Cristiana Schettini, Thaddeus Blanchette 4

Prostitution Markets and Sanitation Campaigns

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

Published to RED LIGHT RIO in six parts, 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.

Part I is a history of sex in Rio.

Part II discusses the fuzzy legality of prostitution in Rio.

This section discusses Rio’s early prostitution markets, slave prostitution and immigrant prostitution; and the birth of extra-official regulation of prostitution, including the city’s first moral sanitation campaigns and the formation of Rio’s first red light district.


French, Poles and mulattas: ethnicity, class and the markets for prostitution in the early 20th century

The organization of the labor market for prostitution in Rio de Janeiro has been strongly marked by the racial and national origins of the women who participate in it.

Rio has long been a city which has received large contingents of immigrant labor: African slaves up to the mid 19th century; Europeans (particularly the Portuguese) from the late 19th to the mid-20th century; and, finally, significant numbers of migrant workers from other parts of Brazil (in particular the northern and northeastern regions) throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. The city has also had a historical and persistent lack of housing, which has made it seem over-populated and ramshackle. This, combined with Rio’s status as Brazil’s principal metropolis up to the 1950s (and its second largest city since then), has meant that the city has historically been characterized by the close proximity of different social groups and classes.

Rio’s population doubled in size from 1820 to 1840, with the African presence expanding in particular during this period. By 1850, when the trans-Atlantic slave trade was finally abolished, Rio probably contained the largest urban concentration of slaves in the Americas, a characteristic that fascinated foreign visitors.

The visibility and persistence of prostitution exercised by slaves and their descendants was one of the most noteworthy characteristics of the social organization of local sexual commerce throughout the 19th century. African and African-descended women were prominent in all parts of the city’s service sector and it was common for carioca men to buy slaves as “prostitutes, lovers, concubines, or companions”. Slave prostitution in Rio de Janeiro was therefore part of a greater continuum of activities that included domestic services, concubinage and street commerce.

It should not be presumed, however, that slave prostitution was the only sort of commercial sex on display in 19th century Rio. Contemporary observers throughout the century left descriptions of various segments of the market for sexual labor, identifying hierarchies based upon the origins and racial identities of the women engaged in prostitution. In 1819, for example, the Prussian immigrant Theodor Von Leithold described the diversity of the city’s prostitutes and, particularly, some of its more successful sex workers:

Easy women… are present in great numbers: white, black and of all categories... At night, from eight to ten, they invade the streets dressed in black taffeta or wool and wrapped in mantles. The ones of the first class also come out by day, accompanied by two slaves. They use their arts to pass for high-quality ladies and they know how to ensnare foreign men in their nets (von Leithold, 1966 [1819]: 32).

The arrival of Portuguese prostitutes in the mid-19th century from the continent and the Atlantic islands (the later group being known locally as “Ilhoas”) created a visible contrast with the black slave and native born free women with whom they divided the Sacramento parish downtown.

Interestingly enough, the migration of women from the Azores was originally promoted by Portuguese diplomatic as a measure to relieve “pederasty” and male prostitution among Portuguese immigrants in Rio, the majority of whom were male. Both black and white women circulated in the city streets and called to potential clients from the windows and doorways of houses. Often, the places classified by observers as “centers of immoral behavior and prostitution” (such as zungus) were also in fact centers of cultural resistance for black cariocas.

French prostitutes had been a fixture in Rio since the early 1800s.  The presence of foreign-born sex workers in the city’s houses of ill-repute increased in the late 19th century, however, as the city’s population of European immigrants (generally male, young and single) grew. This resulted in a popular cultural identification of two types of immigrant sex workers which would persist well into the first half of the 20th century.

On the one hand, there were the women designated as “French”. In  contemporary media and popular literature, these “artists” were portrayed as living in expensive hotels, elegant boarding houses, or alone. They were elegant, expensive prostitutes who were understood as exercising a civilizing influence upon the city, the distaff counterparts of a local male elite whose identity and projects for the nation were informed by an abiding Francophilia.  As consumer fetishism grew in Brazil, the ability to buy “French” sex became an identifying characteristic in the construction of the carioca bourgeoisie’s socially distinct masculinity.

At the other extreme were the “Poles”, poor white and generally Jewish immigrants, who were popularly associated with a kind of exploitation decried by local elites and was “trafficking in women”. Polish women were, in the words of a Portuguese observer in the 1880s, “white as snow, perfect specimens of the East”, but were understood by the carioca elite as having been tricked into immigrating by “promises of an honest, hardworking life” in Brazil, ending up being prostituted by exploitative pimps. These women generally divided the same decrepit downtown knocking-shops and street spaces with Rio’s poor black and brown prostitutes and the term “Pole” was thus often applied to cheap prostitutes in general, no matter what their color or national origins.

