The emergency of everyday life: What activists who care about the Russia Olympics should learn from sex workers, and why

This town's not big enough for Johnny Weir and me: Life-size wax figure of Stalin sits in his former dacha in Sochi

This town’s not big enough for Johnny Weir and me: Life-size wax figure of Stalin sits in his former dacha in Sochi

One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by authors of simile and metaphor…
They always say things like that the snow is a white blanket after a winter storm.
Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a six-inch blanket of snow and I’ll sleep under a half-inch blanket of unpoetical blanket material and we’ll see which one keeps warm,
And after that maybe you’ll begin to comprehend dimly
What I mean by too much metaphor and simile.

What Ogden Nash believed was good for the literary goose would surely be even better for the activist gander (that’s a metaphor, I know).  Yet once you’ve got a comparison in your head, it takes a brain tumor to dislodge it. The reigning simile these days is that Russians are Nazis. Therefore: Putin = Hitler, gays = Jews, 1936 = 2014, and the day after the Olympics = Auschwitz. The latest item is a Huffington Post piece which argues Russia’s anti-gay-propaganda law is exactly the same as Hitler’s 1935 Nuremberg Laws. The author proves this by replacing “homosexuality” in the new law’s text with the words “interracial relationships.” Q.E.D.

Unfortunately what his argument lacks is the other half of the comparison — a look at what the Nuremberg Laws said. Evidently the author hasn’t read them, because they say something quite different from Putin’s bill, and a single search-and-replace won’t make them identical. The Russian law treats sexualities as a kind of virus of persuasion, and restricts freedom of expression to keep unwanted ones from spreading. The German laws regarded race as an absolute divide, an unfathomable chasm in morality and biology that the State had to reflect. The Russian law is about defining and closing the public sphere; it censors what people say. The German laws ripped away both public rights and private safety: they stripped Jews of citizenship and began the process of criminalizing all relations, sexual and social, between the “races.” Race as it was in Hitler’s eyes can’t be turned into sexuality as Putin sees it.  You’ll never change the latter hatred if you imagine what it wants and where it comes from in the former’s terms.

Interspecies marriages are discouraged but tolerated

Interspecies marriages are discouraged but tolerated

But there’s no stopping comparisons. Apartheid, of course, comes in a close second to the Holocaust as a travel guide to Sochi. Just yesterday, blogger Melanie Nathan delivered a death-blow to the credentials of a scholar who studies Russian society and history. His crime? The schmuck wrote an op-ed arguing the Stoli boycott was misguided. “His voice should drown in one shot of vodka,” she says devastatingly:  “He also did not live through the collapse of an Apartheid South Africa.” Throw him off the ivory tower! It takes a South African to know the Russian soul. Indeed, Cape Town and the various Holocaust museums around the world contain the only qualified Russian experts in the world; all those silly Slavic departments should just shut down. Endless showings of Cry Freedom and Schindler’s List will teach us all we need to know. If we just mimic the non-black, non-Jewish heroes that Kevin Kline and Liam Neeson so movingly served up (“bridge characters,” in Nick Kristof’s helpful explanation, who “get people to care about foreign countries, to read about them, ideally, to get a little bit more involved”), tyrant Putin’s nyets are numbered.

So I give up. Or maybe I can join in myself. One comparison’s as good as another. The news today is that Putin has just released a decree (“On the use of high security during the XXII Olympic Winter Games”) that essentially ends freedom of movement in and around Sochi from January 7 till the end of March.

The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish.

The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish.

There’ll be a “forbidden zone” — this is like a Tarkovsky movie — blotting out most of the city of 350,000 as if it were Chernobyl. Access for regular Russians will be severely curtailed. Any “meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets that are not associated with the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games” are banned during the period.

Western gays are the loudest ones sounding alarms over the restrictions. But they’ll hamstring plenty of other dissenters: human rights groups and Russia’s environmental movement, which hoped to protest the destruction the Games’ construction boom has brought. Independent TV channel Dozhd warned that Sochi 2014 will be like the 1980 Moscow Games, when barbed wire sliced up the city to keep “antisocial” elements distant.

And here’s the thing. This actually is one point where we can learn from the experience of Olympics past, and from other sporting events as well. Putin’s exclusions, though sweeping in their scope, are far from unprecedented in their nature.

