Analyzing the Myths of Child Prostitution in Brazil

October 11, 2016

Last March, after reading several online articles about the expected increase in prostitution and human trafficking in relation to the World Cup in Brazil, I decided to research the issue of child prostitution. Although I expected this to be a complex issue, I did not realize how many challenges and myths I would encounter while researching the topic.

In the original article that I wrote about child prostitution in Brazil1, I made the mistake of believing erroneously cited statistics. It seemed that many sources cited the number of child prostitutes as ranging from 250,000 to 500,000. I accepted these numbers as fact since they came from credible mainstream news sources.

Last April, CNN reported that 500,000 child prostitutes roam the streets of Brazil, citing the National Forum for the Prevention of Child Labor as the source of this statistic.2 However, the link provided in this article simply leads to the organization’s website, and the actual location of the number cited is elusive. The U.S. Department of State’s 2009 Human Rights Report on Brazil states that the number of child prostitutes is 250,000 according to Brazilian Police.3

I perhaps naively believed these sources without fully investigating the legitimacy of the studies and organizations to which they claimed to attribute these statistics. However, after receiving criticism for the article that I originally published, I became skeptical of these numbers and decided to continue the investigation of this topic.

I had originally hoped to write a follow-up article about what had actually happened in relation to prostitution (particularly child prostitution) and the World Cup, using statistics and police reports to substantiate my initial research. Of course, when I researched the topic I found very little follow-up information on the subject. Also, (and unsurprisingly) it seems that most mainstream media sources suddenly stopped talking about the topic that they had been focusing upon for months before the Cup.

In the case of other World Cups, such as the 2010 South Africa Cup, research exists that may disprove the popular notion that human trafficking and prostitution increases during large sporting events. One survey conducted statistically analyzes the relation between prostitution advertising platforms and their use during and after the World Cup. The results concluded that there was only a small increase in the number of sex working advertising online during and after the World Cup (+5.9% and +9.3%, respectively).4 Additionally, the percentage of non-South African sex workers advertising during this time actually fell. These results seem to be contrary to the popular belief that massive amounts of sex-tourist cause a surge in human trafficking and sex work during the World Cup.  

This being the case, I decided  instead to research the source of the mythical “250,000-500,000 Brazilian child prostitutes” statistic. I came across the research of late Brazilian scholar Fúlvia Rosemberg, a social sciences-based researcher with a background in psychology and experience in researching childhood education, gender relations, and race relations. In an article entitled “Ruthless Rhetoric,” Rosemberg and Leandro Feitosa Andrade claim that the rhetoric of mainstream media has victimized the Brazilian lower classes, making unfair associations between poverty, street children and prostitution.5

As I have discovered through my recent investigations, and as Rosemberg and Feitosa Andrade’s research has found, there appears to be no credible source from which these statistics originally emerged. In 1986, The International Federation for Human Rights reported that there were 5,000,000 prostitutes between the ages of 12 and 14 living in Brazil. This outlandishly high number was cited and skewed by other news sources, including the Brazilian newspaper Mulheiro which cited the statistic as 2,000,000 and attributed it to UNICEF.5

It seems that over time, this mythical number began to shrink. Somewhere along the line, the statistic that 500,000 child prostitutes live and work in Brazil appeared in the mix. This number is often attributed to UNICEF, even though the Brazilian representative of UNICEF, Gary Stahl, statedthat the statistic is much likely closer to 10,000 as estimated by the Brazilian government’s Secretariat of Human Rights hotline.6

Recently, some sources have dropped the number to a range of 250,000-500,000, however 250,000 is one of the lower numbers that I repreatedly discovered thoughout my research.7 Many times these statistics are cited as UNICEF’s when no reference or link to any specific study is presented.

