Don't Even Try to Blame It on Rio

Não, não—stop blaming the sisters who speak Portuguese.

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Why is coupling such a contentious topic in the black community? Yesterday's explanation was that black men are all gay and secretly on the "down low." This pseudo-sociological approach explained everything from high HIV rates among black men and women to why marriage rates are so low. It fed anxieties and provided for salacious stories of men "trapped in the closet" and living double lives. That explanation created excitement for a while, but ultimately failed the smell test. The majority of unmarried, good-looking African-American men are not gay or bisexual (not that there is a problem if they are).

Stripped of that bogus explanation, another, equally implausible answer has emerged South of the Border.

The recently published book, Don't Blame It on Rio: The Real Deal Behind Why Men Go to Brazil for Sex, by Jewel Woods and Karen Hunter, an infamous Essence magazine article by William Jelani Cobb, and Web forums have now focused on the new explanation why African American women are having problems with black men: Brazil or more specifically Brazilian women.

In this new storyline, all the eligible black men are slipping off to Rio where they're having such an amazing time that they permanently trade relationships back home for a series of "Girl Friend Experiences" (GFE) with Brazilian semi-pros and professional sex workers. This new argument casts Brazilian women as servile, sexual superwomen with all the right assets and skill to use them. The rift between black men and women can be laid at the feet of these eager-to-please women, who look like a cross between Halle Berry and J-Lo and are luring black men to Rio de Janeiro in droves to re-enact their most base Snoop Dogg video fantasies.

Aside from the fact that this narrative demonizes these women on the international stage much in the way rap videos do black American women, the danger in the persistence of this myth is that it ignores the real, more important issues surrounding global inequalities, race and gender among our Brazilian brethren.

Sex tourism is nothing new. Men have long traveled to exotic locales to have sexual liaisons with prostitutes. But this privilege was typically reserved for wealthy and/or military men. Now that international travel is more accessible, sex tourism has been democratized (so much so that recent reports show middle-class, middle-aged European women touring Kenya for sex with young African men, and professional African-American women voyage to Italy on Bella Donna tours billed as the "Black Women's Brazil.") The free flow and ease of travel means that sex in foreign locales is now also available to men and women of different classes and races—including, yes, a growing class of African-American men with disposable income.

The reigning hysteria about the Brazilian sex trade focuses on places like Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana Beach or the Dominican Republic's Puerto Plata, which are depicted as giant strip clubs/bachelor parties where there is sex in the champagne rooms. There are "all-inclusive cruises," all-inclusive hotels, discos with hired "hostesses" and even resorts for upscale men that fly in women from Eastern Europe. Some African-American men can be found interacting with the semi-pros at discos, cafés and bars near the beaches of Rio.

One problem I have with the work in these places is: None of the popular authors speak Portuguese or it seems even bother to hire and interpreter. In fact, neither do the men who visit. Sex tourism of this variety is based on the profound income disparity in the world. The minimum wage in Brazil is $248 a month. For young, poor but beautiful women in Brazil, sex work is a way out. There is a substantial allure for them to help support their families but also have access to items and luxuries that are not imaginable in their neighborhoods. Thus, these women make the trek to Copacabana Beach and sell what is now a global commodity for free trade: their bodies. This disparity in income means that for a relatively small amount of money requested for "gifts," "food," "tuition" or to help a sick mother, men can have a girlfriend (or several) in Brazil for a week or so.

Often the African-American men can't speak Portuguese and the women have very limited English. However, money talks and the "tall, tan and lovely Girls of Ipanema" don't just walk by, but have honed their skills of gathering high-paying clients for the weekend. Unlike in every other aspects of life, African-American men are coveted there. They travel in groups and with the exchange rate, can splash large enough amounts of cash to run Nelly's "Tip Drill" on a budget. In contrast, the average white American who travels to Brazil for sex goes alone and tries to get as much as they can for as little as possible. In fact, they complain on Web sites that African-American men are "spoiling" the women.

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