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 4×4, 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.
Outside, just down the street, is a hut fashioned to look, oddly enough, like a giant gift-wrapped present. It’s part of the UN’s “Stop the Traffik” campaign: these “gift boxes” are regularly moved from one international zone of prostitution to another; they’re meant to entice you inside, whereupon you’re greeted with grisly photos of trafficking victims. The idea is that a potential client will, minutes before consummation, stop the transaction upon realizing he might be exploiting a woman forced into prostitution against her will. But, according to Ruvolo, there actually are no nefarious pimps here. As she explains, the women of Vila come and go as they please, setting their own hours and rates, only paying a cut to the house for use of the property.
On June 12th, the first day of the World Cup, a 24-hour bar called Balcony, located directly across the street from the elaborate FIFA Fan Zone on Copacabana beach — where attractions include ziplining and looking at a Hyundai — was shuttered, on charges that it was “profiting indirectly” from the sexual exploitation of minors. The owner dismissed the minors claim as preposterous, insisting that what rare underage girls that worked the area were never allowed into Balcony anyway. But what no one discounted was that Balcony was, indeed, a stronghold of working girls.
In 2010, a cavernous 24-hour Copacabana dance club called Help — in its heyday, a major, beloved prostitute work zone — was closed, in favor of the founding of the Museum of Image and Sound (to date, still under construction). But no workers went home: inside of a week, the girls, and the clientele, just moved on down the beach, to Balcony. Now, again, everyone had moved on — 10 feet over, to in front of Balcony. The working girls even kept on using the bar’s WiFi, which hadn’t yet been switched off.
Before the clock strikes midnight on a recent evening, the plaza is littered with clusters of Croats and Argentinians and Chileans, beaming with pride in their team jerseys, already swaying with the booze and alternately confused and intrigued by the many pairs of provocatively-clad ladies roving the area. The ambulantes, selling tall boys of Antarctica beer out of styrofoam coolers, are making a killing. Negotiations are firing; a French guy in plaid shorts begins his by cupping the object of his affection’s face and declaring her beautiful. Dotted by strip clubs, where the girls will go from the pole to your room for the right price, this is the heart of Copacabana’s Inferninho — little hell.
I speak with an animated and smiley dark-haired girl, who, here, goes by the name Maria Eduarda. She says she’s been working a year-and-a-half to support her two kids, who she’s raising herself. “I don’t come every night,” she explains. “I need money, I work.” And your parents? She’s given them an excuse: “I’m ‘at a party’ right now.” Maria Eduarda says she has a day job in the offices of a TV network, and studies journalism at a university.
There are issues, of course. One gringo (the term, used in Brazil, to connote any and all non-Brazilian) had recently tried to rob her. He’d picked up her and three other women, taken them to a hotel, slept with them, then ran out on the bill. She called the police, but they were useless. Another time, a guy came and picked up her and six girls, offering a very favorable rate. Then, as soon as she agreed, he threw the cuffs on: he was an undercover cop, convinced she was underage. “I’m 26,” she says. “I look small.”
Ultimately, the money is too persuasive. “On a good night,” she says, “I get 1,000 reais.” (The exchange is a little over two to one with USD). One client paid 1,200 reais for one hour. I’m waiting for him tonight. We already arranged.” What country’s men pays well? “Brazilians pay less. Argentines don’t pay much. Americans pay the best. But American’s don’t pay to fuck! They pay to talk, have fun, have a drink, snort cocaine. But I don’t use. I’m here because of my body, not because of drugs.” On a roll now, she keeps going. “Mexicans have small dicks. Italians have thin dicks.” Germans? “Too white. Too white. No hair.” Have you been raising prices for the Cup? “Claro!”
Maria Eduarda’s friend, Celistal, also 26, joins us. She started working two weeks ago, in anticipation of just this spike in prices. Normally, she works as a manager in a store, where she makes 3,000 reais a month. Here, she could match that total in three nights. She explains that she’d been thinking about prostituting for a while, studying it even. “It’s not easy to do,” she says. “Only the money makes me come here. The first night, I had to drink a lot of tequila.” Meanwhile, Maria Eduarda, who’d run off seeing a bite from a potential customer, returned, not too sure he was a good idea after all. “I’m afraid,” she says. “He said he’d go have a drink and come back, but he looks really angry and he looks like has a big dick. Are you crazy? Look at my size!”