Stahl’s post was published on the  UNICEF blog on June 12, 2014, the day that marked the beginning of the Brazilian-hosted World Cup. He explicitly states, “Over the last months, there have been several articles and op-eds published by influential media outlets stating erroneously that according to UNICEF, 250,000 children are sexually exploited every year in Brazil. Please note that this is not UNICEF’s data and the number quoted has been erroneously attributed not only to UNICEF but to other institutions since 1999, without being updated in over a decade.”6

Another trend that I discovered through this research is a surprising lack of literature written in Portuguese about the topic of child prostitution. Renata Maria Coimbra Libório, author of a study of adolescent prostitution entitled “Adolescentes em Situação de Prostituição,” states in her research that there is a lack of material written in Portuguese regarding the subject.8 (p. 413) This may perhaps serve as a clue that these seemingly-horrific figures may indeed be hyperbolized and that both the Brazilian public and scholars do not percieve that this issue is as widespread as some claim it to be.

Rosemberg and Feitosa Andrade blame both Brazilian and international media representations of street children as part of the issue. They suggest that “North-South relations in the dissemination of information and in the exercise of modern philanthropy”5 (p. 121) may be partially to blame for these mythical statistics. The rhetoric employed by these exaggerated statistics and other mainstream media sources (for example a photograph of a young girl with a “for sale” sign on her back or a series of articles profiling the victimized lives of prostitutes) perpetuates deeply-rooted issues that prevent the true problems from being solved. Binaries of north/south, developed/underdeveloped, light-skinned/dark-skinned, continue to appear throughout these media portrayals of issues such as child prostitution.

The authors also argue that philanthropy for these exaggerated issues becomes misplaced.5Through these media misrepresentations, street children, impoverished children, and child prostitutes become equated as one in the same, simplifying their individual identities and therefore simplifying the complexities of the issues at hand. Viable solutions to these issues cannot be found when the problems have become shaded by erroneous statistics and victimizing photographs that cater to an international audience’s pitying gaze.

I would agree with Rosemberg that falsifying or exaggerating statistics about issues such as child prostitution can be extremely problematic. The dialogue of philanthropy often simplifies the issue, blaming children and their parents for turning to prostitution, but doing little to alleviate the larger paradigms at play that create these circumstances in the first place.

Of course even an extensive investigation of this issue may not produce statistically accurate results that pinpoint the exact number of child prostitutes that exist in Brazil. Child prostitution, no matter how large or small of an issue it may be, should not be a problem reduced to mere numbers but rather be viewed with a humanistic approach that does not victimize those involved but empowers them with the tools necessary to change their reality. Perhaps the greater problem at hand is not prostitution itself, but how we view and approach the issue.

Both the conditions that may cause a child to become involved in prostitution and the conditions that may cause an organization to publish a falsified statistic that exaggerates the relevance of a social problem, are products of a larger system that reinforces inequalities and injustices throughout the world.


Works Cited:


2) Darlington, Shasta. “Brazil tackling child prostitution for World Cup.” CNN. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. 02 April 2014. Web. 20 Jan. 2015.

3) United States. Department of State. 2009 Human Rights Report: Brazil. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 11 Mar. 2010. Web. 20 Jan. 2015.

4) Delva, Wim, et al. “Sex Work during the 2010 FIFA World Cup: Results from a Three-Wave Cross-Sectional Survey.” PLOS One. PLOS. 07 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 Jan. 2015.

5) Rosemberg, Fúlvia and Leandro Feitosa Andrade. “Ruthless Rhetoric: Child and Youth Prostitution in Brazil.” Childhood. 6.1. (1999): 113-131. Web. 20 Jan. 2015.

6) Stahl, Gary.”Protecting Brazilian children from child labor as the World Cup begins”. UNICEF Connect. 12 June 2014. Web. 04 Dec. 2014.

7) Willis, Brian M. and Barry S. Levy. “Child prostitution: global health burden, research needs and interventions.” The Lancet. 359.9315 (2002): 1417-1422. Web. 20 Jan. 2015.

8) Coimbra Libório, Renata Maria. “Adolescentes em Situação de Prostituição: Uma Análise sobre a Exploração Sexual Comercial na Sociedade Contemporânea.” Psicologia: Reflexão e Crítica. 18.3 (2005): 413-420. Web. 20 Jan. 2015.



About Author(s)

Madeline Townsend
Madeline is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh. She is pursuing a degree in Spanish and Global Studies, with a focus on the Latin American region. She plans to present an honors thesis on visual representations of the internal conflict that occurred in Peru between 1980 and 2000. She also studies Portuguese and Film Studies as minors and works as one of the Panoramas interns.