“Everyone has a right to be a protagonist…I’ve been talking about prostitution for 30 years, and then I arrive here and have to hear these things, it’s screwed up, isn’t? I listen to Alana say that politicized prostitutes “are something else”. We can’t even be politicized! Poor politicized whores cannot exist. I talked, and I felt like I was invisible.” – Gabriela Leite
“Prostitution is not a crime, but it is not free.” – Maira Fernandes
These quotes are from an event on November 7th, in which Gabriela participated in a debate at the Brazilian Lawyer’s Organization (OAB in Portuguese) regarding the current proposal before Brazil’s senate to take out all criminal laws referent to adult prostitution. The proposal forms part of a larger reform of Brazil’s penal code proposed by a group of congressionally appointed attorneys to Brazil’s senate in August of 2012.
Sex work is a recognized profession in the Ministry of Labor’s “Brazilian Occupational Categories” (CBO) and the sale of sex for money is not illegal, however prostitution businesses and making money off prostitution (i.e. pimping) is illegal, making it incredibly difficult for sex workers to organize for labor rights, work in cooperatives with others, access to necessary health and legal information/supplies and impossible to regulate and guarantee decent working conditions.
The debate included Federal Deputy, Jean Wyllys (PSOL), who recently presented a law named in honor of Gabriela to clarify the legal distinction between “sexual exploitation” and “prostitution” and legalize prostitution businesses as a way to protect and promote sex workers’ labor rights and reduce the sexual exploitation of women and minors. Jean Wyllys is also known for defending LGBT rights and the decriminalization of abortion and marijuana. When he presented, emphasized that his “fight for the rights of homossexuals is completely aligned with fights for individual rights and broader human rights”. He continued that this is, “part of why I am for this issue, and also because when Gabriela and I were candidates (in 2010), I ran into Gabriela in a debate,and said, “If I wasn’t a candidate, I would vote for you.” And I told her that if I was elected, I would assume this battle, this fight.”
The table was presided over by Margarida Pressburger, an attorney and President of the OAB’s Human Rights Comission and moderated by Sonia Correa, a member of the OAB and Co-Coordinator of Sexuality Policy Watch, Maira Fernandes, the President of the Penitentiary Council of the State of Rio de Janeiro, and Rubens Casara, a judge and Vice-president of the Permanent Forum on Human Rights from the EMERJ. Earlier this year, Judge Casara made the news when he defended prostitutes’ rights to chose their profession and legally work when he absolved two owners of prostitution businesses being accused of sexual exploitation stating that the Public Ministries’ decision was part of a larger, repressive political effort against prostitution as part of preparation for the World Cup and Olympic games. On the other end of the spectrum, was Alana Moraes, an anthropologist from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro representing the feminist organization, Marcha Mundial das Mulheres
The majority of the panel was in favor of the changes proposed to completely decriminalize prostitution, except for the representative from the Marcha Mundial das Mulheres. Judge Casara also made an important distinction between his support for the complete decriminalization of prostitution and his views regarding the proposal as a whole. He believes that the reforms of the penal code in their entirety will “irrationally expand” the number of people arrested and jailed in Brazil. He argued that more progressive issues like those related to prostitution and abortion deviate attention away from authoritarian measures that use incarceration to address social problems, resulting in what he termed as, the “criminalization of poverty”.
Alana Moraes from the Marcha Mundial das Mulheres, on the other hand, argued that prostitution is a social problem that should not be completely decriminalized or regulated. The Marcha condemns prostitution as male domination of the female body, and conceptualizes sex work as a product of poverty and inequality, creating a situation in which choice, autonomy and agency are not possible. The viewpoint expressed is one in which female pleasure and desire is largely absent and male power is omnipresent. While the State is seen as ineffective, data from the police and mass media were cited as reliable sources of information and “proof” of exploitation. The voices of sex workers themselves, however, and the sex worker movement in Brazil specifically, was discredited and ignored.
Gabriela’s quote at the beginning of this post is a reaction to this erasure. As Jean Wyllys defended, Gabriela is a “proletariat prostitute”, who worked in prostitution areas frequented by the working class. The prostitute movement in Brazil was founded by, and continues to be made up of, women who represent sex workers who work on the streets and establishments for popular classes, yet their voices continue to be ignored by the abolitionist movement in Brazil. The anti-prostitution debate in Brazil has echoes of those around the world in which sex workers voices are silenced, and years of political activism are discounted under the guise of a defense of women’s rights and autonomy – that simultaneously rejects the right of a woman to use her body for pleasure. As Maira Fernandes noted, in response to the argument that prostitution is exploitation of the female body, the Marcha das Mulheres discounts that in the capitalist system, all use their body to earn wages. She cited Marta Nussbaum’s famous article that discusses the ways in which all people use their bodies for work, and how the stigma related to prostitution may be more related to class prejudice and stereotypes than anything else.
Carole Vance noted amidst the “sex wars” in the 1980s in the United States that, “the most important sexual organ is between the ears”. In this case, we all sell, rent, and exploit our most important sexual organ daily. Returning to think about what sex is, where sexual fantasies are created, how sexual desire is constructed, and what truly is sold in prostitution is critical to re- routing the debates from moral issues and dichotomous ways of thinking (men vs. women; autonomous vs. enslaved; proletariat vs. bourgeois; savior vs. victims, etc.).
We all perhaps need to use our most important sexual organs a little bit more.
The illegality of prostitution businesses and pimping (which is broadly interpreted as anyone making money off prostitution) have maintained prostitution in a marginal and criminal space in Brazil. The human rights lawyers and judge on the panel conferred that this makes defending sex workers’ human rights extremely difficult. Jean Wyllys, for example explained that he decided to take up the cause of sex workers’ rights because as a gay man, he has felt the effects of stigma, and knows what it is like to be discriminated against. The negative effects of criminalization in terms of sex workers human rights, and health has been documented in various studies and international documents, including UNAIDS Guidance on Sex Work and the international commission HIV & the Law, and numerous papers published by the Network on Sex Work Projects. Yet as Sonia Correa noted, many of these international documents have not been translated into Portuguese, and therefore, are not cited or referenced by government policy makers.
The question thus remains – if sex worker movements around the world, internationally appointed committees of people considered legal and health experts, and feminist scholars agree that decriminalization is necessary to guarantee and promote sex worker rights, why do some feminist organizations continue to be against full decriminalization? What does it mean that abolitionists place more trust in the legal system and police – one of the most patriarchal and hierarchical social systems – than movements led by female sex workers?
In closing, Sonia Correa continued in the Marxist spirit of the debate and cited Friedrich Engels’ in the classic text, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” in which he states that the only thing that explains the condemnation of prostitution are bourgeois values and religious morality. In this case, abolitionists might consider that in addition to the police, they are also aligning themselves with the bourgeois and religious institutions (as also noted by Columbia Sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein).
Gabriela followed, citing Lenin while defending her use of a Prada hat bought for her by a close friend in a Sao Paulo from a second hand store stating, “From the bourgeois we should take only their elegance and good taste”.
For everything else, we should look to those who are truly the experts of their own lives and experiences – in this case, sex workers themselves.
Gabriela in the event: