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Praca Maua thus became established as yet another of Rio’s unofficial police moderated sex work ghettos, where prostitution was tolerated as long as it didn’t interfere with the “morals and good customs” of the greater carioca society. Until very recently (2011), the port zone still contained many of the clubs and cabarets first established there in the 1940s (or their direct descendants), and the region was still catering to foreigners: itinerant seamen, mostly Filipinos, Indians and Chinese.
In 2012, however, the city of Rio began a wholesale “urban renewal” project centered on transforming Praca Maua into a “festival port” in anticipation of the World’s Cup of 2014 and the Olympics of 2016. Large sections of the neighborhood have subsequently been confiscated and demolished and it is doubtful that much of the region’s sexual commerce will survive the transformation.
A second direction prostitution moved after World War II was back towards downtown (ironically returning to some of the same streets and even some of the same buildings it had been evicted from in the early 20 th century) and Rio’s south zone, particularly Copacabana.
One of the effects of the periodic police campaigns against prostitution outside the bounds of the Mangue during the 1940s and ’50s was an increased camouflaging of the sex trade. With the closing of the old rendez-vous and boardinghouses in Lapa and Gloria, sex work moved increasing into hotels and private apartments.
According to Inspector Armando Pereira, the number of hotels used specifically for commercial sexual encounters tripled in the city during the 1950s. Prostitutes would make a deal with a hotel owner (often a Spanish immigrant, according to Pereira) and bring clients back from streets or bars, paying the full day’s rent, but only using the room for a couple of hours.
This modification in sex work practices was greatly facilitated by the liberalization in bourgeois sexual mores, which led to supreme court decisions in the 1950s stipulating that hotel owners were not responsible for verifying the marital status of their mixed-sex guest couples.
In spite of a concerted police effort to close down sex hotels in 1959 (which, according to Pereira, brought prostitution almost to a halt everywhere in Rio outside of the Mangue), they continued to proliferate and, by 1967, there were over 500 of them in the city. With the further liberalization in mores and increased female mobility brought about by the Sexual Revolution of the 1970s, sex hotels began to service ever greater numbers of non-commercial couples. Today, they are still very much a part of the city’s sexscape, used by sex workers and non-sex workers alike as places to conduct temporary trysts.
Other forms of sex work were developed to avoid police surveillance and repression during the 1950s, and ’60s. The first bath houses and saunas began to appear in police records during this period. Pereira labeled them “an invert’s [read: homosexual] paradise”, but many catered to heterosexual trade as well.
Today, Rio’s top-end middle-class commercial heterosexual venues are all saunas. Cheap cabarets and “recreational clubs” with floor shows and back rooms for rent also became common meeting spots for prostitutes and clients during this period, as did massage parlors and cheap theaters. All of these types of venues soldier on in downtown and south zone Rio today.
One extremely common new form of prostitution was, like the sex hotels, enabled by women’s new-found mobility and relative sexual liberty. This was the apartment brothel, which began to fill the gap left by the old rendez-vous and prostitution boarding houses in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
As Pereira describes them, these venues were basically 2-3 bedroom apartments rented out to 5-6 young women who were all prostitutes. The women would bring clients home from bars, theaters and cabarets, using the bedrooms for work during the day and living space at night.
Pereira considered this new sort of commercial sexual institution to be particularly frustrating. The police were generally incapable of distinguishing between establishments of this type and apartments rented by the groups of independently living, non-sex working, single females who were increasingly becoming part of the city’s urban scene:
The girls are all artists or dancers. At least that’s what they say.
What was particularly frustrating to Rio’s anti-vice specialists like Pereira, however, was the fact that these new forms of prostitution were massively concentrated downtown and, in particular, the residential, middle-class south zone of Rio de Janeiro: precisely the regions the Mangue was supposed to serve as social prophylactic for. Police attempts to keep prostitution out of the burgeoning new bohemian beach-side neighborhood were particularly fierce.
As we’ve mentioned above, the decadence of Lapa after World War II prompted a drift of a certain portion of Rio’s bohemians (and the prostitutes who served them) towards the Praca Maua port district.
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