Sexuality Policy Watch

The Prostitute, the Virus, and the City

Prostitution Policy Watch, IPPUR, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

Authors: Soraya Silveira Simões, Laura Murray, Patrícia de Moura e Silva Toledo, Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette, Ana Paula Silva

More than three decades ago, when HIV erupted around the world and AIDS was defined as a “syndrome” (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), the epidemic was classified as “the worst and most terrible disease of the century”. The fear of HIV infection spread across all the globe’s continents. So-called “at risk groups” were soon identified: that is, those who were members of “populations” most exposed to the risk of contamination. Because HIV is a virus transmitted by blood, semen and vaginal secretions, it quickly became associated with certain subjects and their “dangerous” sexual practices.

The criterion most employed to define “at risk groups” was that these fell outside of a certain norm (heteronormativity, to be precise). HIV immediately became associated by governments and the press with these “at risk” subjects and was nicknamed the “5 H Disease” as it supposedly targeted homosexuals, Haitians, hemophiliacs, heroin users and hookers.

Classified as one such “risk group”, prostitutes were most primarily in understanding the forms of contagion and in formulating relevant criticisms of the prevention model then in force in the first years of the governments’ responses to the epidemic. Sex worker criticisms contemplated not only their occupation as part of a larger universe of jobs (looking at what working conditions were capable of promoting preventive practices and prevent various types of abuse) but, above all else, a necessary recognition that prostitution, as a stigmatized behavior, should be interpreted as work and, therefore, be respected.

The Brazilian Ministry of Health did not take long to adopt the concept of vulnerability, eschewing the concept of risk groups, which became less and less relevant in the plans to contain the epidemic. Vulnerability made it possible to better see the contexts in which vulnerable subjects were inserted. All forms of discrimination that these groups were subjected to started to be treated as part of a syndrome, a type of “hyposufficiency” attributed by all the other agents with which a prostitute interacted in their day-to-day work. Individual, collective, programmatic, structural, and institutional vulnerabilities were highlighted. Many new keys for reading the epidemic were forged and new “worldviews” created – a process that seems to often occur on extreme occasions (such as our present COVID 19 crisis) when the unknown manifests itself as a trickster or a ghost in the machine .

Social movements made decisive contributions to the struggle against HIV and the virus itself forced a reorientation of politics, moving away from being a “gay disease”, as it had initially been announced in the newspapers at the beginning of the epidemic, and being increasingly seen as something that also affected prostitutes, mothers, and fathers. The Brazilian family’s sexuality was exposed to public scrutiny and it was found that, in practice, its was not necessarily so different from that of the so-called vulnerable groups.

City, work, gender, sexuality and stigma were brought together in one package, re-situating the debate on HIV / AIDS prevention in Brazil, a country which has become a world example in its combat and treatment of HIV / AIDS, thanks to the mobilization of society in general and, in particular, the members of so-called risk groups.

Today, the COVID-19 pandemic sheds new light on this distressing collective experience, which nevertheless provided for a structuring of Brazil’s National STD and AIDS Program and the formulation of public health policies with integrated the effective participation of social movements, including the promotion of research coordinated by the member groups of the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes2 . It is important to remember that Brazil’s Unified Health System was created during this period. The new light shed  by the coronavirus epidemic helps us to review the HIV epidemic and the Brazilian political response and to think about the collective sentiments regarding the importance of a public health system and the end of health inequalities. Critical moments favor the recognition of what can and should be fundamental and universal. We are again immersed in a distressing collective experience, on a global scale, and the procedures for identifying a disease, its forms of contagion and its origins open a wide field for subjects to also be identified and recognized as part of a transmission chain: a major part of the transmission chain. In the case of COVID-19, some examples of this process of subjectification have already occurred, all of them contianing racist and xenophobic aspects, as often happens when human collectivities search of the origin of “evil”.

