The political history of prostitution in Brazil has been winding. In recent years, the hegemony of discourses on sexual exploitation and trafficking for sexual purposes has led the debate once more to the realm of moral panics. However, a bill proposed by lawmaker Jean Wyllys (PSOL – RJ) intends to resume the discussion in pluralistic and democratic terms, in a human rights perspective that emphasizes non-discrimination, non-violence, decent work conditions and sexual rights. What does the bill, called the Gabriela Leite Law (in honor of the prostitute and activist who founded the NGO Davida), propose in order to regulate sex work?
During the debate “Prostitution and Public Policy”, organized by the State Council on Women’s Rights (RJ) on September 13, the current situation and the effects that the bill could generate in the field of prostitution were discussed. The debate was presented by lawmaker Jean Wyllys; the co-coordinator of Sexuality Policy Watch, Sonia Corrêa; and the Superintendent of Combating Violence against Women of Rio de Janeiro, Adriana Mota.
Gabriela Leite sent a video in which she exposed the recent trajectory of the legal and social situation of prostitution. According to her, it is necessary to consider prostitution as a profession and avoid the cliché of the prostitute as a victim. In the video, Gabriela Leite jokes about the moralism that revolves around prostitution: “It’s better to be shameless than the victim.”
The bill 4.211/2012 defines a sex worker as any person who is at least 18 years old and able to voluntarily provide sexual services for remuneration. It proposes to regulate the houses of prostitution, to prevent exploitation and sets a ceiling of appropriation from income of service. It also establishes a retirement option for prostitutes.
The initiative, Jean Wyllys explained, fits the scope of his list of parliamentary action on human rights. “I understand human rights as social, political, cultural, and environmental rights. These are indivisible rights, among which are the dignity and freedom of the prostitutes in his office” said the deputy.
The bill, said Sonia Correa, is an excellent opportunity to resume the debate that took place in the 1970s, when the demands for citizenship were linked to a more pluralistic perspective. “In the current scenario, unfortunately, abolitionist proposals and speeches that confuse trafficking and prostitution are becoming more popular”.
According to Sonia Corrêa, the debate on prostitution coincides with the formation of the Brazilian nation. In fact, the Brazilian state has never maintained a clear legal position regarding sex work, although the realm of sexuality has been a constant target of government regulations. Biopolitical apparatuses often regulate on the body and sexual practices. In this sense, the figure of the prostitute was in the spotlight of legal, biomedical and police initiatives as a deviation that needed to be disciplined and fought.
Since the nineteenth century, the country has sustained an ambiguous approach: the 1830 Penal Code did not criminalize prostitution, although it did permit a reduced penalty in rape cases against sex workers. That is, the sexual violence committed against a prostitute was considered less severe than a similar act committed against another woman. In 1890, the Penal Code penalized pimping (the activity performed by someone who manages the relationship between prostitute and client). The autonomous and individual activity, however, remained outside of criminal concerns. The “neutrality” of the state on the issue, Sonia Corrêa emphasized, can be interpreted as typically Brazilian in the sense of a normative benevolence that contrasted with the reality of daily abuses perpetrated by state agents.
In the current Penal Code, prostitution is not a crime, but operating a house of prostitution is punishable. “Brazil, in fact, never took a definitive stance. It neither opted for full abolition or for spatial regulation, geographically limiting where the profession is practiced”, said Sonia Corrêa. ” This ambiguity, while the country was developing throughout the twentieth century, stimulated the idea that prostitution is not a crime. The formal policies of the state in this field designed an image of neutrality very early on. In theory only, because in everyday life we know of arbitrariness and abuses that are committed against prostitutes”, she added.
In recent years, despite the pluralistic dynamic that marked the 1970s and 1980s, the issue of prostitution has undergone a shift of meaning, for many reasons: a distorted interpretation of international standards, such as the Palermo Protocol, the influence of dogmatic religions and some feminist positions, according to Sonia Corrêa. The notion of trafficking and sexual exploitation gained ground on the basis of a common assumption that it also encompasses the activity of prostitution. Nowadays, a Congress project, led by religious lawmaker João Campos (PSDB-GO), aims to criminalize both those who offer sexual services as well as the people that purchase those services. The lawmaker justifies the project by saying “it is to prevent prostitution from continuing to foster human trafficking and sexual exploitation. We cannot allow an activity that is scorned by society, through the darkness of organized crime, to encourage the exploitation of girls, boys and women”.
