Friday, November 6, 2009

The Hottest Spot North of Havana: Why Gringos Come to Rio for Sex

Americans often ask, “Why are so many men going to Rio de Janeiro for sex?” This is often followed by another question:“What is it that Brazilian women have that American women don’t?”

It is this second question – the presumption that Brazilian women are somehow sexually unique – that ends up obfuscating the first.

To put it bluntly, Brazilian women do not “have” anything in particular that is attracting American and European men. Brazil – and more particularly, the city of Rio de Janeiro – attracts foreign men not because of the quality of its women, but because of a series of deeply rooted, socio-culturally constructed fantasies about tropical destinations in general and Rio and Brazil in particular. These fantasies are then combined with opportunities – opportunities provided by one of the most well-established legal, international prostitution scenes in the western hemisphere – to construct a sort of sexual never-never land, where male desires regarding women are apparently fulfilled by female realities. Note that "apparently".

In Rio, American fantasies meet with Brazilian realities to create a virtuality: the “Brazilian” woman. Said virtuality, however, is overdetermined by a long-standing Euro-American cultural tradition which associates Brazil and the city of Rio de Janeiro with tropical beaches, exotic femininity and free and easy sex. It is also overdetermined by a very jaded carioca view of foreigners as gullible innocents who are deeply influenced by just such a view of the world.

Long before the sexual tourist arrives in Brazil, he has a vision of the country. That vision might best be presented, in capsule form, by a refrain from the old Barry Manilow song, Copacabana:

Copa, Copacabana, the hottest spot north of Havana.

The fantasy view of tropicalist sex and love is so deeply embedded in Euroamerican conscience that usually, all I have to do is mention to a group of foreigners that I study Copacabana and someone will start singing that above refrain. (Jewel Woods even has it as a lead in to one of the chapters of his book, Don't Blame it on Rio: Why African American Men Go to Brazil for Sex.) The interesting thing about the song, however, is that Copacabana is, of course, NOT to the north of Havana, but far to the south. The song itself is about a fantasy Copa, a bar situated in North America in the 1940s. The fact that it seems to spring to the fore of the Euroamerican conscience whenever one mentions the REAL Copacabana is an indication of how deeply rooted fantasy tends to obfuscate reality when talking about Brazil, Rio and sex.

More tellingly, however, is a second song, equally emblematic but known almost exclusively by Brazilians. When I tell my friends and neighbors that I study Copa, this song, entitled “Somos las muchachas de Copacabana”, springs to their lips. It, too, is an interesting song. Originally produced by Chico Buarque de Holanda for a musical and sung by prostitutes in that play, it goes:

If the client wants a rumba dancer
We got it
With Bahian spices.
We got a lil’ Brazilian Cuban piece
Dressed in a sombrero
Or a Paraguaian Jamaican chica
If that’s more the gringo’s style

After which the women sing the refrain…

Somos las muchachas de Copacabana

...or “we are the girls of Copacabana”. It’s notable that this refrain is sung in Spanish when the language spoken in Brazil and along the Copacabana seafront is, of course, Portuguese. What the song acknowledges is that you can have everything you want in Copa, that furthermore, that the women of Copa know what you, the gringo, want and that, finally, what you want is some sort of weird, indiscriminate mixture of “latinness” – anything exotic. Stick a black woman from the Brazilian state of Bahia in a sombrero, call her a Cuban and teach her to do the rumba and bam, the gringo client will be satisfied.

The juxtaposition of these two songs, both equally popular and paradigmatic in their home countries, highlights out a reality: gringos fantasize about tropical sexual paradises, but they have little to no knowledge about the countries they visit and therefore hard cash can be made catering to their fantasies, no matter how ridiculous these might be.

There is, however, one final thing which the juxtaposition of these songs brings to light. Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” hit the charts in 1978. Chico’s "Muchachas de Copacabana' was also written in 1978 and could even, perhaps, be an ironic nod to Manilow – stranger things have happened. However, Chico’s play is set in 1940 and Brazilian audiences saw nothing incongruous about Copa prostitutes putting on a show for gringo clients in that setting. In other words, where Lola, in the 1970s, had been a show girl thirty years ago (when they used to have a show), in Copa in 1978 the show had been ongoing since the 1940s… and it has not stopped since then.

Among people who study sexual tourism, there exists the belief that this is necessarily a recent phenomenon, something concretely linked to globalism and thus no more than a quarter century old. Our research, however, indicates that sexual tourism – or something very much like it – has been ongoing in Rio de Janeiro since the Portuguese crown opened Brazilian ports for international trade in 1807. Prostitution was very well established in the city at that time and prostitutes could range from slaves working in brothels to very sophisticated and wealthy courtesans. All prostitutes, however, seem to have conducted quite a lot of business with transient foreigners, for 19th century Rio de Janeiro was one of the Atlantic’s busiest international ports. Local folklore, coming down from those times to our days, portrays gringos and prostitutes as a commonly encountered part of the carioca urban scene and I have documents from the American Consulate in Rio commenting upon the interactions of local prostitutes and foreign tourists as early as 1917.

