Having read the introduction and fourth chapter of Sex Tourism in Bahia in preparation for Erica Williams’ visit to our class, we already had a firm grasp on a number of the fundamental premises of the book prior to her arrival. For example, we were aware that Brazil had surpassed Thailand as the world’s number one destination for sex tourism, and we understood how the legalization of sex work in Brazil was contributing to its booming sex tourism industry. However, as we considered what we wanted to discuss during Dr. Williams’ visit, we arrived at the conclusion that the most intriguing parts of her narrative were the sections that dealt with the complicated racial and socioeconomic dynamics of Brazilian sex tourism, and how the structures of capitalism are connected with them. In the book, Dr. Williams provides a number of eye-opening accounts of foreign tourists who have traveled to Brazil with the explicit—or in some cases, implicit—intention of indulging in Brazil’s erotic subculture. What we found particularly salient about these anecdotes was the way in which the foreign men, either as a result of their whiteness, relative affluence, or both, seemed to possess a great deal of privilege within the areas of Brazil they were experiencing. These men boasted about their erotic exploits and commended the sexual openness of Brazilian women, yet they seemed either unaware or disinterested in how their status as foreigners might be influencing their experiences. Dr. Williams noted that race and class status were very important within the industry, and many foreigners took advantage of this.
Another compelling aspect of Dr. Williams’ book that she discussed during her visit was the way in which the international reputation of Brazilian women has been deliberately manufactured as a marketing ploy designed to attract tourists. Dr. Williams referenced several instances of how corporations and agencies have attempted to manipulate public perception regarding the female population of Brazil. For example, there are thousands of postcards that prominently display the scantily clad bodies of these women, and during the lead up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Adidas even released several shirts containing lewd messages, such as “lookin’ to score in Brazil.” Furthermore, Brazil’s famous Carnival festival is widely associated with beautiful, half-naked women dancing on floats precisely because those are the images that are proliferated in order to increase its popularity. As Dr. Williams explained, “other countries don’t have the same sexualized reputation as Brazil. We think of women in skimpy clothes because of the tourist propaganda. Those are the images that have been exported.”
Dr. Williams also spoke about how within the Brazilian sex industry, the line could sometimes be blurred between prostitution and companionship. Specifically, Dr. Williams claimed that in many cases, sex workers enjoyed entertaining foreign clients because many of those men weren’t only interested in sex; they were also looking for someone to accompany them on trips or dinner outings. However, these arrangements could become problematic when foreign men effectively exploited Brazilian women by only paying them for sex while using them for many other services. To illustrate this point, Dr. Williams spoke about how foreign men frequently tried to use Brazilian women to give them tours of the region, rather than hiring actual tour guides.
Dr. Williams’ book was enlightening because it put into perspective the complex interplay between Brazil’s government, sex workers, and tourists. Moreover, her visit to class allowed us to get a better sense of the specifics of what she encountered while conducting research for her project. There is no simple way to define the sex industry in Brazil or the structures that underpin it; however, above all, Dr. Williams emphasized that public perception of Brazilian culture is tragically skewed largely as a result of propaganda campaigns intended to portray its women as exotic and hypersexual. Furthermore, she pushed back against the notion that all Brazilian sex workers are victims of exploitation, and she argued that for some, the profession represented a useful economic opportunity.