Dozhd on Twitter: "Putin's ukase is turning Sochi 2014 into Moscow 1980."

Dozhd on Twitter: “Putin’s ukase is turning Sochi-14 into Moscow-80.”

The Olympics are always a chance for hosts to do some moral cleansing, and drive away undesirables by brute force. Gay activists join a long list of victims from past Games. Among the exiled have been the homeless, immigrants, drug addicts. They pretty much always include people selling sex, though. If Western gay bloggers or activists want to know what Putin’s decree will mean in practice: ask a sex worker.

Try a sex worker in London, for instance. Before every big sporting event, the same rhetoric reverberates: Prostitutes are going to take over this town.  All those repressed athletes with pent-up body fluids, all those spectators rutting! It was everywhere in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics. The press trumpeted: “Vice girls hope to strike gold”! Local councillors “called for politicians and police across the capital to work together to tackle the problem of prostitution”:

There needs to be speed of action and there needs to be a London-wide response to this … It’s not legal so why are we tolerating it? I have asked for it to be a policing priority.

This could be your daughter: Notorious human trafficker (top right) eyes unsuspecting victim (bottom)

This could be your daughter: Notorious human trafficker (top right) eyes unsuspecting victim (bottom)

“Major sporting events can be a magnet for the global sex and trafficking industry,” intoned Dame Tessa Jowell, the Labour Party’s Olympics maven. “I am determined that traffickers will not exploit London 2012.” (Jowell’s husband had been jailed as a result of his lawyering for Silvio Berlusconi. Perhaps a vision of the Italian lecher descending on England like Count Dracula, and making bunga bunga parties proliferate much as the Transylvanian spread toothmarks, clouded her objectivity.)

All predictable. None of it true. The same terrors, the same answers always recur. Before the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, Canadian advocates denounced “The shame of Olympics prostitution,” demanding a clampdown on women to restrain “the sexual desires of fans.” Germany, hosting football Babylon in 2006, braced for a “World Cup sex explosion,” “an influx of sex slaves.” But none of the influx happened. The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) debunked the paranoias in a detailed report:

Prostitution abolitionists have argued that large groups of men at sporting events result in increased demand for commercial sex, and that this demand is supposedly met through trafficking women. Anti-trafficking organisations, sex workers rights organisations and other stakeholders have strongly refuted this claim.

They neatly lay out how predictions stacked up to realities:

GAATW Cost of a Rumour table

The predictions are nearly always couched as concern for “trafficked” women, but they mostly come down to twinned anxieties over nuisances to “normal” neighbors, and over the reputation of the host city. Yet, however based in fear and faked statistics, the demand to drive out sex workers is hard to resist. What major sporting events bring is not an “explosion” in prostitution, but an explosion in repression.

Repression! — not in evil Russia, but in liberal Canada and the UK, countries that value human rights, except for sex workers, who aren’t human. Local researchers found that “increased police harassment” of sex workers around the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics endangered their health as well as safety. There weren’t many arrests — this is Canada, eh — but much of the city became a no-go zone. The onslaught displaced them to “more isolated spaces away from health and support services, and increase[d] risks of violence and transmission of HIV/STIs.”

London’s crackdown was worse. In the first eight months of 2010 — fully two years before the Olympics — police carried out 113 brothel raids in the seven boroughs where contests and tourists would cluster. (There were only 29 raids in the capital’s other 25 boroughs.) This pace quickened as the Games drew near. In Tower Hamlets, police arrested 14 alleged sex workers in 2010, then 37 in 2011, and 44 in the first four months of 2012 alone! Toynbee Hall, an anti-poverty charity, said prostitutes were being “cleaned off the streets.”

Prostitutes are being told to stay away from parts of Newham … They have also been given curfews from 10pm to 6am, according to Toynbee Hall. One sex worker told the charity she was not allowed onto the street where she lived after 8pm.

Cops asked for “cooperation” from phone companies in shutting down one of the safer ways for sex workers to screen clients.

They want help targeting numbers advertised on thousands of sex calling cards that litter phone boxes throughout the capital. Kit Malthouse, deputy mayor for policing, said the mobile phone numbers are a valuable resource for those behind the sex industry. He said an agreement must be reached between mobile phone networks and police … “Hopefully it will become dangerous to advertise your number in these boxes.”

Call me, call me any, anytime: Forms of sexual expression at the London Olympiad. L: Good. R: Bad.

Call me, call me anytime: Forms of sexual expression at the London Olympiad. L: Good. R: Bad.

A 2012 report by a Conservative member of the London Assembly, Andrew Boff, found that Olympics-related brothel raids were forcing more sex workers onto the streets, making them in turn more vulnerable to further arrests — and to violence. The risks of women being trafficked actually grew. As crackdowns drove sex workers out of their usual work spaces, police lost touch with (and trust from) sources who might have helped them identify abused women. (This situation was not helped by the UK’s appalling Sexual Offences Act of 2003, a product of Tony Blair’s oily moralism, which redefined “sex trafficking” to mean something other than “trafficking”: the term could now cover any travel to the UK to commit a sexual offence, whether voluntary or not.) But helping women wasn’t really the goal. Tower Hamlets Council said, “Where they [sex workers] aren’t willing to work with us, we are taking enforcement action against them.”

Two notorious international sex traffickers escort unwilling victim to their lair

Two notorious international sex traffickers escort unwilling victim to their lair

And this is nothing next to what’s happening in Brazil. Rio de Janeiro will host the World Cup in 2014, and the Olympics two years later. The latter honor fell to the city just months after Eduardo Paes, a chameleonlike center-right politician, won the mayoralty in 2008. Paes’s campaign money came from real-estate and construction magnates. They dreamed of gentrifying tenderloin territories across the Rio landscape. They’d hired Paes as a repo man, to evict the occupying poor.

Men in black: BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion) soldier near convenient local business

Men in black: BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion) soldier near conveniently situated local business

Even before the Olympics bid succeeded, Paes launched a massive police assault on favelas and poorer quarters of Rio, terrifyingly called Choque de Ordem — “Shock of Order.” It means semi-military invasions of whole neighborhoods to root out drug gangs as well as other illegal or informal activity: street vendors, squatters, tax evaders, people who don’t pay utility bills, and of course sex workers.  Usually, there’s a two-pronged assault. First troops from BOPE (“Special Police Operations Battalions”) attack the district and drive out or kill any dealers or leaders who offer resistance. Then the UPP (“Pacifying Police Units”) move in to deal with non-violent recalcitrants, like prostitutes, and to establish a permanent Pax Paesana in the area. With the Games coming, the aggression grows. To poorer Cariocans, the UPP are the Olympics Police.

Shock and Order police, and reporters, with an alleged sex worker in Jacarézinho favela, 2009

Shock of Order police, and reporters, with an alleged sex worker in Jacarézinho favela, 2009

Prostitution is legal in Brazil (though pimping and keeping a brothel are against the law), but Paes doesn’t care. It’s disorder, and deserves a shock. Earlier this year one judge, who acquitted detainees from a brothel raid, described a “repressive political climate rising from the adoption of hygienist measures, aimed at preparing Rio de Janeiro for the mega sporting events in 2014 and 2016.” One reporter recounted last year how

On the eve of June 14, as tourists streamed into town for the highly publicized Rio+20 [UN] Conference [ironically, on sustainable development], armed members of the Copacabana Police Precinct and Rio’s public prosecutor’s office arrived at a brothel called Centauros, in the heart of Ipanema Beach. They arrested prostitutes, management and the owner, seized documents, computers and used condoms, and walked out with $150,000 dollars in cash. The owner of the brothel spent a week at a maximum security prison. …

Rio has already shuttered 24 sex establishments in the rapidly gentrifying downtown and tourist‐ friendly South Zone neighborhoods. Another 33 venues have been threatened or harassed by the police. The Rio+20 raid included Centauros and another dozen of the most popular sex venues … It’s the biggest crackdown on prostitution in a generation.

