 women worked, stealing, beating, raping, and evicting them. The main witness in the case, a sex worker under the pseudonym Isabel, was abducted and tortured.

Business was so poor that brothels simply closed down during matches.

On the opening day of the World Cup police arrived with reporters from O Globo TV at Balcony Bar, a restaurant popular with sex workers and clients. The main problem with the Balcony Bar was its location, as it was adjacent to the FIFA Fan Fest jumbo screens for game viewing. Police shuttered the venue and hung signs saying, “the conduct [of Balcony Bar] reinforces a derogatory image of Brazil, which is viewed internationally as a country that permits sexual tourism.”

This notice was surprising on many levels, because sexual tourism is not a crime in Brazil. They also closed a nearby hotel known to rent rooms to sex workers and clients. That evening over a hundred women turned up to work and promptly moved about ten feet over to stand in the plaza. One woman called out to me cheerfully as she held up her phone, “Greg! Balcony [Bar] is closed, but its wifi is still on!” Soon hundreds of clients appeared and street venders swooped in with cheap drinks. A rollicking party ensued outside Balcony almost every night for the month of the cup. This was the plaza where all the disappointed women in Vila Mimosa came once they realised their usual turf was vacant. Around 300 police stood around for crowd control. Once the journalists had left, they no longer cared about sex work.

That night, I saw three teenaged girls standing between cars on the edges of the scene who looked to me to be clearly under 18, which is the legal age to consent to sell sex. Balcony had never had underaged girls. My colleagues and I were there hundreds of nights doing fieldwork over the years and never saw a single case of a minor working inside the venue for ourselves.

This is the great irony of the moral panic surrounding sporting events. Well intentioned protestors and journalists who pushed for police action to clean up the red light district ultimately contributed to the very problems they purported to care about: rape, exploitation, and underage prostitution. That the privileged elites responsible for the panic don’t understand their complicity speaks to the lack of experience they have working in these sites and shows naiveté about the realities of police abuse experienced by those on the margins of society. Today Balcony is the site of a fancy restaurant aimed at wealthy patrons and the women have been driven from its walls into the surrounding streets and alleyways. Gentrification is not bloodless.

Well intentioned protestors and journalists who pushed for police action to clean up the red light district ultimately contributed to the very problems they purported to care about: rape, exploitation, and underage prostitution.

More of the same?

If the World Cup was bad for business, the Olympics this August are bound to be worse. At least the World Cup had large groups of young men traveling together looking for sex (preferably unpaid) and lasted over a month. The Olympics are marketed aggressively toward families and last just over two weeks. Only half the available tickets have been sold. The media is awash in sensationalistic stories about Zika virus. A group of politicians facing corruption investigations recently ousted President Dilma Rousseff on very tenuous grounds and installed an all-white, all-male conservative cabinet, prompting her supporters to angrily take to the street protesting this ‘coup’. Meanwhile, the country remains in the deepest recession it has seen in decades.

This pessimism is not lost on sex workers, who know full well that their own fates are likely to be affected by their country’s woes. This is especially since the police are newly re-energised about prostitution. Just days before the games were set to begin, police boasted that they had broken up a prostitution ring and rescued eight women and three underaged teenaged girls near the main Olympic site in Barra da Tijuca. Media outlets from Fox News to O Globo quickly published sensational accounts of this supposed sex trafficking bust, yet the only people detained in the case appear to be the girls themselves, raising concerns among sex workers and advocates that the pattern of opportunistic policing and conflation of sex work with sex trafficking seen during the Cup is continuing unabated for the Olympics.

About the author

Gregory Mitchell is Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and affiliate faculty in the Departments of Anthropology & Sociology and Latina/o Studies at Williams College. He is the author of Tourist Attractions: Performing Race and Masculinity in Brazil’s Sexual Economy (University of Chicago Press 2016). His research focuses upon works on prostitution, public policy, policing, sex trafficking discourses. He has received awards from the National Science Foundation, Ford Foundation, and the American Anthropological Association.


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