This long preamble has a reason. We want to remind readers that there is a history of struggle against stigma in the Brazilian prostitute movement and a good part of this struggle was welcomed, supported and empowered by and through the field of health. The very concept of health expands, at these times of crisis, contemplating positive recognition as the essence of health, be it emotional, physical, or social. The care of the self, extensively historicized by Foucault, returns as a debate regarding the care for the other. Under these conditions, one can think of both comfort (of a social position, of a house, or of the streets of a neighborhood) and of social valorization expressed through the treatments experienced in the most diverse everyday situations.

The new coronavirus, with its so far unbeatable capacity for propagation, outlined an overwhelming social imaginary. The “risk group” — the elderly — are our grandfathers and grandmothers, fathers, mothers, uncles and aunts. The virus necessarily reminds one of the family — a type of family that in no way refers to those affinities that are constituted by those who have been cast out by or on the run from their birth families. In all of this, there is an oppression that sustains a certain organization of the city as well, marked by mores that, although very contested, remain in force, operating various forms of oppression.

Red light districts, hotels, motels, bars, clubs, spas, roadside gas stations, beaches… Prostitution presents itself where the people are and where the people go. It even creates deviations so that the people may want to change their “normal” path from time to time. The COVID-19 pandemic and the controversies surrounding the resulting lockdown have diluted cities, emptying their streets and eliminating or greatly reducing the activities that take place in them. Those who depend on the living, populated street have had to resort to local ties more than ever before while waiting for action from the same State that, in recent years (particularly during the Temer and Bolsonaro regimes) has been dismantling of social safety nets, labor rights, and the  SUS. As in the HIV / AIDS epidemic, COVID-19 shows the weaknesses and prejudices of state structures, especially with regards for the care of the elderly and informal workers.

Collective actions in Brazil’s cities

In Belo Horizonte, dozens of hotels are concentrated on Guaicurus Street and in its surrounding environs. Here, the Minas Gerais Prostitutes Association – APROSMIG – has discussed with hotel owners measures to alleviate the vulnerability of the many prostitutes who end up spending days in their rented rooms. It is in these small chambers that a good part of the women who work on Guaicurus are sheltering in place, counting on meals that are being offered by the owners of the hotels and medical care services provided by the Association’s partners. Some women have requested and received tickets to return to their cities of origin and stay there during this period. The Association has also managed to get some food rations for the women who are not in the hotels. “Those who stay in the hotels in quarantine, without agglomerating, are receiving food. Others chose to go to a house in Sabará with a colleague from the Association. The main point is that those who left are already asking for help, because they have no other recourse. Those who live here are already going to Afonso Pena [Avenida Afonso Pena, a stroll where prostitutes wait on the sidewalks for customers in cars]. We have been able to form a partnership with a farmer who is also distributing food among the women [Agência de Negócios e Inovação]. YWAM [Youth with a Mission] is also providing basic food support and the Pastoral [of Marginalized Women] is organizing itself to act ”.

In Belém, GEMPAC, the Group of Women Prostitutes of the State of Pará, has registered over 100 women who work in the central region of the city — Campina and Ver-o-Peso – in order to receive basic food support immediately. GEMPAC is also organizing to register them in the Hope Fund, an emergency organization created by the Government of the State of Pará, in partnership with SEBRAE and Banpará, in order to provide loans to formal and informal workers during the crisis, with an interest rate of 0.2% per month. Mobilization via social networks has also helped in the distribution of resources to prostitutes in Pará. GEMPAC and a group of volunteers is contributing to the meet demands that are coming into the Association, usually from prostitutes and other inhabitants of the Campina region. “It’s a good thing that in Brazil there are still a lot of supportive people, a fact which makes us resist and believe,” says sex worker leader Lourdes Barreto. A virtual channel was opened to facilitate communication with prostitutes who need support and do not know how to access the federal and state government aid networks. All homeless people in the region are also receiving support from GEMPAC and the Pastoral is organizing emergency actions, similar to those now being organized in Belo Horizonte.

