Three claps in the air herald the arrival of a customer, meaning all conversation must stop and the girls must stand again on their vertiginous 15cm heels and smooth out their mini skirts. No one is referred to by name and there is no ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. Three claps and the girls know to get back into character as two young Japanese men who look like nerds come in and find themselves with a beer in their hand before they have time to sit down. Their eyes are level with the legs of the women whose difficult lives and lack of money have brought them here. It’s time for them to choose.
We are at a nightclub in the touristy Copacabana district of Rio de Janeiro, less than two weeks before the start of the Olympic Games. The streets outside are bustling with prostitutes. But inside, things remain low-key for now, and six women from across Brazil, their faces heavily made up, their shoulders tired and their legs bruised, sit on the sofas and tell their stories. Our conversations will continue over the course of a week in another nightclub in the center of Rio, where they work from Monday to Friday, and in the luxury apartment which they share with seven other women and inside the taxi that takes them to work every day.
Each of these women has a different story to tell – there’s an autopsy assistant, a flight attendant, a physiotherapy student, an aspiring masseuse with a Bible in her purse and a handful of mothers. There’s also a beauty queen and a future industrial engineer who refused to be interviewed. They all have three things in common – they sleep with men for money, they hate it, and they have come to Rio in the hope of making a small fortune during the Olympics. They also share a dream of starting over after the Olympics ends.
When Luiza first worked as a prostitute, her ambition was simple: she wanted to eat salmon and cotton candy, the dreams of a woman who has missed out on her childhood
The man who brought these women here is a mathematician with no experience in prostitution and an equally inexperienced partner. Though they don’t believe they will make their fortunes exactly, they lost no time in opening a club in the center of the city to take advantage of the Olympic tourism.
The two men’s official line is that they have brought women from other states because local customers are demanding variety. In reality, bringing women from further afield means they have greater control over them as they can put them up in a flat they use themselves, and make sure they don’t miss work or cause other problems.
It’s lunchtime in this four-bedroom apartment located in a luxury residential estate with views of the city’s Botanical Gardens. Luiza (not her real name) is in the kitchen, making a traditional prawn dish – a rare treat, as usually it’s chicken or red meat. There are two sittings for the 13 women who live here. Those who eat first leave for the club at 1pm to entertain the crowds of businessmen on their lunch hour. The women in the second sitting leave at 3pm. They eat and go for seconds – the next food they will see will be a ham sandwich that they will have to eat standing up at the club.
Luiza is 32 and she comes from the state of Espírito Santo, 500 km from here. She learned to cook from the woman she thinks of as her mother – the director of the orphanage where she lived until she reached the age of 19. It’s been almost 10 years since she last worked as a prostitute but she’s come back to it after leaving her husband, who got her out of it the first time round.
When she first worked as a prostitute, her ambition was simple – she wanted to eat salmon and cotton candy, the dreams of a woman who has missed out on her childhood. Today her goals are different. She wants to open a restaurant. She’s not happy to be here but she needs the money to set it up. Shyly, she tells us, “I haven’t had much luck with the customers yet.”
Luiza intends to stay in Rio until August 22, when the Games come to an end. Then she aims to leave the streets behind her forever.
No one is referred to by name and there is no ‘please’ or ‘thank you’
Thrown into the deal offered by the mathematician and his partner is the fare to and from Rio, food, transportation and free lodging. In exchange, the women work the clubs for eight hours a day, Monday to Friday, encourage the customers to buy food and drink, and sleep with as many of them as possible.
The customers pay 100 reales, the equivalent of €27, to get in to the club, and 300 reales (€81) for sex, plus another100 reales for the room. Prostitution is not a crime in Brazil and has been officially recognized by the Labor Ministry since 2012, but what the math man and his partner are doing is considered pimping and carries a four-year jail sentence.
Carol has a long black mane of hair and tattoos all over her legs. She is from Sao Paulo, 400 km from Rio. At 22, she looks vulnerable and, as if to confirm this, she stays close to Márcio who is often to be found sitting in a chair in the living room of the apartment. Márcio is the taxi driver who ferries the women from A to B, a man with plenty of experience of tumultuous love affairs and prostitution who often sleeps on a mattress on the floor. Carol sits on his knee, puts her arms around him and flirts.