Shock of Order = Extermination of the Poor

Shock of Order = Extermination of the Poor

Putin could hardly dream of remaking Sochi in the way Paes and the neoliberals are rebuilding Rio. They’re as drunk on eminent domain as Robert Moses or Albert Speer. 3,000 homes will die by bulldozer, their residents evicted, for a huge highway to exempt Olympic visitors from Rio traffic jams. In the vast favela of Rocinha, the cleanup started by shutting down street parties, a venue for sex as well as fun. The local UPP commander, “a kind of manager in Rocinha,” explained that “Citizenship is a two-­way street. Parties ended because they weren’t fitting the rules.” What fits the rules are rich people. “Property values have risen…. Rents are rising as well: a little room costs 450 reais ($225) per month, ­­the price of a house before the UPP.” As the poor are priced out, their homes become hotels for sport-loving tourists. In Rocinha, one posh auberge

covers four floors of a building that once had 106 apartments. Half of them were converted to rooms charging 98 reais ($49) a night. …. [According to the manager], the first shipment of tourists are due to arrive this month. “A group of 29 French people confirmed they were staying for one week. They want to see what a slum looks like.” 

Prostitutes exit for more respectable guests. The city envisions converting 60 “four-hour-nap hotels,” used by sex workers and clients, to fancy digs for Olympic spectators. Activists also face exile. “In the Cinelândia cultural district downtown, Rio’s oldest and most active prostitutes rights group, Davida, was evicted to make way for a boutique hotel by a French hotelier.”

"Meanwhile in Rio de Janeiro: Public policy, for real. For what?" "Marvellous city" is a nickname for Rio.

“Meanwhile in Rio de Janeiro: Public policy, for real. For what?” “Marvellous city” is a nickname for Rio.

Brazil’s resistance should be our inspiration. The massive protests of recent months unleashed indignation at the evictions, exclusions, violence carried out for sport and profit. Sex workers too have been on the march.

Yet in London, few powerful voices opposed the Olympic rollback of sex workers’ freedom — and certainly few LGBT activists. Andrew Boff, who’s gay, was a rarity in raising objections. By contrast, Peter Tatchell spoke out to “end prostitution around the Olympics.”

Anyone remember Carl Schmitt? If you seriously want to make comparisons to Nazi law, Schmitt really should be a starting point. A legal theorist of how democracies die, he wrote: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”

I can make an exception for you, soldier: Carl Schmitt (R) with Ernst Junger in occupied Paris, 1943

I can make an exception for you, soldier: Carl Schmitt (R) with Ernst Junger in occupied Paris, 1943

For Schmitt, the key to authority (and, in equal degree, the indispensable secret weapon and the Achilles heel of democracies) was the legal ability to declare an emergency, to invent a moment or a place when law and due process stop. There, pure, arbitrary power can rule. The state of emergency is a paradox; provided for in law, it is nonetheless a “suspension of the legal order in its totality”; it appears to “escape every legal consideration.” Most democracies make allowances for an emergency to stop the democratic order, temporarily. The Weimar Republic did; the President could declare lawmaking, rights, and justice in abeyance, and rule by decree. It seemed like a useful idea at the time. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben sees the ultimate form and zone of the emergency, the “suspension of the legal order in its totality,” in the concentration camp.

The emergency has become both basic metaphor and fact in our modern moment. This dates at least to 9/11, when an act of terror proffered an excuse for setting ordinary legality aside, for Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo. The way that law can delineate preserves of lawlessness — much as it draws borders around national parks — obsesses both right and left. And it’s an issue everywhere. I write this in Egypt. An emergency law suspending ordinary rights and justice — allowing detention without trial, trial without evidence, military courts, sentence without appeal — has been in effect in one or another form for all but about 20 of the last 113 years. There’s a curfew now, the Cairo streets close down at 9 PM, tanks hunch at intersections, you can be arrested for wearing a beard. What Putin is doing in Sochi is simply another version: making the city an emergency zone, restricting rights of movement, putting bodies in extralegal cages, using terror as a reason.

There are people, though, for whom the emergency isn’t an exception. There are people who endure the state of emergency every day.


Sex law has never worked the way the rest of law does. It doesn’t play by the same rules or ask for similar evidence.  Law tends to see sex as an emergency where the regular principles don’t apply. 

