Cristiana Schettini, Thaddeus Blanchette 6

A History of Rio Sex

 Anthropologist Thaddeus Blanchette and historian Cristiana Schettini provide a history of  Rio sex in their 2013 paper, Sex Work in Rio de Janeiro: “More than tolerated – effectively managed”.


The paper was given at a seminar at the International Institute of Social History as part of their Selling Sex in the City project. It will be published later this year as part of a book dealing with the history of sex work in several dozen global cities. Published to RED LIGHT RIO in six parts, with permission from the authors, the paper situates Rio’s red light district on the larger map of sex venues in Rio, and in the broader historical context of Rio’s extra-legal regulation of a profession that is not illegal in Brazil. This section discusses the shifting definition of a prostitute – sixty years ago it was “synonymous with poor, single, sexually active working class women” – and the Brazilian mulatta as the “quintessential stereotype of carioca feminine sexuality.”


Introduction: an imperfect history 

The modern history of prostitution in Rio de Janeiro is the story of police intervention in the social organization of sexual commerce in Brazil, how it gained public legitimacy and how that legitimacy has been repeatedly questioned and subverted. From the birth of Brazil’s first republic in 1889, when prostitution was concentrated along the downtown streets, to today, the powers that be in Rio de Janeiro have attempted to concentrate sexual commerce in certain areas. Although these efforts have often enjoyed a certain amount of social approval, they have curiously never been coupled with official proclamations or laws regulating prostitution, as occurred in many other cities throughout Latin America and, most notoriously, in Buenos Aires.

Public policy with regards to prostitution in Rio de Janeiro can thus be understood as an extra-legal form of regulation which concentrates an immense degree of discretionary power in the hands of the police and charges them with a wide mandate to “control” sexual commerce. On occasion, this has even involved the actual managing of brothels by police authorities.

In spite of these efforts, however, prostitutes have never been successfully isolated in Rio. Sex workers have maintained a series of (often tense and conflict-ridden) alliances with other social sectors. As a result, after almost a century and a half of direct police intervention in the social organization of sexual commerce in the city, prostitution in Rio de Janeiro continues to be a wide-spread activity which shares public spaces and interests with a series of other urban activities.

The modern history of prostitution in Rio de Janeiro can thus be seen as the result of a series of understandings that carioca sex workers have hammered out with the local police. Given that Rio de Janeiro is globally understood to be a “showcase” for Brazil (and was, in fact, the country’s capital until 1960), an important part of this history revolves around how these women organized their lives in the context of the increasing racialization and sexualization of Brazilian national identity and the vigorous attempts by elites to manage this identity.

Prostitution began to interest Brazilian historians as part of a more general renewal of historiography that took place towards the end of the 1970s. The theoretical underpinnings of this research can be seen in the periods and themes which historians chose as their objects of study. The earliest works, published in the middle of the 1980s, focused on the years between 1870 and 1930. Social and cultural historians considered this era to have been of fundamental importance for the creation of modern, urban, capitalist Brazil. The end of the war with Paraguay in 1870, the abolition of slavery in 1888 and the declaration of the first Brazilian republic in 1889 were the main political events which marked this period, while the collapse of the First Republic in 1930, followed by the rapid ascension of Getúlio Vargas (1930-1945), provide a convenient end point.

Social historians tended to place the first Republican initiatives to police prostitution within the context of radical urban reforms which took place in Rio de Janeiro during this era. These were inspired by a hygienist ideology among the city’s elite, which coalesced into public policy during the final years of the 19thcentury. Increased immigration from Europe and the internal migration of recently freed slaves  intensified fears of social unrest, resulting in a series of repressive policies that sought to impose order and control over the burgeoning new metropolis.

These policies had enduring consequences for the city’s physical and social organization. In the first years of the 20th century, the old colonial center of Rio was demolished to make way for new, tree-lined and electrically illuminated avenues. The State also directly intervened in working-class cultural and life-practices, attempting to repress forms of sociability that were considered to be “unhealthy” or “backwards”.

The social historians of the 1980s sought to situate prostitution within this general context, showcasing these public policies and their limitations (Soihet, 1989, Soares, 1992, Engel, 1990). Unfortunately, almost no historiographic work on prostitution has yet been done outside of this period, Juçara Leite’s little-known work on the so-called “República do Mangue” being a sterling exception to this general rule.

