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It is a myth that prostitution in Brazil is completely legal. Gabriela Leite and Lourdes Barreto founded the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes BNP in the mid s in response to police violence in the red light districts where they worked. Over the next 20 years, sex workers established organizations throughout Brazil, including Davida — Prostitution, Civil Rights and Health in The BNP earned seats at the policy-making table and was fundamental in developing peer-led HIV prevention initiatives.
Abolitionism gained strength in Brazil at the start of the new millennium, fueled by moral panic and by the growth of carceral feminism on the left and Christian conservatism on the right. The spaces in which sex workers were welcome to speak as equals instead of as victims decreased, as did their inclusion in policy-making circles.
In , a federal HIV prevention campaign came under attack for its portrayal of a sex worker claiming to be happy with her profession. BNP responded with statements and protest campaigns, however in the media hysteria that followed their statements and the decades of successful sex worker-led responses to HIV were largely ignored. These forms of activism revolve around a form of politics that I, Laura, describe as puta politics in my dissertation research on sex worker activism in Brazil.
Puta politics refuses victimization, invests in the transformative potential of what is often perceived of as immoral, and disrupts divisions between institutional structures and the street. An excellent example of puta politics is Daspu Of the Whores , a clothing line founded by Davida in This had resulted in the illegal arrest of more than sex workers as well as instances of rape, battery, and robbery, all of which was followed by police impunity and persecution of those who spoke out.
Along with our colleagues and collaborators at Prostitution Policy Watch, we also activated a wide range of allies and made contact with several congress members who set up public hearings about the raid. These mixes of calculated political strategy with playful and provocative protest tactics is what makes puta politics so effective. In , Davida started appearing at anti-trafficking events, demanding to be heard. Putting anti-trafficking activists in direct and cordial contact with sex workers was one of the best ways Davida found to dispel the enchantment of media myths.