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Rio RedLight

Reportage made on the streets of a 'Rio at night' together with friend and writer Matteo Gennari. For nights we wandered around the nocturnal and sexual Rio, discovering the souls of the women and transwomen who populate the city. Matteo's beautiful text can be found after the Gallery.

“Rio and paying for sex”


With the words of Maria, Branca, Sula, Susy, Maria Clara and Amanda


How many tourists go to Brazil for sex and after trans-Atlantic flights land in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and Fortaleza?  They spend maybe ten days or so there, in the company of a beautiful ‘mulatto’ girl, maybe even five or six mulatto girls, coming from Europe, Australia, Asia, the States and even from Latin America itself.  How many Brazilians, as happens all over the world, pay to have sex in brothels, low-class bars, luxury hotels, night clubs, in the alleyways of the favelas or even in a car in front of the Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio de Janeiro?

Rio is one of the capitals for the world market for sex; it is one of the most renowned and socially diverse with regards to the demand and supply of the trade.  The number one place to find luxury brothels is Copacabana.  Along the sea front, Copacabana offers sunsets and shelter to anyone from every corner of the world that meets there in exchange of money.

Maria works in Copacabana, charging 200 Reais (65 Euros) for two hours.  She lives in Leblon, the rich quarter in the South of Rio, and has two daughters.  Every weekend she goes to a club called Balcony near Prado Junior Street.  “I only make love to a man for money, at least then it’s worth it and if I get hit as well, at least I have earned something”.  She almost looks German with her blue eyes and pale skin, and has a scar on her shoulder from an accident, she smiles at me.  “So wouldn’t you make an exception for me, wouldn’t you have sex with me for free?” “No, I can’t, I’m working.  You’re not so bad, but you have to pay at least for the first night, then from there we could see how it goes.”

Maria works at the Balcony club; it’s always full of tourists and is linked to the clubs Help and Meio Pataca in Copacabana.  Only expensive prostitutes work there, only the most beautiful, often coming from the many favelas in the South of Rio.  Some are lucky enough to have bought themselves an apartment in the area, and some are hopeful that one day they will marry a foreigner, as many already have.  Maria is supported by a businessman from Sardegna, he is the proprietor of a supermarket chain.  He sends her around a thousand Euros a month and phones her every night to check that she is not going out on the streets to sell sex.  She receives the calls, and after he hangs up waits about an hour or so, in case he rings back (as he so often does), then she goes out to be with her colleagues and the tourists.  He has promised to take her to Sardegna, where he has bought a house to call her his official lover.

Further away from the ocean in an area called Maracanã we come to a small city with red lights, a prostitution centre with high levels of human flesh on show in search of contacts.  We are in Vila Mimosa.  Strobe lights in bars illuminate the way, a dwarf is dancing with his head resting on the small of a beautiful black girls’ back, she dances samba and the dwarf rhythmically moves to the beat of the music and her body.  “Do you reckon he’ll make it to bed?”  Many women aren’t wearing bras; they stand half naked drinking their beers as they watch the streets full of Brazilians, a few Germans and a couple of Americans.

We are the two Italians, Lorenzo and I, and we want to interview someone.  We have to pay – instead of paying for sex we are paying for someone to tell us their story.

“I’m 22 years old; I started when I was 17. My parents died and I needed a way to support myself.  One of my friends told me that this wasn’t a difficult job so I started to do it too.”  It’s as if she’s talking about any old job, and she is certainly a serious worker; she has working hours to keep track of her nightly business and tries not to get caught up losing her time.  “I started off in the bath houses, and then went on to private homes, then on to strip clubs and now here I am in Vila Mimosa.  It’s much better here because the clients respect you; they always pay you and never complain.  Also, we take care of ourselves a lot more here; we take HIV tests every three months and whoever gets an STD has to move on and find somewhere else to work.  What do I think of prostitution? Well, let’s say it’s like cocaine: the first time you try it it’s horrible, but after that you just can’t stop.  How much do I earn? Around 3000 Reais per month, (900 Euros).”  We meet her again on our way out, she waves goodbye to us as if she were doing any normal job, waiting to go home and rest in the evening to wait for the next day to start.  Her name is Branca.

Sula is much more aggressive and beautiful.  “I like Vila Mimosa because the men are careful, the clients are aware of what’s going on and a price is always established beforehand, say 25 Reais for 20 minutes and the deals are always respected.  I never get any satisfaction just from penetration, not even with my boyfriend, only through oral sex.”

“You are very beautiful”

“No I’m not.  I believe that every human being is beautiful and worthy of respect.  Every human being, in their own special way, is beautiful.”

