BRASILIA, Brazil— In preparation for hosting the World Cup, Brazil has been seeking to sanitize its image by cracking down on its sex-related businesses. Authorities have targeted 2,000 websites and are threatening prison sentences for sex workers placing ads in phone booths.
International hand-wringing over the purported boom in exploitation and trafficking of women and children that supposedly occurs around mega-sporting events is helping fuel the crack down. Despite tons of media coverage of this phenomenon, there is zero evidence that it is real. In fact, a 2011 report by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) that studied major sporting events over several years found no such trend, but did find evidence that this rumor often spurs actions that are actually counterproductive to protecting rights and safety of women who work in the sex industry.
One major problem is that this rumor justifies actions by host countries that violate sex workers’ rights and that fail to recognize the critical difference between prostitution, an occupational choice, and sexual exploitation/trafficking, which involves coercion.
Trumped up anti-trafficking efforts surrounding major sporting events can also be used as a more socially acceptable guise for anti-prostitution rhetoric, especially as a host country is under the microscope and eager to put forth a good image. Intense media and law enforcement scrutiny can and has lead to efforts to hurriedly “clean up the streets” by marginalizing, displacing, and incarcerating groups like sex workers, according to GAATW reports.
Brazil has become the latest example of how sensationalist reporting on trafficking and sports events, despite being unfounded, can usher in more repressive prostitution policies. Although prostitution is not illegal for adults in Brazil, during World Cup prep authorities have targeted and removed thousands of sex-business websites and threatened sex workers with prison time for placing ads.
Brazil’s sex workers have been marginalized in other ways as well. Davida, Rio’s oldest sex workers’ rights group, was evicted from its downtown location to make room for a new hotel. Funding for sexual health outreach programs has been slashed. An online campaign by the ministry of health that sought to reduce prejudice and stigma surrounding prostitution, which featured photos of sex workers and positive messages about their career choice, was removed from government websites after criticism from evangelical groups.
Brazilian law currently regards prostitution as a form of sexual exploitation (despite its legality) and it is expected that with increased international attention, a proposal to separate the two, years in the works, will not pass.
Increased marginality can be dangerous for sex workers, as it makes them more susceptible to police violence and corruption, and also prevents them from reporting crimes.
According to Jacinta Rodriguez, who works at a NGO that provides assistance to sex workers, police repeatedly beat sex workers during the Confederations Cup in 2013 to keep them away from tourists. There are concerns that this violence will continue as fans arrive for the World Cup.
As Rio shuts down brothels, sex workers face additional danger because they are forced to work in more isolated areas. UNAids also believes that restrictive prostitution laws can place sex workers at an increased risk for HIV by contributing to the stigma surrounding their work.
Thaddeus Blanchette, who has documented prostitution in Rio since 2004, told the Guardian that he believes the number of genuine trafficking cases in Brazil to be very low.
Actions taken in the name of stopping trafficking that does not exist threaten the human and constitutional rights of sex workers by labeling them as victims, restricting their livelihoods, undermining the legitimacy of sex work as an occupation, and ironically, making their working conditions more dangerous.
Unfortunately, GAATW reports found that uncritical and uninformed anti-trafficking efforts usually hurt those who are legitimately trafficked as well, citing instances of victims being locked in shelters and detention centers in the name of protection, or sent to their home countries without consideration of their continued safety.
The rumor lives on in spite of the facts because of its usefulness as a fundraising tool and as a means of justifying social control, not to mention the number of articles already published centered on this unfounded claim that would make for many embarrassing retractions.
If the international community is truly concerned with protecting human rights, it will acknowledge the ways in which upholding this rumor leads to violations of those rights and put it to bed for good.
For more information and to donate to an anti-trafficking organization that does not infringe on sex workers’ rights, visit www.gaatw.org.