Thaddeus Blanchette, 46, slightly portly, with a full head, and beard, of salt-and-pepper hair, is a professor of anthropology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Exceedingly friendly and garrulous, he rattles off his rapid-fire Portuguese with the distinct round tones of his long-ago native Oshkosh, Wisconsin. At one point, explaining “whore mongers” — proudly self-professed sex tourists — he says, “they have same relationship to prostitution as I do to miniature wargaming.” And if you want to know about consenting adults fucking for money in Rio de Janeiro, he’s the man to see.
For well over a decade, and often alongside his wife, fellow anthropologist Ana Paula da Silva, Blanchette has been deep-diving into all the nooks and crannies of Rio’s sex industry. He’s got the war stories: the source of a sticky floor at Dolce Vita revealed to be an elderly gentlemen’s circle jerk; the packed but understaffed brothel, manned by a woman who’d just stick her neck out the bedroom door and yell “proximo!” when it was time for the next fellow to trudge forward. He’s got the papers (2013: Cinderella Deceived: Analyzing a Brazilian Myth Regarding Trafficking in Persons) and he’s got tenure. Now comes a particularly ambitious project: Blanchette and a group of volunteer researchers and anthropologists are continuously monitoring the city’s sex circuit — making rounds, from Vila up through the termases — during the entire World Cup.
“You hear this 30,000 figure,” a member of the team, Gregory Mitchell, a professor at Williams in Massachusetts and an expert in the gay sex trade, explains when we meet. “30,000 people will be trafficked for the World Cup! They first said it about Germany [in 2006], then they said it about South Africa [in 2010]. There were four [documented sex trafficking cases] in Germany. Fewer than eight in South Africa. For the Super Bowl in Texas [in 2011] they said 100,000 Mexican girls would be trafficked. That would have been enough for every man and woman and child in the stadium to have their own underage prostitute!”
The “they” are anti-trafficking NGOs. Folks like Ruvolo and Blanchette and Williams believe that certain NGOs — specifically, many of the ones associated with the hardline Coalition Against Trafficking in Women — are dangerously focused on shaping policy around the truly horrible, but rare and unrepresentative, stories of exploited minors and enslaved women. In the Blanchette group’s point of view, rather than actually engage with sex workers, a whole, well-funded infrastructure exists to try and theoretically save their lives. But as the revenue the girls at Balcony generate shows, more likely than not, sex work is not about teeth-gnashingly awful tales of modern slavery. Murder, theft, the selling of your body — every day, extreme acts are committed for the simple enough reason of cash.
“Policy decisions get made because NGOs scream about shocking violations of human rights. And there’s nothing more shocking than raped kiddies. I mean, fuck the facts!” Blanchette scoffs, enraged at the thought of moneyed NGOs that he believes can’t be bothered to do the kind of field-work he and his team are now engaging in daily — that is, engaging directly with sex workers — then pushing out misinformation that leads directly to oppressive government behavior. “We’ve already thought of the subtitle of our paper: ‘The World Cup and the Slutshaming of Brazil.'” It’s good, I admit. He laughs. “You can’t use it!”
One afternoon, at a cozy espresso bar dug into a spiffy bookstore in Botafogo, Thaddeus introduces me to Giovana. A very pretty brunette in a plaid shirt and simple black sandals, Giovana is both a doctoral student in anthropology specializing in sex work and a garota de programa herself. She practices an aggressive participant-observation form of anthropology: while doing her masters in the drug trade, she ended up dating a dealer in one of the city’s major factions. When she started her doctoral work, she again got directly involved. Giovana is her work name.
She now plies her trade in a high-end termas in the Zona Sul analogous to, if not exactly as highly regarded as, Centaurus. Twenty-eight years old, she’s been working on-and-off for three years. She stopped for a year when she got married. After her divorce, she got back into prostitution. Her income now ranges from 4,000 to 12,000 reais per month.
“I need a lot of emotional stability and calm in order to do this,” she explains. “I might do four days of work and four clients each day. Then I stop until I spend all my money and get calm and get my head together again.” She outlines her motivations: “One, obviously, for my field work. Two, for the money. I’m making way more than I could anywhere else. Finally, I wanted as a woman to investigate how men are able to disconnect sex from affection.”
She tells us about a recent shift, when she did programas with three gringos. “The cariocas, when they want sex it’s like bam bam bam bam,” she says, slapping the back of one hand into the palm of the other. “Gringos, they come quick and its easier to fool them. You put a sheet on them and say, ‘it’s done, honey,’ and they leave the room even though the programa has half the time left.” Her recent batch of gringos included a Romanian, a Brit and a fellow from Dubai, who she thought was sweet. “He turned off all the lights. Then he took off three pairs of underwear: shorts, boxer shorts, and tighty-whities.”
