Sexuality Policy Watch

Sex Work, Violence and Megaevents

Sex workers are routinely subject to human rights violations by local authorities. State-sanctioned violations of human rights (such as the right to life, dignity, equality, equal protection and due process under the law) represent broader systemic failures. In recognition of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers (December 17th), we offer an initial overview of our research on sexual commerce in the context of event-led urban reform. Those that contributed to this report are against sexual exploitation (of all people and ages) and denounce all forced labour and migration. We also recognize the profoundly negative impact of policies, legislature, and enforcement that conflate sex work with a narrative of sexual exploitation and/or human trafficking. In solidarity with the international movement, we celebrate sex work as a needed injection of love and labour within a perpetually-divided urban terrain.

See the complete version 17.12.2016 Declaration on The Olympics, FINAL English Version with Images.


From 2012-2014, Prostitution Policy Watch (PPW) conducted a major ethnographic investigation of commercial sex venues in 2014 FIFA host cities focusing particularly on sex work, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation. This research was particularly focused on Rio de Janeiro, host of the 2016 Olympic Games In total, our research teams engaged in more than 3000 hours of fieldwork, collecting participant observation, survey, and interview data. (The preliminary results of our World Cup research can be accessed here:

In late 2014, PPW began mobilizing for a similar investigation of the effects of the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, mobilizing many of the same researchers and institutions who had partnered with us in 2014. This time, we also collaborated with 16 sex worker researchers in a photo and audio diary project in which they used their cellular phones to document their daily experiences and transformations in the urban areas where they work before, during and after the Olympics. We kept tabs on the 80 most popular and busiest sex work venues in town, checking on them on a monthly basis in the run-up to the Olympics, and at least weekly during the Games. The 30 largest venues were visited several times a week during the Olympics.

Our analysis of the data collected is still being conducted. Photo and audio diary project participants are currently curating their 1000s of images, recordings, and text narratives for the online exhibition entitled, What you don’t see: Prostitution through our own eyes (two of the selected photographs, by Beth and Evelyn, are included in this report). We hope to have our full preliminary report out early in the New Year and the online exhibition up by March, but in honor of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, we have decided to release a brief report today, with information about the Olympics, particularly focusing on the question of violence against sex workers in Rio before, during and after the Games.


To begin with, the Olympic Games were not very lucrative for sex workers. We estimate that, overall, sex work declined by about 5% during the Games. On the one hand, this is less of a drop than the 15% we recorded during the World Cup. On the other hand, this drop was set against an already low “norm” brought on by Brazil’s economic and political crises, which exploded during the 2014-2016 period. In the run up to the Olympics, movement in Rio’s many commercial sex venues was as slow as we’ve ever seen it in over a decade of research. One factor that contributed to a lower decrease in sexual commerce was the fact that there were fewer holidays during the Olympics than there were during the World Cup. In 2014, this disproportionately impacted the largest concentration of sex work venues in the city – downtown. Commerce in that the area was almost completely closed during Cup-related holidays, with its sex venues being no exception. With fewer holidays during the Olympics, more businesses (sex-related or otherwise) remained opened. “Offer” was thus much higher than “demand” during the Olympics, calling into question the perceived wisdom of prostitution abolitionists who believe that “demand” drives sex work.


At the World Cup, most venues in Rio suffered a steep decline in customers except for around a dozen that were mostly located in a 4 block area on Copacabana Beach. There,  the potential customer base grew by about 200-300%. This, in turn, provoked a mass migration of sex workers from other areas of Rio to Copacabana. During the Olympics, this did not occur. Very few venues saw any large increase in customers and even then, most only saw increases on a few days. No region of Rio completely shut down in terms of sex work but no region saw a huge increase in customers, either. Many sex workers, however, did indeed move about town, looking for the “big scene” that was not occurring anywhere. As was the case during the 2014 World Cup, the majority of clients were Brazilians and not foreigners. There seem to have been fewer foreigners looking for paid sex at the Olympics, too. Sex workers believed that this was due to the fact that the Olympics attracted a more gender-balanced crowd of foreign tourists, an observation that was borne out by our observations during field work.


