Sex workers in Brazil have found a voice. And this is a space they created for themselves, with at least two initiatives having made an impression on both the media and popular imagination. The Little Surfer Girl blog set up by 'Bruna' (n?e Raquel Peixoto), 21, is one. And the other is the release of a clothing label called 'Daspu' by a group of sex workers from the NGO, Davida, a sex workers' collective.
Bruna's memoirs, published as a book titled, 'The Scorpion's Sweet Poison', has already sold 100,000 copies in Brazil, is being promoted abroad, and is soon to become a film.
"I didn't expect so many people to take an interest in my life. I began the blog in end-2004 because every girl my age had one. I was 19 then, and wanted to share what it was to be a prostitute. I lived alone, had just one friend, and did not have a boyfriend. I needed somebody to talk to. On the night I started writing the blog, I wrote everything I wanted to say," says Peixoto. Soon, it was Brazil's most popular blog.
Peixoto comes from a middle-class family and turned to commercial sex work at the age of 17. She says that this was a rebellion against her strict parents and because she craved economic independence. In 2005, she quit sex work and married one of her clients. Today, her blog is restricted to her daily experiences as an entrepreneur, as a married woman and, of course, has details of her book release and autograph signing dates.
She has just finished a tour of Argentina, Uruguay and Chile to promote her book, and is all set to release a second book. Peixoto has also launched her own line of bath products. "When I want to do something, I do everything to get it - I am that kind of person. On my birthday in 2005, I decided I was going to quit sex work. I organised my money, planned my life out and quit," Peixoto says.
Meanwhile, the clothing line Daspu - not satisfied with merely an original idea - chose a name that would shake up the establishment. Daspu is a parody of 'Daslu', an exclusive megastore in Brazil that sells expensive clothes to upper-class women; Daspu is also a play on the words 'of the whores'.
"A good part of our initial success was due to the fact that Daslu sent us a notification threatening us with legal action if we did not change our name in 10 days. We placed that in the press and got plenty of coverage," says Gabriela Leite, 55, sociologist, ex-sex worker and founder of Davida.
Leite explains that the NGO was facing financial difficulties and needed a project that would help generate funds. "Corporates don't want to associate with an organisation run by sex workers, and there is a drop in the international funds coming in to Brazil. We also need to combat the stigma we face in society. All of these factors helped concretise our decision to establish the Daspu brand."
She began by enlisting the help of a well-known clothes stylist. Davida has around 4,000 affiliates in the state of Rio de Janeiro, and 35 of these are now directly involved with Daspu. In just one week - and even before the official release of the clothing line - Daspu had sold about 400 T-shirts through the Internet. Part of the profits from selling these clothes will be used to finance Davida's projects and the rest will be reserved to pay women directly involved with the work.
Fittingly, the Daspu label was launched during Fashion Rio - Brazil's premier fashion show - in December 2005 in the Tirandentes Square, one of the oldest spots of prostitution in Rio. Sex workers modelled Daspu's clothes for the show. This clever manoeuvre helped Daspu burst onto the scene with much press coverage. On June 9, 2006, Daspu launched its complete range of clothing, taking the brand beyond T-shirts alone. Once again, sex workers modelled the clothes. "They are real women; not those 12- or 13-year-old girls suffering from anorexia," Leite laughs.
Neusa das Dores Pereira, 60, executive director of the NGO, Things of Woman, and a gender activist, attempts to put the two initiatives in context. "Every once in a while, the media chooses to anoint someone as an instant celebrity. But the way media represents Bruna does not bode well for women. She is shown as the woman who sinned and was saved; who became a nice, healthy girl by giving up sex work and getting married.
Daspu, on the other hand, is the result of serious work by women's organisations that are prepared to struggle for their rights. With this initiative, they show that sex workers don't just serve for the bed but are also creative human beings who can organise great events and take their work very seriously."
Peixoto, meanwhile, remains indifferent to controversies and debates. She is taking her studies seriously again and dreams of becoming a psychologist someday. Often, she wishes people would forget Bruna, the Little Surfer Girl. "I sometimes lose Raquel inside me, and all I have left is Bruna. But there is the second book, my bath products and the film in 2007. So, I still have a lot of work to do as 'Bruna', but when I become a psychologist, I want to be only Raquel," she declares.
Leite is supportive. "I think all initiatives to discuss sex work and to prevent sweeping the issue under the carpet must be welcomed because it is good for all of us and also for society."
In Brazil, sex work is illegal, but sex workers are not penalised. It is the agents (hotel, cabaret and brothel owners) and the clients who are booked under the Brazilian Penal Code. The Work Commission of the Brazilian Parliament is currently considering a Bill that proposes legalisation of the sex work market and that all sex workers, female or male, be considered professional "workers of sexuality".
In Brazil, the winds of change are getting stronger.