Giovana’s mother knows she does the work, but others in her life are unaware. Does she ever worry someone might walk into a brothel and see her? “It’s interesting,” she replies, “in every place I’ve ever worked there’s a woman that says ‘I have a friend’ — it’s never the woman herself — who says she opened the door and there was her dad. Everyone believes this legend.”
The women at work share tips, like which dental anaesthetic is best for anal sex (lidocaine is quite good), or how to deal with menstruating on the job, or how to avoid oral sex with clients. “If a guy insists on putting it my mouth, and I don’t want to, I lick my finger and run it on the tip of his dick,” Giovana explains. “Then I start spitting all the time and I throw my hair over it and do a lot of movements. They get confused.” The women also shoot the shit about an annoying client: the guy who hangs around the girls in the downstairs lounge, bothering everyone without ever springing for a programa in the upstairs rooms. The term for that guy is pentelho — pubic hair.
Citing the work of pioneering 19th century psychologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Giovana explains that there are “two kinds of typical clients. One that wants the kind of sex he cannot normally have with woman of his class and social position: non-normative sexual behavior. The other type is someone who sees it as a proving field of masculine virility. That guy needs to prove he can do what he needs to do. And the vast majority of my clients want normal sex.”
But there are exceptions. And they are dramatic. At one point, indulging in my baser instincts, I gotta ask her — what’s the weirdest fucking thing you’ve ever seen? For the next few minutes, Giovana spins a jaw-dropping tale of dramatic luridity touching on domination fantasies, princess fantasies, arsenals of sex toys, velvet-lined testicle handcuffs, sexually oriented penis slaps, pegging and the fraught kissing of hands. “And he finally came,” Giovana says, wrapping up her story with a smile, “when we both pissed on his face.”
The Sao Conrado Fashion Mall — a self-righteously bougie place, open-aired, full of jutting fauna and snack stand waitresses in straw boaters — is located at the base of Rocinha, the biggest favela in Brazil. One evening, after the sun has set and Rocinha’s house lights dot the dark hills like a mini starscape, Sergio Limas, the former Centaurus bartender, comes down from his home in the favela to meet me for coffee. Also joining us is my new friend and foursquare champion Pelife, acting as my translator. Tomorrow is June 12th, Brazil’s version of Valentine’s Day. But it’s also the day of the first game of the World Cup, and so many are celebrating already. Later, at this same Fashion Mall, Pelife will have a nice dinner out with his wife and mother-in-law. But first, we talk Centaurus.
Limas tells us about Najara, the cafetina: she’s “kind of cocky,” and tough with the girls, but soft on the customers. She’s just over five feet tall, in her-mid-fifties now, was beautiful in her day, and dresses “discreet” like an “entrepreneur.” She gets to work every day at 8 a.m., and she’s responsible with scouting new girls, to make sure they’re not only modelesque but also have the “it” factor necessary to work at Centaurus.
“Sometimes the language can be a problem,” says Limas about Centaurus’s staff — most speak some English. “Or the manners. They have to be elite girls.” The out of town girls are almost all European or South American; it can be seasonal work, with some focusing on the high season from the summer months in November through to Carnaval in February. The full-time Brazilian girls live mostly in the coveted Zona Sul neighborhoods, and they’re mostly in their twenties. “A 30-year-old hooker?” says Limas. “It’s like a grandmother!”
The clientele, in his time, was celebrity-spotted, ranging from small-time politicians to one famously socially conscious TV personality to, apparently, wide swaths of the Brazilian national team. The soccer god mentioned earlier was the big partier, happy to make his presence felt, but there were other, quieter players around, too. One striker, still beloved in the country, was very low profile: he even wouldn’t drink alcohol, usually choosing to nurse a bottle of water or a Guarana. Still: “He liked the gang bangs and everything.”
If a client wanted to bring coke up to his own room, that was OK, but generally drugs weren’t allowed in the main areas and, explains Limas, the girls weren’t even really supposed to drink: “They talk louder, they love to brag. It’s not good for the house.” Above the first two common areas, there are three more floors of rooms (the basic option, which offers only a bed and a sink, and the suites, which come with a bigger bed and a full bathroom). Limas was always pretty tuned in to what was going on upstairs: “When you make friends with the girls you can know everything that happens.” And he certainly made friends: eventually, he says with a wry smile, Najara fired him for dating staff.