Sex workers suffer an extreme example. They often live their lives under a police regime where due process plays little part — an Olympic repression without end, a perpetual state of suspended justice.  Provisions allowing detention without a chance of trial are everywhere. Police can impose fines on suspected prostitutes whenever they like, or curfews, or confine them to particular areas of a town. Morals campaigns in Zimbabwe and “quality of life” policing in the US carry comparable effects. “After dark,” several Turkish trans* women told me ten years ago, “if a transvestite goes out even for a social reason, they will arrest you for prostitution. Whether you are a prostitute or not, they assume you are.” To be arrested once for street prostitution in Turkey means to be placed on a register, subject to arrest whenever they notice you again: “Police have such powers that they can arrest you because the way you dress is against general morality or public health, or disrupting traffic.” Until a few years ago, the UK mandated (many ex-colonies still do) that any woman the police judged a “common prostitute” was suspect and could be arrested just for showing herself on the roads.

Walls around us: Sex worker street art, Buenos Aires

Walls around us: Sex worker street art, Buenos Aires

Street sex workers often circle in a public jail, with daily movement hemmed by invisible but palpable borders. But workers in state-regulated brothels may live in more literal prisons, where police protect public morality by not letting them out. To be a prostitute, in those regimes, is to lose the right to be seen. Why do you think your pungent spaghetti meal with capers and anchovies is called puttanesca — “whore’s pasta”? Because prostitutes confined in state-regulated brothels in early 20th-century Italy were only let out once a week to shop. To live, they needed to make a salty, preservable sauce that would last till their next allowed excursion.

Under such regimes of surveillance and constriction, you are a criminal; you don’t need to be judged guilty to become one. Proofs don’t matter, courts don’t intervene. The New Yorker recently reported on the scandal of “asset forfeiture,” by which police simply seize property from suspects who may never even be charged with, much less convicted of, a crime. Alleged sex workers and accused clients are among the commonest victims.  One US state just passed a law that “permits authorities to forfeit the cash that was used in or intended for…sex solicitation”; it “applies to prostitutes, patrons or pimps.” Any money you have on you, or maybe even in your ATM account, will go to the cops.

And then, in the UK, there’s the “ASBO”: the “Anti-Social Behavior Order.” We owe this work of genius as well to Tony Blair, who introduced it in 1998. It allows a magistrate to control someone’s movement or behavior, not because they’ve committed a crime, but because they’ve done something “anti-social.” It must last for at least two years, sometimes longer. “ASBOs rely on hearsay and police evidence alone,” the English Collective of Prostitutes notes.  Liberty, the British human rights organization, explains that even though the order is served under civil law, “Breaching the conditions of an ASBO is a criminal offence, punishable by up to five years in prison … Individuals are being sent to prison for committing acts which may not be in themselves illegal.” Even if the act prohibited in the ASBO is something as innocent as playing loud music or walking through Sussex Gardens, you can be treated worse than an armed robber if you commit it. 

Sex workers and allies demonstrate against abuse by ASBO, Stratford Magistrates' Court, London, July 12, 2013

Sex workers and allies demonstrate against abuse by ASBO, Stratford Magistrates’ Court, London, July 12, 2013

“There has been a massive expansion in the availability and use of civil orders to regulate conduct outside of the criminal justice sphere,” Liberty says. And who are the targets? The Guardian reported in 2005,

Anti-social behaviour orders are increasingly being used against prostitutes as a “quick fix” way of clearing women off the streets, campaigners warn….

Harry Fletcher, spokesman for the probation officers’ union Napo, said … “Some local authorities, in conjunction with police, are using them as a way of clearing the streets of people whose behaviour is undesirable, but not antisocial. The actual offence of prostitution is not imprisonable, but we are ending up with people facing up to five years in prison for it.”

The orders dictate sex workers’ daily movements. Here’s a headline: “ASBO bans Roehampton prostitute from Tooting Bec Common.”

Sarah Caldecott, who has several convictions for soliciting in the area, was given an antisocial behaviour order banning her from entering the zone for the next five years. …  Sergeant Jill Horsfall, of Wandsworth police’s Bedford Ward SNT, said: “Now she is the subject of an ASBO Sarah Caldecott should not be under any illusions about what will happen to her if she is spotted anywhere near Tooting Common.”

Contradiction in terms?

Contradiction in terms?

Restricting where sex workers can go, confining them, controlling them out of the public eye — isn’t that what the “pimps” and “traffickers” stand accused of doing? Tony Blair trafficked in women’s bodies. It taught him to traffic in terror.  His limits on civil liberties for despised nuisances foreshadowed some of the “anti-terrorism measures” he would introduce even before 9/11, allowing search without cause, detention without oversight, interrogation without check. The English Collective of Prostitutes says, “[As] with anti-terror laws, ASBOs have spawned a parallel legal system where the normal rules of evidence do not apply.”

“Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell.” Sex workers in the post-Blair UK, as in many other countries, carry their own Sochi about with them, shadow and burden above their heads. Yet LGBT activists who protest Putin rarely worry about the infringements of sexual freedom on their kerbs, in their own back yards.

You can learn things from sex workers’ resistance: slogans to borrow, strategies to share. LGBT advocates could look at the campaign to call out politicians on the 2012 repression in London. They might figure out how sex workers got the Greek government to back off from brothel raids before the 2004 Olympics — actually easing a law restricting brothel locations! They might take some lessons from sex workers fighting the restructuring of Rio. But they don’t.

Our Western LGBT activists lack imagination, the kind of imagination that connects you to reality. They don’t imagine sex workers as allies; don’t see their repression as relevant and urgent; don’t believe their activism entails models, their experience examples, or their lives value. Meanwhile, the injustices go on, and no athletes stand up in righteous anger, and Dan Savage and Jamie Kirchick have other things to do. The Republic of Ireland introduced the ASBO in 2007. It’s almost never been used since then, “shunned” out of some instinctive, civilized revulsion at its restrictiveness. Four days ago, though, police tried to invoke it against eight women, mostly Romanian, “to curb prostitution in Limerick.” Ireland cages women. Boycott Guinness, anybody? No.


The state and your sex life, II

Government by speculum: Big Brother is examining you

Brazil has its first woman president, Dilma Rousseff, as you may be aware. Why, then, is a Brazilian feminist complaining that “The government wants to send Dilma into our bodies? I’m feeling stabbed anyway. And what is worse: in the back!”

Because Rousseff’s administration is cooperating with those black-and-blue forces, the Church and the Law, that want to find out exactly what is happening inside women’s organs. The day after Christmas, the President, along with the Ministry of Health, promulgated a new decree that creates –what should one call it?– a state-sponsored speculum, ready to inspect women’s reproductive systems willy-nilly.

Provisional Measure 557 (MP 557) creates a “National System of Registration, Tracking and Follow-up of Pregnant and Puerperal Women for the Prevention of Maternal Mortality.” It aims, so it says, “to ensure better access, coverage and quality of maternal health care, notably for pregnant women at risk.” And it mandates “universal registration of pregnant women and mothers, to enable identifying pregnant and postpartum women at risk, and assessment and monitoring of health care they received during prenatal care, childbirth and postpartum care.” Registered pregnant women will be eligible for up to R$50 (around $27 USD) in assistance. The measure states, in Article 19-J, that “public and private health services are required to ensure pregnant women and the unborn the right to safe and humane pre-natal care, delivery, birth, and postpartum care.”

Past and present Presidents: Two kids in every womb!

It is, as Brazil’s authorities surely know, hard to criticize measures couched in the admirable goal of preventing material mortality. But the scary thing for women about this huge new surveillance mechanism is that the decree explicitly elevates “the unborn” as rights-bearers to the same status as the mothers. Brazil, which many calculate is the largest Catholic nation in the world, bans abortion except in the case of rape, severe genetic abnormalities, or danger to the mother’s life. Women face prosecution and prison if they terminate a pregnancy. Yet a 2010 study showed that one in five Brazilian women has had an abortion, and the Health Ministry estimates that 200,000 are hospitalized each year as a result of unsafe, clandestine procedures.

As opposed to its neighbors, Uruguay (which is on the verge of decriminalizing abortion) and Argentina (which saw a first-ever parliamentary debate on the subject last year), Brazil seems determined to reinforce its draconian restrictions.   According to Maria José Rosado, of Catholics for Free Choice in Brazil, a member of Congress has previously proposed a similar pregnancy registry, “declaring his objective loud and clear: to fight abortion.” The Chamber of Deputies is now considering a bill  to pay a pregnant rape victim who does not have an abortion a minimum wage until the child reaches 18 — creating what activists call a “rape pension.”

