Sexuality, Diversity and Human Rights

 Sex Work, Young Men in Rio de Janeiro


Miguel Muñoz-Laboy, Vagner de Almeida, Luis Felipe Rios do Nascimento and Richard Parker


AIDS in Brazil, as in many parts of the world, has been an epidemic characterized by multiple parallel-localized epidemics. Youth, particularly, young men who have sex with men (YMSM) are amongst the most vulnerable populations for HIV infection in Brazil. Furthermore, our research findings from the early 1990s suggested that significantly higher levels of continued unprotected anal sex among men interviewed under the age of 24 as opposed to older men in the sample:  while the entire sample reported only 22.0% receptive anal sex without a condom, for example, those under the age of 24 reported 41.5%; and while 73.0% of the sample as a whole reported using a condom for insertive anal sex, only 53.4% of those under the age of 24 reported condom use for insertive anal sex (Terto Jr. and Parker, 2001).  Subsequent analyses from survey and ethnographic data suggested that a range of different cultural and sociological factors, including socio-economic status, race, and gender performance were all relevant factors affecting levels of risk-related behavior, with higher levels of risk consistently being reported by young men from poorer, more marginalized backgrounds from the favelas (shantytowns) and subúrbios (outlying or peri-urban poor neighborhoods) in which there are strong correlations typical in Brazilian society between poverty and communities of color.
Taking the above findings into consideration, in 1993 the Associação Brasileira Interdisciplinar de AIDS (ABIA-Brazilian Interdisciplinary AIDS Association) initiated a series of initiatives that focus on YMSM. This article focus on the conceptual foundations and the programmatic elements of one of those initiatives: the program:  Prevenção de HIV / AIDS para Jovens Profissionais do Sexo Masculino de Classes Populares do Rio de Janeiro (HIV/AIDS Prevention for Youth Male Sex Workers of Popular Classes in Rio de Janeiro). The goal of this article is to illustrate the didactic relationship between research and social action in the case of this program.

Target population

Although male youth sex work represents a particular subset within the larger urban culture of same-sex desire in Rio de Janeiro (see Parker, 1991), they are not a homogeneous group. Self and imposed images of gender play a major role in pluralizing youth male sex workers in this context. This is exemplified by the labels used for, and by, our target population. For those who dress like women or are transgender, some of the most common terms used are: Mona (literally a female monkey but used to refer to “cute” young women); Mona de Eque (a fake woman); Bicha (“faggot”); Trava (short term for travesty); Mulher (a woman as opposed to a girl or a young woman); and, Lacraia (literally a centipede but used to refer to a male body with shapely-female like curves). For those who are not transvesti or transgender, terms such as: Miche (“hustler”); and, Puto (a young man who sleep with everybody regardless of gender or age).

Youth male sex workers also differ in terms of the centrality of sex work within their lives. Garoto de programa (sex worker) are young men who considered themselves as “professional” sex workers. Sex work is one of their primary self-identities, which they may or may not use to identify to others. They have their regular clientele in different points of the city. Professional sex workers usually work in groups. They have to fight other youth who pretend to be sex workers to rob clients and steal money. Usually “professional” sex workers fight these “fake” sex workers to keep their points clean of crime. They are organized within themselves and many times move in groups. Mostly to protect themselves from assaults but also to negotiate with the police and drug traffickers in terms of space to avoid violent explosions in the different points (whether these are police raids or assassinations of the organized crime).

There is another sector of our target population who conceptualizes and operates sexual exchanges differently than garotos de programa. Because of the pseudo-organization and close network ties of “professional” sex workers, discourses of HIV prevention and general sexual health messages are widely spread. The professional and non-professional sex worker has sexual encounters for similar reasons, in exchange for money, gifts and/or drugs. The main difference is in the opportunistic nature of sexual exchange for the non-professional sex worker. They do not have particular spaces where possible clients can find them. Thus, sexual exchanges take place wherever the non-professional sex worker and the potential client are located or decide to go. For them, sex work is not central to their self-identity.

For the non-professional sex worker, there are very scarce protective mechanisms. The ability to negotiate sexual practices is more difficult since sexual exchanges are perceived as a way of survival whenever money, meals or other commodities (e.g., tickets to movies, cloth, tennis shoes, drugs, etc.) are needed.

            In spite of the above differences, there are major commonalities between both networks of sex work: (1) the extreme poverty that many of them live — where  sex work represents  a means of economic survival, even more relevant when they can get Barbies Zona Sul (it literally refers to the US American doll, Barbie, but it is to referred to wealthy gay clients from the southern part of the city); (2) most of them have drop out of middle school; (3) they are for the most part dark skin, few live with their families; (4) the majority of them are involve in one way or another (voluntarily or involuntarily) with drug trafficking (e.g., lookouts for activities of the organized crime, informants to traffickers, drug users, sellers, and so on), and, (5) they are also recipients of extreme street violence as a result of crime but also as a result of assaults by homophobic men. This lack of structural resources in their lives increases their vulnerability for contracting HIV or developing AIDS.

