Don’t Even Try to Blame It on Rio

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

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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.


With few exceptions, most men go once or twice. Very few stay in Brazil, and while they have the momentary delusion that the women they meet are “girlfriends,” almost none entertain the idea of bringing them home or maintaining any relationship with them beyond the vacation. In the world of sex tourism, variety is the spice of life, even for regular visitors.

These books and articles largely miss the point. People should be free to sleep with whomever they choose. Those who are married or in relationships, have their own conscience to answer to, but that is not my business. I have heard of no case where some otherwise married man leaves his happy home for a Brazilian “girlfriend” met on the beach. The real problem with sex tourism isn’t sex at all. It’s that it exposes the glaring problem of inequality and exploitation in the global economy. We rarely hear the stories of poverty and desperation from the women who must choose sex work as a route to a better life. Even the tourists never really hear their stories because of the substantial language barriers and the true tales of poverty and inequality are too depressing for revelers on vacation.

For me, the outrage is that women of African descent in cities like Rio, Cartagena and Puerto Plata are so poor and have so few options for social mobility that their bodies are all they have to generate value and a decent income. It also angers me how these women are portrayed by the Americans who write about them. Brazilian women are stereotyped as sexual superwomen always ready, sexually available and willing to do anything. The message is: Brazil and Brazilians are good for one thing, sex. An Afro-Brazilian female Ph.D student in the United States always gets a knowing stare and comment, “Oh, you are Brazilian” when she reveals the origins of her accent. The suggestion and actions are that she is sexually available, easy and entirely uninhibited, a veritable sexual carnival ride.

Brazil is a complex place with the largest population of African descent outside of Africa. The country is struggling to overcome poverty and enormous inequality. There is a white elite that lives a “first-world” lifestyle as chronicled in Edward Telles’ book, Race in Another America. Meanwhile, blacks and browns struggle to make ends meet. Afro-Brazilians have fought hard to maintain their history and culture, to develop black magazines, and universities have recently won the implementation of affirmative action over an ideology that denied the existence of racism.

Black Brazilians welcome African Americans, but too many of us buy into the myth and go there focused on their sexual fantasies learn nothing of these struggles. Activists resent the perceptions of Afro-Brazilians as oversexed, hedonistic people who have no concerns or struggles. Those of us who do serious work in Brazil resent the continued suggestion that our travels there are for sexual tourism. Many of us are involved in bilateral efforts like the organization “Levantamos”or “Uplift” that encourages educational and economic development in African-American and Afro-Brazilian communities. These organizations get scant attention compared to the focus on sex.

Modern relationships are complicated. In looking for explanations for why black men and women can’t get together, we cannot scapegoat sisters who speak Portuguese. We also can’t fall victim to the salacious stories that overstate the effects of sex tourism on African-American women in the United States. The real concern here is the poverty and desperation of our brothers and sisters in Brazil, Colombia and the Dominican Republic.

But it is important to note they are not all prostitutes. Many are just regular black folks like us, who just might find an African-American man or woman attractive and pursue a romance. Using prostitutes to characterize Brazilian women is worse than using rap videos as a measure of how most African-American women approach relationships. They are not taking anyone’s man or woman; we are free to pursue romance and love in an open market. That market is now more than ever international. The moral question is not about sex and cheating, rather, should we be exploiting their poverty or lending a helping hand?

Mark Q. Sawyer is an associate professor of political science and African American studies at UCLA, director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics and author of “Racial Politics in Post-Revolutionary Cuba.”