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Despite the Hype, the World Cup Ended Up Being Bad Business for Brazil's Sex Workers

Across Rio, brothel revenues were down anywhere from 15 to 50 percent. 

A new facade and empty corridors in Vila Mimosa, Rio's red light district, during the World Cup. (Julie Ruvolo)

“Thank God it’s over so business can get back to normal.”

In the run up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, one of the international soccer community's biggest concerns was how some half a million foreign tourists would interact with one of the biggest sex tourism industries on the planet. Thanks to a new report from Rio’s Observatory of Prostitution, we now have a much better idea of how that dynamic actually played out: the World Cup ended up being bad for business for the vast majority of sex workers in Rio de Janeiro. 

In preliminary findings from the Observatory of Prostitution, a research collaboration of academics and NGOs that logged over 2,000 hours studying the effect of the World Cup on Rio de Janeiro’s sex industry, researchers estimated there was a 15 percent overall decline in the number of women selling sex in Rio during the month of the World Cup. And sex workers in Rio’s principal areas of prostitution reported declines in business between 30 to 50 percent. 

The findings are in direct conflict with expectations across the international media —and pre-World Cup actions taken by Rio’s municipal officials—that the World Cup was going to produce a massive boom in sex tourism, and with it, the sexual exploitation of minors, a process I have been documenting and reporting on from Rio since 2012.

I was asked to accompany the Observatory’s researchers while they conducted fieldwork and interviews in 83 areas of prostitution in Rio, representing some 75 percent of the city’s sex workers. Observatory researchers attribute the decline in business neither to the severe campaigns of police repression against the city’s sex industry that preceded the games, nor the mobilization of international NGOs to discourage foreigners from purchasing sex. Rather, they found a disconnect between intercity migration patterns among sex workers and foreign tourists during 32 days of games.

The Geography of Rio's Sex Industry

To understand these findings, you first need to understand where people go to pay for sex in Rio’s expansive sex industry. According to research compiled over the last decade by Rio anthropologists Thaddeus Blanchette and Ana Paula da Silva, Rio has over 200 distinct points of prostitution across the city and another 70 or so “virtual locations” like escort agencies and call girl websites. Most of Rio’s sex venues are concentrated in the streets and alleys of downtown Rio, and in the 80 or so brothels that comprise Vila Mimosa, the city’s red light district.

Despite the distribution of sex venues across the city, foreign tourists have tended to frequent the same 20 venues over the last eight years or so, according to Blanchette and da Silva’s database of over 50,000 reports of where people pay for sex in Rio. Foreigners tend to frequent less than 10 percent of venues in Rio’s sprawling sex industry, and the volume of foreign clients pales in comparison to regular local demand for commercial sex.

Counts of local clients actually declined during the World Cup, particularly in downtown Rio and Vila Mimosa, the areas comprising the bulk of Rio’s sex industry. The city of Rio declared public holidays every day the Brazilian team was playing and whenever there was a game at Maracanã Stadium, draining the city center of its workforce and putting a massive dent in earnings for sex workers in downtown Rio and neighboring areas. As local clients disappeared from the city’s main sex zones during the games, the influx of foreigners into Rio did not compensate for the losses in volumes. Foreign tourists concentrated in the South Zone beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, and the neighborhood of Lapa for nightlife. Foreigners looking for sex largely largely stuck to the same venues they frequent year-round in Rio, most of which are located in Copacabana Beach. When asked, a number of foreign tourists told Observatory researchers they didn’t know about other sex zones in the city, or were afraid to visit them.

According to the report, only 17 venues in Rio saw an increase in business during World Cup, all of which were located in close proximity to the FIFA Fan Fest area in Copacabana Beach. For another six venues, most of which are in the tourist-friendly South Zone that encompasses Copacabana and Ipanema Beach, it was business as usual. But for 60 venues in downtown Rio and Vila Mimosa, counts of clients were down by 30-50 percent during the 32 days of games.

Vila Mimosa, the single largest point of prostitution in Rio where about 1,000 women work, saw the steepest declines in business, despite high expectations given their proximity less than two kilometers from the Maracanã Stadium. In the months preceding the World Cup, brothel owners invested in extensive renovations including laser lights and stripper poles—Vila Mimosa’s governing association even installed an 18-foot-tall statue of Zé Pilintra, Brazil’s Afro-Brazilian patron saint of prostitutes—but the expected influx of foreign clients failed to materialize. Business was particularly slow on game days, causing a number of brothels to close their doors due to lack of business.