Anthropology and sociology became increasingly interested in prostitution in Rio  from the late 1980s on as the themes of globalization, sexual tourism, trafficking in persons and sex workers’ rights gained space in the media and in the academy. Ethnographies of clients, red light districts, hetero- and homosexual prostitution, transvestite prostitution and sexual tourism have begun to create a panorama of sex work in the city over the last 30 years. These studies, although still relatively few in number, have only begun to give fruit within the last 20 years and promise to greatly improve our understanding of sex as it is sold in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Unfortunately, like the historians, anthropologists and sociologists have generated relatively little information regarding the period stretching from 1930 to 1990.

Because of this unevenly focused scholarship, what we know of the history of prostitution in Rio de Janeiro is thus somewhat imbalanced. We know quite a bit about the years stretching from 1870 to 1930 and a fair amount about the period from the late 1980s on. We still know very little about prostitution before the 1870s or after the inaugural years of Vargas’ Estado Novo, however, and almost nothing about the years during the military dictatorship which stretched from 1964 to 1989. What little information exists about the sale of sex in Rio from 1930 to 1990 has largely been produced by journalists, medical professionals and the police, but no one has yet collated or systematically reviewed this material.

In the following pages, we do our best to give an overview of female sex work in the Rio de Janeiro, given the uneven historical and socio-anthropological record regarding the topic. Because of space limitations, we have been forced to leave out more than we could include and we necessarily gloss over points that properly require entire books to adequately describe.  Nevertheless, we feel that the discussion below is a solid introduction to the manners in which commercial sex has been organized in our city, at least over the past century and a half.


Race and female honor: the roots of the “prostitution question”

Sexual commerce began to be seen as a problem by carioca and national elites in this context during the second half of the 19th century. Prostitution was understood as a moral issue which had particular resonances with the struggle to abolish slavery, then taking place in Brazil even as the international debate regarding the regulation or abolition of prostitution began in Europe. These resonances can still be found today in the rhetoric of Brazil’s anti-trafficking movements. More worrisome to the fin de siécle elite of Rio de Janeiro, however, was the visibility of sexual commerce in the city, especially those regions populated by increasing numbers of African-descended workers (following the abolition of slavery)  and growing numbers of poor European immigrants.

The young medical students who began to study prostitution during the 19th century were inspired by what they understood to be the French position on the topic and generally pushed for the regulation of sexual commerce. The definitions of “public prostitution” and “clandestine prostitution” that these young gentlemen used reveal quite a bit about late 19th century Rio de Janeiro and its conflicts. These early scholars understood prostitution as going well beyond the simple exchange of money for sexual favors and included in their studies a series of sexual-affective agreements and relationships established outside the bounds of matrimony along the shifting borders between sex work and other modalities of sexual, domestic and affective labor.

The definition of who was and who was not a “prostitute” in mid- to late 19th century Rio de Janeiro depended upon intersections between class, gender and race in the surrounding society and the eye of the beholder. Medical and legal authorities tended to apply the term to a wide variety of women who were not necessarily charging for sex. In the early 1870s, for example, a medical student included in his list of prostitutes women considered to be “amancebadas”. This classification was applied to any woman living in an intimate relationship outside the bounds of formal matrimony, a situation which included the greater part of the Brazilian female population in the 18th and 19th centuries. This same student also classified as prostitutes those women involved in the city’s incipient nocturnal life, such as “theater goers” and “women who live in hotels”. Finally, he also appended “flower vendors, fashion designers, seamstresses and cigar sellers” to his list. It seems that few woman involved in working in Rio’s urban service sector escaped being labeled as prostitutes by this young researcher.

This extremely wide definition was obviously not shared by the large majority of cariocas. It demonstrates, however, that the affective practices and arrangements then common among the city’s working class men and women (which included serial monogamy, often outside the bounds of marriage), were seen as suspect by the city’s lettered men of means, who found the elastic and vague  “clandestine prostitution” to be quite a useful descriptor for these relationships. As Sueann Caulfield points out, this view of sex, work and marriage continued throughout the first decades of the 20th century, while Juçara Leite confirms that as late as the 1950s and ‘60s, “prostitute” was a category often understood as synonymous with poor, single, sexually active working class women.

