Sex Work and Sports Events

A brothel in Vila Mimosa, Rio’s red-light district.

A brothel in Vila Mimosa, Rio’s red-light district.
Photo by Julie Ruvolo/Red Light Rio Project

Greg Mitchell has been researching sex workers in Brazil for nearly a decade, beginning with ethnographic studies of male prostitutes and, more recently, studying the marginalization of female sex workers during global sporting events. Now, the professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies is expanding his focus beyond Brazil.

While working on his Ph.D. in performance studies at Northwestern University, Mitchell interviewed male sex workers in Brazil, where prostitution is legal but poorly regulated, to better understand marketing aimed at gay tourists. Interviews with the men, many of whom identify as heterosexual and support their families through commercial sex, are the basis of Mitchell’s forthcoming book Tourist Attractions: Performing Race & Masculinity in Brazil’s Sexual Economy (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

When Brazil was awarded the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, Mitchell and several other researchers founded the Prostitution Observatory at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, hoping to broaden the national conversation about sex workers’ rights. Many of Brazil’s more than 1 million prostitutes say they choose the work for its earning potential but nonetheless face violence and brutalization at the hands of corrupt police.

“With the global eye on Brazil, we knew the government would start to crack down violently to reduce the visibility of the red-light district,” Mitchell says. It’s a pattern he observed in the U.K. and South Africa, where police forcibly cleaned up the streets when the Olympics and World Cup, respectively, brought global attention.

Mitchell recently received a National Science Foundation grant to continue his research in Brazil. He’ll also be traveling to South Africa, the U.K. and Russia—host of the Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup—hoping to find out what happens after a global sporting event ends. “Does the red light district pop back up?” he asks. “Do the safety networks re-form? Where did the women go, and are they better or worse off now?”

He also wants to know why similar patterns surround global sporting events in other countries and what policies countries—including the U.S. during the Super Bowl—can develop to create safer conditions and protect sex workers.

—Julia Munemo