In other words then, Rio is a city which has had a long tradition of making money off of providing for the sexual needs of foreign visitors. Furthermore, it is a city which has been in deep and abiding contact with what we might call “the West” since the late 18th century. It is not the kind of community of innocent, uncorrupted natives, so often presented by anti-sexual tourism activists, which has recently been thrown, higgledy-piggledy, into the post-modern, post-industrial world by the advent of cruise lines and cheap air fares. Rio is a city which is part of the western world and has been so for some centuries. Furthermore, it is a city which is by and large aware of the fact that, to most of the west, it is inescapably exotic and that exotic, in this context, means sexual.

So who are the foreign men who are having a lot of sex in Rio de Janeiro and what are their fantasies, precisely?

When we talk about sexual tourism in Brazil, we are by and large talking about one main venue: the beach neighborhood of Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro. This 24 square block area concentrates some 80% of the city’s and 40% of the country’s sexual tourism consumers. The majority of foreign men who come to Brazil looking for sex come to this neighborhood and rarely stray out of it. A significant portion of itinerant foreigners who are sexually active in Brazil can be found in Copa.

It must be admitted that the majority of these men are not sexual tourists, if by sexual tourist we adopt the UN’s definition: “people who use the structures of the tourism industry to travel to other countries for the primary reason of engaging in commercial sex with the natives”. Most gringos in Copa are there for business, personal, or conventional tourism reasons, not specifically sex. I call these guys “accidental sexual tourists”. They come to Copa for two main reasons: commercial sex there is relatively safe, cheap and hygienic and Rio is so heavily associated with sex in the western mind that it is almost inconceivable to these men that they could come to the city and not have sex. However, it is generally quite difficult for a non-Portuguese-speaking itinerant foreigner to have sex with a carioca woman unless he is socially inserted by friends or colleagues into a given scene. Brazil is notorious for having a relational society in which personal connections trump institutional connections almost every time. The idea of a “singles bar” doesn’t really resonate here: you go to bars with friends where you meet up with other friends and, perhaps, some strangers. Generally, however, women don’t have sex with complete strangers in our culture, especially if the man are just passing through town and ESPECIALLY if they don’t speak Portuguese and don’t know a living soul in the city.

Thus stymied in the “normal” dating scene, these guys head to Copa, which everyone – foreigners and Brazilians – knows is full of gringos looking for women and women looking for gringos. Sex can easily be had there: for a price.

A very small minority of the foreign men having sex with prostitutes in Rio are what one could legitimately call sexual tourists – i.e., guys who are in Brazil specifically for sex. This minority is interesting, however, because, unlike accidental sexual tourists, its members tend to publically reflect upon why they come to Rio. Our interviews with and observations of these gentlemen have lead us to create an ideal typification of how they see Brazil and why they are here. There are basically six reasons, three of which might be labeled “cultural” and three “structural”.

Culturally, these guys evidence a series of beliefs about Brazil and its women.

1) They believe that the city is poor and that the women in it are poorer. This forces, in their words, “normal” and “good” women into prostitution. Thus, a Brazilian prostitute, according to these guys, is often a “better woman” than, say, a North American non-prostitute professional. In other words, in the sexual-affective market, these men believe that “good bargains” can be made in Brazil because “good, normal” women are sexually, commercially available due to the country’s poor economy.

2) They believe that the social relations in the city are a reflection of what they consider to be their country’s past, that “women in Rio are like what women were before” in the U.S. “Before what” is the question here and the answer, according to these guys, is usually “feminism” or “women’s’ lib”.

3) Finally, they believe that Brazilian women are endowed with a sort of hyper-sexuality, which is the result of a combination of miscegenation (or racial mixing) the tropical climate and a non-puritan mentality. Supposedly, Brazil is blessed in this sense because, this mixture means that a lot of different physical types of women are available and also because each individual Brazilian woman is a “hybrid” which combines the best physical traits of all races. “Like Beyoncé” is what I frequently hear, in this respect. Finally, Brazil’s tropical climate and its Catholic background are understood as somehow sexually liberating these women. How this supposedly occurs is not so clear, but it’s a common explanation these men present.

However, these men also salient structural factors that make Rio their choice destination for sex. These include:

1) The fact that, all things considered, a dollar spent in Brazil buys more and better sex than the same dollar spent in the U.S. This has begun to change, however, as the dollar has nose-dived in comparison to the Brazilian real over the past few years and many men who used to like Brazil, for this reason, are now claiming that they get “better deals” in Argentina, Colombia, or Asia.

