by Observatório da Prostituição
The on-going political conservative trends that has brought us the Brazilian “soft coup”, BREXIT and the candidacy of Donald Trump has also resulted in an increase in reactionary politics across the political spectrum, even among “radicals” and “progressives”. In Brazil, this has been recently manifest in attacks against prostitute and trans- leaders by self-styled “radfems” under the diffuse leadership of local left-leaning politicians, inaugurating a new and worrying phase in feminist politics in our country.
Unlike American feminism, Brazilian feminism did not pass through the so-called “sex wars” of the 1980s, which pitted “pro-sex” and queer-supportive feminisms against anti-pornography, pro-censorship feminisms. Instead, Brazilian feminists spent that decade pressing for the return of democratic rule to the country and engaging in struggles over abortion and the reform of Brazil’s notoriously sexist criminal code (which, among other things, permitted the murder of women over “questions of honor”), while at the same time they have opened public debates on female sexuality, including in regard to the right to sexual pleasure. It is therefore ironic that precisely in this current conjuncture, with Brazilian democracy under grave threat from far right and evangelical Christian political movements, that something approximating what anthropologist Kristen Bumiller calls “carceral feminism” is manifesting itself in the country.
The current wave of attacks center around discussions organized by trans and prostitutes’ rights activists regarding Bill 4.211/12 the Gabriela Leite Law. Named in honor of the late president of the Brazilian Prostitutes’ Network, the Bill seeks to regulate sex work, moving it from the field of criminal law to that of labor law. Debates surrounding the Bill and the policing of sex work have filled most of the prostitutes’ rights movement’s agenda over the last three years. Although support for the proposal is far from consensual within the movement, organized sex workers have become increasingly alarmed in Brazil (as in other places around the world) by a wave of police violence and repression against sex workers that has been motivated by on-going global panics over trafficking in persons and the sexual exploitation of children. This problem has been particularly salient in Rio de Janeiro over the last few years as the city prepared for two back-to-back mega-sporting events (the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games) by cracking down – often violently – on prostitution. In the month before the World’s Cup, for example, illegal police operations in Rio resulted in the arrests of over 100 sex workers, complete with allegations of beatings, rape and robbery.
In order to discuss these issues and to prepare for a renewed wave of State repression prior to the Olympic Games, last June, the Rio de Janeiro Slut March (Marcha das Vadias) organized a debate between feminist, trans and prostitute rights’ activists at Casa Nem, a trans-run squat in the Lapa District of Rio de Janeiro. The organizers quickly ran into unexpected problems, however.
Immediately upon the announcement of the debate, self-styled “radfems” began attacking it as supporting sexual tourism. Eloisa Samy Santiago, a local feminist lawyer, who recently gained a certain amount of national fame for supporting the victim of the collective rape that became a major topic in the national and international press in May (see the SPW report) led the attack by calling on her Facebook feed for the denunciation and imprisonment of the sex worker activists taking part in the debate. Citing Article 287 of the Brazilian Penal Code, Samy Santiago insinuated that the sex worker activists and their supporters were “pimps and exploiters”, encouraging her followers to denounce them to the Federal Police for defending the “crime” of sexual tourism”. Following this, radfem activists demanded that Tati Sattin, a “prostitution survivor”, be included in the panel discussion. As her participation was vetoed by Casa Nem, however, after Sattin subjected the debate’s hosts to a barrage of transphobic insults (see SPW compilation on the polemic in Portuguese).
Following this, the Slut March withdrew their invite to the debate’s “radfem” members, who subsequently organized their own table, elsewhere. Both debates went off without further confrontations, but in the following week, Samy Santiago claimed in an interview for a national publication that Prostitution Observatory researcher Dr. Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette (who had been quite active in the Facebook debate surrounding the event at Casa Nem) was a pimp. A week later, at a follow-up debate between herself Sattin, Slut March Organizer Heloisa Melino and Dr. Ana Paula da Silva, Dr. Silva – also a Prostitution Observatory researcher and Dr. Blanchette’s partner – was verbally attacked and physically intimidated by João Marcelo Rocha Barbosa the husband of “radfem” leader Eugenia Rodrigues.
Meanwhile, the prostitute and trans leaders who had participated in the Casa Nem event found their Facebook pages under constant assault by “radfems” who denounced them, en masse, taking them off the air for several days. This was particularly problematic for some of the trans leaders who could not quickly reactivate their pages, given Facebook’s policy that they “prove” their social identities with legitimate ID (which many trans people do not have). Given that many of the trans leaders are also sex workers, who use their Facebook pages to maintain contact with their social networks as a security measure in a country that is notoriously violent and transphobic, this “operation” by radfems resulted in exposing these women to significant risks.
After these virulent episodes, trans leaders from Rio de Janeiro met with leaders of Samy Santiago’s political party, the PSOL, to request her to be removed from her candidacy for Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman in the upcoming October elections. The PSOL acquiesced to this request, removing Santiago and 10 male leaders for transphobia and other issues. Santiago is currently appealing the party’s decision.
