RIO DE JANEIRO — This is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations for many reasons: the iconic urban beaches, the bafflingly dramatic landscape, the bursting-at-the-seams music scene.
Like it or not (and most locals don’t like it), many men come to Rio with one thing on their minds. But are they there to hire prostitutes, as female friends back home might suspect, or simply to strut their masculinity in a sexually freer society, as they themselves like to think?
While there are plenty of genuine love stories here between brasileiras and turistas, and plenty more cold fee-for-service transactions, it’s often not a simple question of you-paid-or-you-didn’t. There are many gradations on the romance-to-prostitution continuum.
Take, for example, a scene that played out on the edge of Copacabana Beach last year. Two black Brazilian women, likely in their late teens, sit in bikinis near roasted-red tourists at a coconut-water-and-beer kiosk. My snap judgment: they’re certainly poor, and probably prostitutes.
Suddenly, one gets a cell phone call, shrieks in delight, and runs off gabbing. I strike up a conversation with her friend, whose name was Natalia, telling her I was a reporter interested in Brazilian women’s relationships with tourists.
Natalia thought that was quite a coincidence, because her pal just happened to be talking to a friend that was off to visit her Belgian boyfriend — in Belgium. The two had met during his trip to Rio months ago and maintained a relationship over several more of his visits. Now he had flown her to Europe, marriage offer pending, to see if she liked it. Apparently, she loved it: she was getting breakfast in bed, overcoming her fear of riding a horse for the first time, and being treated like “a queen” by the man’s family.
Prostitute suddenly seemed like the wrong word. But so did innocent schoolgirl.
Natalia, who also had dated many tourists, explained how the system works: Direct payment per sexual encounter is not common. Dinners, drinks, and gifts are.“I like to combine utility with pleasure,” she said. “The material aspect is part of it. But it is pleasant to be with a man who likes me, who treats me well.” The ultimate prize, she said, is “to go away to another place, to have a good life.” Belgium, apparently, qualifies.
Later in my trip, I met Mylla Reys having a late night hamburger at a Copacabana snack bar. She was 18, and had come to Rio at 16 from the central Brazilian city of Goiania, escaping a bad marriage and chasing an acting dream. She, too, said she dated tourists. A week after she got to Rio, she said, she “fell in love” with an American musician in town on a gig.
“I didn’t have any desire to meet a foreigner, none,” she said. But after meeting friends at the beach, she spotted a dreamy blond-haired, blue-eyed guy. She couldn’t say anything because she didn’t speak English, but she made sure he caught her staring. “He was very cold,” she said. Cultural translation: He didn’t come over to sweet-talk her.
A male friend of hers suggested she go up to him and kiss him, but she refused. “In Rio, things happen like that,” she said. “In my city, no.” But friends broke the ice, and they all went out to eat. On the way back to the beach she dared to grab his hand. Still cold. Finally, she playfully pulled off his cap, and he pulled her in for a smooch.
“It was the most beautiful kiss of my life,” she said. They sat on the beach for hours, talking. Sort of. “He spoke and he spoke and I didn’t understand anything,” she said.
The next night, they went out dancing at Rio Scenarium, a popular nightclub, and she stayed over at his hotel.
Communication — the verbal kind — continued to be a problem until the next day, when they went to an internet cafe to use Google Translate.
“I never imagined I would find a person like you here in Rio de Janeiro,” she remembers him writing.
They were together for a week, communicated by internet for a few months after that, and then he disappeared. Mylla was devastated, even asking me — six months after they had last spoken — what I thought had gone wrong. I gave a dishonest answer.
Though she missed him, she had met, dated and slept with other tourists since (and even acted in a few plays). They sometimes gave her money and gifts, she said, but never directly for sex.
“I don’t ask,” she said. “It seems cold. I don’t think that the fact that you are a tourist means you should give me money. You’re not my husband! The only difference is you’re from another country.”
Most recently, she had been dating a Brazilian. So had she finally decided to kick the dead-end tourist habit and develop a lasting relationship? No, she said: she liked him because he had a nice car, expensive cologne, and plenty of money.