At the World Cup, we found few sex workers who had come to Rio from out-of-town and only one from out-of-country. This was probably due to the fact that several cities hosted the World Cup in Brazil so most migration for sex work was local. The Olympics, of course, was held only in Rio. However, the “increase” in migrants from out-of-town was quite small. We met less than a dozen foreign sex workers, all from other Latin American countries, and maybe three dozen from other Brazilian states. Recall that this was in literally hundreds of visits to the city’s largest and most popular venues. Most women who came in from out-of-town were greatly disappointed by the amount of money they made at the Games. Very few realized their expectations and several reported a net loss once travel fees, room, and board were taken into consideration. Going by the Palermo Protocol’s definition of “human trafficking”, we saw no indication whatsoever of any women trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation during the Games. Reportedly, one female trafficking victim was found by the State Anti-Trafficking Committee, but we have so far been unable to get confirmation of this or further details.


Unlike the Cup, police closed no major sex work venues before, during, or after the Olympics. We neither saw nor heard of any police violations of sex workers’ rights during the Games. Certainly, nothing like the police rapes and robberies reported during pre-Cup operations occurred before, during, or immediately following the 2016 Games. There was one exception to this: sex workers near Maracanã Football Stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games were held, reported being pushed off the main avenue leading to the Stadium by police. This seems to have been a general policy, however, with regards to alternative and street commerce of all sorts, and not a specific policy against prostitution. There was also a medium scale police operation carried out by the Highway Patrol at brothels on the outskirts of Rio that was both drug and minor related, but no arrests were made and this was not covered at all in the press. The few publicized police operations that were carried out before, during, and after the Games were mostly geared towards repressing the sexual exploitation of minors (of which we will talk more about, below).

We feel that there were two reasons for this.

First, after the violent operations of the Cup, PPW and its sex worker allies reached out to the Rio de Janeiro State Mega-Events Committee and Anti-Exploitation Committee and shared the impacts of the pre-Cup operations on local women. We wrote about and publicized these events, got Amnesty International and local politicians to denounce them, and let relevant agencies know that we would be extremely vigilant regarding Olympic “security” operations. We participated in the meetings of these organizations and others which were connected to the Olympics Committee, and repeatedly floated proposals to them for sex worker outreach, drop-in centers, and peer-educators, while also educating committee members themselves about the realities of sex work in Rio. As such, we noticed a definite improvement in official rhetoric regarding trafficking and sexual exploitation before the Olympics, with officials and bureaucrats talking more about exploitation per se – particularly child labor exploitation, of which we documented hundreds of cases during the Cup – and avoiding the easy congruence that “sex work = sexual exploitation”. We feel our efforts helped, in a small way, to bring about this change.

Unfortunately, there’s also a more convincing explanation for the relative dearth of anti-prostitution police operations before and during the Olympics. Given the State of Rio de Janeiro’s burgeoning economic crisis (the Governor had to declare an official state of calamity in the months before the Games just to get money for an adequate level of security during the event), there simply wasn’t cash enough to spend on what would be, essentially, public relations operations geared to assuage the public’s sense of moral panic. By and large, sex workers were ignored by the state security, human rights, and social assistance apparatus. On the one hand, this meant that there were no attempts to reach out to sex workers or deal with their problems (actual or anticipated) during or before the Olympics. On the other hand, the police pretty much left adult, consensual sex workers alone, which we feel – given the prior experiences of the Cup – was probably a net gain for everyone concerned.

We would also like to note that while sex-related businesses were not directly targets of 2016 Olympic strategies, this does not suggest that there was an end to the typically punitive and violent police activities oft-associated with local law enforcement in Brazil. Nor does it suggest a more ethical “staging” of the 2016 Olympic Games, which involved the familiar “clean-up campaigns”  that are often associated with sports mega-events. The 2016 Olympic Games, like the 2014 FIFA World Cup, resulted in the hyper-militarization of host communities. Combined, these two events negatively impacted the security of already-marginalized citizens, and accelerated the feminization and racialization of poverty within the greater Rio de Janeiro Metropolitan Area. For detailed coverage of the human rights violations associated with the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, we recommend the work published by the World Cup and Olympics Popular Committee in Rio de Janeiro or Catalytic Communities /


Two widely publicized police operations occurred before and during the Olympics, both directed against child sexual exploitation. Both were widely covered by the national and international media, garnishing much attention. Unfortunately, both also demonstrate the limitations of Rio’s police and social work institutions when dealing with this issue.

The first operation occurred in the week before the Games, when over 90 police and social workers clandestinely staked out street sex work scenes in the suburban neighborhood of Recreio das Bandeirantes. These “strolls” have long been denounced by local residents as being frequented by children and adolescents selling sex and were not related to the Olympic Games. In an entire week’s worth of operations, authorities were only able to find three adolescents accused of selling sex – two sixteen year olds and a seventeen year old. All three girls were taken into custody, but no clients or pimps were arrested.

