Time Magazine has now thrown its hat into the ring regarding the sex tourism panic in Brazil. Here’s my response. I’m an anthropologist who has been studying prostitution, sexual tourism and trafficking in Brazil for some ten years now. Let me address some of the misconceptions this article raises.
1) Brazil has a very large problem with the sexual exploitation of children. Like most countries, however, the vast majority of this problem is not concentrated in brothels or in the tourism sector, but out in the neighborhoods and in the Brazilian family itself.
As an example, the city of Fortaleza, one of the host cities of the World Cup, currently has open twenty cases of underaged prostitution (six of which involve foreigners) and TWO THOUSAND cases of sexual exploitation of children that have nothing to do with prostitution or tourism.
This is an issue which our family-values oriented congressmen and -women, like Ms. Liliam Sá, cited in the article, simply do not want to deal with. It is much more politically expedient to bang the sexual tourism panic drum than to say anything against the sacred Brazilian family, which generates the vast majority of cases of sexual abuse and exploitation in our country.
2) Not to suggest that an ex-pimp and child trafficker who’s claimed to have found Jesus might not be an honest or accurate witness, but in ten years of work researching Rio de Janeiro’s brothels – and particularly the sex work venues that cater to tourists – I have not encountered a single child prostitute.
Frequent police raids on these establishments also generally come up a cropper. There are a few cases, of course, but I can count them on the fingers of one hand, from over a ten year period.
Where, then, are these legions of child prostitutes? If the police and I and my co-researcher, Dra. Ana Paula da Silva, can’t find more than a handful in all the hundreds of commercial sex venues in Rio de Janeiro – and believe me, we’ve been actively looking for underaged sex workers – then where are these kids?
3) Before every major sports event over the last 20 years, there have been apocalyptic claims that the invasion of legions of sports fans would lead to an increase in prostitution and a consequent increase in trafficking.
These claims have NEVER been substantiated: in fact, they’ve been consistently debunked. Before the World’s Cup in Germany, it was estimated that 40,000 women would be trafficked for the games: during the event, massive police actions discovered five.
You can read the report of one of the oldest and most prestigious global anti-trafficking organizations regarding the false claim that sports creates trafficking here: http://www.gaatw.org/…/WhatstheCostofaRumour.11.15.2011… Please read it and decide for yourself what evidence exists that sports cause trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children.
4) The moral panic surrounding trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children at mega sporting events has often resulted in public policies that do not help children but which criminalize and mistreat prostitutes.
This was the case at last year’s Superbowl in New Orleans, where a local and federal task force arrested close to 100 women and found 5 possible victims of trafficking (who were released and never showed up to court).
The arrested women lost their children, lost their non-prostitution-related jobs, acquired police records, got jail time (in some cases, years) and were stigmatized, all in the name of saving victims that were never found.
In city after city, pre-game “anti-trafficking” campaigns have been used to arrest and brutalize prostitutes and they have never – repeat NEVER – discovered the hordes of trafficking victims police claim exist.
Either the world’s police are completely incompetent when it comes to finding these victims or we are being lied to by people who profit – politically and otherwise – from a terrified populace.
5) It is particularly disheartening to see Brazil’s award-winning anti-HIV campaign maligned by Liliam Sá as somehow “promoting child prostitution”. The cornerstone of Brazil’s campaign, which has been proven effective, has been to treat prostitutes like adult citizens, with all the rights and responsabilities that entails.
This is because it is a well known fact that HIV prevention campaigns have a direct link in efficacy with sex worker self-esteem. The campaign in question was organized and created by sex workers themselves and it was set up to encourage people to see them as citizens worthy of dignity and respect and not as criminals or powerless victims.
It had NO connection to child sexual exploitation, nor did it portray prostitution as a great experience. The campaign was canceled after complaints by the Christian far right: not because it encouraged child prostitution.
It verges on journalistic dishonesty that TIME would cast the campaign in this light without allowing a dissenting voice to contradict Sá’s incredibly ideologically-imbued reading of the campaign. Listening to Liliam Sá regarding prostitutes is like listening to Michelle Bachmann regarding gays.
Brazil has dozens of sex workers’rights associations: how is it that Time magazine couldn’t be bothered to talk to even one of these, but has instead taken all its primary sources from groups which have a vested political interest in the criminalization of sex workers, particularly far right religious groups?
In short, as someone who is intimately associated with prostitutes’ rights organizations in Brazil, I fear that the frankly yellow journalism which surrounds this issue is going to lead – as it has lead in other World’s Cups and Olympics – to the criminalization, expulsion and marginalization of an already vulnerable population: sex workers. Arresting and stigmatizing adult, consensual sex workers does absolutely NOTHING to save enslaved children.
Oh, and by the way… Speaking from long experience, I highly doubt that “Thiago” is telling the truth about a single damned thing when it comes to his past experience. If he’s being honest about himself, this is a guy who ran child sex slaves, didn’t spend a day in jail for it and who now claims that Jesus has made everything all better.
This is obviously the type of guy Time should NOT use as primary source when it comes to reporting on a very sensitive and complicated story. Why has “Thiago” been interviewed and not a single woman from any one of Brazil’s numerous sex worker organizations?
Apparently, Time – like Liliam Sá – doesn’t feel that sex workers have anything worthwhile to say about themselves.
Thaddeus Blanchette is an anthropologist and immigrant to Brazil who has been living in and studying the country most of his adult life. He blogs at http://omangueblog.blogspot.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.