In spite of the symbolic importance of the European presence in Rio de Janeiro from 1870 onwards, however, contemporary reports indicate that Brazilian prostitutes (of many colors) were always in the majority among sex working women. A third category of prostitute that began to gain in popularity and visibility in the early 20th century was the above-mentioned mulatta. From the second decade of the 20th century on, carioca sexual humor magazines expressed local men’s ambivalent attraction to women of African descent, a situation which was to persist throughout the 20th century.

The term “mulatta” became associated with sensuality and African-descended beauty, contrasting with the negative associations connected to the word “preta” (black woman), which referenced degraded sexual practices, poverty and ugliness.

In an erotic story published in 1914, mulattas were cast as specializing in anal sex – the most expensive form of commercial sex – and were also understood as having a tendency to fall in love with their clients. Meanwhile, European prostitutes were characterized as being oral sex specialists and – while their technique was much appreciated – were also renowned for practicing their trade in a mechanical and disinterested fashion, not allowing “affairs of the heart” to mix with commerce.

BlanchetteDi Cavalcanti's “A Mulata”, 1927

Figure: Di Cavalcanti’s “A Mulata”, 1927 (Photo via Thaddeus Blanchette)


Over time, the terms “French” and “Pole” began to be used as short-hand for two different styles of commercial sex: the first geared towards the sensibilities of the middle- and upper-classes and the second towards the working- and lower classes. Mulattas, while generally situated towards the lower end of this dichotomous hierarchy could, in fact, be classified as “French” as well.

In reality, these two idealized extremes of prostitution were composed of a wide spectrum of colors and nationalities, competing for space and clients in the townhouses and streets of central Rio de Janeiro.

Photos of elegant prostitute boarding houses dating from the second decade of the 20th century, for example, show that these brothels contained a wide variety of racial and national “types”. Literary references also reveal such as stories as that of a well-known madam of the 1910s known as “Rocking Horse Alice”, who was described as a “great mulatta” and who was famous for treating her boardinghouse’s residents as “slaves”, but who also had many important republican politicians among her clientele. Likewise, in Marques Rabelo’s novel Marafá, first published in 1935, a lower-class “boarding house” in the Mangue is shown as being inhabited by three Polish prostitutes and a brown-skinned, mixed-race Brazilian woman.

This was one of the things that apparently worried carioca elites the most when they contemplated their city’s sex trade: the organization and hierarchies of commercial sex were more complex, chaotic and less predictable than the simple division into “Poles” and “French”, “high” and “low”, could account for.

Brazil’s liberal immigration policies of the late 19th century, which sought to “ease the transition” from slave to free labor, were based upon a peculiar reading of social Darwinism (and, in particular, the concept of “racial degeneration”) formulated by Brazilian elites, which naturalized social inequality. According to so-called “whitening theory”, increasing the flow of European immigrants to Brazil would “racially improve” the national population.

However, the prospect of intermixture between the recently arrived “women of all nationalities” and those who “already existed [in Rio], exercising the lowest of professions”, especially those women “who are not subject to the rules of hygiene” generated considerable preocupation among carioca elites and underwrote the policies of urban reform and “hygienization” in the city. As the 20th century approached, “cleaning up” the city increasingly meant pushing certain populations out of Rio’s central areas and lower class prostitutes, as we shall discuss below, were high on the list of those who were to be excluded.


The birth of extra-official prostitution regulation 

As we discussed above, the popular representations of prostitution in Rio de Janeiro have associated sexual styles and specialties with national and racial identities in a hierarchical, if somewhat ambiguous, fashion. Available data regarding the spatial organization of commercial sex in the 19th and 20th centuries, however, suggests the existence of complex patterns of shifting relationships with neighbors and residents of the areas where sexual commerce took place, set against the backdrop of ever-increasing police intervention.

The most common and visible modality of prostitution in the center of Rio de Janeiro up until the 1920s was “window prostitution”, where women would hang out of the windows of townhouses, calling to passerby. In this way, sex workers were an integral part of a more general urban commercial scene.

In the late 1890s, we find that the house owners were often women of 30+ years of age, who were typically Brazilian, Austrian or Portuguese (although other nationalities were also encountered) and who might own two or three houses in the same region, all dedicated to prostitution. These buildings were subdivided and rented out, with prostitutes paying a much higher rent to their landladies than was the norm for the surrounding regions.