During the period between the World Wars, the “modern woman” began to be a subject of interest for Brazilian medical doctors and legal authorities, gaining shape as the city’s nightlife grew and flourished. Cafés, bars, cabarets, theaters and other entertainment venues multiplied in Rio during this period and behavioral patterns began to take on a new, more liberal and globalized complexion. New fashions and the  “feminine invasion” of public space were understood by the city’s masculine elite in racialized and sexualized terms.

As greater numbers of young “modern” women began to frequent nocturnal entertainment venues and stigmatized neighborhoods, observers of the urban scene were increasingly obliged to distinguish between “honest women” and “prostitutes”, even as sexual liberation and participation by women in public urban life made such a task ever more difficult.

Sueann Caulfield has demonstrated that the conflicts over feminine honor in the modernizing and expanding city of Rio de Janeiro had a strong impact upon debates regarding Brazil’s national honor. From the interwar period on up to Vargas’ Estado Novo, young female workers who insisted upon participating in public nightlife without giving up their self-identification as “honest women” were nevertheless often involved in a conflict-ridden cultural dialogue with carioca police and lawyers. These gentlemen, in turn, were forced to rethink the unequivocal and unambiguous borders which they had earlier tried to establish around feminine and national honor.

The mixed-race “mulatta” became the quintessential stereotype of carioca feminine sexuality during these inter-war years, expressing widespread social anxieties regarding modernity in a symbolic language shot through with class and racial markers. As Tiago M. Gomes reports, even as middle class white girls began to wear their hair short, drink in public and dance the Charleston and samba, they began to be criticized as indistinguishable from their black and mulatta maids. These African descended carioca women were described as possessing an “uncivilized, natural” sexuality which needed to be strictly maintained with certain limits, outside of moments of ritualistic social inversion such as Carnival. Gomes cites a journalist of the times, regarding the racially-marked frontiers of the relative liberalization of public sexuality during the interwar period:

The kiss given in a closed bedroom is not a crime, nor is the kiss one gives to a hand or a forehead. It’s when a guy smootches on Flamengo Beach, for example, and starts sniffing up a mulatta’s neck that he ends up in the can.

This idealized opposition between “family girls”, idealized as white, middle-class and chaste (if fun-loving) and  “mulattas”, understood as black or brown, lower class and sexually voracious, has permeated discussions of Brazilian sexuality throughout the 20th century. Even today, many of the same traditional concerns regarding “sexy mulattas” and their potential to be confused with “family girls” are present in Brazilian discourses regarding female migration.

In the words of anthropologists Blanchette and Silva, “What, exactly, is a moça de família [i.e. a “family girl”] in 2008 is a topic open to much debate. One thing continues to be clear, however: she’s not a prostitute”, a category that continues to be largely imagined, by Brazilian and foreign authorities, as intimately intertwined with that of the mulatta.

The result of a long and complicated historical creation, the mulatta became established as the symbolic quintessence of Brazilian sensuality in the interwar period. The elevation of the “sexy mulatta” as the paradigmatic figure of Brazil came about as the result of a complex cultural dialogue between Brazilian modernist intellectuals (who had dedicated themselves to defining national identity in terms of mestiçagem, or race mixing) and popular cultural production.

Figuring large in this scheme of things were romanticized portrayals of bohemian carioca nightlife and, in particular, prostitution. (Caulfield, 2000a) Artists such as Lasar Segall, Di Cavalcanti and  Otto Lange produced renowned works of early Brazilian modernist painting, taking the “mulattas of the Mangue” (Rio’s traditional lower-class red light district) as their subjects. From the 1930s to the 1960s, “mestiçagem” would become synonymous with Brazilian national identity and the mulatta would be enthroned as one of the most exemplary figure of modern Brazil.

Nevertheless, as anthropologist Mariza Côrrea points out, the mulatta never lost her connotations of sexual license and social danger. As sex panics became more common (both in Brazil and internationally) following the liberalizations of the 1970s,  the sexuality of the presumptive sexual excesses of the mulatta have once again come under increasing vigilance and critique.