We need to finish our article, go around the city a bit, but however much we do so no clear picture of prostitution can be established; it doesn’t exist.  It’s difficult to understand, after all, what pushes grown men to look for some easy sex, be it in Brazil or in any other part of the world.  What we can understand, however, is why women are often pushed into prostitution; the maximum wage in Brazil is 300 Reais, barely 90 Euros.  Prostitutes can earn up to 250 Reais in just one day.  But what drives the prostitutes to carry on? Is it not somewhat degrading allowing yourself to sleep with ten different men in just one day?

Susy is from the favela City of God, who some people consider to be a real favela, others just another area in the eastern suburbs of Rio, that is run by drug traffickers and ‘mineira’ police – the kind that ask for money in exchange for security.  She got initiated into prostitution due to her mother at just sixteen years of age.  Her mother was already a prostitute, and allowed her daughter to choose what she wanted to do – and so Susy decided to follow in her mother’s steps.  They invite us into their home and are extremely kind, the mother is from Bahia.  She now has fifteen girls under her wing and takes them all to Barra da Tijuca, a residential area, and waits for them to finish, taking them back home.  She earns nearly a thousand Euros every month, with which she is slowly building her home.  Her girls earn around 200 to 300 Reais per night, about 80 to 100 Euros.  She trusts them and doesn’t obsessively control them and they in turn trust her, affectionately calling her ‘tia’, meaning ‘aunty’.  While we sit waiting for Susy to get ready, applying lipstick and becoming the beautiful woman we will see at our leaving the house, the mother tells us how she began.  She was thirty-six years old and a friend of hers had suggested the job to her.  Her first client was a German, in a car, in front of the Copacabana Palace Hotel.  “He gave me a hundred dollars and asked me to dance samba.  I didn’t know how but I did it anyway.  Then we got in the car.  When I left I just kept staring at that hundred dollars, I had no idea of their value but to me it was a lot of money.  I cried for joy.”

The lovely Susy leaves us, after having fed her baby, and goes out with her fresh face, like a rose petal.  “My boyfriend doesn’t know what I do, he’s quite well off, almost part of the bourgeoisie and if he knew about what I do I don’t know how he’d take it.  I have tried a couple of times to tell him, but then give up.  He has even slept here a couple of times and likes everyone here, just as they all like him too.  He’s never here at the weekend because he has to work, so I take advantage of this and do my job too.  I have fixed clients now, they call me and I go round to their house.  All of them are Brazilian bar one German and one Frenchman.  It’s a safe job; they all deposit around 2000 Reais (700 Euros) into my account every month, so I’m pretty well organized at the moment.  Change job?  Not now, maybe later on of course I will want to change jobs, change my life.  I want to do sport, I played basketball before…I’d like to finish school and go to university, but not now.”

We leave Maria Clara’s house, all the family are there to see us off.  “Come back whenever you want!” Susy had already left, rushing, with her beautiful rose petal face. She was off to visit a client, with her safe job and hours to keep.

The transvestites of Rio all congregate in the district known as Gloria, in the Centre of Rio, two underground stops after Flamengo.  It’s a quiet area, less hustle and bustle than Copacabana and the rent is cheaper.  At eight in the evening they begin walking up and down between Via Da Gloria and Via Augusto Severino.  They are far more short-tempered than the prostitutes, they are shy and don’t want to have photos taken of them, nor do they want to be interviewed.

The only one who talks to us is Amanda, who talks to me in Italian.  She tells me she is 1 metre 77cm tall and that she has been to Italy, where she also worked as a prostitute.  Sent by a Brazilian pimp, she was taken in by an Italian pimp.

“What did you like about Italy?”

She looks at me and whilst playing with her thumbs says “The Euros”. She tells me that she has a boyfriend who knows about what she does and accepts it, because wherever she goes during the night they always wake up together.  “I haven’t had surgery because it makes you go mad.  Remember these two things, write this down: men like us transvestites better than woman because we are both man and woman, we have the best and the worst of both worlds.  And don’t be thinking that we are the passive ones!  The clients arrive, stop the car, let us in and then get down in front of us, like little dogs, begging us to enter them.”

A short while later a dark car with blacked out windows approaches one of the transvestites – a blond who looks astonishingly like a woman.  They talk a bit and he then proceeds to park the car with a bit of trouble.  In the meantime, she is walking towards the motel just up the road, and goes in by herself.  He’s having some problems closing the door, and manages only on the third go.  The man walks slowly towards the motel, however in front of the entrance he is suddenly surprised by ten or so guys and girls passing in front of the motel, laughing and joking around.  He is a black man, tall and well built.  He stretches his arms over his head and pretends to be tired, yawns and puts his hand in front of his mouth.  When the kids are further away, he walks in.

Matteo Gennari

Trasleted by Sofia Lisowski

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