In his days, sometimes a guitar player would come in to play live bossa nova, but the “girls hate him — they like techno and more strong music.” Unlike a lot of the cheaper places in town, the booze was never diluted in any way and there were never any fights: “It’s not a regular club where you have to dispute, two of us for one girl. One or two girls for everybody!” House policy says that, if you ran into customers outside the club, you never approached first. But often, clients would greet Limas warmly on their own volition.
Two OBGYNs worked the club, in tandem, administering STD tests: there were so many girls, they almost had to come daily. Payment was never, ever late. “I was a bartender for 22 years,” says Limas. “People asked, in a negative way, ‘you work in a termas?!’ I tell them, the most organized company I ever worked for is a termas!” “It’s a nice job,” he goes on, remembering fondly now. “You earn very well. Work not so much. All the day free — and get some nights to sleep with the girls.”
Before we split, Pelife and Sergio get into an animated conversation about the Inferninho around Balcony. Pelife points out some other busy spots, like Barbarella and La Ciccolina, eventually grabbing my notebook to jot down a helpful map. Sergio nods, not unamused by our enthusiasm for the topic. We run out of time: Pelife has to head out for his Valentine’s Day dinner and Sergio has to return to Rocinha. We say goodbye, promising we’ll sit down again. “You go to Centaurus,” Pelife says, “then we come back here for more coffee and more sex talk.”
Finally, one afternoon, Blanchette, Mitchell, and I confer via e-mail: enough chit chat. It’s time for me to hit Centaurus.
We meet up before the planned visit in Ipanema, to have a lovely al fresco galeteria lunch, and to discuss approach. Blanchette and Mitchell acknowledge themselves as anthropologists when they enter these places, sometimes even attempting to pass out pamphlets on sex workers rights. Today, though, I’m tagging along as an anonymous customer. As air horn blasts fill the streets and impromptu brass bands start pumping away — Brazil is playing Mexico this afternoon — Blanchette tells me to let him do the talking. The house likes to try and rip off the gringos, he explains, charging them for the whole programa — 450 reais — along with the 140 reais entrance fee.
We approach the brothel’s front gate, a high wooden slat panel tucked under that properly imposing sign: CENTAURUS. My stomach is fluttering — I’m nervous that we won’t get in and I’m nervous that we will get in. But seeing the front desk puts me at ease. This reception area looks, remarkably, like an accountant’s office airlifted in from 1987. There are landline phones and calculators, the kind with the printing roll. There is an all-business pantsuited woman, processing our odd crew through with a tight smile. And then we’re in the locker room, a cramped space right off the base of the stairs, putting on our thin white logo-imprinted robes. The robes! The Centaurus robes! There’s a good variety, it seems, but the one I get rides up a bit higher on the thighs than I’m used to, which seems appropriate enough. We made it this far. Might as well all go ahead and show some skin.
Girls — most in matching skin-tight dresses in the yellow, blue and green of the Brazilian flag, with necklines that plunge like kamikazes — greet us right away. A tall, pale girl with long straight black hair, with more than a passing resemblance to a sex doll come to life, asks me where I’m from. “New York City,” I mumble, and she responds with a little arms-up party-time jig: “New York City, whoohoo!” We get upstairs, and see our fellow be-robed customers. The place isn’t in full swing yet, and so some girls loiter by the bar or dance pole — waiting, in the manner of grade-school dances immemorial, to be approached.
Blanchette, Mitchell and I grab a spot in the corner, order some caipirinhas, and take in the scene. Blanchette has produced a pen from somewhere, and is furiously scribbling notes on a cocktail napkin. Quickly, Mitchell and I are approached by a few of the more aggressive girls and get split up. Two of them flank me on either side. One cute brunette mostly tries to rub my chest, whispering sweet nothings in Spanish. Her friend, possessor of a trashy-beauty-pageant-winner vibe — like if, say, Vanessa Minnillo had stayed up all night doing whip-its — tells me that the two of them are like panteras. “You know the movie, Panteras?” I shake my head no. “They fight and work together and laugh. We’re like the Panteras! You want to go upstairs with all the Panteras?” It would turn out she was referring to Charlie’s Angels, presumably, specifically, the rebooted movie franchise. Still, I politely decline the offer to go upstairs with all the Panteras.
