Third Session – Sexuality and Economics: visibilities and invisibilities
Morning – August 25, 2009
The overview paper, Prostitution as economic activity in urban Brazil, was written by Ana Paula Silva, professor at the Centro Universitário Augusto Motta (UNISUAM), in Rio de Janeiro, and Thaddeus Blanchette, professor at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) e also at UNISUAM. The session was coordinated by Gabriela Leite, director of Davida – Prostituição, Direitos Civis, Saúde, from Rio de Janeiro, and comments were given by Corina Rodríguez, economist and researcher at the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Cientificas y Tecnicas (Coincet) and at the Centro Interdisciplinar para el Estúdio de Políticas Públicas (Ciepp) in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Gabriela Leite started the session by observing that thinking about the economics of prostitution requires going beyond financial aspects, which she views as something that cannot be fully analyzed without addressing what she defines as the “economics of desire.” Gabriela also underlined that there is much to be learned from prostitutes, however, it is important to detach one from the stereotyped visions that prevail around prostitution in order for this to happen.
Silva began by explaining that her presentation is the preliminary result from recently performed research, which unfolded from a previous study about sexual tourism in a famous site in Copacabana beach. This first study indicated that it was vital to expand the analysis about prostitution as economic activity in urban Brazil and to examine more closely sexual markets in Rio and their determinants. The data to be presented was collected in an anthropological study about prostitution sites, prostitutes and their clients in Rio de Janeiro. Presently the research is to being extended to other cities.
She also recalled that historically prostitution is perceived in Brazil as a quasi-criminal phenomenon and when not it is seen as a public order issue:
“[Whose]. Analysis, managing and (occasional) repression are under the responsibilities of State authorities, which are usually located in two main policy/ scientific domains: the juridical field (law enforcement, the judiciary and criminology) and the biomedical realm, in particular public health. The main concern or objective of these sate agents is to contain the supposed contamination of ‘vice’ that would be implied in commercial sex as to avoid the infection of families.”
On the one hand, a secularized vision about the “problem of prostitution” has been and remains permeated by conceptions of sex workers as agents of vice, but also vulnerable and enslaved women. On the other hand, religious discourses, especially in their dogmatic versions, describe prostitutes as sinners who must be saved before being forgiven. The common trait between these two moral visions about prostitution is that both deny the decision of a person who decides to engage with prostitution may be simply for economic reasons. In contrast, the empirical data collected by this research reveals that almost all of the women who opted for prostitution did so because it is work that pays better than any of the other options they found in the labor market. As one of the interviewees explained,“It’s money, honey. All is money. Where do you have your brains?”
Silva and Blanchette consider prostitution in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo to be a “normative” model because the region concentrates roughly 30 percent of the Brazilian population. This constitutes a historical attraction pole of internal migration. What happens in these two cities reflects what happens in other places of the country. Their research findings also indicate that Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo attract sex workers from all over the country. The clients interviewed extensively mentioned these cities and described them as having the best sexual markets, even when the media and the general public perceive the Northeast of Brazil as the main site for sex tourism today.
Silva also emphasized that to analyze prostitution as an economic activity, it is necessary to also examine the full landscape of the Brazilian urban labor market through a gender lens. For example, when considering the three indicators that compose the Human Development Index (HDI) – life education, life expectancy and income – there is parity or even a relative advantage in the case of the first two variables. However, a wide gender gap still persists in relation to income. Today, while women are 45 percent of the total labor force, on average their wages are 30 percent lower than males’ labor income. Moreover, working women remain concentrated in the low paid service sector, in particular paid domestic work, which comprises roughly 19 percent of the female labor force. Lastly, given that a sharp sexual division of labor is still exists, women continue to be mainly responsible for the domestic work at home and because of this they work less hours per week and prefer to engage with more flexible work schemes.
“Prostitution offers equivalent or even better working conditions and always pays higher salary than what can be earned in the occupational ghettos where the larger percentage of women are engaged. Payment is higher, timeframes are more flexible and labor rights violations are not much worse than what the interviewees experienced in other urban labor occupations.”