In this context, the growing debate about trafficking in persons in Brazil today has, to a certain extent, reforged the symbolic linkages between women’s racialized sexual behavior and national honor. In the series of public debates leading up to and following the formulation of Brazil’s national anti-trafficking plan in 2007, Blanchette & Silva report that preventing Brazilian prostitutes from migrating overseas was repeatedly framed in terms of protecting Brazil’s reputation. In the words of one anti-trafficking activist engaged in these debates, “no one should be able to leave Brazil until they have the conditions to do so with dignity” – prostitution, of course, being considered an assault against sexual dignity. In this sense, then, the sexual behavior and perhaps even “honor” (or at least “dignity”) of Brazilian women is still held to have a deep and abiding connection with the honor of the Brazilian nation, even in the post-feminist, sexually liberated 21st century.

Given Brazil’s ambiguous laws and policies regarding prostitution, this racialized moral construction of feminine sexuality has also served as a guide to authorities with regards to which female populations need to be surveilled and policed. To better understand how this has worked in practice, however, we now need to turn to a brief analysis of legal history of sex work in Brazil.


Read on Blanchette and Schettini’s Sex Work in Rio de Janeiro: “More than tolerated – effectively managed”:

 Part II – Legal Definitions


—— References

1   Juçara Luzia Leite A República do Mangue: Controle Policial e Prostituição no Rio de Janeiro (1954-1974). Master’s Dissertation in History, UFF (Rio de Janeiro, 1993).

2   Herculano Augusto Lassance Cunha, Dissertação sobre a Prostituição, em Particular na Cidade do Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro, 19845);  Miguel Antônio Heredia Sá  Algumas Reflexões sobre a Cópula, Onanismo e Prostituição (Rio de Janeiro, 1945). See also Luis Carlos Soares Rameiras, ilhoas e polacas: a prostituição no Rio de Janeiro do século XIX (São Paulo, 1992) and Sérgio Carrara Tributo a Vênus: a luta contra a sífilis no Brasil, da passagem do século aos anos 40 (Rio de Janeiro, 1996) for a more in-depth discussion of this period.

3   Soares,  Rameiras, ilhoas e polacas pp.31-32.

4    Sueann Caulfield “O nascimento do Mangue: raça, nação e controle da prostituição no Rio de Janeiro, 1850-1942”, Tempo, 9, July,(Rio de Janeiro, 2000)  pp.43-63;, Juçara Luzia Leite, A República do Mangue.

5   Sueann Caulfield Em Defesa da honra: moralidade, modernidade e nação no Rio de Janeiro (1918-1940) (Campinas, 2000).

6   Mariza Corrêa. “Sobre a Invenção da Mulata”. Cadernos Pagu (6/7) (Campinas, 1996) pp.35-50 ; Tiago de Melo Gomes “Mulatas, massais e meretrizes: imagens da sexualidade feminina no Rio de Janeiro dos anos 1920”, Cadernos Pagu, 23 (Campinas, 2004) pp.121-147.

7   Fortunato Padilha. “As Entrevistas Momentosas” O Paiz, 23-10-25 (Rio de Janeiro, 1925), Apud Tiago de Melo Gomes, “ Mulatas, massais e meretrizes”.

8   T. Blanchette & A.P. Silva “Mulheres vulneráveis e meninas más: uma análise antropológica de narrativas hegemônicas sobre o tráfico de pessoas no Brasil” In: Ferreria, et al orgs. A Experiência Migrante: Entre Deslocamentos e Reconstruções. (Rio de Janeiro, 2010) pp.325-360. P. 352.

9   For a historical account on critical uses of the imagery of mulatta by African-descended Brazilians, see Martha Abreu: “ ‘Sobre mulatas orgulhosas e crioulos atrevidos’: conflitos raciais, gênero e nação nas cancões populares (Sudeste do Brasil, 1890-1920), Tempo, v.8, n.16, 2004, pp.143-173.

10   For an overview of this trend in a U.S. American context, see Roger Lancaster, Sex Panic and the Punitive State (Berkeley, etc. 2011). For an overview of the development of trafficking panic in Brazil, see T. Blanchette, A.P. Silva & A. Bento “Cinderella Deceived: Analyzing a Brazilian Myth Regarding Trafficking in Persons.” Vibrant, v10, #2 (2013) Accessed at on 02.01.2013.

11   Ibid. p.353-354.



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