Child Sex Workers in Brazil—
Just Look Away
by Daphne Carpenter
I was walking back to the bus stop one night in Natal, Brazil when I befriended a hardworking 15-year-old girl. Her name was Rosa and she washed car windows at a busy intersection in Ponta Negra Beach.
She caught my eye the first time I arrived. I was on the bus from the tiny town of Pium, where I had been staying. I looked down and out my window to my left, and there she was with two younger boys. At hyper speed,
they scrubbed grime off car windows, whether they were paid or not.
Rosa was a pretty girl—actually, a timeless beauty with amazing facial features and straight black hair—but the little flower was covered in lifetimes worth of dirt and dust. Her eyes revealed that she had lived a harsh and unkind life. As I went on with my day, I couldn’t get the image of her out of my head.
About a week later, one evening as I was heading home from a training seminar I had been attending, Rosa and I made eye contact near the bus stop. We smiled at each other simultaneously.
Her sweet and desperate-but-in-good-spirits temperament kind of melted my heart. The young woman in me felt for her. I felt compelled to help in some way. I went across the street and bought some food for myself, for her, and for the two boys at a small outdoor restaurant right across from the intersection.
With the bag of food in hand, I walked towards them—into the street and over to the center divider—where Rosa sat while the two boys tended to the last few windshields of the night. When I gave them the food, they were appreciative but not surprised by the generosity. (I was sure I wasn’t the only one feeling compassion for them).
After we ate she asked me what I was doing later. Nothing, I told her. Just going home.
“Vamos por um bar aqui...tem MUITOS gringos!” She was inviting me to a nearby bar where apparently there were a lot of gringos, and her eyes were wide. I stood there for a second thinking, what’s so great about gringos?
It was 10 p.m. and she was closing up shop.
“Vamos tia!” she said, with what seemed like a renewed burst of energy after a long day’s work
(Brazilian youth often refer to adults whom they feel endearingly towards, as “auntie” or “uncle”).
She packed her spray bottle and grey, muddy towels into a torn plastic bag and let her hair down from her ponytail. We crossed the intersection and started to wind our way through some alleys, into a dark shadowy section of back streets that smelled heavily like urine. Five minutes later we were in an area that housed several bars that were frequented by mostly older, white European men.
Welcome to Natal—the child sex tourism capital of Brazil.
I had been in that same little area earlier that day, coincidentally, wandering around after lunch and I noticed the tourists immediately—that is, men (unaccompanied by women) who have a certain propositional, pervy look in their eyes. The cue, I guess, on that street, is the eye contact; they kept looking to catch my gaze in a weird, desperate way. Some of them thought I was working.
If you’re a willing (child) sex worker, you’ll say something like, “You want a program?” which is the code for an hour’s worth of sex.
How and Why It’s Like This?
These children end up on the street for various reasons—poverty, deaths in the family, lack of educational opportunities, marginalization, sexual abuse in the home (often by fathers and step-fathers). Usually very poor and desperate, these kids depend on this kind of work for survival. Many of them support their families by prostituting, and it’s also not uncommon for them to be supporting their own and their mother’s crack-cocaine habits. On average, the youngsters charge about five dollars for an hour of sex. Although prostitution isn’t criminalized in Brazil, pimping and bringing minors to a location (like a hotel) to have sex with them, is.
Natal was the first place in Brazil where I actually saw pamphlets and posters splattered across the city, warning against the consequences of crimes related to (child) sex tourism. In fact, the city was the first in Brazil to establish a committee to deal with it and they came up with a constitution: Chapter I, Article I was written “to guide and to regulate the ethical behavior of companies, people, and services directly or indirectly tied with the [industry of the child sexual exploitation],” which means that local governments are now working to bring the hotel staff, taxi drivers, brothel owners, pimps, sex tourists, and anyone else contributing the sexual exploitation of children to justice.
Diana is an aging prostitute in her late forties. She runs ASPORON, an association for commercial sex workers (based out of Natal). “Prostitution isn’t a crime,” she says laughing. “Well, for me, everything you have to go through to survive is a crime. It’s all a crime for me. Life is a crime. The establishment, the lack of opportunities, all of that is a crime.”
Sex tourism is a widespread global phenomenon, but in Brazil, social inequality and the low status afforded to women contributes to its high visibility.
The 2006 film, “Anjos do Sol,” directed by Rudi Lagemann, depicts a true to life story about how some girls become entangled in this lifestyle. The story follows 12-year-old Maria on a frightening journey as a sex slave: Her family sells her to a recruiter of prostitutes, to be bought in an auction of virgin girls. Then she’s sent to work in a brothel in the Amazonian forest, where, day and night, countless mineworkers and loggers line up outside her door for sex. She’s worked exhaustedly like an animal, then finally, after months of abuse, Maria escapes and makes her way to Rio de Janeiro through a grueling series of truck rides—only to encounter prostitution again on the harsh streets of Rio. This story speaks for a large percentage of girls who are trafficked around in Brazil’s sex industry. The sex slaves often have no control over their money they make, and are mistreated and kept against their will to work as prostitutes in port cities and in tourist epicenters.
