Q&A with Sex Tourism in Bahia author Erica Lorraine Williams

Erica Lorraine Williams is an assistant professor of anthropology at Spelman College.  She answered some questions about her book Sex Tourism in Bahia: Ambiguous Entanglements.

Q: For your book research you attended meetings of the group “Aprosba” in Brazil. What is this group?

Erica Lorraine Williams: Aprosba was an organization founded by and for sex workers in Salvador in 1997. For over a decade, Aprosba did important work to improve the lives and working conditions of sex workers in Salvador. In partnership with the Ministry of Health, Aprosba raised awareness about safer sex practices, as well as the violence, stigma and discrimination that sex workers often faced. Aprosba held weekly meetings for sex workers where they distributed free condoms and had workshops on topics ranging from dental health, sexually transmitted infections, contraception, etc. The meetings also provided an important space for politicization, bonding, and the sharing of knowledge. Aprosba would also travel to different points of prostitution in the city to distribute educational materials. As I wrote in a column for the Society of Cultural Anthropology,  Aprosba has recently closed due to lack of funding.

Q: How is sex tourism linked to the economy of the Bahian capital city of Salvador?

Williams: Salvador, Bahia is very much dependent on tourism. Sex tourism is part and parcel of the tourism industry. It is woven into the fabric of cultural tourism. I interviewed numerous tour guides and cultural producers who had encounters with foreign tourists who expected romantic and sexual experiences as a part of their trip.

Q: Does the Bahian state encourage the characterization of the area as a “racial-sexual paradise” for means of tourism?

Williams: The Bahian state would never admit encouraging the characterization of Bahia as a “racial-sexual paradise,” but it does nonetheless by marketing Bahia as the “land of happiness,” with sexualized images of women and men of African descent. On a national level, there was a recent controversy when Adidas released two T-shirts for the World Cup with sexualized images of Brazilian women. One T-shirt had a heart that was also an upside down bunda (buttocks) in a Brazilian bikini, and the other had the caption “Looking to Score in Brazil” with a curvaceous, tan, woman in a tiny bikini. President Dilma Rousseff and Embratur were rightly outraged. As of Feb 25, Adidas agreed to pull the sexualized T-shirts. However, what this story leaves out is that Embratur, and other Brazilian tourist agencies have also played a role in perpetuating sexualized images of Brazilian women in tourist propaganda since the 1970s.

The Bahian state government utilizes an eroticized blackness and Afro-Brazilian culture to “sell” Bahia to foreign tourists. While governmental and civil society campaigns tend to define sex tourism as something that happens when the state turns away its watchful eye, my research suggests that something different is actually happening in Salvador. The eroticization and commodification of black culture and black bodies creates a situation where the tourist’s desires for “exotic culture” and erotic, hyper-sexualized black bodies are often inextricable. Thus, Salvador is characterized by both the lure of Afro-Brazilian cultural heritage as well as the possibilities of sex.

Q: Have you noticed any parallels between the sex trafficking industry in Bahia and in the United States?

Williams: I have noticed that for many people, when they hear the term “sex tourism,” they automatically think “sex trafficking.” However, I think it’s very important to distinguish between sex tourism and sex trafficking. They are not the same thing. The literature on sex trafficking suggests that women are forced, deceived or coerced into traveling abroad, and that once they arrive at their destinations, they must endure debt bondage, forced servitude, and slavery-like conditions (Global Alliance against Trafficking in Women 2000). This was not the case of the women I worked with in Salvador. They worked autonomously, were not controlled by pimps, and traveled freely. As Kamala Kempadoo argues in the context of the Caribbean, “the equation of trafficking with prostitution in the trafficking discourse renders sexual labor as coerced labor and, as such, misrepresents sexual agency” (2007: 83).

CHAME, the Humanitarian Center for the Support of Women, a local non-governmental organization based in Salvador, referred to sex tourism as a “gateway” or “tip of the iceberg” to trafficking. In other words, it could lead to trafficking if a Brazilian meets a foreigner who then invites her to go abroad, but it is not the same thing as trafficking. Brazilian sex worker rights activist Gabriela Leite, who passed away in October 2013, argued that the problem with confusing the concepts of trafficking with sex tourism is that now a woman who travels with her own money is automatically assumed to be a “victim of trafficking.”

Q: How has the reception of your book been so far?

Williams: I have been absolutely thrilled at the reception so far! When the book was first released in November, I had a book signing and reception at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Cincinnati, Ohio. I had another book signing at the American Anthropological Association Meetings in Chicago a few weeks later. I have given talks about the book at Davidson College, Bennett College, UNC Chapel Hill, Duke University, and of course my home institution, Spelman College. I have also been invited to Skype classes who have read my book at University of South Florida, University of California, Riverside, University of Pittsburgh, Wellesley College, and Spelman College. I have also been interviewed for the podcasts, The Critical Lede, and Left of Black.

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