Hysteria Alert! We’re heading into another international sporting event, so the predictable, hysterical, and utterly fantastical stories about international sex trafficking are on the rise. We heard this claptrap about “sex tourism” two years ago when Brazil hosted the World Cup, when some NGOs claimed “40,000” women and girls would be involved. Time Magazine’s numbers were moderate compared to the exaggerations made by others. They claimed 250,000 children would be working the streets during the tournament—or one in every sixty-eight adolescent girls in the country.
Sex work is not illegal in Brazil, but citing the possibility of “child sex trafficking” before the Cup, police raided legal brothels, shutting them down and putting hundreds of adult women out of safe places to work while also undermining their own children’s economic well-being. Yet by the time Germany won in July 2014, there had been “no reports of sexual exploitation during World Cup that had to do with World Cup” according to the Conselho Titutlar for the city’s South Zone, “the organization that basically deals with all the accusations of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children.” Nor did the state Prosecutors Office pursue any cases of child sexual exploitation.
Brazil’s current economic and political crises have severely disrupted the lives of millions of workers, and brief weeks of the Olympics will not provide respite. Last week, I spoke with Thaddeus Blanchette, an anthropologist at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro/Macaé whose team has spent thousands of hours interviewing people in Rio’s sex trades since 2004. This year, there’s been “a perfect storm in sex work.” During the boom in Rio, women left the brothels to work in other industries, but since the 2008 crisis, they have returned to sex work. Everyone is complaining about the money. Blanchette interviewed a “high school teacher who just got laid off because of the economic crisis and another white secretary with half her university degree completed.” Both women were making three to four times as much as they had in previous their straight jobs, but that’s only “half of what they made before.” There are twice as many sex workers, and perhaps half as many clients. “Profitability is the lowest I’ve ever seen,” said Blanchette.
Rio’s downtown development in preparation for the Olympics has greatly shifted the population, so that the businessmen who used to patronize the upper-end clubs don’t stay after work. Instead, the “fast fadas”—a Brazilian word play on “fast food”—are doing better, largely because of the construction crews that have been working almost all day and all night. It’s also led to the displacement of sex workers—the real source of sex worker migration and those “roving” bands—who have moved into the Copacabana beach area, the heart of the tourist district. That’s where Centaurus (of Justin Bieber fame) is located. Yet since 2009, the city has tried to shut down the sex clubs and brothels with little success.
Still, the myths about roving bands of gypsy whores and trafficked girls during sporting events continue making the rounds, despite the best efforts of Brazilian activists and journalists elsewhere to challenge these fallacies. Catholic charities are telling tourists to report incidents of child sexual exploitation. (But please, folks, report only what you see in Rio, not in your own parish.) A sensationalist story in Rio de Janeiro’s O Globo newspaper about the police rescue/arrest of “child” prostitutes from a beach area in July was rewritten by Fox News and other rags to warn U.S. tourists. But the real story, as Dr. Blanchette explained, was more about impressing the media than child prostitution. Police arrested eight people, all of them black. Five were adult women and three were teenagers between the ages of fifteen and sixteen. No pimps or clients were arrested; in fact, there was no evidence that any of the minors was doing anything more than hanging out on a street corner in the evening with women a few years older than them in a faraway working class neighborhood where “gringo” tourists are highly unlikely. It’s also worth noting that the police official who spoke about the arrests, Cristiana Bento, is Rio’s own “S.U.V.” sex crimes investigator. Notably, Bento was already under fire after taking over a poorly handled police investigation of the brutal gang rape of a sixteen-year-old girl in May that roiled Brazil’s social media networks.
The Time Magazine and O Globo reports were cover-ups that distracted the public from the arrests in June this year of elite businessmen, politicians, and police officials who knowingly recruited and sexually exploited girls as young as twelve and thirteen years old for a high class “gentleman’s club” operated by the military police. The convictions of politically-connected men were extraordinary, but the media didn’t report it. Tracking both of these stories globally, Dr. Blanchette said, “The one bona fide case of child sex trafficking no one is talking about, but this case of young black women in a far, far suburb, becomes the story.”
In fact, as scholar Sonja Dolinsek writes, children in Rio faced greater risk of exploitation from the overlooked side effects of this hysteria. An “essential aspect…is the forced displacement of people and families from their homes in the context of the so-called ‘pacification’ of the favelas or slums. ‘Pacification’ is a police strategy carried out by military-style…to reduce crime, improve the public image of Rio de Janeiro and to secure the areas close to event sites.”
In sum, during the Cup as well as the Olympics, hysteria about sex trafficking was used to support aggressive, paramilitary policing of poor people of color, facilitating land grabs by developers who profited from forcing families out of their homes and sex workers out of their legal places of work. Where’s the outrage?