After a week or so of slow days at their usual working venues, sex workers in downtown Rio and Vila Mimosa began migrating en masse along a small strip of Copacabana Beach in search of clients. This intracity migration led to a concentration of sex workers in the neighborhood during the World Cup, and the densely packed boardwalk in front of FIFA Fan Fest in Copacabana became the single most popular prostitution zone during the games. Still, it was not enough to make up for the loss of local business: 

If Copacabana saw the number of sex workers almost double, Vila Mimosa and downtown Rio, areas that normally account for the vast number of sex workers in Rio, saw drastic declines…. Even in beachfront Copacabana, near the FIFA Fan Fest - Ground Zero for prostitution during the World Cup - the number of programs per sex worker did not increase and, in fact, decreased for many. What increased was the amount some sex workers charged gringos for programs [programas - “tricks”].

Not Enough Work to Go Around

Sex workers migrated within Rio de Janeiro during the World Cup, but few arrived from outside the city. Observatory researchers spoke with fewer than a dozen sex workers who had traveled from other states in Brazil to work during the World Cup, and only one woman from abroad, a 29-year-old Peruvian. “I should have stayed in Peru,” she complained to a researcher. “In my city, Lima, I make more money than in Rio! There I charge $100 USD per program and I don’t have any travel expenses. Here there are a bunch of Latinos and a lot of Argentines! They aren’t such good clients… .”

Lido Plaza in front of FIFA Fan Fest became the biggest area of prostitution in Rio during the World Cup. (Mattias Maxx)

The Peruvian woman’s sentiments were repeated by a number of Rio sex workers who expressed dismay at the relatively large proportion of “Latino gringos,” tourists from neighboring Latin American countries like Chile and Argentina, whom they perceived to have less disposable cash than their European or U.S. counterparts. Argentines comprised the single largest group of foreign tourists in Rio over the World Cup, and some 100,000 Argentine fans road tripped up to Rio to watch the World Cup final, where a number of men complained the prices to purchase sex were too expensive:

“Latino gringo” men complained that all prices were too expensive in Rio, much higher than their expectations. Above all, that the “price for sex” was two or three times more than they were used to paying in their countries of origin.

There were relatively few but at least some serious reports of violence at the hands of foreign tourists, including cases of robberies, assault and racist attacks, and various altercations over price disputes or misunderstandings. One sex worker I spoke with in Vila Mimosa was bitten on the face by an Argentine client, and also witnessed a Swiss client beat a sex worker over a $5 price dispute.

The number one reported problem by sex workers was not physical violence, “but clients’ incapacity or lack of desire to pay the stipulated price”:

This was especially the case in Copacabana. We heard many stories of clients who agreed to pay 300 reais ($150 USD), and when it was time to pay, only wanted to pay 50 ($25); clients who used fake money; and clients who refused to pay the hotel room, thinking it was included in the program….

As we have already observed, the vast majority of “migrants” who circulated in Copacabana were from downtown Rio or Vila Mimosa. The new working conditions in which they were inserted caused a certain amount of discomfort for these women, who were generally used to working with Brazilian clients in closed venues where they could rely on security and anonymity. In Copacabana, they were “exposed” on the streets, had to negotiate with clients in a foreign language, and have sex in places they were not familiar with (for example clients’ hotel rooms or apartments), most of them without security.

The most egregious case of violence against sex workers observed by Observatory researchers during the World Cup was at the hands of police, not foreign clients.

The month prior to the games, police from 13 precincts in Rio and the neighboring city of Niterói raided a downtown Niterói office building rented by prostitutes in the name of combating sexual exploitation. Sex workers gave accounts of assault, robbery and in some cases gang rape by police officers during the raid. The only woman to testify against the violence was kidnapped and threatened with her life during the World Cup, and has been in hiding ever since.

This follows a multi-year campaign by Rio police to clean up the city’s image in time for both the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, an effort that has shuttered approximately 24 venues representing 10 percent of the city’s sex industry. High-profile raids on luxury brothels during the UN Rio+20 Conference in 2012, and on Balcony Restaurant in Copacabana during World Cup, were also conducted in the name of combating sexual exploitation of minors, but no arrests were made and the venues in both cases promptly re-opened.

Ironically, the high expectations for sex tourism in the media preceding Brazil’s World Cup may have had the effect of driving a new generation of young Brazilian women to try out prostitution, the report concludes:

Our observations suggest that the expectations of big profits during the World Cup also brought a new generation of prostitutes to the streets: younger women (in the range of 18-25 years old) -- a small minority compared to the veterans, but always present during the games, particularly in Lido Plaza in Copacabana. These young women said they were impressed by media reports before World Cup that predicted there would be “a lot of sex tourism” during the games. Ironically then, it was precisely the media’s exaggeration regarding the expected enormous increase in the number of men seeking prostitutes that helped recruit new women for the streets. Few of these new prostitutes reported having positive experiences with prostitution during World Cup and most claimed they would quit as soon as the games were over.

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