The internal structure of these houses attests to constant contact between neighbors and prostitutes. The townhouse of the Brazilian clothing dyer Manoel Bastos Soares, for example, contained various sorts of economic activities in 1897. The front rooms, which gave out onto the street, were rented out to a pair of Austrian women. Soares lived in the back with his family and his dye store was situated in another house on the same street.

Renting his front rooms to prostitutes probably made Soares more money than his own business, in fact. The risk, of course, was that the women would complain to the local precinct captain, perhaps irritated by their lack of access to the house’s courtyard, and Soares would end up accused of profiting from the prostitution of others.

The physical proximity between “window prostitutes” and other downtown workers and residents was an important characteristic of prostitution in Rio de Janeiro in the 18th and 19th centuries. Magali Engel calls attention to the existence of prostitutes who also worked as dancers or actresses and who frequented “music halls… beer halls, show cafés… [and the] upper class bakeries and theaters”. This historian points out that one of the most exclusive and elite establishments in downtown Rio in the 1890s – the famous Colombo Café – was frequented by two entirely different sorts of customers. “From 2:00 PM to 5:00 PM, its clientele was made up of “family ladies” but at precisely 5:30 PM, the ‘prostitutes’ began to arrive”.

This admixture between the spheres of sexual commerce and those of family, commerce and society in general would continue on into the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, one of Police Inspector Armando Pereira’s principal complaints about carioca prostitution in the 1950s and ’60s was its ability share spaces with “normal families” and regular commerce.

In the mid 1890s, a few years after the abolition of slavery, a precinct captain launched a “moral sanitation” campaign in downtown Rio, ordering the eviction of all the prostitutes in the region. Both clients and neighbors testified in court in favor of the women and against their expulsion. The courts were used to slow down the precinct captain’s measures, which were an early example of the “hygienist” measures that would be enacted in the following decades.

The increasing attempts to spatially segregate prostitution and its effects on the predominant forms of sexual commerce in different parts of Rio can be accompanied via a handful of statistics produced by the police during the early 20th century. In 1912, for example, the Chief of Police created a list classifying Rio’s various houses of prostitution. The categories utilized reveal contemporary perceptions regarding the social hierarchies of sex work. We thus find a separation between the more elegant and expensive rendez-vous (32 houses) and the more popular hospedarias (52), even though both were used in the same way, as temporary meeting spots for sexual activities. In the same way, we find 434 casas de tolerância (houses of tolerance, which seems to have served as a generic label for those houses in which prostitutes lived and worked) listed separately from 29 pensões de prostitutas (prostitute boarding houses), which were also places where women took rooms and lived and sold sex on the premises. The difference between the two categories seems to be that the boarding houses and rendez-vous were frequented by a richer class of client.

Strenuous efforts were made by police during the first decades of the 20th century to push sex working women out of downtown. The establishment of the Mangue (literally “The Marsh”) as a segregated red light district in the 1920s was one result of this tendency and, as Caulfield points out, one of the new functions of the carioca police in the 1920s was capturing and registering prostitutes and releasing them into the Mangue.

This resulted in an explosion clandestine and semi-clandestine forms of prostitution which allowed the majority of sex workers “to hide in plain sight”. These women would meet clients in certain designated bars, streets, trolley stations, or cafés and would then go with them to hotels, rooming houses or the ubiquitous rendez-vous.  A growing concentration of establishments in the bohemian nightlife district of Lapa, directly to the west of downtown, was also in part due to police repression in the newly renovated center of Rio.

By the late 1920s, the carioca police’s practice of trying to herd prostitutes into segregated areas had not eliminated sexual commerce in the center, but it had resulted in the establishment of two main prostitution “zones” outside of downtown proper in Lapa and the Mangue. The sale of sex in these neighborhoods was not regulated by municipal ordinances, but by the personal decisions of a succession of police captains.

In 1923, the precinct chiefs of these two zones made lists of the residents involved in prostitution. In Lapa, 453 women were counted, of which 232 were Brazilian, 58 Portuguese and the rest other nationalities. These women were distributed in 179 establishments. Meanwhile, in the recently established Mangue (see below), the police found a more homogenous scene. The neighborhood contained 674 women working as prostitutes in 112 houses. Brazilian women were, however, the majority of the workers, tallying 421 of the region’s prostitutes.

Although Lapa concentrated a great number of elegant and bohemian establishments and the Mangue a supposedly more degraded and sordid form of prostitution, journalist Ricardo Pinto observed in 1930 (as anthropologist Ana Paula Silva would observe eight decades later) that these differences referred more to the profile of the male public that frequented the two districts rather than the women working in them.