In the internet debates surrounding these attacks, several worrying trends have made themselves very apparent. The first is the bullying and violent stance that is being adopted by many self-styled radfems towards sex workers and transwomen. This is most clearly shown by Samy Santiago’s threat to denounce the participants of the Casa Nem event through the resource of Article 287 of the penal code, which imposes penalties on those “defend a crime” and it is often cited by anti-abortion activists attempting to silence feminist activists. In resorting to criminal law as a threat Samy Santiago and her group are thus going far beyond democratic opposition and deliberation: they are expressing the belief hat it is perfectly acceptable, in the current regressive political climate, to call for State repression of their opponents. Ironically, Samy Santiago herself was a victim of this sort of calumnious denunciation following her involvement in the 2013 riots. Alarmed by what she understood to be a direct threat to her life and liberty, she had to ask for political asylum from the government of Uruguay. This means that she is entirely aware of the potential for violent repression such a charge could entail, particularly following Brazil’s right-wing parliamentarian coup last May.
The second thing that has become apparent is the problematic political positioning of many radfem activists, who whole-heartedly support an alternative law proposal now in front of Congress – Bill PL 377/2011. This Bill was written and sponsored by Congressman João Campos, who previously supported a project in favor of federal funding for so-called “gay cures”. Bill 377/2011 would criminalize the purchase of sex, similar to laws currently in place in France and Sweden.
Brazil, however, is no France or Sweden. Currently one of the Western Hemisphere’s most violent and carceralist States, Brazil houses the 4th largest population of prisoners in the world, the majority of whom are poor and black, in conditions that have been repeatedly described as inhuman. The country’s police are notorious for their violence, and it is estimated that around 5 percent of 60.000 annual homicides can be attributed to the police. Furthermore, whereas the so-called “Swedish model” calls for significant investments in providing sex workers with economic and social support to leave prostitution, nothing of the sort exists in Brazil, where even the country’s minimal workers’ rights and social benefits are under concerted attack by the political currents that have taken over the federal government since May.
The “radfem” movement, therefore, does not recognize the probable cost of these laws to sex-working men and women. The criminalization of the sale of sex has been comprehensively critiqued by Amnesty International and the World Health Organization as a measure which does not protect sex workers, but rather drives them further underground, where they are subject to more violence exclusion.
Other extremist reactionary proposals currently supported by many “radfems” include the removal of protections for trans women from Brazil’s anti-domestic violence law (the Maria da Penha Law), the elimination of the right for trans people to use their social identity as their official identity, and the elimination of prostitution as a profession contemplated by Brazil’s Worker’s Rights Code (which currently allows independent sex workers to claim minimal social and workers’ benefits through the payment of taxes). All of these provisions, were they to be enacted, would create significant negative impacts on trans- and prostitute women’s lives.
In this context, it’s worth pointing out the third characteristic of the “radfems” currently reacting against prostitute and trans- rights: going by their Facebook profiles, the vast majority of them are young, politically inexperienced, white, professional women: precisely the sort of “radical feminist activist” that has been heavily critiqued by black and working class feminisms throughout the world.
This appears to be a uniaxial feminism that restricts its critiques of social injustice and exclusion to the sex/gender axis alone, which acknowledges its class/race/cisgendered privileges (in the words of Brazilian race scholar Denise Ferreira da Silva) precisely to be able to ignore them. This lack of a wider vision has become quite apparent, for example, in “radfem’s” comments regarding transwomen that routinely calls them “macho abusers in skirts” and state that they benefit from “male privilege” and “the powers of the patriarchy”. This view is openly at odds with the fact of reality. Suffice to recall data on life expectancy, which of 75 years for cis women and as low as 32 for transwomen.
Racism was blatant in the verbal abuse suffered by Dr. da Silva during and after the debate in which she participated, as white, middleclass radfem interlocutors claimed that African Brazilian Dr. da Silva acted like a “favelada” (a presumably non-white woman from the shanty towns), ironized her academic titles by calling her a “doutô” (a corruption of “doctor” commonly attributed to lower class, non-white Brazilians) and, finally, accused her of promoting immorality. The image of the upper class white João Marcelo Rocha Barbosa, alumni of one of the most exclusive private academies in Rio de Janeiro, waving and shouting at a black woman half his size who gained her doctorate through the public schools and merit scholarships, is an enduring icon of the last months’ attacks carried out by radfems and their allies.
Reactionary politics and political crisis make for strange bedfellows. As demonstrated, since the 1980s, in the U.S., feminism is not immune from carceralist tendencies. The current wave of radfem reaction in our country is serving to reinforce attacks against sexual and social rights across the board, giving members of some of our countries most protected populations (white, upper class men and women have notoriously low comparative rates for being victims of violence) politically acceptable reasons to target Brazil’s most vulnerable populations. A simple look at the results of Brazil’s other notorious prohibitionist policy – the War on Drugs – shows the probable results of the criminalization of the sale of sex: vastly increased numbers of dead and imprisoned poor black men while prostitution (like drug use) continues largely unaffected. As trans rights activist and sex worker Indianara Siqueira reminded radfem critics during the Casa Nem event, “It won’t be your husbands, fathers, brothers and sons who will be arrested if João Campos’ bill passes, dears. White and middle class men like them will still be able to buy sex with no problem at all”.