Black Men and Sex Tourism in Brazil

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Ed Gordon talks with William Jelani Cobb, professor of history at Atlanta's Spelman College, about a growing number of African-American men who are traveling to Brazil and seeking out prostitutes. Cobb wrote an article in the September issue of Essence magazine titled "Blame it on Rio" on this subject.

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

Blame it on Rio. So says William Jelani Cobb in this month's Essence magazine. He traveled to Brazil and documented a disturbing new trend there: African-American men taking sex vacations.

The poverty in Latin America is crushing, and there's no shortage of women in places like Rio willing to say and do whatever it takes to survive. I spoke with Cobb, and he says for many African-American men, that can make for a powerful escape.

Mr. WILLIAM JELANI COBB (Professor of History, Spelman College): This kind of experience of deference and being lauded and praised and, you know, seen as, you know, this desirable individual, so it's as much psychological as it is sexual. The minute you arrive, you start hearing this cascade of compliments, and they're specifically connected to you being a black American man.

So there are beautiful women who are going, oh, I love black men, oh, you're so beautiful, oh, the black men are this, the black men are that. And you realize that you don't really hear that kind of affirmation, you know, in black America. Very often what you get is the, I love my brothers, but, you know, dot, dot, dot. There's something else attached to it. You know, you know y'all ain't right and so on.

And I think that that kind of affirmation is what makes that experience so addictive, because men go down there time and time and time again.

GORDON: You have a great tale in the first paragraph of the article that talks about how rampant this is. And that's when you sit down in a restaurant, a waiter flips open the menu displaying the specials of the evening, but also under his thumb is a four-pack of Viagra.

Mr. COBB: Right. The Viagra there is as common as sand is on the beach. On the one hand, the government is not particularly thrilled with Brazil having this reputation as being a, you know, a sexual playground. And on the other hand, it's so completely tied to the economy they have an incentive to turn a blind eye to it.

And so everyone makes money from it: the women who are involved in the trade make money from it, the hotels make money from it, the restaurants make money from it. And this particular waiter, you know, he had kind of his side hustle, which is when I came in and sat down at the table, he flipped open the menu, he had the Viagra there, and he was like, I'll sell them to you for, I think, $6, you know, a pill.

But he also pointed to a group of women who were across the room - and this is not in the article - but he said, would you like a black one or a white one? It was almost like he was talking about furniture.

GORDON: This goes beyond just the fantasy. And let's be honest, this is going to be a fantasy of many men who walk down. These are beautiful women who are coming on to you, and you say in one article a brother, an older brother, has an opportunity to go out some women that clearly in the States would not have looked at him.

Mr. COBB: Right. And so it's very common, because of the rate of exchange, that the men go down there and they can experience this kind of lifestyle of being a player, of being a baller, so to speak, in the way that they couldn't United States.

And, you know, the other side of it is, of course, that it's all game. You know, there's something behind it, that these women are in these dire economic circumstances. You know, they really don't have any other option. And so they're both - you know, as I said in the article, it's kind of the crossroads between black male insecurity and Latin American poverty, and each party has their respective motivations.

GORDON: Lest we think this is all fun and games, and one will have to believe that they'll be a lot of brothers who read this article and still with a wink and a nod think, as soon as I get out of here, I'm making my reservations to Rio…

Mr. COBB: I'm going to Brazil.

GORDON: But the downside of this, of course, is AIDS, and the rampant increase in AIDS over the last few years in Brazil.

Mr. COBB: Mm-hmm. Well, actually, the interesting thing about that - and I don't want to make it seem like this to encourage this in the least - is that the unwritten story is how well Brazil has handled its HIV issues. They were projected to have about 1.2 million HIV cases by 2005. They actually only had about 600,000. They have been very aggressive in intervening.

But that said, there are plenty of things that you can catch besides HIV. And if you are dealing with someone who has sex for a living, you place yourself, you know, severely at risk.

The other side of it as well as, you know, beyond the epidemiological issue is the moral irony. There is an absolute crushing poverty that you see, and you are clear that this is not about this woman being completely helpless by your charm. This is about someone who really doesn't have many options economically.

GORDON: But how much of that is seen. I mean I think of - I often talk about, you know, the many black folks who went down prior to Katrina to New Orleans to enjoy the Essence Music Festival, and walked past that object poverty that we say Katrina uncovered, though it was there for years and years and years. How much of this goes unseen and these guys really do believe it's their worldly charm that entices these women?

Mr. COBB: Well, you know, it's an interesting question, because it's an issue of what you see and what you want to see. You know, when you had black people who were in very subservient positions, it would be very easy for whites to say, well, blacks are just very happy. You remember that was one of the myths about us. We're just very happy, and, you know, they just love to do this kind of stuff. And it was really like, no. If you really want to open your eyes and see it, you can see that we really have no choice.

And so the irony is that we can now, because of the struggles of the 1960s, afford to go to another country where we have that same kind of blind eye. So we can say, oh, okay, she's just really, really extremely sexual, and she's just completely into you. Or we can look at it and say, well, was that brother who had to shine white folks' shoes really that happy when he was grinning, you know, all the time?

GORDON: Well, as I said, it's a fascinating article in Essence Magazine. The article is called Blame it on Rio, and the author is William Jelani Cobb.

Hey, man, thanks so much.

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