Turning the corner onto Rua Sotero dos Reis, a conspicuously bulky camera swinging from my shoulder, it wasn't long before I reluctantly conceded that it had been a good idea to bring Matheus.
Vila Mimosa — VM as it’s known by locals — is a far cry from the glamorous sex scene of Copacabana. Away from the hubbub of downtown Rio on the west side of the city, the entire neighbourhood is currently engulfed by construction works; it is easy to miss, unless you know what you’re looking for.
The area is also infamous for its criminal gangs; Vila Mimosa is regularly raided by the police for drug trafficking offenses. As a fair-haired gringa (foreigner), I’d been advised not to snoop around. Luckily, Matheus belongs to a local biker gang and his burly presence provided the protection I needed to navigate Rio’s oldest and largest red-light district.
On first sight, Vila Mimosa appears to be nothing more than a jumbled warren of dilapidated buildings and leaking pipes. A mixture of ramshackle houses, laundry services, pool halls and bars clutter the main drag, posing as “respectable” businesses. Matheus explains that, although prostitution is legal in Brazil, running a brothel is not; each of these establishments therefore holds a legal registration of trade.
Despite its unassuming façade, business at Vila Mimosa is thriving. According to the residents’ association, the district receives close to four thousand visitors a day, generating $430,000 USD each month. An estimated 2,000 women work here, providing cheap thrills to a primarily straight, working-class male clientele (male and transgender prostitutes are confined to other quarters of the city). Some work part-time, holding down day jobs as maids and cashiers; others work around the clock.
It is mid-afternoon as we enter the crumbling edifices and business is just getting started. In dimly-lit rooms – some throbbing with neon-tube lighting, some adorned with the odd Halloween decoration – scantily-clad women drape themselves across doorframes and chat in half-empty bars with friends. Stopping to linger between rooms, we catch glimpses of female silhouettes gyrating to Brazilian funk and fawning over the few clients that have arrived early to avoid the Saturday-night rush. Others simply sit around, waiting.
A world away from the image of the “happy” prostitute learning English, or the boutique “love motel” commonly associated with sex-for-sale in Brazil, Vila Mimosa is the darker side of Rio’s sex industry. Prices bottom out at $20 USD per “program” and many of those found working here do so out of desperation, necessity and a lack of real alternatives. It is as close as you can get to “survival sex.”
But for some, Vila Mimosa is a place of relative freedom that offers the chance to earn quick money. Carolina is a prostitute and community activist who came to Vila Mimosa a decade ago, after working in a variety of sex venues across Rio, São Paulo and the state of Minas Gerais. I was introduced to her on my second trip to the district and, as we sat at a makeshift bar on the street where she lives, she explained why she prefers Vila Mimosa to the more glamorous hotspots of Rio's sex scene.
Despite a grueling schedule, Carolina failed to make enough money in the fancier, upscale places she worked. At one high-end club in Minas Gerais, she was forced to pay 60 reais ($25 USD) just to show up to work. “If I worked a 24-hour shift, I needed seven clients just to break even,” she says. “Sometimes I would work all night and still go home with nothing.”
By contrast, Carolina earned enough money in one week at Vila Mimosa to furnish her apartment; she could even pay someone to watch her children while she worked. At Vila Mimosa, she chooses her own hours and has control over who she accepts as a client. “I don’t go upstairs with guys who are high,” she asserts.
Carolina knows that downtown brothels are safer – only last month a woman was shot dead by a client in Vila Mimosa — but she does not want to compete against other (younger and more attractive) women for business. In high-end brothels, she reveals, clients choose girls from a line-up. Leaving work empty-handed is a risk that Carolina, now in her forties, cannot afford.
Content working at Vila Mimosa, the excitement of the World Cup will not tempt Carolina to work downtown. Because of Vila Mimosa’s peripheral position in the city, the majority of Carolina’s clients are not gringos but locals, and she intends to keep it that way. “I’ve had better experiences with Brazilians, in terms of paying and not paying,” she explains. If anything, Carolina worries that, like the Rio+20 Conference in June 2012, the World Cup might lead to a decline in business. “Rio+20 was the worst time ever. Nobody came for a program; they only wanted to interview us.”
When asked about other concerns facing residents, Carolina shrugged off eviction. She believes proposals to build a high-speed train connecting Rio and São Paulo (and cutting right through Vila Mimosa) won’t come off. Even if they did, she argues, it wouldn’t bring substantial change for those living and working here: they will continue to turn tricks at rock-bottom prices.
For Carolina, there are more pressing concerns than the looming threat of eviction. Increased competition caused by the proliferation of “saunas” in Rio’s business district, poor working conditions, social stigma and daily risks to health and safety are just a few of the issues we discussed. The spectre of eviction and the promised bounties of the World Cup are simply not on her radar.
Vila Mimosa is just one of several areas of prostitution in Rio where “the World Cup effect” is likely to be limited. “Everybody thinks Copacabana and Vila Mimosa are the only areas of prostitution,” says anthropologist Thaddeus Blanchette. “But we’ve mapped 279 prostitution points across the city, including Vila.” Little is known about the day-to-day existences of those living and working in these less-documented areas, less still about those engaging in sex work in favelas. But it is likely that life in these places resembles that in Vila Mimosa more closely than that found along Copacabana’s glitzy beachfront.
Like other communities located beyond the beating heart of Rio’s city centre, Vila Mimosa is largely untouched by the development plans that are transforming other (more desirable) parts of the city. Residents are too preoccupied with their daily struggles to fret about the lingering possibility of having to move. Disconnected from the opportunities and excitement found elsewhere in the city, they expect to reap little of the rewards that others are already claiming from the World Cup. Like Carolina, most will continue to sell sex for as little as $20 USD per “program.”
Carolina’s name has been changed to protect her identity.