Even after you make it clear you’re mostly focused on the drink in front of you, the girls are quite friendly. One tells me she can’t drink because she’s got to get up early for class. She’s a student — business administration. Another says she’s getting out of the game in like a month. She’s moving to Minas Gerais. She’s gonna be a hairdresser. A lot of the girls fit a type, as Blanchette and Mitchell had let me know ahead of time, aspiring to a kind of universal ideal of fresh-faced, Playmate looks, perhaps with a bit more of the Brazilian focus on the bum bum. (Other clubs have other niches covered: at Monte Carlo, more silicon; at 4 x 4, more tattoos). There are minor exceptions, like the one particularly muscle-bound girl I end up chatting with. She tells me she got high before she came, so she’s feeling a bit crazy. She also says she has ten brothers and sisters, then happily rattles off all their names.
Running out of small talk, I ask girls about Bieber. They laugh, acknowledging there might have been a bit of a post-Justin spike in attention. But the girls that left with him that night don’t work here anymore (turnover, in general, is high at these places), and the ones that were there that night mostly think its funny he tried and failed to go back to his hotel, the esteemed Copacabana Palace: everyone knows hotels don’t allow garota de programas in! One girl says he mostly hung out in the “relaxation room,” which emanated weed smoke. Another says that, in person, he was “beautiful.”
I reconvene at the bar with my pals. Inured by experience to the titillation, they sit, instead, soberly analyzing the scene over a snack of surprisingly tasty meat-filled pastels. Blanchette, gazing around, says that, in terms of the attractiveness of the women, he thinks Monte Carlo can hang with Centaurus any day of the week. One girl, hearing this, turns to us and declares, along with a few suggestive humps toward the bar counter, “just wait till you fuck me!”
We take a spin around the place: there are neon-green tropical-tree prints and framed posters of Cary Grant and a ballerina in repose and the distinct vibe of time-worn Miami-style decadence. A logo is everywhere, and it is amazing: a centaur with a towel around his neck, ready for the spa.
Downstairs are the saunas, a wet one and a dry one, plus showers and a cold pool and a massage room (“the masseuse here is quite well known,” Blanchette lets me know). The girls aren’t actually even allowed down here, and so things swing with the general penis-exposed air of a fancy gym locker room.
We try out the facilities, enjoying the furiously intense hot sauna while chatting about the city’s “love hotels.” Add to that a few more of the bar’s excellently strong caipirinhas, and my earlier nerves have morphed into a wondrous level of relaxation. On the way out, we see a small brass plaque up on the wall commemorating some particularly loyal customers — “Miguel, Walter, Antonio, Rogero — 10 years of success — congratulations — 1999.” An attendant, noticing our interest, comes over. “Walter passed away,” he says, “but the other ones are still around. They’re having a 25th anniversary party soon.”
Back upstairs, meanwhile, the action has ticked up. Throughout the benches in the back room, there’s now a definite swirl of client/girl/client/girl activity. One fellow is furiously making out with his new friend. Another fellow happily watches his girl grind her ass in his lap, also quite furiously. And a third fellow settles for furiously diving his face into his girl’s breasts. Soon enough, pairs of guys and girls go marching up the stairs, to do what they’ve come here to do.
It’s all a bit more civilized than I’d imagined: there is a marked order to Centaurus. The men who disappear upstairs might be getting God knows what tadas, or kicks, tended to. The women doing so do it for the money, only for the money. But out in the open, the performative rituals all add up to a genial, if, yes, of course, sleazy little party. “You look for hookers to make your dreams come true,” Pelife had said to me at one point, and I’d laughed to myself. But, later, his eager maxim carries a certain kind of heft. The power, the hysteria, money — the whole battle between exploitation and labor and truth — it all starts there, with the clients who want to make their dirty, dirty dreams come true.
Over in the relaxation room, a crowd has gathered on the lounge chairs to watch the last stages of the Brazil-Mexico game, and for a little while, the rituals have paused. Girls lie intertwined with one another or cuddling with clients. One girl swaps a Red Bull back and forth with a guy, the two of them barely taking their eyes off the TV screen. When a promising Brazil run goes awry, one particularly invested girl freaks out, screaming “Ay, puta! Puta!” A client next to her, bemusedly unsettled, pleads with her: “Calmo. Calmo.” As we all watch rapt, Mitchell leans over and whispers, “I think some of these girls might even turn down a programa right now.”
But when the final whistle sounds and the game fizzles out into the least sensual possible outcome in the known universe — a scoreless tie — the riled-up supporter claps her hands together, and knocks us all back to the world of the termas: “OK! Let’s go have sex!”