2) They claim to like the fact that prostitution is legal in Brazil, which means that they are not as much at risk from the police or from the mafia (who generally are seen as controlling prostitution in countries where it’s illegal). They also believe that legal prostitution means less exploitation of the women involved and thus a greater degree of freedom on their part, which results in better service for the client.

3) Finally, they tend to be impressed with the level of service available in Rio’s prostitution scene, both in individual terms (service with a smile and relatively few problems) and institutional terms (a large number of safe, hygienic and easily accessed prostitution venues with a great range of choice in terms of sexual partners and services offered).

What needs to be stressed here is that the scene on Copacabana is thus an area where fantasies about submissive, sexy tropical women meet a nightlife structure which is very aware of these fantasies and knows how to cater to them. This, then, is the answer to why American men go to Rio de Janeiro for sex and it should also, in a ‘round about fashion, answer the second question: “What is it that Brazilian women have that American women don’t?”

Brazilian women, in the final analysis, are really not that different from American women. Copacabana prostitutes, however, are professionally female. They make a point of studying what their heterosexual, foreign, male clients want and offering precisely that, no matter how ridiculous it may appear to an outside eye. The real question, then, that needs to be asked should not be couched in cultural or national terms – i.e. Brazil vs. the U.S. What we should be asking ourselves is why so many otherwise successful and intelligent men are willing to pay for the illusion of an idealized fantasy femininity rather than deal with female realities.


  1. Simplesmente, as mulheres brasileiras são as mulheres mais bonitas do mundo. Devido à mistura racial.
    Que a beleza é mais do que físico. Pode-se considerar a fantasia do observador externo,
    mas tente dizer isso aos participantes. Eu gosto do seu artigo, é informativa, mas a perspectiva parece distorcida. Vim para o Rio à procura de uma esposa em potencial,
    o sexo foi "acidental". Comparado com os de algumas mulheres norte-americanos sobre o dinheiro e sexo questões, as mulheres do Brasil oferecem uma simplicidade agradável, que atrai os homens em todo o mundo. Como uma mulher brasileira que você deve avaliar . Tão complicada e diversa como estou certo que as mulheres brasileiras são, eles estão cada vez mais preferidos pelos homens do americano africano de sucesso como a mim mesmo. Atração, amor, sexo e sim, se possível!
    Iniciando um Brazil tourismo website, não promovendo o turismo sexual no Brasil, promoção de viagens para o Brasil, "sexo" acidental é uma possibilidade. Umas férias com a possibilidade de sexo na previsão? O que há de errado com isso?

    todos nascem por uma combinação de: atração, amor, sexo e dinheiro

  2. Simply, the Brazilian women are the most beautiful women in the world. Due to the racial mix.
    That beauty is more than physical. Can be considered a fantasy of the outside observer,
    but try telling that to the participants. I like your article is informative, but the perspective seems distorted. I came to Rio in search of a potential wife,
    sex was "accidental." Compared with some American women about money and sex issues, women in Brazil offers a nice simplicity, which attracts men all over the world. As a Brazilian woman that you must evaluate. So complicated and diverse as I am sure that Brazilian women are, they are increasingly preferred by African American men to succeed as myself. Attraction, love, sex and yes, if possible!
    Starting a Brazil Tourism website, not promoting sex tourism in Brazil, promoting travel to Brazil, "sex" is an accidental possibility. A holiday with the possibility of sex in the forecast? What's wrong with that?

    everyone is born by a combination of: attraction, love, sex and money

  3. Not to contradict your personal experience, Imhotep, but I've witnessed a lot of so-called "accidental" sex between Brazilians and gringos in my day and I have my doubts.

    First of all, sex is rarely "accidental", anywhere. People engage in it with agendas and that's as true in Brazil as anywhere else. A big agenda driving many Brazilian/gringo interrealtions is the Brazilian desire to move about the world which, given the actual anti-immigrant climate in the U.S. and Europe - is being stymied. A sexual/affective relationship with a foreigner can open up those gates.

    With regards to African American men preferring Brazilian women... That's as it may be, but so far, most of the African American men I see who are sexually active in Rio are with prostitutes or with women who can be qualified as professional gringo-chasers. Yes, there is a large and growing number of AA men who date outside the Copa scene and even marry. But over the last few years when I've gone to Help, Balconey and the termas, 8-12% of the male clients are black Americans. In any non-commercial sex oriented gringo scene in Rio, that percentage falls to about 1-2%.