Jovens Profissionais do Sexo Masculino de Classes Populares do Rio de Janeiro
Given ABIA’s presence in many of the favelas and suburbios of Rio de Janeiro since 1986, and the ethnographic research in sexual cultures in the organization, the program successfully connected with both networks of male youth sex workers in the city. In the initial stages of the program, the youth were recruited by ABIA’s ethnographers and outreach workers from different venues in the city. Once the first cohort of youth was formed, subsequent cohorts were recruited by peer youth together with adult mentors to the program.
The program consists of a 4 months basic training period (with at least 2 meetings per week in the evenings) in research and social action but the youth can stay in the program as senior youth volunteers as long as they want. This is particularly relevant to the mission of the program: to promote and facilitate collective social mobilization on issues related to the sexual health and well-being of male youth sex workers drawing from principles of concientization and human rights. To achieve this aim, youth in the program are trained in basic principles of ethnography, conduct ethnographic research, and develop and implement collective strategies to promote sexual health within and outside their sexual networks.

Youth in this program design the core tasks and agenda of the program itself under the mentoring of a small group of activists-researchers from ABIA who also include older-adult male sex (former/current) workers. In the first part of the program youth explore and identify a set of topics related to aspects that affect their well being (regardless of whether these are related to HIV/AIDS or not). After several sessions discussing the issues that affect their personal lives, as a group they examined how these issues are played out in the lives of other youth who may or may not participate in sex work but who are part of their social environment. After completing this mapping exercise, the youth participate in a series of basic workshops on ethnography.

The ethnographic training consisted of getting the group to learn mapping, participant observation, key informant interviewing, documentary film research and the ethics and role of ethnography in social action. The mentors of the program trained the first cohorts of youth. But in subsequent waves, former participants co-facilitated the trainings. Ethnography was chosen to be the main epistemological perspective for two reasons: (1) the organization’s history in practicing ethnography as away of understanding social phenomena, conducting policy analysis and the use of ethnographic tools for developing interventions at the population level as well as to support national advocacy initiatives; and, (2) from a developmental perspective, ethnography provides some specific research tools that do not required high levels of literacy which allow for rapid learning and concrete practicing. Notice for youth who have difficulty in writing, their field observations and the content of interviews with their informants were narrated by them to more experienced ethnographers who took systematic notes of those narratives.  However, youth are encouraged to work in teams from the process of conducting observations to writing up their notes. Ultimately, the ability to work in teams and collectively think-through issues is more relevant to the mission of our program than complying with strictly reliable standards of data collection and management of fieldnotes.

As part of the ethnographic training, youth negotiate and prioritize what are the most pressing issues that they will like to investigate further and take action. Youth then, develop and execute a process of data collection that start within the group of youth and expand to the social situations that they want to explore. The data collected during the ethnography serve as the foundation for sexual health promotion strategies that the youth in the program develop and implement. Therefore, data is not analyzed with the purpose of publishing research articles, but with the concrete aim of developing an intervention that would have an impact in the lives in of youth in the program and beyond. Thus, the collected information served to build scripts that represent real life situations of sex workers youth but also of other young men who have sex with men in favelas and different points in the city.

Scripts in the context of this program are not simply written dialogues but are centered around the notion of “decoding” the social milieu where youth in the program (and outside the program) live. Decoding refers to the critical analysis of the constituent elements of an existential situation (Freire, 1993). For example, identifying the gender and sexual codes that script, influence and/or shape the sexual lives of the social actors in a particular context. As citizens, youth in the program have the right and the responsibility of decoding the larger social-contextual forces that may create health risk.  Therefore, the process of decoding these social and sexual situations examined through the ethnographic data collection becomes a critical point for: 1) facilitating the process of self-reflection for youth in the program; 2) stimulating the process of educating the collective critical consciousness (Freire, 1973) of the youth in the program but also of the people reached by the youth in the program; and, 3) building effective sexual health promotion tools that accurately represent the realities of young men who have sex with men.

The direct outcome of the decoding process is a set scripts that serve as guidelines for the third component of the program, the development of sexual health promotion interventions. These written scripts contain a mosaic of sexual scenes (Paiva, 2000) and the cultural, interpersonal and intrapsychic codes regulating or shaping sexual practices of youth sex workers and other youth who have sex with men  (Paiva, 2000; Simon and Gagnon, 1999).

