After four years of tending bar at Centaurus, the most elite brothel in the sex-for-pay melee that is the recklessly beautiful city of Rio de Janeiro, Sergio Limas — 47 years old, pleasantly gruff and handsomely handlebar mustached — had become unfazeable. Even though it was forbidden, clients would often try and get him to come into one of the upstairs rooms, to sleep with him, or to watch him sleep with the girls whose time they had paid for. There were displays of lavish grandiosity: Limas says that after Brazil claimed ultimate victory in the 2002 World Cup, one of the team's soccer gods, known for a famously healthy sexual appetite, shut the place down to have his own private party (extra decoration that night: a giant photo of the player's head). As Limas saw, anyone with enough money could live big at Centaurus. One evening, an anonymous rich dude shelled out tens of thousands of dollars and grabbed the master suite, plus about 20 girls, all for himself. "The gang bang, the strap-on, the 'walk naked through the house,' it become common," Limas says matter-of-factly. "It's all happened there. Everything."
Still, there's one story he relays with evident glee. It's about a regular, a businessman-type, very proper and buttoned up. "He always comes to Centaurus," Limas says, "with a chocolate bar — the name is Chokito. It's a candy bar with rice flakes, very texturized. He always gets two girls and he always has this candy bar. Always. And the secret is — the girls shove the candy bar in his ass." Limas pauses, smirking. "And then he has to eat the Chokito, to satisfy him 100 percent." The staff nicknamed this man couve-flor, or cauliflower. "An old man. A serious man," says Limas. "He likes to eat his own Chokito."
When, last fall, the fumbling libertine Justin Bieber tried to sneak out of Centaurus undetected by paparazzi — covered, in a bit of droll surreality, head-to-toe in a white sheet clearly marked Centaurus— it was a moment of international recognition for the sex house. But in Rio, the locals — the cariocas — have long been familiar with the place. The stigma of prostitution that made Bieber's visit so scandalous in the United States is greatly muted here — it's not uncommon, at least for men of an older generation, to lose one's virginity at a sex venue.
"In Copacabana, prostitutes are walking in the streets," Pelife, a 34-year-old particularly well-versed carioca, tells me. "You can take the girl to your building stairways, or on top of the building. Climb the stairs, go under the water tower. It's very easy. Everyone does this. I did this!" Years after these adolescent fumblings, Pelife would graduate to celebrating his bachelor party at Centaurus. (I found him through Foursquare — yes, he'd checked in at a brothel). "You're born," he says, "hearing about this place."
Centaurus and Rio's other high-end brothels, like Monte Carlo, Solarium and 4x4, are known as termas – which means they're ostensibly spas. The conventions at these places are the same: walk in, get handed a locker key, get naked, put on a robe. Downstairs are the spa accommodations. Upstairs, the girls. This system was conceived by the pioneering top termas, Aeroporto, which used to be located near Santos Dumont, the smaller of Rio's two airports, where breathtaking views of the city's peaked coastline are offered upon takeoff and landing.
As the legend goes, Aeroporto had two partners, a guy named Isaac and a guy named Mr. Williams. There was some dispute between the two and Mr. Williams set off on his own, opening Centaurus. He brought with him a garota de programa — garota meaning girl, and programa the preferred term for a sex session — named Najara, who he had employed in his other house, 65. They say Mr. Williams was in love with her, and when he took her to Centaurus, he didn't make her work the room anymore: he made her a cafetina — kind of a female pimp.
Centaurus opened around 1985. In part thanks to the reputation of its owners, and in part thanks to its impressive location — on a welcomingly leafy street, minutes from the beach and steps away from the shops and restaurants of the well-off, world-famous Ipanema neighborhood — it almost instantly became a legend. The reputation of its girls was unsurpassed: Centaurus charged you the most, and it offered, in return, the most beautiful garotas.
But as the most expensive, and most renowned, place in town, Centaurus is only one extreme of a sprawling, multi-faceted sex industry that includes scores of other similarly structured high-end termas, prostitute-friendly bars and streets, low rent "fast fodas," or "fast fuck," houses, and the resilient, rough-hewn red light district of Vila Mimosa. According to Rio de Janeiro-based anthropologists Thaddeus Blanchette and Ana Paula da Silva, there are somewhere around 300 active spots on the city's sex map. And so, before I march into the hallowed halls of the mighty Centaurus, I figure it might be good to give some other parts of town a spin.
One mid-June afternoon in the Gloria neighborhood, while office workers down the street grub pastels at corner juice bars, I pause at a homosexual sauna, Clube 117, not yet open for business. An old man, strolling by, provides commentary: "Gay," he says, repeatedly pointing up at the marquee, without pausing for eye contact. "Gay. Gay. Gay." Another night, in nearby Lapa, where the rough-and-tumble street party never really ends, corners are manned, as is usual for the area, by travestis — transgender sex workers. Suddenly, the streets, choked with drinkers spilling out of bars, are made aware that there's a beatdown going on: a circle of travestis — in heels and skintight jeans and cleavage-revealing party dresses — pound their feet into the head of a man, curled-up on the floor. He had the temerity, the poor fool, of trying to pickpocket one member of the crew.
