Ana Paula da Silva, Thaddeus Blanchette 3

The Myth of Maria

What is the profile of a Brazilian sex trafficking victim?

Brazilian anthropologists Ana Paula da SilvaThaddeus Blanchette and Andressa Raylane Bento explain how the common face of Brazilian sex trafficking is not at all representative – and why that’s a problem for Brazilian women of color –  in Cinderella Deceived: Analyzing a Brazilian Myth Regarding Trafficking in Persons, excerpted here on Red Light Rio:


Who is Maria?

The Myth of Maria came into being as an exemplary tale promoted by moral entrepreneurs. It preceded formal research into trafficking phenomena in Brazil, informed certain studies to such a degree that it undermined their scientific worth and soldiers on today, long after many of its main precepts have been problematized by ethnographers.

It has now become the central narrative for journalists, NGOs and politicians who seek to communicate to the Brazilian public a sense of urgency regarding trafficking in persons.

The myth has also become central to the confection of material designed to educate the Brazilian public regarding trafficking, as we can see in the pamphlets produced in Rio de Janeiro by Projeto TRAMA and the story produced by the Bahian NGO CHAME:

Screen shot 2014-03-10 at 12.09.46 PM


Finally, the Myth of Maria has now literally gone “prime time”, becoming the central drama in Globo Network’s late 2012 telenovela, Salve Jorge, where the main character is recruited to work overseas in the service industry, only to find herself being auctioned off as a sex slave in Turkey.

In its most basic form, the Myth of Maria recounts the story of a young, innocent Brazilian woman (almost always black or brown and always poor) who is recruited by an unscrupulous fraud (generally a white, blond, blue-eyed foreigner) for overseas work (usually as a maid or dancer).

When she arrives at her destination, Maria is forced to work as a prostitute and can find no way out of her desperate situation. If the story has a happy ending, it usually involves Maria being saved by the police and “repatriated” back to Brazil.

The story is “exemplary” in two senses. First, it is presented as a typical example of certain Brazilian women’s experiences with overseas migration. Secondly, it is meant to impart a lesson to potential Marias: it is better for them to stay in Brazil than face the dangers of migration….

By leaving home in search of a better future, Maria is transformed in one single tumble from poor-but-honest family girl to enslaved and brutalized prostitute.

A last – and extremely relevant – characteristic of the Myth of Maria can be found in the operators it most commonly employs to discuss the hopes and dreams of the women it situates as victims. These are frequently couched in the language of fairy tales. …

The belief that women labeled as trafficking victims make their decisions to migrate based on fairy tales, in which they see themselves as Cinderellas being courted by handsome princes (in reality viscous pimps) serves a dual purpose.

In the first place, it infantilizes and trivializes these women and calls into question their ability to make rational decisions in their own best interests. Children, of course, believe fairy tales and a woman who sees herself as Cinderella is dangerously infantile and in need of sober guidance.

But the second, more subtle meaning of “fairy tale” language is that it reassures those who recount and listen to the myth that Brazil’s legions of poor black and brown Marias are not Cinderellas, that their proper place is not at the European ball but back home, sweeping out the chimney. It is only through hard and constant work, in Brazil, that socio-economic mobility is possible for them.

Although this myth purports to warn us about trafficking, what it really is discussing, then, is the “proper” place of poor, non-white Brazilian women in the world. These women should be at home, laboring in hard and unrewarding jobs to slowly improve their family’s lot. For them to attempt to change their situation through migration is for them to risk complete declassification as a citizen and a woman.


Who’s Met Maria?

It has been difficult to find confirmed cases of trafficking in persons in Brazil which parallel the Myth of Maria. This, paradoxically, has seemed to increase the Myth’s acceptance as a “typical” report of trafficking.

An incident which took place in November, 2012 during a discussion between federal anti-trafficking investigators and members of several NGOs engaged in combating trafficking in the state of Rio de Janeiro demonstrates the story’s durability as a guiding narrative. Although this is one particular case, it is illustrative of a type of conversation that we’ve often had in our interactions with government officials and members of the anti-trafficking movement over the past several years.

