22 women in Rio’s working class red light district talk about the first time they did sex work, what it was like, and why they’re still doing it.
Karina lost her job. Veronica’s job didn’t pay enough to cover rent. Monique needed the bus fare home. Andrea, Diana and Patricia came with a friend.
Julia, perplexingly, started at 16 and just says she likes it. A lot.
Because she was a minor when she started doing sex work, and since minors can’t consent to commercial sex, even if nobody forces them to do it, Julia is considered a victim of sex trafficking.
Was a victim of sex trafficking – now she’s 18, and she’s still working, on her own volition.
The last two women in this video were also victims of sex trafficking because they started working as minors.
Ruby ran away from home when she was twelve to get away from her mother’s sexually abusive boyfriend and started working as a prostitute while she was a teenager. She had a stint doing domestic labor when she had her first son, but she never received payment, and went back to Vila Mimosa.
Sara, the last woman interviewed, was 16 when her friend’s mother forced the two of them to have sex with men. Guess who kept the money.
When I asked Sara why she didn’t run away, she said, “You know what it feels like when you feel a lack of options? I didn’t know anyone here in Rio. I was staying at her house. Where could I go?”
Ruby and Sara were victims of sex trafficking, but they currently are prostitutes – and have been for decades.
Bizarrely, the mainstream anti-sex trafficking movement would consider Ruby and Sara as current victims of sex trafficking. The logic is that no woman could choose to do sex work -therefore all prostitutes (and porn stars?) are forced, if not physically forced, then abused by a pimp, or psychologically coerced. Therefore we should abolish prostitution and emancipate all the sex slaves at once.
But Ruby and Sara don’t want to be rescued. They said the reason they’re still working is because they need the money.
Neither has a pimp, but both of them have families to support. Sara has a son (and also supports a drug habit). Ruby supports five children on her income and has been putting off a uterine surgery she needs because she can’t afford to stop working for a few months.
If prostitution were abolished in Brazil (it’s currently a legal occupation) – or more likely, if the city were to evict the red light district in time for World Cup – how would Ruby and Sara make the money they’re working for in the first place?
So the anti-sex trafficking movement is at a loss to say how they can help women who were victims of sex trafficking, and who are currently prostitutes. It’s easier to propose a strategy of “rescue everyone” than confront the complicated question of how to provide job opportunities for poor, under-educated heads of household whose primary occupation is sex work. Who would hire them?
Diana says, “The money was easy, so I stayed. But I wouldn’t advise anyone to come here and stay. This isn’t a life for anyone, but I’m still here.”