Rio de Janeiro’s Prostitution Policy Watch has released preliminary data on the impact of the 2016 Summer Olympics on the sex industry in Rio de Janeiro. Below is a copy of the press release in English. Clique aqui para acesso em Português.
Who we are
Prostitution Policy Watch (Observatório da Prostituição) is an extension and research project of the Institute for Urban and Regional Planning of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR-UFRJ) which unites professors, researchers and students of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro-UFRJ, the Gender Studies Center PAGU from the State University of Campinas-UNICAMP, and the Fluminense Federal University-UFF. The project is conducted in partnership with ONG Davida – Prostitution, Civil Rights and Health; the Brazilian Interdisciplinary Association of AIDS-ABIA; the Public Archive of the State of Rio de Janeiro-APERJ and the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes. Since 2013, we have been undertaking ethnographic, bibliographic, and documentary research into prostitution in the city of Rio de Janeiro, as well as conducting extension activities around the topic, seeking to widen the public and political space for debates regarding sex work while privileging in these debates the voices and opinions of sex workers who seek recognition of prostitution and a form of legitimate labor.
The Impacts of Megaevents on Sex Markets in Rio de Janeiro Project
Once again, Rio de Janeiro has played host to a sporting mega-event: the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. As we did during the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Prostitution Policy Watch went into the field to accompany the changes the Games would cause in our local commercial sexual markets (you can access PPW’s World Cup Preliminary Report in English.)
During the Olympics, we sought to observe and analyze how public policies have intensified “public events” in “revitalized areas” and how this has re-ordered the informal labor and commerce markets of the city. In particular, we were interested in how these new configurations of space, law and urban mobility would affect the professional lives of sex workers. In order to achieve this goal, we brought together a team composed of 6 PhD-level researchers, 8 scholarship students from SPP, 3 associate researchers and 15 sex workers. Using participant-observation ethnography, these people observed and recorded life in Rio’s principal commercial sex zones during the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
This time, we added a second group of ethnogrphers toour research, however: a collective of volunteer photographers who taught photography techniques to our sex worker researchers, so that these could produce audio and visual images of their daily lives during the Games. These images and recordings will eventually be available on the internet in a virtual exhibit that will be curated by the sex workers themselves. This part of the project will thus produce a view of the city during the Games created by women who sold sex during the mega-event. In this way, PPW is incorporating prostitutes as producers of knowledge regarding their own lives and work, seeking to show the meanings sex work has for them.
The results of this project are still coming in. for the moment, we can state that the daily lives of these women are not particularly different from those of the other citizens who live, work, play, sleep and move through our city. Sex workers, however, have much to show us about urban politics in times of managed crisis, such as sporting mega-events, as prostitution tends to create women who have a certain autonomous conscience regarding the official stories which surround these events.
Our ethnographic research involves placing teams of researchers in the principal areas of Rio’s commercial sex markets in Barra da Tijuca, Copacabana, Downtown and Vila Mimosa (whose venues were established via mappings carried out between 2012-2016). These teams produce field notes, detailing their observations, conversations and interactions with the diverse groups of people who circulate in these areas, concentrating on how the Olympic Games are affecting their lives.
The urban interventions and projects carried out in preparation for the games have reorganized sexual commerce in Rio and, because of this, many prostitutes are no longer working or living in the same regions as before. The distribution of sex work and workers in Rio has changed due to the numerous modifications made in the city’s infra- and legal structure due to the games. One of our Project’s main objectives is thus recording these changes and their impacts upon the lives of sex workers.
Another focus of our project is the militarization and securitization of the city and the effects that this has had on Rio’s sex markets. As we observed during the 2014 World Cup, constant and ostentatious policing in the city’s main commercial sex districts can end up creating difficulties for sex workers. In the weeks before the Cup, police operations that closed sex work venues resulting in the arbitrary arrest of prostitutes and numerous violations of their human rights. Two major operations symbolized this repression in 2014, with both taking place right before the Cup. The first occurred in May with the police raid on the so-called “Caixa Econômica Federal” building in Niterói, resulting in the illegal arrest of over 120 sex workers. The second operation took place on the day the World Cup began and closed down Balcony Bar, a well-known establishment where tourists met and negotiated with prostitutes in Copacabana.
In 2014, we began intensive fieldwork in the first week of august, reducing things to a slower rhythm towards the end of the year. In 2016, we concentrated our fieldwork during the Olympic Games, but have continued to go into the field over the past few weeks following the games in order to conduct more structured interviews. We will continue with intensive fieldwork until the end of September, following the Paralympic Games.
