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Challenges Of Brazil's Sex Tourism

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“We say that slavery has vanished from European civilization, but this is not true. Slavery still exists, but now it applies only to women and its name is prostitution.”


While the quote above may not be entirely accurate nor particularly contemporary, as prostitution applies to men and children as well, it nevertheless makes an important point: prostitution can be a type of slavery if the circumstances make it so. This is particularly true for target countries of sex tourism, as the demand there is high and there is little drive to make political or social change in the arena. Because the participants in sex tourism are not likely to stay around, the social trend of sex tourism is to meet the demand of foreign tourists with little regard for the implications for the host community, society and country. One case in particular that highlights this point is the sex tourism that skyrocketed during the 2014 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, and is expected to rise during the upcoming Olympics in the same city. Sex tourism has long had a part of the tourist industry in Brazil, but the sporting events of the last several years have ostensibly only served to expand this type of tourism in the city and surrounding areas.

This paper examines this contention within the context of existing academic research on sex tourism in Brazil as a whole, its relevance to sporting events, and particular statistics that show the rise in sex tourism. Because one of the largest issues has been in child sex tourism and slavery, the paper also touches on the importance of following up on this issue in the wake of the two major sporting events that Rio has hosted in the past few years. Following this overview, the paper turns to an examination of what is currently being done about the issue from a law enforcement and policy perspective. Finally, the paper discusses what can be done in the face of this issue, including both what has worked and what policies need to change. While certainly not an exhaustive account of sex tourism as a whole, nor of the ethical issues in tourism that Brazil faces, this paper shows that the city of Rio faces a unique problem in tourism that must be addressed.

Overview of Sex Tourism in Brazil

Rio de Janeiro, one of the largest cities in Brazil, has been called “one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations”, not only because of the urban beaches and bustling music scene, but also because of the sex (Kugel, 2009, n.p.). The country – and Rio specifically – certainly has a reputation around the world as being a go-to spot for sex tourism in the city’s many brothels. As one report states, “Every week specialist holiday operators bring in thousands of European singles on charted flights looking for cheap sex,” and Brazil is now even overtaking Thailand as one of the most popular sex-tourist destinations in the world (Rogers, 2010, n.p.). Not only that, but a report from BBC in 2010 stated that “Young children are supplying an increasing demand from foreign tourists who travel to Brazil for sex holidays” (Rogers, 2010, n.p.). According to the news reports cited above, the demographics are simple enough: tourists from the United States and Europe, along with the occasional Brazilian businessman, are taking advantage of the bustling prostitution industry in the city. This has been the case for years, but it is only in the past few years that the connections to sports-driven prostitution and child prostitution have been made. For instance, some news sources reported that the city was host to over 250,000 children and teens being roped into prostitution and sexually exploited in the months leading up to the World Cup in 2014 (Blanchette & Silva, 2016, 3). Therefore, the connection between sports-driven sex tourism and child prostitution is abundantly clear in the case of Rio de Janeiro.

In this way, this paper is not simply about sex tourism in Brazil. Instead, there are two main issues at play in regards to the overarching topic: how sporting events tend to drive sex tourism, and the role that child prostitution has played in the case of Brazil over the past few years. The discussion in relation to these two topics in particular is relevant to our class because they not only deal with sex tourism, but the ethics of tourism and international travel as a whole. Issues like child prostitution and the sports-driven sex industry tend to get swept under the rung, first because the host country is interested in keeping the tourist industry thriving and, second, because the sending countries do not have any special interest in putting it to a stop. While sex tourism is certainly controversial, and even more so child sex tourism, the more important controversy is that nothing is being done about it. This is why the soccer games and sporting events in Brazil are relevant to this class.

Literature Review

While the subject matter may usually be relegated to dim lighting and side alleys, there is a great deal of existing literature regarding sex tourism as a whole, and even several publications that deal with sex tourism and prostitution in Brazil specifically. First, it is worthwhile to discuss the current body of academic research on sex tourism as a whole. The key to understanding sex tourism is to understand the role it plays in society. As one source from the current class states, “Sex tourism engages liminal people; that is, people occupying space on the edges of society. By simply existing, sex tourism denies and plays with concepts such as monogamy within marriages, reinforces notions of hedonism at its most basic and offers insights into exploitations based on attitudes to females, child labour and homosexuality” (Ryan, 2001, 385). Clearly, sex tourism is not a topic to be taken lightly, as it interacts with many other aspects of society, politics and even culture. On top of this, it is important to understand that sex tourism is not isolated, nor is it uncommon. As the scholar quotes above notes, there is a “strong historical relationship” between “tourism and the sex industry” (Ryan, 2001, 386). Far from being a modern adaptation of the sex industry, sex tourism began nearly at the same time as the concept of a holiday or vacation, in the years following the Industrial Revolution. Today, sex tourism is “a niche market of the global tourism industry” (Chow-White, 2006, 884). The prostitutions and child sex slavery seen in Brazil and more specifically in Rio de Janeiro today is simply a modern iteration of a historical process.