Later, she admits to feeling lonely but she believes Rio is her ticket to a better life. “My father got ill and I had to sell my motorbike to pay the medical bills,” she says. “I’m not sorry about my decision to become a prostitute because I got into it to help my family, but I have a lonely side and that makes things difficult. I don’t have a boyfriend and I’m not close to my parents or my friends.” She grows tearful and adds, “By the end of this year, I want to have left this life behind, I want to get married and start a family and work in something else. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”
Thais, 24, grew up in an Evangelical family and traveled 1,200 km to get here. She says she is considering giving up her physiotherapy career for a while so she can stay to the end of the Olympics. She wants to make more money so that she can invest in a post-graduate degree, learn English and travel. “I don’t know what to do,” she says. “I could make more but I won’t graduate with my friends and I don’t know what to tell my parents.” As far as her family is concerned, she’s on holiday.
“I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone,” she continues. “When I started I was 19 and I thought it was going to be fun, but the fun only lasted a month. My biggest fear is that I will never be able to leave it behind because I always find some excuse to come back to it. It’s not easy money but it’s quick and it becomes a habit.”
They eat and go for seconds – the next food they will see will be a ham sandwich that they will have to eat standing up at the club
It’s Maria’s first night working in the club. If she doesn’t get any customers, she’ll have to stay until 6am. Already, she is thinking of throwing in the towel. “I hate what I’m doing,” she says. “But it’s the only way I can make quick money. I looked really hard for something else but nothing came up…”
Dressed in a top with a leopard print neckline and a black mini skirt, she explains that she had considered staying in the apartment until her graduation as an autopsy assistant in September, but dropped the idea last Thursday.
“I came with the idea of making money,” she says later when she is on the bus to Goiás, 1,700 km from Rio. “I have bills to pay and I want to travel, and they told me there would be a lot of action, but it wasn’t like that.”
Maria won’t be the only one to have her hopes dashed before the end of the Olympics. Big sporting events like these are generally seen as cash cows, but for many this turns out to be no more than a fairytale.
A study run by the Prostitution Observatory in Rio’s Federal University during the World Cup in 2014 concluded that for most women, prostitution during big events doesn’t pay. For a start, the competition is too stiff and national holidays related to the event means there is less rather than more activity in the city centers. Not withstanding, the bouncer on the door of the women’s club tells us that the line to get in snaked around the block during the World Cup.
Martha, who comes from Sao Paulo, is a 22-year-old single mother with a generous, childish smile. Her parents are dead and she is looking for a future in Rio for her daughter, who has stayed behind with her unemployed sister. She started working as a prostitute just two months ago, when the pay from her job in a chocolate shop wasn’t enough for milk.
“You can’t bring up a child on 1,000 reales (€280) a month, can you?” she says. But her problems are bigger than her supermarket bills. The father of her child is threatening to kill her, and she wants to leave town before he gets out of jail.
I hate what I’m doing. But it’s the only way I can make quick money. I looked really hard for something else but nothing came up…
Among the old hands is Tamara, a tall woman of generous proportions, who has few illusions left about her world. At 29, she has worked as a prostitute all over Brazil, following the big events, and has even done a European tour. Educated by nuns, she carries a Bible in her purse as she speaks frankly about a job she finds difficult without drugs.
“I started because I wanted to go to university,” she says. “But ask me if I’ve studied anything... No. The money becomes so addictive, it’s hard to get out.”
According to Tamara, the dream nurtured by so many of her colleagues of leaving the streets behind for a better life is just wishful thinking. “There’s no such thing as an ex-whore,” she says. “You can stop for a while but you always go back to what you do best. I am desperate to leave this behind. But finding other work isn’t easy. What happens if I leave it and then I run out of money?”
A week after meeting the women for the first time, we realize they have something else in common – when the noise of the club fades and the alcohol and sex get showered off, they all cry silently into their pillows.
English version by Heather Galloway.