A preliminary analysis of the data we have collected already shows that the ever-popular themes of moral panic produced by the mainstream media before and during mega sporting events (increases in trafficking of persons and the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents) has, once again, not come to pass. During the World Cup, demand for commercial sex declined – a fact noticed and complained about by many sex workers in Rio. During the Cup we confirmed that most sex venues in Rio were generally sustained by local Brazilian clients and not foreign or national tourists. Because the Cup generated a large number of holidays (an average of two a week) which shuttered downtown (the densest concentration of sex work venues) and altered the daily routines of the Brazilian men who are these venues primarily customers, sexual commerce, as a whole, declined in Rio during the event. We believe that it was very likely that a similar phenomena would be observed during the 2016 Olympic Games.
In the months before the Olympics, however, a new factor appeared: economic and political crisis. The sex workers we interviewed before the Games were almost unanimous in declaring that more people were selling sex, but that there were fewer clients – that offer, in other words, was outstripping demand. Universally, this was attributed to the economic downturn Brazil, and Rio in particular, was suffering. As the date for the Opening Ceremony loomed near, the sex workers we interviewed who had worked during the Cup and had experienced the earlier mega-event-related decline in sexual commerce were also worried that the Olympics would cause a further fall in the already low number of clients.
What is our initial evaluation of the sale of sex in the city during the 2016 Games? What effects did it cause on demand for commercial sex?
Offer was much higher than demand during the Olympic Games. There was an increase in the number of women working in the main venues of the city. This increase was probably more due to the crisis than the Games, however, given that in most places, the rise occurred at least 8 months before the Olympics began. With very few exceptions, however, we did not see a significant increase in a demand for sexual services in Rio during the months of August and September 2016. Even though a million people had come to Rio for the Games, the majority of sex work venues saw both a drop in the number of clients frequenting them and in the number of men who were willing to pay for sex.
Up to now, the large majority of the sex workers we talked to have evaluated the Games as being bad for business. Both sex workers and venue owners and managers affirm that the Olympics did not meet their already reduced expectations in terms of the level of consumption of sexual services. We still have to analyze all of our data, particularly with regards to what portion of this decline was caused by the Olympics and what by the more general, on-going economic crisis. We can say, however, that there appears to have been a great degree of variation in terms of movement in the sex venues of Rio and that this variation was geographically larger than during the World’s Cup.
So far, we have only uncovered one venue (in Barra da Tijuca) where demand for sexual services seems to have consistently grow during the Games. This growth, however, seems to have been strictly local and limited, as even other venues nearby in the same neighborhood did not see a larger number of clients come in during the Games.
In general, it seems that the Games did not meet expectations when it came to the number of tourists willing to pay for sex. However, as was the case during the World Cup, we noticed that the Games generated a great degree of sex worker mobility within the sexscape of Rio de Janeiro. Sex workers from Downtown and Vila Mimosa headed out to Copacabana and Barra da Tijuca (many had already planned these movements months before, based on their experiences during the Cup). Others switched venues to Praça Mauá or moved from Barra da Tijuca to Copacabana when it turned out that the number of clients in Barra was low. Sexual commerce ended up being much more dispersed throughout the city during the Olympics, as compared to the World Cup, due to the fact that the tourists, competitors and venues were also more widely geographically distributed.
The prices charged for sex did not change significantly during the Olympics, even though an English tabloid ran a story claiming that the Vila Mimosa red light district was running a “sale” for foreign tourists (we confirmed that this was not true). We did hear, however, that the number of “top shelf” (i.e. extremely well paid tricks – double the going rate) had significantly diminished in comparison with the FIFA event. Some of the workers we talked to who primarily relied on the internet to find clients claimed that the several of the on-line sites which they work for had increased their prices before the Games, but were rapidly forced to lower them to normal levels when the expected increase in clients did not materialize. Many women complained about encounters with tourists who were uncomfortable with the very idea of commercial sex – often aggressively so. During the Olympics, we noticed the rise of a certain form of anti-sex work discourse that had been absent among tourists at the Cup, with men aggressively repelling sex workers while angrily denouncing sex work as criminal (it is not in Brazil). These sorts of encounters even took place in the main sexual tourism venues along Copacabana, were sex working women outnumber non-sexing working women by a factor of ten to one.
The number of holidays associated with the Olympics was lower than those associated with the Cup and the event itself was much shorter. For this reason, the movement of clients in Downtown and Vila Mimosa (the main commercial sex regions of Rio, which are almost solely frequented by local men) did not see an abrupt fall-off in terms of the number of clients, as had been the case during the FIFA event. Most venues saw a some decrease in customers, however, in terms of what would have been considered normal for this time of year (and in comparison with the movement of the months prior to the Cup). Copacabana (the neighborhood most associated with sexual tourism), however, saw a sharp decrease in the number of clients in comparison to the Cup, where this region saw the largest growth in number of clients in the city. This relative decrease in comparison with the Cup, however, also amounted to a small increase from what would have been the normal movement for August and September in the neighborhood. Given the large increase in the number of women working on Copacabana and the small increase in the number of clients, many sex workers experienced this as an overall decrease in the number of paid tricks.
