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Motherland, feminine noun

Research questions the real reason for and the results of policies against the trafficking of women

Reproduction“Interior no Mangue” (Interior at Mangue), 1949, oil on canvas, 71 x 58 cm, private collection, São PauloReproduction

In a symptomatic analogy with daily gender relations, thousands of men arm themselves and go to war to defend the motherland, interestingly a feminine noun, not only in Portuguese, and often depicted in several countries as a woman. Unfortunately, the same enthusiasm for the battle fields is repeated at home when the war is over, in an analogous register of the daily gender divisions. One need only recall how, after World War II ended, in France (just to mention one example), thousands of women who had had relationships with German soldiers were humiliated in public squares simply for loving the enemy. However, nothing happened to most of the serious men that carried out lucrative business with the invaders. It was easier and more “logical” to direct the rage regarding the offended motherland towards women that had “marred” the State’s honor.

Today, this pattern seems to be repeating itself in other areas, now under the veil of humanitarian concerns. From soap operas to ongoing headlines in the media, the trafficking of women is causing moral and actual panic. But what is the dimension of this phenomenon and what is the underlying interest in this issue” Far from denying the existence of trafficking, the married researchers, one American and one Brazilian, Ana Paula da Silva and Thaddeus Blanchette, both with a PhD from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), carried out field studies in order to provide new perspectives on the debate, with innovative results. “The single woman, especially the young single woman, occupies a privileged arena in the debates on the dangers of immigration. She is usually introduced as someone who would be exposed to the dangers of sexual enslavement, once she is outside the protective family network and away from the care of the government of her place of birth,” say the authors, best known for their paper “Nossa Senhora da Help: sexo, turismo e deslocamento transnacional em Copacabana” (Our Lady of Help: sex, tourism and transnational movement in Copacabana). They now have two other unpublished papers arising out of their new studies, in which they further question the issue, which involves matters such as sexual tourism, prostitution and the trafficking of women. According to them, care and scientific conduct are necessary in dealing with the subject, rather than sensationalism or fake passion, under penalty of turning the struggle for human rights into prejudice and repression. “The immigration plans of these women is often seen as a danger to their purity and freedom. Additionally, the young immigrant is also seen as a danger to the nation,” they advise. “Their international movement represents a threat both to the country they go to and to their country of origin, in which they are seen either as sources of “bad behavior” and/or biological threats, or as potential threats to the status of their home country, as people whose behavior may mar its reputation. Prostitutes stand out in this respect,” they analyze. They state that because they are forbidden from moving, they attract all sorts of vigilance and repression. “But in their attempt to control frontiers, protect their citizens and the nation, how can each State determine who is and who is not a prostitute” Thus, it seems that instead of discovering who the prostitutes engaged on such migratory paths are, the State makes them up, imposing a pre-fabricated moral and political concept upon a significant number of women who may or may not be prostitutes.”

For the researchers, the discussion lost its objectivity and turned into moral panic similar to that which took over the USA in the early twentieth century regarding white slavery, also based on the racial fantasy of the Victorians, horrified at the possibility of imagining the Empire’s white women in the hands and beds of “inferior” colonial men. “These lines of discourse have been re-appeared because they are relatively unchallenged elements for building additional screens against the stream of immigrants to Western European and North American countries.” Thus, they advise, the Brazilian narrative on women trafficking seems to be based more on myths and stereotypes than on reality, since there are no reliable statistics, nor any indication that a significant number of Brazilian women are being drawn into this. “The main studies on trafficking in Brazil indicate that the participation of foreigners in the process is very low. The same figures show that this issue is confused with the problem of prostitute immigration, when the voluntary migration of these professionals are counted as cases of trafficking women, even when they don’t involve the violation of human rights. – The authors warn that there is a tendency in this debate to use accusations or claims as if they were analytical categories, a viewpoint that do not take into account that these women can be active agents in the building of their destinies, according to the authors. “This quest for victims and villains overshadows the operations of the relationships that form connections between international tourism, migration and sex operations in most large Brazilian cities.” The sad note in this possibly misleading view is that “most of the efforts of the Brazilian government in the struggle against trafficking seem to focus on stopping or discouraging the travel of people deemed as “vulnerable” to trafficking, rather than helping them become capable of traveling safely.” In this context, it is possible that “the concern with women’s sexual slavery is being mobilized not to protect the women in fact, but to repress their movement and protect the nation’s reputation.”

reproduction“Grupo do Mangue na escada” (Mangue group on staircase), 1928, metal engraving, 24 x 18 cm, Museu Lasar Segall, São Pauloreproduction

