I did not intend for my ethnography of sex tourism in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil to be historical. However, in the summer of 2013, as I went through the page proofs for my forthcoming book, Sex Tourism in Bahia: Ambiguous Entanglements, I was struck by how much things have changed. I conducted my fieldwork from 2005 to 2009 while in graduate school at Stanford University and early in my tenure-track position at Spelman College. I continued to visit Salvador every year as co-director of a study abroad program as well as to begin a new research project on black feminist activism in Northeast Brazil. A graffiti image of an old, overweight, bald and bearded Italian man standing with arms outstretched near Pelourinho that I analyzed has now been painted over. The Aeroclube, a shopping and entertainment center in the coastline Boca do Rio neighborhood, which was often seen as a site of sex tourism between Italian tourists and Afro-Brazilian women, is now mostly closed and in a state of disrepair. But perhaps the most significant change is the fact that Aprosba, the sex workers association that I worked with, has now closed its doors. Founded in 1997 by and for sex workers, Aprosba has made great strides in improving the conditions of sex workers in Salvador for over a decade. The organization held weekly meetings where they distributed free condoms provided by the Ministry of Health, as well as safer sex workshops and peer education about the prevention of HIV/AIDS and other STIs. It remains to be seen if other organizations will take over the important work that Aprosba was doing for over a decade to secure sex workers’ citizenship and human rights in a society that often stigmatized them.
Perhaps the best use of ethnography is to capture a moment in time, even if that moment is fleeting. What does it mean for activist and engaged anthropologists who strive to do research that will have an impact on organizations and people, only to find that those organizations may often disintegrate and the people may disperse? The constantly shifting political landscape may also throw “curve balls” on our best laid plans and projects. During my fieldwork, there was a dynamic and vibrant partnership between the Ministry of Health and sex workers associations. Now, on a national level, this partnership is fraught with tensions and distrust.
A perfect example of this is the controversy around a Ministry of Health campaign that erupted in June 2013. According to Minister of Health Alexandre Padilha, the campaign with the slogan “Eu sou feliz sendo prostituta,” (“I’m happy being a Prostitute”) began circulating on the website and on social media without prior approval. Consequently, Padilha censored the campaign and fired Dirceu Greco, the Director of the Department of Sexually Transmitted Diseases, AIDS, and Viral Hepatitis of the Ministry of Health. Padilha argued that the campaign should have focused explicitly on messages of sexually transmitted diseases and how to prevent them, rather than entering into the question of the “happiness” of prostitutes. Meanwhile, Greco claimed that prevention campaigns must first address the prejudices associated with prostitutes. The Ministry of Health cancelled the campaign, then re-launched a sanitized version that excluded the controversial phrase.
What is often overlooked in the sensationalist media frenzy around the Happy Prostitute campaign is that the messages for the campaign were created in a workshop on Communication in Health for Sex Workers and NGO representatives held in João Pessoa, capital of the state of Paraíba, on March 11-14, 2013. In an open letter, several of the participating organizations defended the message of the original campaign, since it was produced by the very groups targeted by the campaign. The letter argues that the affirmation of citizenship is a necessary first step when dealing with vulnerable populations due to “centuries of sexist, homophobic, and racist practices and traditions produced in our country” that have resulted in the “indelible stigmas and consequences on the self-esteem and self-acceptance of LGBT, black people, poor people, women, and particularly, prostitutes.” Finally, the letter argues that the original campaign material affirms prostitutes as citizens, thereby promoting self-acceptance, which would make them better able and more likely to engage in disease prevention measures.
Thus, sex workers and their allies highlighting the fact that HIV/AIDS and STD prevention campaigns need to do much more than admonish sex workers to use condoms. First, they must deal with questions of self-esteem and confidence so that sex workers envision themselves as the subjects of rights. The Interdisciplinary Brazilian Association of AIDS (ABIA) also rejected the censure of the campaign in a letter dated June 17, 2013, calling it a “violation of the rights of the women who were protagonists of the campaign, of prostitutes in general, and, in our understanding, of all of Brazilian society.” In its twenty-five years of research and engagement with the AIDS epidemic in Brazil, ABIA has found that “situations of prejudice, discrimination, and violence” that impact the lives of marginalized people often have serious implications for their ability to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS. Similarly, the Rede Brasileira de Prostitutas (Brazilian Prostitutes’ Network) accuses the Brazilian government of ignoring “all of those elements that have been proven to contribute to prevention, limiting the campaign to imperatively encouraging condom use, as if it was a purely objective and mechanical gesture, disassociated from subjectivities, rights, and vulnerabilities.” Not only does the censored campaign “deny prostitutes the right to express their dreams and ideas, of citizenship, affirmation of identity and social visibility,” but it also “only allows prostitutes to appear as victims or vectors…who only have the right to be rescued by the State.”
By June 11, 2013, several sex workers who had participated in the workshop to elaborate the campaign revoked their authorization to use their images in the censored campaign, according to an article on the Beijo da Rua website. Nanci Feijó, a participant in the workshop, said that “prostitutes should never return to act as a partner of the government again.” What will the future hold if this is the case, particularly as Brazil prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics?
Erica L Williams is an assistant professor at Spelman College. Her research has focused on the cultural and sexual politics of the transnational tourism industry in Salvador, Brazil. Her book, Sex Tourism in Bahia: Ambiguous Entanglements (2013), won the National Women’s Studies Association/University of Illinois Press First Book Prize.
Deborah Thomas is the contributing editor for SCA’s column in Anthropology News.