The fourth region we studied, Vila Mimosa, once again saw a sharp decrease in the number of customers relative to the normal movement in the neighborhood. In this sense, the experience of the World Cup seems to have been repeated during the Olympic Games, with VM being almost empty of customers on many days during the Olympics.
Only in two venues did we see a significant increase in the number of customers: the above-mentions venue in Barra (a club relatively close to the Olympic Village) and in Praça Mauá, whose main club saw a 30% rise in the number of clients and sex workers. It should be noted in this context that while Praça Mauá contained one of the main tourist events organized for the Games (with immense public T.V.s and food trucks, as well as the new Museum of Tomorrow), most of the men in this club were the club’s traditional clientele: seamen and crew members from cruise ships, mostly Filipinos, Indians and other Asians.
What difficulties and/or threats did sex workers face during the Games? Were there reports of violence or repression?
Over all, it seems that there was less violence and repression directed towards sex workers during the Olympic Games than there was at the World Cup. This may have been a result, once again, of the ongoing economic and political crisis. This might have meant that there simply wasn’t any money available for the kind of “grandstanding” anti-prostitution operations which took place at the Cup and which were, in general, apparently directed at improving the property values of regions targeted for gentrification schemes – said schemes perhaps no longer having the political or financial capital necessary to move forward.
Some women reported being evicted from the streets around the Maracanã football stadium by police. It was difficult to decide, however, whether this was the result of anti-prostitution operations or more general security measures designed to clear all non-spectators from the region around the stadium (which would host the Games’ Opening and Closing Ceremonies). In Copacabana, several acts of violence against trans prostitutes were reported before the games, generally at the hands of private security personnel who were illegally patrolling the main streets of the neighborhood.
These, however, are the only significant reports of pornophobic violence that we have so far collected during the Olympics. We’d like to cautiously, preliminarily conclude that police and public policy regarding sex work was thus improved between the Cup and the Games, with the operations that did occur being directed towards mostly legitimate targets (i.e. the repression of the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents). In part, this may have resulted from SPP’s participation in the pre-Games preparations conducted by the Childhood and Infancy Foundation in conjunction with the Olympic Committee and the State social welfare and security apparatus. It could also be a result, however, of there simply not being enough resources to go around. With money for security at the Games at a premium, it is not hard to imagine that costly and relatively useless but mediagenic anti-prostitution operations (such as the public closing of Balcony Bar on the day of the opening of the World Cup) would find little support among the Games’ security planners.
The police did turn up a “modeling agency” that had been established in front of the Olympic Village and with reportedly employed underaged girls in prostitution. However, at the current time, it is difficult to say just how much of what has been accused in the media will, in fact, stand up in a court of law. No exploiters and no girls or women were found in the raid and, currently, the only information that’s publically available about the agency’s operations comes from rumors and police press releases. It should be noted, in this context, that accusations of sexual exploitation of children are the go-to excuse mobilized by police whenever they feel the need to close down a venue. Similar accusations were leveled against Balcony Bar before the Cup, leading to its closure. These, too, resulted in no arrests and the charges were dropped and the bar re-opened as soon as the Cup was over. Until the police actually find victims or exploiters and the case comes to court, the truth behind the accusations will probably remain unknown.
Another series of operations directed against street prostitution in Barra da Tijuca/Recreio before the Games revealed the presence of three underaged prostitutes (16, 16 and 17 years old) working Avenida Lucio Costa along the coast. Adult sex workers were detained by police in these investigations, but in discussions conducted by SPP with adult sex workers along Lucio Custo during the Games, we were informed that “The police are only going after minors and are leaving us alone”. We are currently involved in post-Games evaluation meetings with city and state security and welfare personnel in order to relate their experiences during the Olympics.
On the other hand, we registered several cases of “pornophobia” or “whorephobia” during the Olympics on the part of tourists or local residents, particularly in places where prostitutes were circulating outside of their normal routines of movement and work. In the middleclass neighborhood of Ipanema, for example (which is adjacent to Copacabana), we witnessed physical and symbolic aggressions by non-prostitute Brazilian women being directed against the sex workers who “invaded” middle class nightlife venues. We also saw abolitionist rhetoric being employed by male tourists in order to justify non-payment for sex in situations of seduction. Often, the rhetoric was employed in symbolically violent ways, with prostitutes being told they were “criminals” or “sick”. Many sex workers talked about their negative experiences in trying to move about and work in spaces that they understood to be “controlled by playboys” (i.e. middle- and upperclass men and women), such as Pra Praça Mauá, Praça XV and the bars and clubs of Ipanema.