This perspective may hinder both a true understanding of trafficking and of the always harmful potential consequences of sexual tourism. For the researchers, one can observe a notion of sexual tourism in the discourse by government agencies on the issue, according to which sexual tourism is practically a synonym for minor abuse, always connected with the extradition of women for forced labor as prostitutes. The solution is the repression of women and expulsion of men. The locus of the researchers’ initial research was the night club Help, in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, a meeting point for prostitutes and foreigners. The night club, in fact, has just been closed and will be “purified” by its transformation, by the State Government, to the headquarters of a new Image and Sound Museum. The researchers observed and talked to Help’s clients and prostitutes in order to write a more realistic profile about sexual tourists and their reasons, discovering the reasons behind the foreigners who chose to come to Brazil, amid so many possible countries. First, they say, there is an idealization that Brazilian women have an added natural sexuality, with a notorious detail that would make Gilberto Freyre laugh out loud, since, for the tourists, the country’s racial mix is the reason for this alleged sexuality. “Coming to Rio is like going to one of those ice cream shops in which you can choose from a thousand flavors, you know” It’s far more exciting to come here than to go to Mexico or Cuba, where the mix of women is more limited,” said one of the interviewees.
Another “chimera” of the tourists is the idea that the relations reflected in the city, especially the role of the woman in the family and in society, are typical of another era, from the past in foreigners’ countries of origin. “Here, women know how to treat men and are like women were in Europe many years ago,” said another tourist. Finally, there is the view of the city of Rio and of Brazil as “losers,” as socioeconomic areas incapable of adequately providing for most of their inhabitants, especially women, while the foreigners have money and status; this lends them the ability, through engagement and marriage, to provide permanent visas for their spouses, thus rendering them far more interesting to Brazilian women, prostitutes or otherwise. Based on these assumptions, the researchers observed the other end of this relation, in order to question the stereotyped discourse on sexual tourism and the trafficking of women, and found out that “women are active in keeping up the perception of Brazil as a place in which sexual and emotional fantasies can come true,” since (just for the sake of example) the prostitutes who act like “girlfriends’ are far more successful than those who work only as immediate providers of sexual satisfaction. “Far from being mere victims, these women have an impressive control of their actions and representations, resorting to artifices to achieve the desired social climbing, by pretending to establish connections with visiting foreigners, so that they are not seen simply as cold mercenaries.”

Things are more subtle than the traditional pick up line, “what is a girl like you doing in a place like this”, – and the researchers question article 231 of the Brazilian Civil Procedure Code, which defines helping any women that will work as prostitutes abroad to leave the country as a crime in the trafficking of women. “This definition ignores the habits of prostitution in places such as Copacabana, in which love and the sale of sex are the same thing. Thus, it seems that it is very unlikely that this legislation can prevent the trafficking of women, as long as it continues to be equal to the international travel of prostitutes.” The researchers also mention that after Brazil, in 2004, signed the Palermo Protocol, which deals with the trafficking issue, there have been few and short internal public debates on the new policy for dealing with the matter, which did not take the opinion of prostitutes into account. “It seems that dealing with the issue will be restricted to article 231, which establishes that any prostitute on the move is, in fact, a trafficked woman. A political project with a democratic bias, that supposedly fights the trafficking of woman, has been developed as an authoritarian repressive program against prostitution, that aims at obtaining popular legitimacy by appealing to “Brazil’s international responsibilities”. The keyword in this discourse is vulnerability, as if women who travel internationally are always incapable of making a rational decision and it being necessary to repress them, therefore, restricting their right to come and go, “for their own good.” Thus, according to the authors, prostitutes are seen as inferior, incapable women, whose activity is connected to illegality and to criminal mobs, although prostitution, according to Brazilian legislation, is legally accepted.

“We can formulate the hypothesis that in the struggle to gain status among other nations, one of the State’s attributions is to safeguard the purity of it`s citizens when they travel beyond its frontiers, for their behavior, if ethnically or nationally identified abroad, can be easily ascribed to all the women from that society,” they say. This points to a complex web of moral values and interests that provide for and inform the State’s actions, rendering the “protective” actions less useful in the fight against real trafficking, since these actions center on the discourses that build up the value of the nation in a globalized world. “There is more: it is important to remember that we currently know very little about prostitution and its possible connections with the trafficking of women. Therefore, hegemonic narratives in the anti-trafficking universe are not based on scientific logic, but on a moral and political order that misleadingly presents itself as the result of socio-scientific research.”

As a result, they highlight, there are shady hegemonic narratives. The first stresses how important it is for Brazil to show that it is a responsible member of the group of nations. The second separates Brazilian women traveling internationally into those who “can travel” and those who “are vulnerable and cannot travel, at least for the time being.” Finally, there is the narrative that ranks prostitution, in general, as exceptionally degrading and dangerous work, equivalent to drug smuggling. “These data inevitably make us question a State that, on the one hand, acknowledges the repression of the violation of women’s rights as its duty, and on the other hand, is served by public officers who regard prostitutes as essentially criminal beings with no rights.” Thus, anti-trafficking police repression continues to be guided by the prohibition of prostitutes traveling, and not by the desire to ensure these women’s (and men”s) human rights. The basis of everything, once again, is the connection between feminine sexual purity, the State and the relative status of social groups. “In a society in which the symbols of “purity” are recognized by most people, it is easy to say who is or is not “pure”. When there are marriages among people of different societies, the possibility of discerning the relative purity of a woman is reduced; therefore, ethnicity or nationality are understood as a “trademark” of feminine quality.” It is important to recall, according to the authors, that the word “French” in Rio de Janeiro, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was a synonym for prostitute, much like what seems to be happening with the word “Brazilian” in Europe and the USA.