by Vinicius Grünberg
In Recife, the state capital of Pernambuco, in northeastern Brazil, the expansive Atlantic is preceded by an oceanfront boulevard, which on this night was empty save for prostitutes. They stood idly on street corners, beckoning to cabs like the one that drove 25-year-old Drika (name changed upon request) to her client’s apartment building. She is not usually comfortable with the idea of house calls — motels provide more safety against violent clients — but he is reliable. “I’ve known him for a while, and he doesn’t seem like he’ll turn violent. A client’s history is what we can rely on to know him,” she explained, sighing with resignation. Nonetheless, she told José, her cab driver, to park around the corner and wait for her “all clear” text message before he leaves. After being admitted by security, she took the service elevator — according to her, “it is less conspicuous than the main elevator as only maintenance personnel and house maids use it.” This is the first time Drika has come to this luxurious apartment building, but she has known more than one of its affluent inhabitants in bed. All of them, she pointed out, pay her because they are “bored of their lives, lonely, and married. Worst of all is that some don’t even try very hard to hide it from their wives.” Why should they? In the midst of Brazilian society, the truth is that prostitution is an open secret, opposed by few, enjoyed by some, and endured by all.
From Slavery to Service
In Brazil, prostitution — and, more broadly, commoditized sex — is not news. Sex and power have been intertwined since before the country’s independence. During the colonial period, slave girls were forced to have sex with their owners. José Carlos Reinoso, an assistant professor at Centro Universitário Augusto Motta in Rio de Janeiro, related prostitution to the Brazilian slave tradition: “Some slave owners would even open brothels where their female slaves could work as prostitutes,” he said. “Many slave women found that preferable to plantation or housekeeping work mainly because it offered the opportunity to win some tips with which they could buy their freedom.” By the time slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, Reinoso explained, former slave women, homeless and destitute, moved to urban centers and tried to survive as prostitutes in already-established brothels under the protection of “enterprising former slave owners,” who thrived in a context of state negligence and corruption.
In Brazil today, prostitution derives legitimacy from the bulwark of a functioning society: the Constitution. Unlike in the United States, where it is illegal both to sell and procure sexual services, prostitution in Brazil is legal according to paragraph XIII of the First Article, which provides for each individual’s freedom to exercise any job, employment, or activity unless otherwise restricted by law. However, several articles in the penal code stipulate that while a woman may profit from selling her own body, nobody else may: The commercial exploitation of prostitution “through prostitution houses or any other means” is an illicit act that carries criminal charges. Yet because the state lacks both the political will and the financial resources to enforce the law, brothels pervade nearly every Brazilian city. The police and state authorities are keen on denying the public access to official data on prostitution. A simple interview with the a member of the public safety police (the law enforcement body tasked with stopping sexual exploitation) requires formal authorization from the Governor’s cabinet. Such interviews are seldom granted. From the dingy suburban brothels of the country’s interior to the downtown luxury prostitution houses of major cities, the sex trade obeys the demands of the market rather than those of the law.
Men typically become a part of that market at a young age. Traditionally, a teenager would lose his virginity to a prostitute handpicked by his father. André, a 54-year-old driver from the industrial town of Caruaru, described his first sexual experience. “My father took me to his favorite brothel, Dona Odete’s. ‘My boy’s as sturdy as his father,’ he would say to the girls, and after a couple of visits, I began going there on my own, or with friends,” André said. This scenario, now heavily frowned upon as an antiquated, politically incorrect parenting practice, has changed only superficially. Nowadays, the paternal figure has been replaced by that of the peer group, as 15-year-old boys get together to go to brothels or to share the costs of hiring an escort girl and taking her to a motel. Paulo, now 21 years old, reminisces about his fifteenth birthday, when “the guys came by the house and almost forcibly took me to a brothel. In the end it was great: we paid a girl to strip just for our group, and then the five of us lined up to have sex with her, one at a time.”
Now married and a father himself, André has drastically reduced his visits to brothels, out of a “desire not to tear this family apart” and perhaps due to financial constraints as well, since raising a child and maintaining a house is expensive. Nonetheless, he confessed, “Once in a while, I pay a visit. But I would never have a mistress!”
Many wives treat their husbands’ escapades leniently. As one woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, admitted, “I prefer my husband to be fooling around with prostitutes than to be having passionate affairs that will put my marriage in danger.” When young girls watch their male friends head off to the brothels, they laugh it off. High school junior Vanessa Moraes said she finds it “very amusing” to watch the boys hire an entire van to take them to the strip club. “They’ll grow out of it, I guess. It’s just a boy thing.”