Pinto commented that the houses of the Mangue actually generated more money because the women could do “window prostitution”, as had been the case in the city center in earlier decades. In the elegant boardinghouses of Lapa, however, the women needed to invest more of their earnings in dresses and accessories. The main barrier to working in Lapa, was the difficult task of establishing the necessary contacts and this was especially difficult for newly arrived poor foreign prostitutes who did not dominate Portuguese (Pinto, 1930).

In this sense, the cabaret singers and variety artists who rented rooms in Lapa during their tours of South America had a distinct structural advantage in carioca prostitution, given that they could count upon a network of contacts acquired during their theatrical work. These contacts restricted their movements, pushing them to follow a strict schedule of out-of-town trips as well as rigid working hours and the obligation to be housed within a specific hotel or boarding house. Hoewever, they also guaranteed these “artistic” women a fixed clientele.

A fascinating glimpse into how “artistic” prostitution worked in Rio during this period can be seen in the documents of the U.S. Embassy dealing with the Baxter and Willard burlesque company’s 1917-1918 tour of Rio de Janeiro. The company had come at the bequest of Djalma Moreira, owner of several nightlife spots in the center. According to the Consulate authorities, Moreira’s clubs attracted “cheap gamblers… business travelers, other tourists, young bohemians and the less offensive class of prostitutes”, many of whom “lived off the gaming tables when they don’t have a temporary protector to pay their bills”.

After their shows, the young troupe’s young dancers would frequent the club “where, as is the custom, all non-accompanied women receive their dinners for free – presumably in consideration of their gentlemen friends who consume and pay for drinks”. Of course, the sexual favors of the women in these establishments could be negotiated for a price and, by the time the Baxter and Willard company left Rio, many of its dancers were taking advantage of the situation to make extra money from prostitution on the side, a situation which greatly irritated the American consular officials.

Most carioca prostitutes weren’t “artists”, however, and were subject to often arbitrary police controls. The story of the foundation of the Mangue illustrates, in a nutshell, how Rio’s newly established “extra-official” regulation of prostitution functioned.

In 1920, King Albert of Belgium was invited to visit Rio. The King’s visit was to be the cumulative event of the past two decades of intense urban reform and “hygienization”. As historian Paulo Donadio puts it, Albert’s visit “would be an opportunity to showcase the country in Europe: he would be a perfect representative of civilization who could attest to the country’s progress and justify the inclusion of Brazil among the ranks of the world’s great countries”.

The Brazilian foreign ministry and the city of Rio de Janeiro spared no expense in preparing for the King. As part of these preparations, the city’s prostitutes were rounded up and confined to a swath of drained swampland along the northern fringes of Rio de Janeiro, where a series of bars and cafés had sprung up.

The City Hall never “officially” decided to confine sex workers to the Mangue: this decision was apparently taken – and enforced –extra-officially by the carioca police (presumably at the sub-rosa bequest of elected officials). As Sueann Caulfield describes it:

Instructed to “clean up” the areas through which His Highness would pass, the police rounded up lower-class prostitutes on the allegation that they were “bums” and kept them under arrest until the end of the royal visit, later gathering them all together in brothels around the nine streets of the Mangue. Here, a few kilometers away from the shores of Guanabara Bay, far from the modernized center of town, there began a series of experiments in police administration of prostitution.

By the end of the 1920s, prostitution in the Mangue functioned under the auspices of an extra-legal system by which the police registered sex professionals and directly interfered in brothel administration.

The Mangue became Rio’s only “official” (in actuality, extra-official) red light district and would continue to be an important center of lower class prostitution in the city until the 1970s and, in its new guise as Vila Mimosa, up to the present day. Throughout its lifespan, the district was under the direct oversight of the carioca police.

Two major prostitution-related institutions were founded in the neighborhood.  The first was the São Francisco de Assis hospital, which opened its doors in 1922, specializing in the treatment of venereal diseases. The second was the 13th Police Precinct, which attempted to register and maintain records of every prostitute in the city. In the words of anthropologist Soraya Simões:

These measures made the Mangue appear to be the ideal place for situating carioca prostitution, contributing to the definition of the city’s [new] moral spaces and to the hygienist view of the times, as well as to the control of syphilis and the other venereal diseases which haunted the city at the beginning of the 20th century…. The great mobility of the inhabitants of the area was also one of the distinct characteristics which gave it the reputation of being the “natural region” for lower-class prostitution in Rio de Janeiro.


Read on Blanchette and Schettini’s Sex Work in Rio de Janeiro: “More than tolerated – effectively managed” in Part IV: Police as Madams.