In Campinas, the Associação Mulheres Guerreiras (Warrior Women Association) was outlining its strategic plans for the upcoming year when social isolation was decreed. The Itatinga neighborhood, built to push prostitution out from the center of the city and segregate it on remote land in Campinas’ outskirts in the 1960s, is today one of the largest prostitution zones in Brazil[1]. Betânia Santos, one of the founders of the Association, says that most prostitutes in the district are not INSS taxpayers and do not declare themselves as autonomous workers through tax code 5198, assigned to ‘sex workers’ by the Brazilian Classification of Occupations (CBO-MTE). “The category has no way of proving that we work, so we are encountering some difficulties”, says Betânia.

In São Paulo, the NGO Mulheres da Luz (Women of Luz),  an organization that works with women (often senior citizens) who sell sex in and around Luz Park, has had its headquarters closed along with the park. Prostitutes working in the region represent an extremely precarious section of the sex trade, being mainly composed of women over 50 years of age for whom prostitution is the only source of income. As the NGO’s headquarters is closed and its members have low incomes, the NGO is struggling to receive supplies and other donations for distribution to its members. This type of action, however, is centered at the headquarters of other groups, such as the Cia. Pessoal do Faroeste, a theater group based near Luz Park, which has received  sanitation products basic food supplies for distribution to the inhabitants of the streets of the region.

In Campina Grande, all brothels and cabarets are closed. Women who have a telephone number registered with the Information Center for Prevention, Mobilization, and Counseling for Sex Workers (CIPMAC, an association of prostitutes formed in 1989 at the height of efforts to contain the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Brazil, with the support of the Health Ministry) are receiving basic food supplies and referrals to receive federal and state aid agencies. CIPMAC’s headquarters are closed and all contact is being conducted by phone or whatsapp, including emergencies or request for hygienic materials (gloves, masks, condoms, and alcohol gel). “We created an information channel, through whatsapp, where we pass on information about COVID-19, available health care clinics, and a flu vaccine flowchart for women over 60. We are donating food to members with resources from the Red Umbrela Fund” (a fund that provides resources to prostitutes’ associations around the world) Regarding registering women to receive help from the federal government, CIPMAC still has many doubts: “The question is how these resources will be accessed, but the National Health Council sent a letter asking for the inclusion of sex workers in the program”. The Association also intends to disseminate information about access to aid that will be offered by the federal government .

In Recife, Vânia Rezende, coordinator of the Pernambucan Association of Sex Professionals (APPS), reports that she has closed the Association’s headquarters. One prostitute associate, Vânia, is undergoing radiotherapy and has lived with HIV/AIDS now for some years. 67 years old, she says she is again in a “risk group”. The historian who assists APPS in organizing their document collection has pneumonia and is waiting for the results of the tests to see if this has been caused by the new coronavirus. In addition, cabarets, nightclubs and other houses of prostitution are closed. Vânia says that the women who work in the streets are still taking risks in the Praça do Diário in the center of Recife. At the request of the Pernambuco Women’s Secretariat, APPS remotely surveyed sex working women who receive the Bolsa Família family income supplement and those who do not, so that the Secretariat can make the appropriate referrals.

In Natal, most brothels have closed and some brothel owners are providing support so that women can stay in the houses in isolation. The lack of customers helps to maintain social isolation. Despite this, support is limited to helping women (providing them with a a place to sleep, food, etc.) and does not extend to the families they support. Some women continue to work with old and steady customers via their cell phones. Another, smaller group, which has access to computers, a webcam and a good internet connection, has been working through websites. The Association of Sex Professionals of Rio Grande do Norte (APRORN) is gathering basic food supplies, but the number of donations has not been sufficient. A large part of the members of the Association are also in risk groups and have been mobilized through social networks to search out sources of collective aid.

