The World Cup of Prostitution: How the Soccer Tourney Is Affecting Brazil’s Sex Workers

How the massive influx of tourists impacted prostitution, which is technically legal, in the South American country.

Mario Tama/Getty

In 1920, to prepare for King Albert of Belgium’s visit to Rio de Janeiro, local officials engaged in an extralegal campaign to improve the city’s “moral hygiene.” Police rounded up all the lower-class prostitutes, cuffed them, and relocated them to the “Mangue”—or downtown marsh district, thereby forming Rio’s very first red light district. Further cleansing occurred in 1967, when police erected walls around the prostitution zone to shield it from the delicate gaze of Queen Elizabeth II in advance of her state visit the following year.

Before the World Cup kickoff on June 12, an event that was expected to attract over 600,000 tourists and millions of Brazilians—and cost the Brazilian government an estimated $14 billion, making it the priciest Copa to date—the country invested an additional $900 million in security with the hope of making it, as they said, “one of the most protected sports events in history.” In addition to cutting edge helicopters and surveillance equipment, the plan, as it were, was to have one police officer for every 50 people attending soccer matches.

The police crackdown on crime also extended to prostitution in order to, as the district attorney stated, “contribute to changing [Rio’s] soiled image.” Thousands of sex websites were reportedly targeted, and Brazil’s leftist president, Dilma Rousseff, took to Twitter to denounce “sexual tourism” during the World Cup.

Adidas was also forced to remove a line of shirts they were producing in anticipation of the World Cup because they promoted “sexual tourism,” according to the head of the Brazilian Tourism Board Flavio Dino. One of the t-shirts depicted a woman in a bikini accompanied by the words, “Lookin’ to Score.” And last year, an online ad campaign by the Brazilian government’s Ministry of Health that was intended to promote education about sexually transmitted diseases and improve the stigmas associated with prostitution was yanked under pressure from conservative watch groups. It featured photos of prostitutes accompanied by taglines like “I’m happy being a prostitute.” Later, the Brazilian Minister of Health Alexandre Padilha said, “I do not think this is a message the ministry should be sending.”

In Brazil, prostitution is technically legal, but it’s illegal to operate a brothel, or profit from prostitution as a third party (see: pimps). But many sex-selling venues operate out in the open, suffering the occasional showy shuttering—usually for a couple of weeks—before reopening its doors. And, while there are many prostitutes who operate freely, the U.S. State Department estimates that there are around 250,000 child prostitutes in Brazil, and sex trafficking is also a serious problem.

On May 23, police reportedly conducted a raid on sex workers in Niteroi, a Brazilian city across the bay from Rio, with prostitutes claiming that 100 women were “illegally arrested, robbed, and some of them even raped by police,” according to Globo. And on June 12, the opening day of the World Cup, the Brazilian publication also reported a raid on Balcony Bar, a “restaurant” in downtown Copacabana frequented by prostitutes, some of whom are underage. According to The Public Ministry of the State of Rio de Janeiro, “the conduct [of Balcony Bar] reinforces a derogatory image of Brazil, which is viewed internationally as a country that permits sexual tourism.”

There are three basic venues that get frequented by those prowling for sex on the streets of Brazil. A privê is a brothel dressed up to resemble a nightclub, wherein patrons pay between 20-100 reais (the Brazilian dollar, about half the value of a U.S. dollar) for entry, which usually includes a couple of drinks. Women parade in front of visitors, kiss them on the cheek, and greet them with “Fique à vontade” (Make yourself comfortable). A termas is a brothel dressed up as an upscale spa, wherein clients pay a higher fee—around 150 reais—to enter, are outfitted in a robe, and then courted by garotas. Rio’s most notorious termas is Termas Centaurus, the place where pop superstar Justin Bieber was photographed leaving last November. Lastly, there are clinicas—or erotic massage parlors. Sex with a client is referred to as a “program,” and prices vary.

According to Cida Vieira, President of the Association of Prostitutes in the city of Belo Horizonte, one of the host cities of the World Cup and home to the Estadio Mineirao, the estimated 80,000 prostitutes in Belo were offered free English classes to prep for the influx of tourists and better communicate with customers. And because of the high demand, prices increased as well.

“We have increased our prices because in other places and other businesses they've increased their prices, too,” Vieira tells The Daily Beast. “Depending on the area, a night in the club is 1,000 reais ($450), and in a hotel it's 300 reais ($135) for 20 minutes; it's 150 reais ($68) on the street. Those prices will stay the same after the World Cup.”

Despite the higher rates, prostitution has allegedly decreased during the 2014 World Cup. The Observatory of Prostitution, an academic team affiliated with the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, conducted over 2,000 hours of ethnographic research in the principal zones of prostitution in the Rio area (Copacabana Beach, Ipanema Beach, Centro Lapa, and Villa Mimosa), and host cities Fortaleza, Recife, São Paulo, and Brasilia, in order to “monitor the impact World Cup has in areas of prostitution in certain regions of these cities for the presence of foreigners.”

The study reached some interesting conclusions, including that the closures of Balcony Bar and nearby Hotel Lido led to “reported increases in violence and robbery” against prostitutes, since now prostitutes were being forced to bring clients back to their apartments.

“Before I’d only go to Hotel Lido with clients, but wouldn’t take them back to my apartment,” recounted one prostitute. “Lido has a doorman and security cameras in the hallways, and there are a lot of police nearby. Now that we’re taking clients to our apartments a lot more of us are being assaulted and robbed… They take the women to the corner, say that they are going to do the trick in a hotel, and when they get to the corner they assault them.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

The Observatory of Prostitution also claimed that the “sex tourism” decried by President Rousseff and Co. was responsible for a small percentage of cases of “sexual exploitation of children or adolescents.”

“In a report published by the Secretary of Human Rights in 2008, of 6,817 calls reporting the sexual exploitation of children or adolescents reported to Disque 100 from 2003-2007, only 47 (0.7 percent) involved 'sex tourism,' denouncing the involvement of foreign tourists,” said the report. “Considering that Disque 100 registered 67,104 cases of violence against children and adolescents during this same period—of which some 16,500 were cases of sexual violence—the available evidence indicates that Brazilians conduct the large majority of acts of sexual aggression against Brazilian children and adolescents.”

And, while the numbers of sex workers in Rio’s South Zone (including Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches) doubled during the World Cup, prostitution overall has declined, according to the study.

“Among 279 sex venue addresses mapped in the city of Rio de Janeiro before World Cup, only 16 have demonstrated an increase in sex workers and tourists. All of the other points in the city are practically empty, with women complaining about the loss of clients and income during World Cup.”

Vieira, a prostitute herself, is confident that the prostitutes in Belo will see plenty of business during the next big tourism event—the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.

“I am a prostitute and I love what I do,” she says. “The people who came to the World Cup are from countries that played here in Estadio Mineirao. We had to get used to all the cultures of the tourists; I heard that each one had its differences. Now, we're anxiously awaiting the Olympics.”