Sauna Meio Mundo_Centro RJ
Greg Mitchell 0

Inside Brazil’s Gay Sex Tourism Industry

Photo: Sauna Meio Mundo in downtown Rio, courtesy of Dr. Gregory Mitchell

Brazil has topped the list of top global destinations for gay tourists for almost a decade. The city of Rio de Janeiro alone receives about a million gay tourists a year.

Some percentage of them pay for sex when they come to town, partaking in an industry that is rarely talked about in the media and rarely studied in academia: Gay sex tourism.

Dr. Gregory Mitchell, an assistant professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Williams College, and researcher with Rio’s Observatory of Prostitution, does important work to fill that gap in his new book, Tourist Attractions: Performing Race and Masculinity in Brazil’s Sexual Economy. Mitchell has been studying gay sex tourism in Brazil since 2006:

I started out interested in gay consumerism and marketing. How do destinations become gay hot spots? How does marketing function on the part of these host cities? So I came to examine Brazil’s rise in popularity and then began to realize how much informal and formal commercial sexual activity was undergirding the tourism.

Mitchell’s research about gay sex tourism in one particular destination has the potential to impact the global discussion about sex work. The current conversation is framed in almost exclusively hetero-normative terms. One of the underlying assumptions behind the global movement to abolish prostitution (also called the anti-sex trafficking movement) is that having sex for money is inherently exploitative work:

It’s as if no woman in her right mind would choose to have sex with a man for a reason other than love, as if women haven’t been marrying for economic reasons for millennia, so any woman who charges for sex must be forced in some way — whether an evil trafficker  is physically forcing her, or whether it’s the Patriarchy making her think her work is empowering when it’s really just degrading her.

In more blunt terms, if we look at penetration as an act of violation, then we will always see sex workers as victims — women who are getting paid to be effectively raped by their clients.

But what about men who charge for sex, and the men who pay them? What happens when the one getting paid is the one doing the penetration? Mitchell’s response:

Anti-prostitution feminists will not say that men selling sex is somehow proof that prostitution isn’t “violence against women.” They will say that the men are essentially occupying a feminized position and that this leaves the patriarchal structure in place.

So I don’t think the “men do it too” argument is going to change any minds. As I say in the book, I ask the men about exploitation and they always say, “Oh, yes, there’s lots of exploitation! I exploit people all the time!” Almost every man misinterpreted my question.

And I think that’s easier to accept even though I also know a lot of female sex workers who say the same thing. “Some dumb gringo who doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t know what he’s doing comes here and I take him for all he’s got, and yet these idiot academics come around and tell me that I’m exploited?”

Somehow people don’t believe women, but when men say that it seems credible.

And there’s the question of who is fucking whom. Who is penetrating whom. Because there is an assumption that being penetrated is a violation. And so because the garotos de programa are often (but by no means always) ativos, or penetrative, there is an assumption that this means they are less exploited than if they were being fucked. And that is an incredibly reductive view of sex that is actually deeply sex negative and, in my view, internalized misogyny.

So I think maybe by considering male sex workers, we can also throw into relief and bring some complexity to our understandings of the experiences of all sex workers, cisgendered and transgendered women included.

The Red Light Rio project is excited to share an excerpt of Mitchell’s book, Tourist Attractions: Performing Race and Masculinity in Brazil’s Sexual Economy. Check it out and order it on Amazon. Special thanks to Dr. Mitchell and the University of Chicago Press.

Repertoires of Masculinity

“My first time wasn’t hard at all,” Cavi explains, nibbling at a doughy ball of fried cod. He comes from a smaller city in the interior, and he’s much more shy than Adilson, who talks and smokes constantly. Cavi continues, “See, I got [peguei, “hooked up with”] a client who wasn’t very old, so it was easy. He was thirty-five. Since I have to do this job, it’s better when the ass is good-looking [bonitinha].”

Adilson interrupts him to explain. “We all say this: se a bunda é bonitinha, novinha é uma coisa.” Very roughly, this means that if the ass looks good, it’s a much different matter. “Look, if you have a young woman and a very old woman, the young one will still be better. If a gay had to choose between these women, which would he choose?

It’s the same for heteros. The boys [male sex workers] just don’t want to talk about this.”

Adilson admits that not everyone can stir up and maintain tesão— which is a particularly hard word to translate but roughly means “sexual desire.” One can “give” tesão, so it also has the sense of making someone “horny,” or sexually aroused. It can also be used to specifically separate out desire from other affective responses, as in “É feio, mas me dá tesão” (He’s ugly, but he turns me on). So while tesão is frequently invoked throughout Brazil in daily speech, it has a special usefulness for many garotos when they talk about their work. Some heterosexually identified garotos need to look at straight porn to feel tesão; others close their eyes and imagine the client is a woman. Many take knock-off versions of Viagra such as Pramil, which they say can cause terrible headaches, high blood pressure, irritability, and a throbbing penis. Saunas are filled with urban legends about boys who took too much Pramil only to have the heads of their penises explode or, as one young man excitedly told me about a boy he knew of, “a vein burst in the penis [so that] blood flowed like a waterfall until he died.” Adilson, however, says Pramil “saved the boys” because Viagra was expensive and had to be broken into tiny pieces. But he never uses it, he insists. He can stir up tesão without it.