Featured image:  Window Prostitution in the Mangue, 1953 (T.V. Tupi)

This 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, and is republished to REDLIGHTR.IO with permission of the authors and the IISH.


—– References

16   Japanese immigration, while important in the context of São Paulo, was never significant in Rio de Janeiro.

17   Eneida Mercadante Sela Modos de ser, modos de ver: viajantes europeus e escravos africanos no Rio de Janeiro (1808-1850) (Campinas, 2008).

18   Luiz Carlos Soares. O Povo de Cam na capital do Brasil: A escravidão urbana do Rio de Janeiro do século XIX Rio de Janeiro, 2007; Carlos Eugênio Líbano Soares, Flávio dos Santos Gomes & Juliana Barreto Farias No labirinto das nações: africanos e identidades no Rio de Janeiro, século XIX  (Rio de Janeiro, 2005).

19   Friederike Strack Mulher da Vida – Frauen des Lebens: Brasiliens Prostituierte im Widerstand gegen Stigmatisierung und Repression (Berlin, 1996) p.66.

20   Run-down houses and tenements that served as living and meeting spaces for the city’s African and African-descended populations and were often centers of African cultural and religious practices. Carlos Eugenio Líbano Soares Zungu: rumor de muitas vozes (Rio de Janeiro, 1998) p.30.

21   Karl von Schelichthorst O Rio de Janeiro como é. (Rio de Janeiro, 1943 [1825]) pp.100-101

22   Jeffrey Needell Belle Époque Tropical: sociedade e cultura de elite no Rio de Janeiro na virada do século (1890-1930) (São Paulo, 1993).

23   Cristiana Schettini, Que Tenha seu Corpo, p.138; Beatriz Kushnir Baile de Máscaras – mulheres judias e prostituição: as polacas e suas associações de ajuda mútua (Rio de Janeiro, 1996).

24   Dom Felicio, Na Zona Contos Rápidos, n.11, (Ilha de Vênus, 1914); Alessandra El Far Páginas de Sensação. Literatura popular e pornográfica no Rio de Janeiro (São Paulo 2004); Cristiana Schettini, Que Tenha seu Corpo, p.231-242.

25   Sueann Caulfield “O nascimento do Mangue”.

26   Orestes Barbosa Bambambã  (Rio de Janeiro 1993[1922]).

27   Marques Rabelo Marafa. (Rio de Janeiro, 2003 [1935]).

28   Barão do Lavradio, Apud  Cristiana Schettini, Que Tenha seu Corpo, p.139

29   Cristiana Schettini Que Tenhas Seu Corpo pp.184-193

30   Ibid, 186-187.

31   L. Edmundo, apud Magali Engel, Meretrizes e doutores. O saber médico e a prostituição na cidade do Rio de Janeiro, 1845-1890 (São Paulo, 1990).

32   Cristiana Schettini Que Tenhas Seu Corpo pp. 29-43.

33   Letter from the Chief of Police to the Secretary of Foreign Relations, 3.01.1913, maço 303/3/6, Archivo Histórico do Itamaraty, Rio de Janeiro.

34   Sueann Caulfield “O nascimento do Mangue”.

35   Note that the expansion of Rio de Janeiro means that both Lapa and was the Mangue are now today considered to be part of the city’s central region. This was not the case in 1920.

36   6C – 751A, 1923, GIFI (Police Papers). Arquivo Nacional, Rio de Janeiro.

37   Ana Paula Silva, “’Cosmopolitanismo tropical’: uma análise preliminar do turismo sexual internacional em São Paulo”. Presented at “Trânsitos Contemporâneos: turismo, migrações, gênero, sexo, afetos e dinheiro”. seminar,  UNICAMP, Campinas, 15-16.12.2010.

38   Cristiana Schettini “Circuitos de trabalho no mercado de diversoes sul americano no começo do século XX” Cadernos AEL, vol. 17, n.29. (2010).

39   T. Blanchette & A.P. Silva “As American girls: migração, sexo e status imperial em 1918”, Horiszontes Antropológicos, vol.15 no.31 (Porto Alegre, 2009) pp.75-99.

40   Paulo Donadio “Tem rei no mar”. Revista de História. 7/7/2008. At Accessed on 1/8/2012.

41   Sueann Caulfield, “O nascimento do Mangue” p.44.

42   Sérgio Carrara Tributo à Venus: A Luta Contra Sífilis no Brasil (Rio de Janeiro, 1996).

43   Soraya Simões “Identidade e política: a prostituição e o reconhecimento de um métier no Brasil” Revista de Antropologia Social dos Alunos do PPGAS-UFSCar, v.2, n.1 (São Carlos, 2010) pp.24-46.



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