During the meeting, we related the results of our research among migrant prostitutes in Rio de Janeiro, pointing out that while many of our informants reported encountering human rights violations in Europe, these were mostly at the hands of police and immigration authorities.

Furthermore, we reported that our informants claimed that fraud and coercion were generally not used in recruiting Brazilian women for sex work in Europe and that everyone we had talked to said they had migrated of their own free will and likewise freely worked as prostitutes.

At this point, a young woman from one of the most important and long-standing Carioca [Rio] anti-trafficking organizations spoke up. The NGO that she works for has been central to the formulation of anti-trafficking educational campaigns in Rio de Janeiro for over 8 years and has been collecting and collating information regarding accusations of trafficking in the state during that period. The organization also makes abundant use of the Myth of Maria in the educational material it produces.

“Maybe the reason you’re not finding women who’ve been forced or tricked into prostitution is due to the fact that you’ve been working with prostitutes,” the intern said.

“Our organization works mostly with non-prostitutes, so that’s why we find all these cases of women who’ve been lied to and tricked or forced into prostitution overseas.”

“That could very well be the case,” we replied. “We are certainly open to that possibility. How many cases of women, tricked or forced into prostitution overseas has your organization discovered?”

The young woman admitted that she had been working with the NGO for a year or so and that the only trafficking case that she personally knew of involved a Guatemalan man who’d been tricked into coming to Rio for forced labor in the civil construction industry.

She then passed the question on to her predecessor, who had worked for the NGO for most of the prior decade before leaving to take up a government position. This woman detailed the many educational campaigns and other activities the organization had developed during the last decade, but did not answer our question.

So we put it to her again:

“But during this period, how many cases of women tricked or forced into overseas prostitution did you discover?”

“There was one case involving two women six or seven years ago…” the civil servant said, hesitating and nodding at the NGO’s current president and indicating that he take up the story. This gentlemen couldn’t remember the incident.

After a back-and-forth that lasted five minutes, it was revealed that the only case anyone present could remember that approximated the story laid out in the Myth of Maria involved two women who had migrated to Spain, worked as dancers and later voluntarily decided to work as prostitutes because the money was better, only to become frightened by the possibility of coercion, returning to Brazil.

We pointed out that this was only one incident, not “many” and that while the women might indeed have encountered sexual exploitation, they weren’t tricked or coerced into prostitution and hadn’t migrated in function of it. It was thus problematic to classify it as “trafficking”, according to the Palermo Protocol.

“Yes,” the intern replied. “But just because we don’t have any cases like this [the story related in the Myth of Maria] doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

“But by contrast,” we pointed out, “we have found a half dozen cases of Brazilian sex workers who have gone overseas, were arrested by European police, labeled as trafficking victims, deported back to Brazil and who report that they were never enslaved, coerced, or forced into anything, other than leaving Europe against their will.

“We’ve also found dozens of cases of Brazilian sex workers who’ve voluntarily gone to Europe, encountered difficulties and even exploitation, but were unable to report these to the authorities because they knew they’d be immediately arrested and deported as irregular, sex-working immigrants.

“How is it that these stories, which are quite common among prostitutes in Rio and easy to document, have become of secondary importance when compared to a story, which is used in all of your organization’s literature, and for which we have a hard time finding a documented example?”

No one in the room was able to answer our question.

This, then, illustrates the real damage caused by the Myth of Maria: by focusing attention on “innocent women, tricked into sexual slavery”, it pushes the needs, demands and experiences of sex-workers and migrants into the background.



Many of our informants in NGOs have repeatedly told us that while there is little to no money available for work on women’s rights, the rights of immigrants or prostitutes’ rights, anti-trafficking projects are being relatively lavishly funded, nationally and internationally.

Money and resources are being spent to combat the (often fictional) villains reported by the myth and to aid (likewise often fictional) victims while the demands of real migrants and sex workers are ignored. Instead of seeing migrants caught up in situations classified as trafficking as actors with projects, goals and desires, the Myth of Maria promotes a view of these people as passive objects, fooled into migration through their own ignorance and ridiculous dreams.

Money which could thus be spent on enabling migrants to achieve their human rights, or organizing sex workers so that they might have a meaningful role in defining the laws which are applied to them, is instead being directed to educational campaigns which seek to “teach these people that they are victims”.