“If it’s a young guy,” Adilson explains, “he gives me tesão, but with an old flabby man [velho todo caído] . . . ooooh, that’s more difficult.” He makes a disgusted face.

Cavi nods enthusiastically in agreement. They’re best friends. He looks up to Adilson and, I suspect, has a little bit of a crush on him. Later, Cavi will reveal that he once had sex with a client he liked for free, an admission that earned derision from Adilson. But for now, Adilson is holding court: “When the boy is there with an ass in front of him and a job to do, it’s luckier to get a hot ass like Cavi did on his first time. Because, oh, first time was horrible! I got this Danny DeVito type. He was American, really short and fat. Holy shit! [Cruz credo!] It was horrible, oh horrible, but I made a lot of money . . .” He trails off in raucous laughter that goes on so long that it becomes infectious and we laugh with him.

“So what did your mother say when you came home with all that money?” I asked, catching my breath.

“I tell my mother, my family, everything,” Adilson said. “I have no secrets. . . . She understands, and accepts it now. It is better than if I became a thief. . . . She knows everything. She met my gringo. . . . My gringo even pays for her diabetes and came to see her in the hospital.” Adilson talks about his gringo a lot, sometimes disparagingly or even homophobically and sometimes with affection. But he almost never uses the man’s name. He is simply “my gringo” or “the gringo” and sometimes “the bicha” (the queer).

Cavi shakes his head. “Not me! My mother would die. I tell her I am a waiter. Other garotos, the beefy ones [fortões], they tell their mothers they are security guards. I hide the money, only give her what she needs to pay the bills. Sometimes, you have a lot of money, and she sees you with sneakers, maybe, but if she suspects she does not say anything. . . . Like in the beginning . . . you get a lot of money when you’re new and you’re fresh meat [carne nova], so then everything’s coming up roses [é flores; literally, “it’s flowers”].”

“Yes!” Adilson says, trampling over the end of Cavi’s sentence. “I knew a boy who made 500 reais [USD (2009) 300] and spent it all on champagne! Champagne! He said tomorrow he would just make it all back again. He thinks every day is King’s Day and forgets there are lean times, too [vacas magras, “skinny cows”]. One day you’re a king, but the next you’re a pauper. In six months, you’re just like everybody else. . . . This is why you need to find a rich gringo, like me.”

Cavi rolled his eyes. “So if you’re sick, you’re in bed, sick with the flu, are you going to start waiting for some client from the sauna to come there and give you medicine? They don’t want to know about you. A gringo wants you when you’re a nice, hot, young boy. When you’re sick? When you get old and you’re not pretty anymore? ‘Fuck you!’ [Foda-se!] That’s what he’s going to say to you.”

Adilson is uncharacteristically quiet for a moment. He seems to be pondering this, possibly having a moment of doubt about his own gringo. Several years later, his gringo did leave him, in fact, and Adilson was sadder and wiser the last time I saw him, but neither of us could know that then as he sat there contemplating Cavi’s admonition over his cigarettes and bar snacks.

“So what does a gringo want?” I ask. “Everyone in the sauna I see is young and handsome, but some guys make much more. Is it just the size of their dicks or how many programas [sessions with a client] they can do?”

Adilson is happy to change the subject. “No, look, when you’re well-endowed [bem dotado], when you have a big penis [pênis bem grande], it’s more difficult for you to get it erect [ereto] and keep it hard when you put it in [botar ele duro]. Yours is normal, right?” he asks Cavi.

“Yeah,” Cavi confirms simply.

“So in your case, it’s not as difficult to maintain [an erection].”

Cavi concedes, nodding, and decides to go along with Adilson’s theory of biology.

Adilson continues his lecture: “Look, some customers want a big penis, but Cavi makes as much money, and his penis is normal. . . . But customers in the sauna want affection, and he is very good at that. But they also want homens [“men,” meaning straight men]. The boy should have the postura [manner] of an homem, and we do have gayzinhos [little gays] now who work as boys sometimes, but like it or not, when a gay boy takes a step, he looks like a model on a catwalk.” Adilson shakes his head in disgust at this image. “The hetero is different from the bicha, the postura is different, everything is different. Clients want a manly guy, but many need a lot of carinho [affection], too. So it’s difficult. . . . But then there are some [clients] who call for a lot of pegada [swagger, a forceful and macho approach]. And they are like women, they go crazy for pegada, . . . and a boy needs to learn how to do all these things if he is going to keep working and be successful.”

Adilson and Cavi’s conversation encapsulates many pressing aspects of my research. Questions of desire loom large: How does one find tesão? How can it be maintained? Can you trick yourself into feeling it? How do garotos feel emotionally about clients and long-term “boyfriends”? How do they make sense of their own sexuality? The passage also demonstrates how much performance is happening here: the performance that goes into creating a long-term double life to lie about to one’s family; the performances that go into navigating the relationship with one’s gringo; the performances of masculinity and pegada that go into “catching” clients in a sauna, as well as sexual performance (maintaining erections) and the caresses, kisses, and words that make up the realm of carinho.