It is also crucial to understand that sex tourism does not always translate into direct, paid-for-service prostitution. Instead, there are several different forms that it can take. Ryan (2001) determines several different ways sex tourism can be identified when placed along a continuum: first, “whether the relationship entered into was one that was voluntary or exploitative. The second was whether it was commercial or non-commercial and the third was whether the relationship confirmed or negated a sense of integrity or self-worth” (388). In this way, sex tourism can take many different forms, as it has in Rio over the past few years. This ideation of sex tourism is confirmed by another scholar, who states that in the heterosexual sex tourism context of Fortalez, Brazil, “notions of sexuality, race, class and gender create a complex discursive framework for sexual encounters crucial to understanding the participation of local women from different social strata” (Piscitelli, 2015, 499). In other words, sex tourism includes both commoditized sex and other types of sexual encounters. This paper deals primarily with the commoditized variety, but it is worthwhile to note that more casual encounters can be of equal concern.

But what does the academic literature have to say specifically about sex tourism in Brazil and in regards to global sporting events? First and foremost, it is important to realize that there is are little empirical and quantitative studies on the topic of sex trafficking in relation to sporting events, as one study notes (Finkel & Finkel, 2015, 17). As the study concludes, “Human trafficking for sexual exploitation is a hidden problem on a global scale in plain view” (Finkel & Finkel, 2015, 17). However, more recent studies have taken up the topic particularly in light of the World Cup and upcoming Olympics in Brazil. One interesting finding is that many of the efforts to “clean up the streets” in Rio leading up to these major sporting events may have had an inverse impact. As Gregory Mitchell (2016) states, “By destroying safe and legal venues for sex work, [neoliberal agents, state forces, and nongovernmental organizations] have created the very exploitation they purport to prevent” (325). In other words, efforts to clean up Rio in the years and months leading up to the World Cup in 2014 and Summer Olympics in 2016 may have only driven the sex industry, and child sexual exploitation in particular, further underground. Another study confirms this, identifying sexual exploitation as one of the negative impacts that the World Cup had on Brazil (Rodriguez et al., 2016, 1). Yet another source backs this contention up, stating that everything indicates that child sexual exploitation does occur in Rio de Janeiro (Blanchette, 2016). In this way, the literature makes it clear that sex tourism in general is an important issue to address in Brazil. Not only that, but the literature also points to the way that major, global sporting events make the issues associated with sex tourism even worse, particularly related to child sexual exploitation. Now that this has been established, the paper can turn to what is currently being done about the issue in relation to these sporting events and child sexual exploitation, as well as what political, developmental, law enforcement and policy-related steps can be taken in the future.

Current Responses

Thankfully, there have been steps taken toward addressing the issue of sex tourism in Rio de Janeiro, particularly as it relates to the large influx of sex tourists around the global sporting events of the past few years and child sexual exploitation specifically. For instance, in Rio de Janeiro and cities like it, cities that host global sporting events, “neoliberal agents, state forces, and nongovernmental organizations use discourses of feminism and human rights – especially unfounded fears about a link between sex trafficking and sports – to enact…changes regardless of the political economic conditions or systems of governance” (Mitchell, 2016, 325). This may appear to be beneficial at first blush, but as noted above these efforts could have the inverse impact that these forces wanted in the first place. More specifically, “In the run-up to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, the Brazilian government engaged in a militarized campaign to clean up favelas, blighted areas, and red-light districts so that it could ‘develop’ them” (Mitchell, 2016, 325). But have these efforts truly been effective in helping to eliminate the issues associated with sex tourism? According to the scholarly article quoted above, it is clear that they have not. As one source states, “Despite more than a decade of government pledges to eradicate child prostitution, the number of child sex workers in Brazil stood at about half a million in 2012” with some brothels advertising “early bird specials” for Olympic athletes in recent weeks (Papenfuss, 2016, n.p.). Clearly, the efforts of the past have not been working. So what can be done instead?

What Can Be Done

To truly eradicate the issues of child sexual exploitation associated with sex tourism in Brazil, particularly around the time of major global sporting events, the topic needs global attention. As of now, there are limited organizations and movements fighting for rights in the context of sex tourism in the country. However, the organizations that run these events, like FIFA and the Olympic Commission, have had nothing to say about the issues that have arisen in the past few years in Brazil. Because of this, one source recommends that the bidding and hosting process for events like the World Cup and the Olympics “needs to not only connect the local context with the wider organizational remit of organizing bodies but should also explicitly focus on children’s rights as a key criterion in the bidding process” because major sporting events organizers “have a role to play in preventing or mitigating violations of rights through nonessentialist, context-specific applications of rights policies for their events” (Rodriguez, et al., 2016, 1). Therefore, while law enforcement and individual advocacy surrounding these issues is certainly crucial for mitigating the rights abuses found in the sex tourism industry, when it comes to the spikes in activity surrounding major sporting events like the Olympics and the World Cup the responsibility to prevent these rights abuses in the first place falls, at least in some measure, to the organizing bodies. Enforcement agents like police and governing bodies certainly have a role to play, but it is clear they will only take adequate action if pressured by organizations and individuals the world over.


This discussion paper has examined the issue of sex tourism in Rio de Janiero, particularly as it relates to the rise in sex tourist activity surrounding major global sporting events and the impact on child sexual exploitation. Overall, this discussion has shown that at least one thing is going well: the increase in sex tourism surrounding the World Cup and the upcoming Olympics has brought attention to this important issue. However, the efforts designed to stop child sexual exploitation around major global sporting events can certainly be improved. More specifically, this paper argues that one of the first steps in stopping the rights abuses associated with these events is to keep the organizing bodies (like FIFA) accountable. In order to do that, the word needs to get out first. How to go about accomplishing that is a question for another time.

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