Located a mile from the city's storied Maracana stadium, and surrounded by cracked and empty streets ridden with sloppy trash, stinking sewage and the bombed-out-looking shell of at least one four-door sedan, Vila Mimosa, staunchly defiant — for 100 years, its been shuffled, evicted and walled-up — hides in plain sight.
In Brazil, prostitution is technically legal. But the rules surrounding it are strict: there can be no third-party beneficiaries. Anything beyond a direct exchange between a sex worker and a client — like a prostitute hiring herself a personal security guard — is legally actionable. It's the kind of murky legal situation that leads to the occasional violent police crackdown. Just a few weeks before the World Cup kickoff, across the President Costa e Silva Bridge from Rio in Niteroi, dozens of prostitutes were evicted from a building they share, arrested and, they later alleged, humiliated, beaten and raped. "There was no legal motive," the public defender on the case, Clara Prazeres Bragança, said about the bust. "But perhaps in [the authorities'] head, there was a moral motive."
A place like Centaurus — which makes no effort to hide, decorating its front entrance with a giant, glorious rendering of its titular half-man half-horse — is blatantly illegal. But the only time it seems to run into any trouble is during the mega-events, when the world's attention turns to Rio and cleanup efforts are inevitable. In 2012, during the UN's Rio+20 sustainability conference, Centaurus was raided and shut down. On May 29th of this year, the place was busted again. Both times, it returned to full operation within weeks. According to the former bartender, Limas, in his time at the venue, police payoffs were regular, and information on raids was always relayed ahead of time. Says Blanchette, "our informants are clear about one thing: if you want to run a termas in Rio, you have to have police partners."
Vila, the red light district, is equally unperturbed by police, but for much different reasons. The official governing body here is staffed by former sex workers who now own the properties. In turn, they're widely assumed to be operating under the blessing of the local chapter of the "militia," Brazil's widespread, much-feared network of corrupt current and former police officers. My point of contact here, Julie Ruvolo — a reporter and ally in the fight for sex workers' rights — says that in all her years working in and reporting from Vila Mimosa, she's never seen an on-duty cop. It's a calm place, but with distinct undertones of danger: several anthropologists have stopped doing field work here after receiving death threats.
I meet Ruvolo in Vila at a lavender house with a wide New Orleans-style porch populated by wrought-iron chairs with floral tops, a peacock tapestry and several women in their thirties and forties in high heels and frilly lingerie. This is where her friend Aline, a 12-year Vila veteran, is working today. Together, they created RedLightRio, a database of interviews with women who work in the area. "These women have very different circumstance than me," Ruvolo explains, "But they're independent women paying their own bills, often as a head of the household and sole provider for their families. That stuck with me."
Over the years, Ruvolo's work in Vila has grown into a mission statement: "Sex workers are the most marginalized and misunderstood members of global society," she says. "And I'm solely focused on amplifying their voices. My main criticism of the anti-trafficking movement" — a wide spectrum of NGOs working, effectively, to abolish prostitution — "is it speaks on behalf of people who can speak for themselves. It's 2014. Why should anyone's voice go unrepresented? What the fuck?" Later, Aline would add, "[The project] was really awesome. Here, we knew the women as prostitutes. But then we got to know them as mothers and sisters."
Ever since the Cup kicked off, business has been painfully slow. Aline's base is locals, and they're off watching the games. Meanwhile, tourists aren't bold enough to venture into the gritty zone (one cab of Argentinians, decked out in jerseys after La Albiceleste beat Bosnia-Herzegovina in group play, got as close as a drive-by peek out their cab window before zooming off). The World Cup, laments Aline, is "good for the soccer players. But the only increase we've seen is reporters."
With no clients to tend to, Aline shows us around the house. In the back of the house, where the light shines brightly through a corrugated tin roof, are rows of rooms with thin mattresses covered in thick blue plastic material. There are bare lightbulbs, a ceiling fan, wooden coat hooks and a plastic bucket. Telling us about one particularly heavy-set customer, Aline pantomimes how he had to penguin shuffle into the narrow room sideways.
Across the street is Vila's main place of business, a wide complex of tiny bars and strip clubs fronted by a pristine new banner, spruced up with a cartoon rendering of a flamenco dancer and touting the aforementioned governing body, AMOCAVIM — the Association of Condominium Residents and Friends of Vila Mimosa. Inside the complex, most of the rooms have their own lighting system and booming soundtrack, and so, in the hall, rival neon disco lights clash while Brazilian folk bleeds into Euro house into Bob Marley's "Exodus." Out front of every door, a girl in a tiny bikini or cheetah-print heels sways. As I pass, some shake their asses slowly, or make kissy noises or wave half-heartedly. Mostly, they seem bored.
Elsewhere, a sundries stand offers M&Ms and gum, as well as soap and deodorant. A snack cart offers codfish cakes. One young kid is even trying to sell piles of Adidas mesh shorts. There are some neon signs throughout — one reads Dollhouse, another Bem-Vindo — but most places are unmarked. An older woman in a hair net hustles down the hall with a tray of takeout containers; meanwhile, Julie and Aline stop and chat with their many pals here. Seeing one girl in an impressively elaborate, practically crocheted white swimsuit, Aline compliments her, then asks her to spin around. The girl does, happily flashing her butt to Aline's oohs and ahhs.
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