Nicolae and new Romanian: More of these, or else

Brazilian feminists show little doubt that MP 557, which was launched without any consultation with women’s movements, can and will be used to control reproductive freedom.The clear parallel to the new database in the land of “order and progress” is the practice of Romania’s defunct Communist dictatorship. Nicolae Ceaușescu, obsessed with raising his country’s birth rate, banned both abortion and birth control. He required all women of childbearing age to undergo regular, six-month gynecological exams. Someone who proved pregnant at one examination had to come back in half a year with a child, a bigger fetus, or a good explanation. So unpopular was the regime of pro-natal surveillance that the abortion and contraception bans were the first measures scrapped by Romania’s post-revolutionary government in 1989.

What Ceaușescu did in the name of nationalism, Rousseff pursues as part of a prolonged political flirtation with Catholic and evangelical forces. Feminist activist Fátima Oliveira says:

Unfortunately … Dilma, who is our first female president, is throwing in the trash all the commitments made by Brazil in the arenas of the United Nations in the area of ​​women’s health. Together with Brazilian women’s struggle for full health care and sexual and reproductive rights, which began in the military dictatorship. A setback of 30 years, unprecedented. …

I have the moral authority to say what I say now, because at the time of the Constituent Assembly [the 1988 convention that wrote Brazil’s democratic constitution], I have collected many signatures for freedom of religion in Brazil. I defend the right of everyone in authority to have the religion they want. Only that religion is a thing of personal intimacy, for domestic consumption. The religions of the rulers can not be the rule for  the exercise of public power. In public office, religious issues cannot be conducting public policy. …

It’s time to say to the government that our bodies belong to us and cannot be a bargaining chip with anyone.


“Racial democracy”: Brazil’s new census

Bush and Cardoso: And tell me, George, do you kill people in Texas?

Supposedly George W. Bush once asked Fernando Henrique Cardoso, then president of the land of order and progress, Brazil: “Do you have blacks, too?” Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s Brazilian wife, stepped in to save the day by explaining, “Mr. President, Brazil probably has more blacks than the USA. Some say it’s the country with the most blacks outside Africa.”  There is some doubt about whether the story is really true; but it seems right, one of those recurrent moments that persuaded one Bush was not merely dumb but had fried some sequence of synapses during a massive drug trip at Burning Man or Bohemian Grove years before, and now had flashbacks in which Africa was entirely populated by clones of the Osmond family and all the mosquitoes buzzing round the White House bore the face of Saddam Hussein.

I mention this only because Brazil’s 2010 census results, just released, show that for the first time a majority of the country’s residents define themselves as black or mixed-race: 50.7% of the population, as opposed to 44.7% ten years ago. (To be precise: 7.6% identify as black, and 43.1% as mixed-race.) The percentage calling themselves white fell from 53.7%  to 47.7%.

At the same time, according to the Guardian, the census “found that in major cities white inhabitants were earning about 2.4 times more than their black counterparts”:

In Salvador, a former slave port with one of Brazil’s largest black populations, the findings were even worse: whites earned 3.2 times more than blacks.

“It is a vicious circle,” Marcelo Paixão, an economist from Rio’s UFRJ University told O Globo. “Poor salaries lead to worse education, which is a barrier to getting a good job. We need more public policies.”

A parallel study, released this week by the Data Popular Institute, provided further evidence of the racial divide that continues to blight Brazilian society. The wealthiest group of Brazilians – known as “Class A” – was made up of 82.3% white people and just 17.7% African-Brazilians.

In contrast “Class E” – the poorest section of society – was 76.3% African-Brazilian and 23.7% white.

The same study found that 31.3% of Brazil’s white population had private health plans, compared with just 15.2% of the black population.

In an interview this week Ivone Caetano, a prominent African-Brazilian judge in Rio de Janeiro, painted a bleak picture of life in the place some call South America’s “rainbow nation”.

“In Brazil every black person is going to be a victim of racism, prejudice [and] discrimination, whatever your position,” she said. “Our prejudice is disguised and hypocritical.”

In other words, the “racial democracy” still has a long distance to go. On the other hand, it’s a moment that inspires a certain awe. The African diaspora, who built most of the two American continents when enslaved, now commands a majority in the hemisphere’s emerging superpower. As the world realigns itself and the United States and Europe decline, I find myself much more interested these days in Brazil than in, say, China. For better or for worse, in hope and in despair, it seems to me that much of our global future is being test-driven there.

NB. Be sure to check the comments for some more information on the census from Brazilian activist Sonia Correa.