The sex tourist goes to Northeast Brazil looking for cheap sex—often with children, adolescent girls, and also often with boys. According to the Observer of London, after Thailand, Brazil is the number one destination of choice for sex tourists. And internationally speaking, the “mulata” is perceived as exotic and easily exploitable by white (and other) men.
Although Brazilian society doesn’t approve of sex tourism, it seems like a lot of people pretend not to see it. And, like it or not, it’s almost woven into the surrounding scenery. In some areas it’s so ubiquitous that the easiest thing you can do to not “feel” is to ignore it.
As is the case in areas with inferior educational systems, Brazil’s years of economic recession have helped weave this web of child sex workers. And the taboo surrounding prostitution and adolescent sex only makes the situation worse; girls are often thrown out of the house for losing their virginity.
In her article, “Child Prostitution on the Rise in Brazil,” for the International Child Research Institute (ICRI), Selma B. de Oliveira writes, “It is important to note that social mores and the discomfort that adults have towards adolescent sexuality limits the kind of information and services offered to young women. This is an impediment to efforts that could prevent early pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among girls.”
In her research, Oliveira spent time working with prostitutes at Casa de Passagem (Passage House), a home and educational center in Recife, Pernambuco. She worked under the tutelage of founder Ana Vasconcelos.
“In my country,” says Vasconcelos, “the minimum wage is around eighty dollars a month [the article is from 1995]. Sometimes a woman can get two hundred dollars with a man that comes on a cruise ship. You have to pay rent. You have kids. You help your mother. How can you quit prostitution when you have much more money, and then survive on minimum wage? Most of these children barely know how to read and write.”
She also states how, in the government’s campaign to combat AIDS, they warn against the dangers of the disease yet don’t distribute condoms. Condoms are “expensive luxuries for those who are going hungry,” she says.
This reminds me of a short conversation I had with a young sex worker near Lapa in Rio de Janeiro in 2008. She told me that men are willing to pay “more” if they don’t have to use a condom. The girl was 13 years old.
In his book, “Girls of the Night,” journalist Gilberto Dimenstein states, “Poverty makes promiscuity look normal. Scenes such as the selling of daughters by their mothers and needle abortions stop provoking shock and indignation. They become part of day-to-day life.”
Not all the girls work with their mother, however—especially the older ones. They work alone or with a pimp. Already a seasoned veteran at the age of 15, and seen as a grown woman in the world of child prostitution, my friend Rosa in Natal worked for herself—no pimp, no family. Was she addicted to crack like a lot of the prostitutes are? She didn’t say. She didn’t want to talk about it.
“I’ve been on the streets since I was 9 and I know how to take care of myself,” she said straightforwardly, as we sat in one of the dimly lit bars that night, sipping some kind of carbonated orange beverage while she waited for a client. “And I don’t have AIDS, thank God,” she added.
A few men approached her and would whisper something into her ear. I could tell she wasn’t willing just to take the first offer. She’d look them up and down and right in the eyes, feeling them out, as if waiting for her intuition to step in and tell her whether to accept or deny the solicitation. “They’re not all good,” she said, after turning away a stalky French man in his forties. “Some of them like to do things that hurt. And I’m not that desperate. I work 10-12 hours a day cleaning windows, and that [little] money really helps out.”
Rosa was friendly and charismatic, but you could tell that she’s witnessed and endured strong violence on the streets of Ponta Negra beach (where, outside the red-light district, long stretches of paradisiacal beaches might deceive the ordinary traveler or tourist).
The scar on the left side of her forehead was the result of a drunk Brazilian man who only wanted anal sex. Rosa had a stomach ache and told him, “No, only vaginal.” The man became aggressive and began to slam her head into the wall, until the hotel receptionist came in and stopped it. “He could have killed me, but I don’t think God would let that happen to me.”
Help groups and even non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) that support sex workers in Brazil are becoming more visible. Davida, based in Rio de Janeiro, is an NGO that promotes the civil rights and health of prostitutes. (The group even has its own fashion line, Daspu.)
According to their mission statement, Davida hopes to “acquire the best conditions of work and quality of life for sex professionals” as well as “denounce and confront the stigma, prejudice and discrimination against sex professionals,” while also reducing their vulnerabilities.
In an industry that doesn’t appear to be diminishing any time soon (it is often called the “oldest profession”), support groups created for sex workers, often by sex workers, are often the few places that provide necessary educational tools needed to help limit the proliferation of sexual disease and abuse.
Most of the girls in this situation have similar dreams; they’ll find a wealthy gringo who will fall in love with them and take them away from “this life.” But the stark reality is, these sexually exploited children are just that—exploited.
Recent efforts to eradicate (or more, limit) sex tourism in Natal, on behalf of the local government, are encouraging. And the mayor has set up a confidential hotline that people can call if they notice a tourist acting suspiciously with children. But with an estimated 500,000 child sex workers in Brazil, the South American country known for its beautiful people, endless tropical beaches, samba and street culture, has a long way to go to improve the social infrastructure which often keeps these children enslaved.