This last phrase is commonly employed by government officials and members of anti-trafficking NGOs in Brazil when discussing the goals of trafficking prevention campaigns. It sums up, in a nutshell, what is wrong with the Myth of Maria: it promulgates a view that migrants and sex workers are not holders of rights, but unconscious enablers of their own victimization. Such people are not to be listened to, but talked at.

It should be noted here that representatives of the Federal Police (and other Brazilian police forces) have repeatedly told us that, whatever the national anti-trafficking plan might say, their only legal mandate to fight trafficking is Article 231 of the Penal Code, which, as we’ve discussed above, defines trafficking solely and simply as the migration of prostitutes.

This means that for Brazilian women perceived to be sex workers, the borders of Europe and the United States have now shifted to the exit lines of Brazil’s airports, with Brazil’s federal police acting as auxil- iaries for foreign immigration authorities.

On a more local level, many state and municipal police forces are now using the argument of “repressing sexual exploitation” to close down sexual commercial venues in large numbers, particularly in those cities which will be housing the 2014 World’s Cup and 2016 Olympic Games.

Once again, the search for innocence betrayed, as in the trafficking panic of the early 20th century, is overriding the basic considerations of habeas corpus. As one of the São Paulo Municipal Police’s principal anti-trafficking inspectors put it to us in 2010:

“I know that most prostitutes are not trafficking victims. In order to find the ones that are, however, I have to arrest all of the prostitutes”.

We then asked what in Brazilian jurisprudence permitted him to arrest all members of a legal profession based on the presumptive participation of some of its members in a crime?

“Constitutionally, I have no right at all to do this,” he said, a small smile flashing briefly over his face. “But in the day-to-day functioning of the law, however, it’s entirely possible. And necessary.”

Would it be likewise necessary to arrest all members of the São Paulo municipal police in order effectively get to the members of that force which were criminals and corrupt, we asked?

“That would be going too far,” the policeman said, laughing. “We’re needed to keep order. Especially with the World’s Cup coming up”.


A Missed Opportunity

As the first decade of the second great global anti-trafficking campaign comes to a close, it’s difficult not to ask what could have happened if Brazil had taken the road less travelled and had used the interest generated in trafficking to invite migrant and sex worker groups to actively to engage in the construction of the national policies concerning them.

As retired prostitute Gabriela Leite, head of the Davida Prostitutes’ Rights group and ex-president of the Brazilian Prostitutes’ Network remarked to us:

In spite of the fact that the Brazilian prostitutes’ movement has been fighting against the enslavement of sex workers for over thirty years, we were never contacted during the course of the construction of the National Anti-Trafficking Policy and we have rarely been invited to contribute to Brazil’s Anti-Trafficking Plans.

What is worse, certain people who are heavily involved in promoting the anti-trafficking campaign have gone on record claiming that they were the ones who first educated us about trafficking! As if we’ve never talked about the enslavement, battery and murder of prostitutes!

If those people had studied the history of prostitution in Brazil, they would be aware of why the prostitutes’ movement does not like to talk about “trafficking”: Article 231 of the Penal Code has been used to arrest our friends, husbands and relatives since its inception in 1940. We want to talk about prostitutes’ rights, not about prostitutes as victims! This has been a political decision and not a mark of our ignorance.

We could have been – and still could be – important strategic partners in the fight against sexual exploitation, but we only will work with a government policy that will guarantee the human and constitutional rights of prostitutes, first and foremost. And that means the rights of prostitutes to work, migrate and enjoy the benefits of their labors, like any other worker.

Interview with Gabriela Leite, 5.12.2012


READ ON about  how Brazil defines and punishes sex trafficking, from da Silva et al’s paper. (link)


This post is excerpted from Cinderella Deceived: Analyzing a Brazilian Myth Regarding Trafficking in Persons, by Ana Paula da Silva, Thaddeus Blanchette and Andressa Raylane Bento. Download the pdf at (link)


Featured images are of anti-trafficking poster produced by the Brazilian federal government. Caption (L): “If someone offers you their house, food and clean clothes abroad, don’t believe them.” Caption (R): “First they take your passport, then they take your liberty.”

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