Because prostitution is legal in Brazil, the market has both flourished and diversified. Costs for sexual services vary depending on the city, the establishment, and what kind of services a woman performs. A thorough search through online profiles, newspaper ads, brothel “photo-menus,” and street corners reveals the qualities that determine a prostitute’s place on the scale of luxury; the cost of services differs based on a woman’s knowledge of foreign languages, her ability to engage in conversation, her dress, and her work environment. Women who work independently on streets charge around $25 for a programa completo, which includes oral, vaginal, and anal sex. The average brothel prostitute and independent escort charges between
$100 and $200 for a two-hour programa, complete or not, depending on the professional. Finally, at the top of the scale, it costs between $500 and $1,000 (possibly more) for a similar service. In addition to this payment given directly to the prostitute, clients are also responsible for the brothel fee — between $20 and $250, depending on the establishment — required for a client to take the girl to a motel, as well as the cost of a motel room.
Motels are an integral part of Brazilian prostitution, used to host sexual exchanges by couples who have nowhere else to go. Unsurprisingly, prostitution establishments located outside major cities are often close to at least one motel. These establishments are as common to the urban landscape as grocery stores, located in the best parts of town alongside other “more respectable” enterprises such as shopping malls and commercial galleries. Their presence is particularly strengthened by the force and buoyancy of their advertising strategies. Recife’s Lemon Motels are famous in Recife for their billboards featuring sexually suggestive fruits, such as breast-shaped lemons and bananas meant to recall penises that point towards the nearest Lemon establishment. Most programas take place in motels, which are relatively cheap; the best ones have special “erotic” suites that cost $40 for an overnight stay. They are relatively safe, for they are located in the middle of town and, according to both Drika and Monique
Prada, a prostitute and businesswoman from Porto Alegre, have “a tight security system to prevent clients from crossing the limit of the client-escort relationship.” Because many of the men buying sex are married, motels provide at least nominal secrecy. Finally, motels are relatively comfortable, with all of the amenities of a typical American hotel plus erotic additions such as vibrators, pornographic TV channels, hot tubs, and jacuzzis. Drika explained why motels are preferable for prostitutes as well as clients: “the rooms make it easier for me to please him, in the jacuzzi, or watching porn.”
Brazil’s social hierarchy is evident in the types of men that frequent different brothels. In the economic and political hubs of the country, especially Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Brasília, the houses become meeting place for important, oftentimes famous political figures accustomed to luxury and exclusivity. Visiting a luxury brothel in Goiânia, next-door to Brasília, dentist Onildo Campus noted that “everything was extremely expensive: one liter of liqueur Amarula cost $300, and the house fee to take any girl out on a programa was $250 plus the girl’s own fee. A few minutes after I got in, a number of senators, representatives, and elite cattle businessmen arrived. I asked myself, Onildo, what are you doing here?” Campus was attending a professional conference in Goiânia and was openly offered escort services as part of a “conference package” that also included sightseeing and regional meals.
The average Brazilian man may not be able to afford such expensive services, but this does not preclude him from patronizing brothels. Tati drinks, a dingy brothel where a 22-year-old woman named Deysianne works, is supposed to be Caruaru’s finest, according to all of the town’s residents. With a $3 entry fee (which includes a beer), the place is packed by industrial workers, many of whom relax and drink, but few of whom actually purchase services, preferring instead to save their money and take in the atmosphere. Given the scant number of prostitution establishments in the town, many groomed gentlemen from Caruara also attend, though they seldom stay in the brothel, preferring to take the girls to Alphaville, Caruaru’s best motel, located just around the corner. The obvious differences among clientele, intensified by the effects of alcohol, sometimes lead to violent episodes. The brothel has recently seen two major shootings. In one instance, a customer talked Madam Tati into closing the brothel for him and his friends, and was subsequently shot three times on the chest by a ranch worker irritated at being asked to leave.
Unexpected Sex in Unexpected Places
The prevalence of so many forms of prostitution has made commercial sex so commonplace that it has found its way into the country’s workplaces. Carlos Fontes (name altered upon request), a wealthy, sharp-looking, 40-year-old businessman, admitted that he frequently visits brothels while traveling for business. “Whenever there are business trips involving my associates and I, we often procure prostitutes through independent ads or establishments, for at least one of the evenings. It is preferable if a big company invites you to the conference, for they more often than not treat you to escort girls and fine restaurants.” Men of lesser means, such as a store clerk from Recife named Gilson, also manage to mix sex with work. His clothing store is located underneath a massage clinic that doubles as a brothel, which he said, “makes things easy. I can go there every couple of weeks for lunch break when I have some money left.” The prices are distinctively different – Carlos pays on average $200 for a 2-hour programa, while Gilson pays $30 for a half-hour “oral relaxation” (read, oral sex) session.
Among teen boys and grown men alike, prostitution is a part of Brazilian identity. Because it is legal to sell one’s own body, prostitution is not as stigmatized in Brazil as it is elsewhere, despite the fact that much prostitution takes place under the supervision of brothel owners, which is technically illegal. Police, who make little effort to stop illegal prostitution, refuse to speak out about the issue. And so, in dimly lit motel rooms nationwide, a male-centered economy thrives, accepted as a fact of life even by the few who choose not to buy into it.