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03 January 2019

Risky business: new study shows the impact of Rio 2012 on the oldest profession

The crackdown on sex work leading to and during the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro was counterproductive says new study led by King's College London, the University of Bournemouth, Toronto University and the Observatório da Prostituição (Prostitution Observatory) in Rio de Janeiro.

Crackdown on sex work, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Crackdown on sex work, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The crackdown on sex work leading to and during the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro was counterproductive says the first academic study on the subject post-Olympic urbanism. Instead of reducing supply or demand, it either had no effect or displaced prostitution, further endangering the workers themselves. 

The study, led by King’s College London, the University of Bournemouth, Toronto University and the Observatório da Prostituição (Prostitution Observatory) in Rio de Janeiro, found that far from evidencing instances of trafficking and an influx of ‘pimps’ and sex tourists, most sex workers experienced business as usual. 

In some instances, the visible policing of prostitution hotspots deterred regular clients, forcing sex workers to resort to mobile telephones and social media apps to contact potential clients. The disruption to the normal geographies of prostitution forced sex workers to work in unfamiliar environments, placing more risk on their safety.  

Subsequently, sex workers sought the protection of third parties, despite the prospect of being ripped off – making day-to-day survival even more difficult. All this, despite the promise of increased urban tourism and investment in the host city offered by the Olympic Games. 

“Mega sporting events are hardly the opportunity many sex workers hope for,” argues Phil Hubbard, Professor of Urban Geography at King’s College, London.  

“The crackdown on sex work was designed to reassure international audiences that Rio was safe and clean, rather than focusing on harm reduction. Military-style crackdowns on visible sex work don’t do anything to improve the life chances of sex workers, nor do they destroy the demand for sex work in society.” 

An advocate for regulation that allows for safe sex work in licensed premises, Hubbard hopes the findings from this project will help to challenge the myths of sex trafficking that circulate around mega sporting events and will promote forms of intervention that recognise sex work as an inevitable part of the urban scene.  

 The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded project used anthropological and visual methods to engage with female-identifying sex workers, including over 100 interviews. The study was unique in its methodology, using images taken by the sex workers during Rio 2012 as evidence of the varying impacts of policing and securitisation on their working life. 

As part of an official economic development strategy, the City of Rio de Janeiro has hosted the 2007 Pan American Games, the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. 

Prostitution is seen as embarrassing for the country’s reputation: stories predicting an influx of trafficked women and exploitative pimps supported campaigns designed to make sex work less visible, especially near Olympic venues. 

Some long-established brothels were raided or shut down. One well-known area of sex work close to the Maracana Stadium was fenced off and media campaigns discouraged tourists from buying sex altogether, despite the city’s reputation for combining the exotic with the erotic. 

The results of the project will be disseminated at a workshop to be held in Bath on Friday, 16 November. Register for the event on eventbrite.

A final project event will also be held July in Rio de Janeiro, as well as a special session at the Brazilian Studies Association (BRASA) conference. 

In this story

Philip Hubbard

Professor of Urban Studies