In February in Rio de Janeiro, Vila Mimosa, a district which in which hundreds of sex working women gather daily, was closed. At that time, COVID-19 was still a very distant threat, non-existent in day-to-day conversations. The reason for VM’s closing was the visit of the Fire Prevention Parliamentary Inquiry Commission of the Legislative Assembly of the State of Rio de Janeiro, chaired by deputies of the ruling PSL. For weeks on end, many prostitutes had to suspend their activities, feeling the fear of the economic fragility that today afflicts billions of people around the world. Only on Friday, March 12th, at the end of the Committee’s public hearings, a Conduct Adjustment Agreement was signed allowing for the immediate reopening of Vila Mimosa while repairs to the region’s electrical installations were made according to the conditions and evaluations of competent technical authorities. This occurred on Friday, March 12th. At 4 pm on that day, the hot pink colored bus that had taken dozens of women to the State Assembly to witness the decision was returning to Vila Mimosa full of prostitutes, managers, venue owners and venue owners wives, all eager to get back to work. That same day, much of the city was already starting to close down, and the Vila was closed completely on the following Friday, March 19th, because of the new coronavirus.

In the Center, the region of Rio de Janeiro with the highest concentration of sexual commerce in the city of, all the dozens of spas, fast fodas, relaxs, nightclubs and massage parlors in the region have been closed since March 23rd. There is also no street commerce in places like the  Praça da República. However, there is still a small amount of movement around the Central do Brasil rail station, where prostitutes – particularly older ones, who do not have other resources — look for clients among the already reduced flow of workers that come and go via the suburban trainstrains.

In Copacabana, CasaNem, a squat organized by trans sex workers that now occupies a seven-storey building on Rua Dias da Rocha, continued to welcome residents and collaborators. Affiliated with the Internationalist Front of the Homeless (FIST), CasaNem collectively organized a series of measures to guarantee the functioning of the building in times of coronavirus. One floor of the building has been set aside for those who need to be quarantined. The others inhabited by everyone else, conducting social isolation in the building. The collective kitchen works on a rotating basis and, according to Indianare Siqueira, creator of CasaNem, everyone must clean their hands with alcohol gel (distributed by volunteers) in order to enter the building. CasaNem serves 147 people with 65 are residing in the building, in Copacabana, in social isolation. A number of online collaborations have earmarked resources for the inhabitants. Among these, FIST has organized a whatsapp list releasing information regarding the distribution of supplies to LGBTQI+ host houses and to supply prostitutes who work in rooms in commercial buildings, bars, hotels, brothels, nightclubs, cabarets, squares, and streets across the country.

Prostitution directed at tourists, which has existed in Copacabana for decades and which gives the neighborhood part of its “lively” and “bohemian” reputation, disappeared with the closure of the beaches and bars on the waterfront. There is still a small nocturnal movement on the streets of the neighborhood, but this is aimed at local and largely already known customers.

The Brazilian Network of Prostitutes, which brings together these and other associations based in cities in all regions of the country, has prepared a campaign to analyze Brazil’s precarious occupations and the gender of those who perform this sort of work. Manicurists, depilators and other workers who deal with body care services have been able to get help directly from some of their clients. In the case of prostitutes, the same sort of solidarity is rare. Lourdes Barreto of GEMPAC and the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes interprets this as a change in prostitution itself. The migration from street corners to the digital environment has affected various forms of sociability in the cities and, with this, has hindered the establishment of more or less durable bonds marked by relationships of trust. According to Lourdes, a part of the women receive help from their clients to pay bills or buy domestic supplies, but these days, this is an exception in the relations established in prostitution.

Social Assistance Secretariats are on duty to register homeless people, the LGBT population, sex workers and refugees. In Paraíba and Rio Grande do Norte, APROS-PB, APROS-RN, APRO CE (Association of Prostitutes of Paraíba, Rio Grande do Norte and Ceará), APPS (the Pernambucan Association of Sex Professionals) are encouraging women to register as “sex workers” so that, with this, a number of workers are “officially” produced in the records. Currently, the profession is quite invisible in statistical terms.

“We need time”

Time. Researchers, health experts, and government officials are asking the population of the planet to stay home. This global halt is their remedy, for now, while they research the virus and its devastation. The time they ask for, to be given collectively, is the interval between the last free circulation through the streets of the world’s cities, in the midst of our everyday routines, and our next free trip to the corner, to the beach, to work.

