Julie Ruvolo is a freelance journalist and editor of the Red Light Rio project. She is a research collaborator with Rio’s Observatory of Prostitution, an extension project of the Metropolitan Ethnographic Lab – LeMetro/IFCS at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
While concerns about sex tourists dominate the headlines, the bigger threat for Rio's sex workers may be the local police force.
RIO DE JANEIRO – Sex workers in the Brazilian city of Niterói, just across Guanabara Bay from Rio de Janeiro, say that 100 of their colleagues were illegally arrested, robbed, and some of them even raped by police in late May.
It's an acceleration of violence against sex workers by police with orders to tidy up Rio’s massive sex industry before the 2014 World Cup kicks off June 12.
The current wave of police action against Rio's sex workers first began at the UN Rio+20 conference back in 2012, when they raided a dozen luxury brothels popular with foreign tourists, including the one Justin Bieber famously visited last year. Both prostitutes and brothel managers were arrested in the sting, and police seized cash and condoms.
Prosecutors brought charges of pimping, arms trafficking and sex trafficking against the raided brothels, but dropped them shortly after the conference concluded. A judge presiding over the case against Monte Carlo, one of the raided brothels, openly accused the prosecution of an anti-prostitution crusade to clean up the city's image.
Prostitution is a legal occupation in Brazil, which has offered social security benefits to sex workers since 2002. Sex tourism is also legal, although discouraged recently by President Dilma Rousseff.
But Brazilian law criminalizes any third party who profits from the transaction, whether they are an abusive pimp, brothel owner, or private bodyguard. Two sex workers sharing an apartment is also illegal.
Despite its quasi-legal status, Rio’s sex industry is generally tolerated. Brazilian anthropologists Thaddeus Blanchette and Ana Paula da Silva have catalogued almost 300 different sex venues operating in Rio alone.
Rio police have closed down 24 brothels in the last few years, or almost 10 percent of Rio's sex industry, according to data gathered by Blanchette and da Silva, and threatened or harassed another 32 venues.
Outside of Rio, the anti-prostitution climate has also turned violent. Last October, military police broke the legs and arm of a Colombian sex worker in Campinas, a city outside of São Paulo.
And last month in Niterói, home of the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Museum of Contemporary Art, police raided an office building rented by sex workers, arrested eleven women and sent them to Bangu, Rio's maximum security prison.
Then, on May 26, police raided another office building in Niterói. This time 100 women were arrested, many of whom gave accounts of beatings and forced oral sex.
In World Cup host city Belo Horizonte, which made headlines last year for offering English classes to sex workers, protesters are now demanding recognition of their legal status and regulation of their industry to increase safety and security.
Sex workers rights organizations from at least three more World Cup host cities are coordinating protests for June 2, International Sex Workers Day.
CONATRAP, the Brazilian Ministry of Justice committee commissioned to fight trafficking, has denounced the police attacks in Rio. But anti-sex trafficking and anti-sex tourism NGOs operating in Brazil during the World Cup have yet to comment on the current police violence. A 40-page report on sexual exploitation commissioned by NGO Promundo and funded by the Oak Foundation does not mention of Brazil's long history of police aggression against sex workers.
"No one asks, in Brazil, what police intervention concretely means, because we know full well," says Blanchette. "So there's this great disconnect between the rhetoric of saving women from violence and harm, and what cops actually do when they go into a sex zone with a mandate to 'clean up.'"
"Police repression rarely makes it into the press at all," says Laura Murray, a researcher and documentarian working with Rio NGO Davida. “We were lucky because a journalist from Italy happened to be in Niterói at the time the police were there, so although he didn't get images of the police, he interviewed the women after they left, and got images of the illegal warrants."
As long as this type of violence continues, we can be certain of one thing: Brazil’s sex workers are not done protesting.