Although a significant proportion of prostitutes declared in the survey that prostitution is not pleasant or ideal work, they also said they remain in the activity because of economic gains that, in many cases, has allowed them greater social and economic mobility than other labor options they could have engaged with (such as a supermarket cashier, for example). Prostitution pays higher fees and provides for much more flexibility in terms of working time schedules. There were some cases of women that have left behind relatively high status and well paid professions, such as in the real state market, to work as prostitutes. The authors also observed that marriage is not considered a way out of prostitution. The personal histories collected reveal that many married women prostitute themselves to complement the family income.
The women in this research did describe the unfavorable conditions they face in prostitution, as it is can be a rather exhausting activity and implies real risks and insalubrities. Existing legislation in Brazil is contradictory – it does not criminalize women but criminalizes the exploitation of prostitution, therefore, making it difficult to move towards a regulation that could eventually create better working conditions. The authors also described situations of exploitation and violence exerted by pimps or bar and sauna owners, which is never cohabited exactly because the profession is not recognized as work that must be protected by rights.
“…While pimp control, as a brutal and exploitative attitude, does not seem to be structurally significant in the configuration of urban prostitution as an economic activity (particularly in Rio de Janeiro), there are actors or agents who exploit prostitutes, in the Marxist sense of the word, through the exploitation of the outcome of their work. But the total de-regulation of sex work implies that it is not possible for prostitutes to effectively organize to keep the behavior of these agents within acceptable limits.”
In the geography of sex work in Rio de Janeiro, Silva and Blanchette presented a preliminary map of the market of female sexual services in the city. In drawing the map they have questioned the hierarchy that has been consecrated in Brazilin social sciences in respect to low, medium and high prostitution. They remarked that this classification establishes a scale that is both economic and moral to qualify sex work:
“First, nothing proves that cheaper prostitution is inherently more violent, degrading or promiscuous as it is argued by Dantas. Secondly there is not automatic correlation between the types of sex work, prices paid, types of clients and profile of women engaged”.
The map identified 304 “prostitution sites” that the authors classified: closed sites, which are practically invisible places or have connections with their surroundings such as dancing places, saunas, massage parlors and the so called privés (private houses or apartments); open sites such as street walking, open bars and restaurants or beaches; and mixed sites that may combine open and closed areas. Their research also details the types of services offered as well as modalities of contract and payment in the different sites. The main objective of the research, as stated by the authors, is to deconstruct prejudices and suppositions in respect to the market of sex in Brazil and to stimulate similar research to be performed in other regions of the country.
:: COMMENTS ::
In her reflections, Corina Rodríguez remarked that sexuality and economics are still exploratory and preliminary. She agreed with the proposition made in the paper that prostitution is to be considered an economic activity and that it must be placed within the broader context of female labor participation in Brazil. However, she interrogated the extensive use of the notion of choice or preference in the paper having as her main reference the critique developed by feminist economists in respect to the core concept of rational choice as it is deployed by mainstream economics. The feminist critique of rational choice is grounded in the understanding that all preferences are contaminated by the individual position within social hierarchies and by the effects of the wider capitalist logic and persisting rules of male domination or at least the various forms of sexual division of labor.
She also remarked that by equalizing work in prostitution with any other type of work, the analysis tends to make traits of sex work invisible. She explains that sex work is very different from features found in other types of work, such as the high level of stigmatization, social marginalization, greater vulnerability to the state and personal violence as well as sexually transmitted diseases, or other specific forms of exploitation. These limitations in terms of working conditions should be also taken into account to balance the listed positive elements of prostitution as work: higher levels of income and greater autonomy and time flexibility. Additionally, because of nature of the activity, sex workers are not able to access public policies or labor rights that, at least formally, are entitlements of other female workers.
Lastly, Rodríguez listed a number of dimensions that she believes should be also be a part of the analysis about the economics of prostitution. First, she suggested that the study should be situated in other places around the country because the sex market may assume rather distinctive configurations than those observed in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Second, she considered it critical to at least estimate what is the contribution of the sex market to the overall economy of Rio and Brazil and to examine the synergy at play with other sectors, such as tourism. She also proposed that it would be useful to more closely examine state policies in regard to prostitution to verify if they are restricted to illegalities or if any of them include aspects related to economic regulation. Finally, Rodríguez emphasized that in this particular field of research and debate it is crucial to always critically look at the intersections between the politics of recognition and the politics of redistribution.