Beyond the large amount of physical and emotional labor going into these performances, a lot of the work also deals with hard-to-translate feelings and intangibles like tesão, posturas, pegada, and carinho. These are good examples of culturally specific affects, and this chapter is devoted to understanding what these affects are as well as how affect and labor shape the performance of masculinity among garotos both historically and in the present day. However, it’s also important to understand how performative labor shapes tourist-based economies on the whole and why the garotos choose to continue engaging in performative labor rather than the other kinds of jobs available to them.

In theorizing sex work as performative labor, I’m strategically (even if only partially) disentangling it from affective labor, a mode of analysis focused on the work of provoking feelings that emerge prior to an individual’s consciousness. Sex work certainly includes affective labor in that the garotos’ performances are intended to elicit affects in clients such as desire, attraction, and even love. Moreover, affective labor and performative labor clearly overlap inasmuch as performances of masculinity are part of the process of stirring up affect and both are important for garotos, but there are moments where the analytic of the performative is better for ethnographers who want to address particular relational questions of identity.

I describe the work of prostitutes as performative because their success or failure depends on constructing certain styles of gender that are often rooted in neocolonial variations of archetypes such as the lusty mulata, the Latin macho, the hypersexual masculine black buck (and the dangerous thug from the favela, or slum, its contemporary corollary), the suave Latin lover, and so on. Calling masculinity performative doesn’t necessarily mean that the men are consciously constructing their masculinity, or that they are inventing characters for themselves to play as if in the theater, although both of these maneuvers are actually quite common. Instead, as Judith Butler has famously said, “Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.” In Butlerian terms, the garotos’ masculinity is real only to the extent that it is performed, and their performance is always a reiteration of dominant conventions available in a society’s repertoire of masculinities, but there is no real, authentic, or original version of such a masculinity. Moreover, as Butler notes, “the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief.”

When I first began doing ethnographic work in saunas, the particular shape of masculinity there surprised me precisely because it was so over-the-top that it came close to parody and therefore always seemed to call its own authenticity into question. The men were so muscular, so quick to assert their heterosexuality and status as dominant tops, and so deliberately and stereotypically butch in their gestures and walk that it reminded me of drag king shows. Researchers and clients alike have often remarked that masculinity is to the garoto what femininity is to travesti sex workers.4 The essential (and even stereotypical) features of the gender being performed are rendered so completely that they become exaggerations and collapse away from the perfection of the ur- form by virtue of their proximity to it. Whereas travesti sex workers inject silicone to enhance their backsides and breasts into an almost inhumanly perfect shape and size so they can be “better than women,” garotos adopt a hypermacho walk, demeanor, and body.

For example, Pacu was a twenty-six-year-old light-skinned garoto who worked in a sauna in Rio. Pacu, whose telltale nickname refers to a species of fish that has a peculiar underbite and is related to the piranha, had such bulging neck and shoulder muscles that he seemed to have difficulty turning his head from side to side. He kept his torso waxed to make sure every rippling abdominal muscle was visible from a maximum distance, but because of the thick, coarse hair on his arms and legs, he seemed to have been naturally hairy otherwise. Although studious in the maintenance of his persona as a “total top” and prolific in his frequent use of mildly homophobic epithets lobbed at clients, staff, and fellow garotos alike, he was more fastidious in his grooming than nearly any garoto I met. He kept his hair perfectly coifed and liberally gelled, ran to the locker room to pluck any stray chest hair that he discovered he had missed, and enjoyed frequent pedicures to stave off damage from the famously grimy and broken cobblestoned streets of Rio that are so at odds with the Brazilian love of flip-flops. Beyond merely being metrosexual or attentive to grooming practices, Pacu tried to embody masculinity, yet his need to conspicuously showcase that masculinity resulted in practices that were not stereotypically masculine.

Pacu’s bofedade (butchness) was so artificial that he complained that whenever he went to other businesses near the sauna, he stood out among the other working-class men, whose masculinity seemed natural and effortless next to Pacu’s. The shopkeepers would treat Pacu rudely or give him poor service “because they see my body and they know I’m a boy and they think that this makes me low class.” Alternatively, he worried that they “might treat me badly because they think I’m a bicha because I do this work. But they don’t know I’m a real man [homem] so I would never give my ass.” He constantly compared himself to other garotos in the sauna as well, worrying that someone else was bigger, tougher, more masculine, or more attractive. Just as the clients find themselves in a paradox of queer desire, so too did Pacu find that the cruel optimism of masculinity meant that the more he strived to attain the ultimate bofedade, the more it slipped away because it just isn’t manly to worry so much about manliness. Still, Pacu never wanted for clients, who found in him a macho and avowedly straight guy with rough and not even conventionally attractive features…

This excerpt is reproduced with permission from Tourist Attractions: Performing Race and Masculinity in Brazil’s Sexual Economy by Gregory Mitchell, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2015 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

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