During this time, which is counted in days of restraint, which the result of societies’ collective work (including that of prisoners and governments), there are other times, counted by the stomach, the dry tongue, the body, and by want. This time is cannot be interrupted. It demands that everything else stop for the emergence of a policy capable of adapting bodies and subjects. This policy, which has long been implemented by world’s various social movements and claimed by them as public policies, is marked by solidarity (obviously), but more importantly, it is also marked by creativity, boldness, and political competence.

The cosmology of health care that emerged with the discovery of microbiology formed a new social nexus by creating an understanding that, between one individual and another, there were no biological discontinuities, as had earlier been imagined. The HIV / AIDS epidemic made this reality blindingly clear but, unfortunately, only for some groups: the stigmatized. It would be salutary if it were a reality felt by everyone. Among all beings, there are countless continuities and the idea of ​​an ecosphere follows this same principle. The virus does not conceptually order us. In fact, it does not distinguish us as individuals at all. It has no principles and, without principles or distinctions, it forces us to adopt non-discrimination as an example and an unquestionable principle. Coronavirus contagion occurs without us knowing exactly how, when, or where. There are many unknowns.

In the midst of so much speculation, yearning and controversy, a kind of legendary topography is built with epidemics [2].  In it emerges the social history of the places where certain practices will one day be denaturalized and observed, after we have all experienced, collectively, a social drama on a global scale.

It is a global narrative that includes the existence of a virus, for which an image was produced that teaches us to visualize it, although it is invisible to us. In the symbolic construction of the virus, it has color and is among us, in the banality of our daily existence. The new social nexus that has been developing since Pasteur’s research, in leaps in time, teaches us that the “world of microbes” connects and affects our bodies, allowing a new understanding of social life and the new habits and policies we must incorporate. We were following a path of recognition, self-determination,  and affirmative action. The process of self-production of Brazilian civil society has been brutally interrupted. Perhaps the virus will help us clean our lenses to better espy what “our bodies” mean. Along with the urgency of social isolation, it is also urgent to represent these bodies in another way, to better understand ourselves as living beings in an ecosphere – an ecosphere that, in certain ways and at certain times, forces us to simply believe, to suspend all truths and (re)establish all hypotheses. We must create a state of permanent questioning in the face of the invisible and an expanded incorporation of a certain scientific spirit, capable of creating an experimental culture and, in the words of Gaston Bachelard [3],  “breaking down the obstacles emplaced by everyday life”. This believing (in this case in the existence and spread of the coronavirus) is the first step in any and all experiments, scientific or political. It is thus up to the public to contribute and produce responses to a fundamental question: what is common to us? In the face of the new coronavirus, the best response is to not reinforce boundaries.


BACHELARD, Gaston. A formação do espírito científico: contribuição para uma psicanálise do conhecimento. Rio de Janeiro: Contraponto, 1996.

RAMOS, Diana Helène. Preta, pobre e puta: a segregação urbana da prostituição em Campinhas. Tese de doutorado defendida em 2015, no PPGPUR/IPPUR-UFRJ.

VIEIRA DA CUNHA, Neiva ; MELLO, Marco Antonio da Silva. « Rito e Símbolo na Cosmologia do Sanitarismo : considerações sobre a história e a memória urbana do Rio de Janeiro ». Revista Candelária, nº3, Rio de Janeiro, 2006.

[1] v. RAMOS, 2015.

[2] MELLO, CUNHA, 2006.

[3] Reading The Formation of the Scientific Spirit by Gaston Bachelard, published for the first time in 1938, seems to be appropriate at this moment, when a collective experience brings us together on a global scale around a common problem. In the book, Bachelard works on the notion of the “epistemological obstacle”, addressing the experimental empirical knowledge that all of us employ on a daily basis, emphasizing that “empirical thinking becomes clear afterwards, when the set of arguments is established” (2013: 17 ). This argument is appropriate to the provocation we present here.

Originally published at Social Sciences & Humanities Open, in May 27 2020. Access here

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