Following the above general process throughout the years youth have developed a variety of sexual health promotion interventions: flyers (e.g., Figure 1. Dois é pouco… Três é bom demais!), pamphlets (e.g., Figure 2.Sexo, Homen & Aids), storybooks (e.g., Figure 3.Juventude e Homosexualidade) and outreach workshops where short-plays are presented in community centers and schools (e.g., Figure 4. Juventude e Diversidade Sexual). In addition, two larger interventions based on the written scripts from the ethnographies were developed and implemented:

  1. Cabaret Prevenção was the first theater play that address issues of homosexuality, oppression, HIV/AIDS and sexual health in Rio de Janeiro. The play consisted of sixteen scenarios focus on specific issues that emerge from the youth ethnographies. The play ran from January to March 1995 in a large theater. Films prior, during and after the plays serve to built a documentary film with the same name that was widely distributed nationwide in 1997.

  2. Ritos e Ditos de Jovens Gays is a documentary film on the culture of urban young men who have sex with men. The documentary was filmed from 2000 to 2001, and was edited and disseminated during the early part of 2002. This documentary offers an opportunity for witnessing through the eyes of homosexually active youth, their experiences, happiness, sufferings and dreams. It captures how a group of young men fight to live their lives with honesty and dignity confronted with massive structural inequalities molding their lives.

By participating in the above sexual health promotion interventions, youth not only solidify the relevance of their research findings in the development of prevention strategies but also acquired a set of skills that are going to be particularly useful in their occupational lives. First, by decoding the live situations of youth like them through ethnographic research and transforming those findings in to scripts, a process of profound consciousness raising emerge, and reducing their sexual risk, to the extent that they can, becomes a priority that gets reinforced at the group level. Moreover, youth learned how to critically analyze their live situation, understand their political and social value in society, and make conscious choices.  Secondly, by developing sexual health promotion, youth gain an expertise on sexuality and health that allow them to be more efficient in negotiating safe sex with their clients. Thirdly, since youth participate in all the aspects of the design and implementation of research and interventions, they learned skills related to problem-solving, to work on multiple tasks, time-management, assertive communication tools, the basic use of specific computer programs, art design, acting, special effects for theater and films, film and photography documentation and production.

In addition to the above skills, youth in the program participate in workshops that increase their possibility of alternate sources of income than sex work. These workshops include: arts and crafts, typing, office managerial tasks, etc. Facilitators from ABIA or other private consultants offer these workshops.

New challenges

Prevenção de HIV / AIDS para Jovens Profissionais do Sexo Masculino de Classes Populares do Rio de Janeiro program started in 1993, and continues to the present with multiple phases of funding and focus. It has been funded through ABIA, by several international agencies as well as by the Brazilian National AIDS Ministry. Although the initial focus of the program was on male youth sex workers, as the AIDS epidemic in Brazil has shifted new challenges have emerged. For example, youth in the current program has collect a vast amount of information on a behavior that seem of general concern and its related to all youth in the social mixing points in the favellas, ficar (literally means: I stay with you now but it is similar to the notion of a “one-night stand”). Ficar has been an emerging trend among heterosexual youth as well as homosexual youth. It happens mostly in discos or public venues with semi-private spaces. The youth in the program has observed a lot of kissing, folding, sucking (cunnilingus, fellatio), fingering of genitals, mutual masturbation, etc., but at the end of the party night nobody goes home with anybody, everything is done at the party location and stay there. Our youth sex workers are concerned about the impact of this in making decisions about sex. They are very familiar with these environments and are playing a pivotal role in unpacking, researching and the development of sexual health promotion materials for youth in these settings.

            At the macro level, ABIA and Center for Gender, Sexuality and Health (at the Mailman School of Public Health, at Columbia University) are currently working in the development of multi-level interventions to address issues of structural violence, stigma and sexual risk for marginalized young men who have sex with men, including sex workers.

Integrating peer education research

            Given the fact that the problems that affect youth shift constantly, establishing peer educators initiatives without providing youth with a research framework are bound to be ineffective in addressing new trends and changes that were not foresee in the peer education messages. That is to say, without a basic understanding of how to approach a problem, unpack, identify possible roots to it and analyze possible solutions (i.e., to conduct research) the issues that are to be addressed could be inaccurate, and the messages that are to be promoted could be incomplete or even counterproductive.

            Along the same lines, youth in programs, like ours, cannot be viewed as simply recipients of knowledge but rather as active participants in the production/discovery of knowledge. This is where incorporating and making ethnography central to our program has become critical in the process of democratizing knowledge and reinforcing youth relevance to the larger project of social justice for youth of poor communities in Rio de Janeiro.

However, based on this, some may argue why not to promote peer research programs only, rather than peer education initiatives. In our experience, peer research without a notion of action, or without the opportunity of having hands-on experiences in designing creative ways of implementing strategies (e.g., mini-intervention, short-term projects) based on their research findings, becomes a meaningless exercise for the youth. Therefore, concrete experiences of action have become essential in bringing meaning to the ethnographic experience, the learning of the youth in the program, in the sustainability of the program regardless of lack of resources in certain periods, and in the growth of a collective identity through group formation and network cohesion that transcend ABIA facilities to the context where youth live, work and interact with each other.







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