Such a project refers to the laws of Sweden instated in the late 1990s, when clients started to be criminalized, from a logic that always sees women as victims and men as predators, bypassing male prostitution. However, there are other models of legislation such as the one enacted in Germany in 2001, which regulate the activity and promote access to social protection and labor contracts. Accordingly, the houses of prostitution were legalized. A similar law was passed in New Zealand in 2003. In Latin America, sex work is regulated as a profession in Uruguay and Argentina is currently discussing their legalization.
The proposal of Jean Wyllys opens political space for the issue of prostitution in the Brazilian Congress and society, with a radically different tone from the moralistic one that is again prevailing in the public debate. The subject does not make for an easy discussion, recognized Jean Wyllys. “First of all, you need to clearly define what prostitution is. I understand it as an activity performed by a capable adult, no matter the condition or history that led to the occupation. It is important to end the uncertainty of the status of activity, promoting a clear and specific legal protection. Addressing legal uncertainty is a way to protect prostitutes”, says the lawmaker, seeking to unlink the idea of victimization and prostitution. According to the deputy, other important points of the project are the definition of landmarks that distinguish prostitution of exploitation and the decriminalization of brothels.
“The legal ambiguity in which we live affects prostitutes. They are victims of the lack of clarity. Currently, houses of prostitution are considered illegal. And who doesn’t know of a house like this? It is a visible reality. The legalization of brothels will give prostitutes instruments to protect themselves from abuses there. The bill regulates labor relations by establishing guidelines on profit and on income appropriation. To claim/demand more than 50 % of the profits of a sexual service performed by someone else constitutes exploitation. The same goes for serviced compelled by threat or violence”, said Jean Wyllys.
The regulation of these homes, according to the deputy, is also important to combat corruption. “Although illegal, these homes operate under the permission and control of state agents. We know that police officers are often the people who allow the operation. Therefore, the criminalization of these homes is a stimulus to corruption”, argued Jean Wyllys.
Another positive effect of the project is to allow formal bridges with the state, forcing the government to take their services inside. Such homes, opened to inspection for the State, will be a gateway to women’s health policies.
The project has received criticism from conservative sectors that accuse it of being a stimulus of the prostitution of young people. “It’s a lame argument. The young will become prostitutes if they want. When domestic work was regulated, was there an increase in the number of workers in the sector? It is an absurd logic. The bill specifically defines sex work as that provided by a person 18 years or older. So it is a way to protect children and adolescents. The state will have more power to monitor cases of minors who are in prostitution”, said Jean Wyllys.
Even some feminist sectors have criticized the project because they claim that prostitution is a capitalist product. Responding to these criticisms, Jean Wyllys said: “Prostitution existed before capitalism did. There are reports in the Bible and texts of antiquity. Furthermore, we are all exploited, all of our bodies are used to procure capital in different spheres of life, in various professions”.
Sonia Corrêa adds: “In late capitalism, in its neoliberal phase, autonomous work is celebrated as if it was a mark of independence of the individual. In addition, labor is exploitated by all parties, whether in the field, whether in cities. What explains such a privileged focus on prostitution to criticize exploitation?”, she asked. “I think we face an ideology of concealment. The high visibility of sexual exploitation portrayed in moral terms hides the scale and depth of economic exploitation”, added Sonia Corrêa.
On the eve of mega events like the World Cup and the Olympic Games, the bill indicates a concern with the movement of the sex market in the country. “The legal and social marginalization of prostitutes puts them in a situation of fragility as people flow into the country and will certainly look for sexual services. We need to give them support”, said Jean Wyllys, for whom one of the spaces that should encourage discussion in a more pluralistic way is the media. “Unfortunately, the mainstream media does not lean toward discernment. It favors common sense, because with the contingency of time and space the most obvious solution is to simplify complex issues”, concluded Jean Wyllys, who succeeded in negotiating, with the president of the Chamber of Deputies, for the creation of a special committee to discuss the project, taking it out of the hands of the religious bench.
According to Sonia Corrêa, the project’s merit is to renew dialogue in a more democratic perspective. “When we look at other countries, we see that there are more democratic experiences. Unfortunately, Brazil has taken steps backward in recent years, opting for salvationist ideas justified by moral panics. The proposal of Jean Wyllys places the perspective of prostitution in the context of labor rights and sexual rights. Therefore, it is a path to be pursued in these difficult times”, concluded Sonia Corrêa.
Click here to download the book “Writing Invisibility: Conversations on the Hidden City ,” a series of texts that exposes the situation of individuals and marginalized groups , such as prostitutes in urban daily life.