    Maybe this is because mass AA tourism in Rio is really just beginning. Maybe these guys, too, will eventually learn Portuguese and get out of the P4P world. So far, though, it doesn't seem to be happening much, so I'm a bit skeptical when AA men who don't speak Portuguese and who's total time in country can be measured in months, if that, tell me about how the Brazilian women they are dating "don't have issues regarding sex and money". The women they seem to be mostly dating, so far, are precisely the sorts of women who know what gringos want and are willing to play to that fantasy. We'll see how "issue-less" they become the first time there's a crisis in the relationship.

    Judging by the comments of black men on sex tourism websites, issues pop up very quickly with these women whenever one engages them in a long-term relationship.

  4. "Simply, the Brazilian women are the most beautiful women in the world. Due to the racial mix."

    Stop romanticizing these women. They are doing this for money, not because they find the men attractive and have romantic notions of American men. The only thing romantic they find about them is when they are handing over cash. These 1st world clowns are only exploiting these women at worst, providing them with an income at the least. When they see a Yankee tourist, they see dollar signs, whether they are prostitutes or some woman looking to escape poverty. They will tell you that the sun shines out of you arsehole in order to get you to part with your moulah. This is universal where poverty exists. Any port in a storm as it were. What you imagine these women to be and what they truly are, are two different things. Poverty makes for desperation! Do you think most of these women would be selling themselves if they were employed in a job with decent wages? Do you think it edifying to give blow jobs to some funky fool for 10 dollars(or whatever the going price is), do you think it edifying to pretend to be passionately in love with some foreigner in hopes he will marry you and take you back to his country, or in the least send you provisions such as toothpaste, toilet paper, etc! If you want to help these 'beautiful women due to their 'racial mix', try providing them with scholarships, training, in other words, the money you spend getting blow jobs or trying to marry one of these girls based upon some inane image of submissiveness, do something constructive for them! On a lighter note, if you want a 'beautiful wife due to the admixture' move to Canada, there are plenty of women who fit that description, however, when the money runs out, watch out. You see this is universal when inequality is involved.

  5. Well...

    While I do agree about the romantization, I don't see gringos "exploiting" these women either, Herneith. I mean, why are they getting "exploited" when they're making a decent wage selling sex to tourists but are not "exploited" making the minimum wage washing tourists' undies?

    In any case, to the degree that "exploitation" occurs, its generally not the gringos - or even the clients - doing it: it's the bar and club owners and their silent partners in the police force and City Hall. Those are the folks with their hands in the womens' pockets. The clients are just clients and they're probably being just as exploited by the women as the women are by them.

    We've documented a couple of client murders by pros down here and many incidents of clients being roofied and having their wallets picked and hotel rooms cleaned.

    Now, that said, yeah, they'll tell men pretty much whatever men want to hear and they know very well what gringo men want to hear. And no, most of them wouldn't be selling sex if they could get a decent job with decent wages, but given that many of them make more cash than a university professor, their definition of "decent job" isn't likely going to be waitress, maid, sectretary, nurse, housewife, or any one of a series of typically underpaid "pink collar" jobs.

    Going price for blow-jobs on Copa ranges from around 20 USD to over 150. And I've not met a carioca pro yet who couldn't buy toothpaste or toilet paper. Stuff pros have shown me that they claim to be "nice gifts" from foreign clients/boyfriends range from imported vibrators (outrageously expensive in Brazil) to laptop computers.

    I have no problem at all with these guys paying for blowjobs. The women know very well what to do with that money and most of the ones I've met put it to good use buying things much more substantial than toilet paper. I even agree with Imhotep that there's nothing wrong with having a holiday with sex, as long as the sex is between consenting adults.

    But I agree whole-heartedly that the masculinist romanticizing of Brazilian women has given them a wildly overblown reputation.

    My issue with these guys always boils down to this:

    "OK, fair go, you say you can't handle American women with their selfish attitudes regarding sex and money. Fine. I'll buy that, at least provisionally, though my experience with American women hasn't been that.

    It's the part where you say 'So I came to Copa and started paying for pros and dating gringo-chasers because THEY, of course, have no sex or money issues' which leaves my mouth gaping..."

  6. What It Comes Down To Is This...AA Men Are Going To Places Like Brazil,D.R.'Etc'Because They Have To Put Up With So Much Shit From These She-Devils Here In Amerikkka!! If U R An AA Man With Your Shit Together,U Know How To Treat A Women Like A Human Being Then These Women(Esp Black Women)Would Still Give U Some Type Of BS Thinking That You're "Weak" Mofo!! What's Not Look At Is That These Same Women If Given The Opportunity Will/Do Travel To Places Like Jamaica,Italy,Paris,Trinidad Etc'4 The Same Reasons Whether It's 4 Companionshio And/Or Sex But Do U See BM Putting Up A Hissy Fit? Noooooooooo!

  7. The Copacabana, the Copa, in B. Manilow's song, is the Copacabana night club in New York City ... which is north of Havana ... but maybe not the hottest spot.