Sex Trafficking at the Olympics in Rio

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by Cassidy Welter

The Opening Ceremonies on August 5th marked the official start to the largest sporting competition in the world, the Summer Olympics. Hundreds of thousands of spectators, commentators, and athletes are expected to pour into Brazil, bringing with them billions of dollars to spend in a nation embroiled in the one of the longest and most devastating economic recessions it has ever seen.  While many tourists will spend their money on event tickets, mementos, hotels, and attractions, many others will spend their money engaging in transactional sex with prostituted persons and trafficked persons.

The concept of engaging in transactional sex, where the buyer pays for sexual services, while on holiday or outside of one’s normal community of residence is known as “sex tourism”. Sex tourism occurs in every nation that receives tourists, whether they are traveling internationally or domestically within their own country. Sex itself can be a tourist attraction. Think of the explicit references to sex that drive tourism to Amsterdam’s red light districts, and to the prostitution districts of Thailand. Julia O’Connell-Davidson, a sociologist who explores sex trafficking, explains the link between sex and travel, “Sex is widely understood to be part of the tourist experience, and whether with other tourists, with local ‘holiday romances’, or with sex workers, many people expect to have more sex whilst on vacation.”

The Olympics are no different. Drawing attendees from every nation, the Games bring enormous amounts of liquid capital into the country as well as tourists who may have little regard for the people and laws of a nation they view as a temporary source of their pleasure. Rio’s red light districts are booming and employ tens of thousands of women. Prostitution is legal in Brazil, though operating a brothel or employing “sex workers” in any institutionalized capacity is not.

During the 2014 World Cup, which was also held in Rio de Janeiro, those engaged in commercial sex experienced the expected rise in sex tourism. Pending any major disruption to the Games or to the city itself, there will be more tourists paying for sex in the coming weeks than Rio has previously seen.  Tourists who may not typically engage in transactional sex in their home country, may see the Olympics as an opportunity to fulfill fantasies, to behave  as if there are no consequences, and to compartmentalize their actions in the fairly typical tourist attitude of “What happens in Rio stays in Rio”. The explicitly sexualized perception of Brazilian women, and of Brazil as an erotic destination, will  only further serve to exacerbate this issue. While millions of people all over the world watch their home countries compete in the Olympic Games, far fewer will consider the actions of the individuals sitting in the stands.  Sex tourism will occur both in the shadows of Rio and in the light of the Olympic Torch. While awareness is only the beginning to combating this violation of human rights, it is an important step to take as we turn our sights towards Brazil.

Brazilian non-governmental organizations have made human trafficking a more visible issue in recent years. In 2003, the National Commission for the Eradication of Slave Labor (Commisão Nacional para a Erradicação do Trabalho Escravo) was created by the Secretary of Human Rights, Maria do Rosário Nunes. Along with the Brazilian NGO Repórter Brasil, the National Commission has created the Protocol Against Slave Labor (Protocol Contra o Trabalho Escravo), which urges all political candidates to make anti-slave labor initiatives a policy priority once elected. With the impending impeachment trial of current President Dilma Rousseff fast approaching, anti-human trafficking efforts may become a major policy issue if Rousseff is removed from office and the interim political party seeks to regain public support following the Olympics.