South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
“But you are Brazilian!” – after I rejected a sexual advance.
That’s what it says on the card above, one of several used in a campaign to report discrimination suffered by Brazilian students at the University of Coimbra in Portugal.
The idea that Brazilian women are more pliable than most feeds into at least two issues currently taken very seriously in the country: international trafficking of women and sex tourism. So it was no surprise that there were howls of protest this week when Adidas, sponsor of the forthcoming Fifa World Cup, launched this pair of T-shirts on its US merchandise site:
President Dilma Rousseff led the response on Twitter: “Brazil is happy to receive tourists for the World Cup, but it is also ready to combat sex tourism.”
The tourism ministry went further, saying the shirts associated the country with sexual activity and contributed indirectly to crimes such as sexual exploitation of children and adolescents. The ministry launched a campaign against sex tourism this year with an eye on the World Cup, when the country expects to receive 600,000 visitors, through material distributed in bars, bus stations, airports and hotels.
And here’s one typical response from the twittersphere, calling for a boycott of Adidas products:
But the response to the shirts was not only critical of Adidas. Many Brazilians used social media to argue that an image of heightened sexuality is one the country itself has been selling for a long time. Carnival, they say, is all about half-naked, dancing women. Television shows run competitions to find the woman with the best, biggest bottom.
Embratur, the national tourism promotion agency, has not always tried to deter the sex tourists. This is how it promoted Brazil to the world in the 1980s:
Sex sells everywhere of course and Brazil is far from alone in pushing the limits. Here is a recent poster campaign for Mash, a brand of men’s underwear – seen, for example, beside the highway leading to São Paulo from the international airport:
And this is how Devassa, a brewer, mixed sexism with racism to advertise its dark beer:
With sexuality such a prominent part of its aspirational culture, it is perhaps not surprising that Brazil is among the ten countries worldwide with the greatest number of victims of human trafficking and is a favourite destination for people seeking under-age sex. In 2013, a hotline number to report child sexual abuse received about 16,000 calls in Rio de Janeiro and about 18,000 in São Paulo.
A report by Brazil’s Ministry of Justice found that between 2005 and 2011, 337 Brazilians were victims of sexual trafficking, but the number is likely to be much higher – the report counted only victims who asked for help at Brazilian consulates and embassies abroad and were repatriated or offered temporary housing.
If you search online for the term “Brazil beach” you are as likely to find images of women in bikinis as you are of actual beaches. Brazil doesn’t need anyone, least of all a foreign multinational, to reinforce its negative stereotypes. It needs help changing them.