In other words, it seems that an increase in the presence of sex workers in these areas resulted in greater levels of publicly acceptable pornophobic acts, both on the part of non-prostitute women and on the part of the men using these spaces to obtain non-commercial sexual liaisons.
What preliminary parallels can we draw between the 2016 Olympics and the 2014 World Cup? What similarities and differences can be identified with regards to prostitution during both megaevents?
To being with, let us state the obvious: prostitution occurs in Rio all year long and not only during megaevents. Our mapping of the city’s sexscape in 2009 revealed 279 discrete sexual commercial venues in the city of Rio de Janeiro alone, without taking into consideration any of the suburbs. The large majority of the clients who frequent these venues are local male citizens and not tourists or foreigners.
That said, both events evidenced a series of factors which influenced the configuration of sexual commerce in the city and these need to be taken into consideration in any attempt to compare the effects of the Cup and the Olympics.
In the months leading up to the Olympic Games, for example, Rio’s ongoing economic crisis, compounded by the constant urban construction projects being undertaken throughout the city, ended up forcing the closure of a number of commercial sex venues. This resulted in the concentration of sex workers in a smaller number of venues. Meanwhile, new workers were being drawn into the market through under- or unemployment in other economic sectors, while the economic crisis reduced the amount of money clients were willing to spend on sex. As a result, the commercial sexual economy of Rio de Janeiro was at its lowest and least lucrative point in over twenty years, even before the Games began. Sex workers and brothel owners and managers hoped that the Olympics would improve things, but those who had worked through the Cup and witnessed the decline of sexual commerce in Vila Mimosa and Downtown weren’t very optimistic.
During the 2014 games, fan and tourist activities were concentrated around the FIFA Fan Fest in Copacabana and in Maracanã Stadium. This resulted in a large concentration of tourists near the commercial sexual venues of Copacabana, while other regions of the city – Vila Mimosa and Downtown, in particular – were left almost empty. Frequent holidays (twice a week) made the situation even worse, draining Downtown and Vila of their normal local clientele. As a result, many venues in these two regions closed down for the Cup while many of those in Copacabana saw a significant boom in business.
During the Olympics, there were fewer holidays and, even when they occurred, the fact that Games’ related fan events were occurring all over town – and particularly Downtown – meant that none of the main commercial sexual regions (with the exception of Vila Mimosa) were ever completely abandoned by tourists or the local population. Copacabana continued to be an important center for tourism-related activities, as well as the stage for many competitive events. It’s importance relative to other areas of the city was greatly lessened, however. This was also the case with regards to sexual commerce. What had been an overall drop of 15% city-wide, coupled with a 100% increase in Copa during the Cup seems to have been much more spread out during the Olympics. We still have to run the numbers, but it seems that Copa may have seen a 33-50% increase in the number of clients, relative to its normal movement at this time of year, while most other venues saw smaller decreases or no decreases in comparison to the Cup.
The Olympics were thus less disruptive of sex work as a whole in Rio de Janeiro than was the World Cup. Downtown venues mostly continued to function normally, with a slight to moderate decrease or, occasionally, a slight increase in terms of clients (particularly in Praça Mauá, “Ground Zero” for Olympics-related public events). During the Cup, many of these houses were forced to close due to an absolute lack of clients.
Summing up, then, what we have observed with regards to Rio de Janeiro as a whole, is that sexual commerce was maintained at normal or slightly improved levels Downtown during the Games, but did not reach the levels hoped for by sex workers and brothel owners/managers. On the other hand, Copacabana did not see a huge concentration of clients, as was the case during the World Cup. Numbers of clients increased during the Games, but not massively. Even so, it seems that Copacabana still concentrated an above-average number of clients and sex workers during the Games. Meanwhile, Vila Mimosa seems to have been equally abandoned during the Cup and the Games, with local clients disappearing and tourists not making up the slack. Normal movement only returned to the Vila in the weeks following the Olympics’ closing ceremony. In Barra da Tijuca, movement increased but was heavily concentrated in one main venue, whereas other venues saw a decrease relative to normal movement.
In other words, the effects of the Olympic Games on sexual commerce in Rio seem to have been much more shifting and localized than during the World Cup, which was characterized by a large concentration of clients in Copacabana. Furthermore, movement would mysteriously improve or decrease on a daily basis. One notorious Downtown sauna, for example, which generally has a steady and reliable clientele, would register enormous activity one day, followed by a steep drop off the very next. The reasons for these swings are, as yet, unexplained. Very few venues, however, could say that they saw a significant increase in the number of clients purchasing sex during the Olympic Games.
When will we finish our research and release our preliminary report?
After the end of the Paralympic Games, in October 2016. We will also be organizing a book relating our experiences during the Cup and the Games, containing more detailed analyses of our data. For further information, contact Prostitution Policy Watch: +55 21 96548-6273 and firstname.lastname@example.org.