This begs two questions:

  • If children and adolescents selling sex on the streets of Recreio are such a common thing, how did a week’s worth of operations by close to a hundred State agents only manage to find three?
  • If the three adolescents arrested were indeed selling sex (and post-arrest media reports hint that they were) and the police were watching them interact with clients (which the police assure the media they were), how is it that no clients or pimps were arrested?

It should be noted that Rio has no dedicated facilities for dealing with sexually-exploited youth and that two of the three girls have no families to whom they might return. In the one case, the girl in question has been a ward of the State most of her life and has ran away from juvenile care (not the best on Rio even when times aren’t bad) to live on the streets. In the second case, the girl was expelled from her own home after accusing her stepfather of sexual assault. The third girl was involved in prostitution for needed income. There has been, to date, no indication that any of the three were pimped, that they had any foreign clients, or that their prostitution was in any way linked to the Olympic Games. Nevertheless, the media almost universally spun the story as being Games-related.

The second operation involved a “modeling agency” near the Olympic Village, which was reportedly raided for employing girls as young as 14. In this case, neither the girls nor the agents were found, although the apartment (allegedly) showed indications of child sexual exploitation. This “modeling agency” was established in the area years before 2016 Olympics. Again, no evidence was found that the agency had any specific relation to the Olympics or sex tourism, even though, again, this was the way the story was spun in the media. During our fieldwork, we spoke to many sex workers, brothel owners, and managers who felt very certain that someone from inside the police must have alerted the agency’s owners to the raid, given that the apartment was vacated immediately before police arrival. As of yet, neither the agency’s owners nor any of the girls it supposedly employed have been found.

What makes these two stories particularly interesting – and the reason why we are describing them in detail here – is the amount of attention they got to two other stories which took place at the same time and which were not covered at all by international media, and barely by national media.

The week before the Olympics, at roughly the same time that the Recreio operation was taking place, Nelson Nahim (ex-president of the city council, ex-mayor of Campos de Goycatazes, and brother of ex-Governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro, Anthony Garotinho) was sentenced to 12 years in prison for participating in the organization of a private brothel in which children as young as 8 years old were imprisoned, raped, forcibly prostituted, and forced to consume drugs. Nahim was condemned by the court along with thirteen other defendants, including three other ex-city councilmen, some of whom received up to 31 years in prison. It is important to understand that these men were tried and convicted – not just accused – with the convictions coming down in the weeks before the Olympics. On the 27th of December, Nahim was released from prison after a successful habeas corpus. To date, no international media source has covered this story.

During the last week of the Paralympics, Pedro Chavarry Duarte, retired Coronel of the State Military Police (Rio’s principal police force) and current president of the State Military Police Beneficent Fund was found in his car at a gas station with a naked, raped two-year-old girl. Police who arrested Duarte reported that he tried to bribe the officers. Duarte had been investigated in the 1990s for trafficking children, yet found innocent. Again, to date, no international media source has covered this story.

PPW is forced to conclude that the media – both national and international – was much more interested in chasing the ghosts of foreign sex tourists during the Olympic Games than they were in reporting actual cases of pedophilia and sexual exploitation of children carried out by some of the most important men in the State of Rio de Janeiro. We feel that this is an excellent example of how the current global panics regarding human trafficking, sex tourism, and the sexual exploitation of children can result in skewed media priorities and a skewed view of these phenomena. We intend to further analyze these cases, and the media’s reaction to them – as well as other coverage of sex work during the Olympics – in our upcoming Preliminary Report.


While very few sex workers made much money during the 2016 Olympic Games, they thankfully encountered less violence and repression than during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. As the above stories regarding child sexual exploitation imply, security, justice, and social work priorities in the ever-more bankrupt State of Rio de Janeiro still seem to be improperly directed towards the supposed threat of “sex tourists” and adult, consensual sex rather than looking at the quotidian poverties, vulnerabilities, and corruptions that create situations of sexual exploitation in our marvelous city. Furthermore, while the police were less violent to sex workers during the Olympics, the State and its associated NGOs remain resolute in their will to ignore sex workers as stakeholders in urban reform, and as citizens in daily life. Because of this – and given the continued degradation of the rule of law and the democratic State in Brazil following the “soft coup” impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff after the Olympics – we feel that the relative lack of State violence towards sex workers during the Games may, unfortunately, simply be the calm before the storm.


Source: Prostitution Policy Watch

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