A couple of weeks ago, Justin Bieber became the latest celebrity to get caught slinking out of a brothel in Rio de Janeiro. He joins a Latin American sex tourism fraternity that just last year included members of the U.S. Secret Service.
Tourists frequenting prostitutes is not exactly a new trend. But sex tourism in the region is predictably gaining attention as Brazil counts down to next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. During the last two World Cups, prostitution generated its own influx of people, with an estimated 40,000 women traveling to Germany in search of sex work in 2006, and the same number to South Africa in 2010.
But beyond titillating stories of prostitutes learning English or cutting deals with banks in order to receive credit card payments, experts point to worrisome statistics associated with the industry in Latin America as it exists today. The Coalition Against Trafficking of Women says half a million women and children are sexually exploited in the region each year, while UNICEF estimates that in Brazil alone there are 250,000 child prostitutes. The U.S. State Department has pointed to the prevalence of the child sex tourism trade in Brazil, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, and Nicaragua. The department’s annual report on human trafficking reads like an essay on contemporary colonialism: developing nations attempt to keep their populations out of the hands of traffickers, while developed nations try to keep their randy citizens from having sex with enslaved people.
World Cup-motivated crackdowns on brothels in Rio (where prostitution is legal) have prompted concern for sex workers' safety, but the debate really heated up earlier this year when UN agencies recommended legalization of prostitution in order to more effectively fight the spread of HIV/AIDS. Many NGOs countered that such a tactic increases human trafficking, often referred to as the "dark side of globalization."
One study, recently released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, sheds light on how complex the network feeding sex tourism can be: passing through cycles of poverty, to underage prostitution, to human trafficking, to drug tourism and criminal networks.
And reputation matters. Authorities in Medellín, Colombia, concerned about a flourishing drug and underage-sex tourism industry in the city, found that demand there seemed to be being driven by online word of mouth. Thanks to the city’s lingering international reputation as a drug-cartel headquarters combined with rumors of local women’s beauty, online travel tip websites are in fact sending more sex tourists Medellín’s way.
In Brazil, the erotic excesses of Carnaval has set the stage for specialist tour operators bringing in sex-seeking tourists. But the government, eager to showcase a contemporary and cosmopolitan city, is wary of further hyping this reputation. Officials have tried to shut down over 2,000 websites promoting sex tourism. And brothels, which operate in a legal grey area, are targets of increasing police raids. Last year over 20 popular sex venues were shut down, leading up to an important international conference. That might very well happen again next year. And with the international spotlight intensifying on Rio, expect to see more attention paid to the conditions of sex work in Brazil.