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The Myth of Maria and the imagining of sexual trafficking in Brazil


Based upon the contradictory definitions of the crime, the Brazilian movement against trafficking in persons situates itself as a “struggle against modern slavery.” Within this moralistic context, the movement has frequently utilized invented statistics and apocalyptic declarations regarding trafficking in order to achieve greater “advocacy value” among members of the Brazilian public. A key component of this discursive formation has been the creation and promulgation of a mythological view of a “typical” trafficking victim’s experience: what we call “The Myth of Maria, an exemplary trafficking victim.” The present article seeks to follow the history of the Myth of Maria, developing an initial chronology mapped out and analyzed by Adriana Piscitelli in 2004 and extending this into the post-2006 period when Brazil established its first national policies and plans to combat trafficking in persons. We then analyze how the myth ignores many of the realities revealed by the past decade of ethnographic research into trafficking in Brazil. Finally, we conclude with a structuralist hypothesis (drawn from the field of feminist anthropology) regarding the Myth’s continuing unabated popularity among almost all actors in the political field of anti-trafficking policy.

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  1. Capitalized in the original.

  2. It should be noted that “Maria da Silva” is a generic place holding name in Brazil along the lines of “Jane Doe” in the United States. “Maria dos Santos” or “Ana Maria da Silva (or dos Santos)” are similarly generic.

  3. Slum or shantytown.

  4. Citation comes from CHAME/NEIM (1998a, b: p. 1).

  5. An example of the apparent invisibility of this “really true” form of trafficking occurred when Senator Marinor Britto’s Congressional Inquiry Commission came to Rio de Janeiro in 2011. In spite of a general call to all NGOs and government offices working on trafficking to pass information regarding their outstanding cases to the Commission, the one clear-cut trafficking case discovered was that of a Guatemalan man who had been recruited to work as a chef in Rio, had his passport and documents retained by his employees and had been forced to work as a construction laborer.

  6. See Blanchette and Silva (2012) for an analysis of one such case.

  7. See, for example, the extensive opus of anthropologist Adriana Piscitelli (especially 2004a, b, 2006, 2007a, b, 2008a, b, 2009) and also Teixeira (2008), Pelucio (2010, 2012), Oliveira (2008), and Blanchette and Silva (2005, 2010, 2012).

  8. Information given by CHAME founder Jaqueline Leite. Unfortunately, the original photograph is not currently available for reference.

  9. Prostitution is legal in Brazil as long as it involves consenting adults and does not involve economic exploitation by third parties (i.e., pimps).

  10. Basically, any form of recruitment for slave labor which didn’t involve sexual exploitation—being that earlier international definitions of “trafficking” had exclusively focused on this sort of exploitation (see Kempadoo 2005).

  11. It should be obvious that we are not making light of domestic abuse here. The problem is that CHAME’s early understandings regarding trafficking for “servile marriage” defines the crime ex post facto. If Hans marries Maria and Maria has no complaints about him, this is not trafficking. If Hans marries Maria and then turns out to be a stereotypically bad husband (a violent, drunken philanderer), then his earlier act of seducing and marrying Maria automatically becomes an instance of recruitment for trafficking. It is important to note, in this respect, that the CHAME/NEIM comic strip recounting this mythical tale does not situate the foreign villain of the story as having any prior ulterior motives when it comes to marrying his Brazilian girlfriend, involving the desire to enslave her. He simply marries her and then turns out to be a horrible husband. Such a situation is manifestly not trafficking in persons, according to the Palermo Protocol.

  12. PESTRAF admits that she could also be “a woman who is in ‘control of the situation’, who evaluates the risks very clearly and decides to take them to earn some money”. The study makes it clear, however, that the quote marks around “control of the situation” indicate that this sort of woman is suffering from “cooptation.”

  13. It should be noted that Brazilian law allows consensual sexual activity from age 14 on and for pay from age 18 on. Voting is allowed at age 16 and all other forms of legal majority are achieved by age 18.

  14. One of the many problems of PESTRAF is that while its authors use the term “sexual exploitation,” the never settle on a solid or clear definition of the same, allowing them to apply it in diverse situations ranging from out-and-out sexual slavery to consensual, voluntary, independent, well-paid prostitution.

  15. Brazil signed the Protocol in 2000, ratified it in 2004 and created its first national anti-trafficking policy in 2006 (Lins 2010).

  16. It is noteworthy in this context that the laws surrounding sex crimes in Brazil—particularly the country’s only anti-trafficking law (which prohibits prostitutes from migrating, independent of any considerations regarding human rights violations) are known as “crimes against dignity” in Brazilian jurisprudence.

  17. It should be noted that her descriptions were based upon the single case of trafficking that her office had dealt with to date, which itself did not express the criteria she had established as “typical.”

  18. The Brazilian State Department.

  19. See Oliveira (2008) for a more detailed description of these cases.

  20. The class bias of considering debts to be ipso facto evidence of trafficking can be illustrated by the fact that many of our migrant sex-worker informants have been charged less interest on their interpersonal loans to go overseas than we as researchers are charged by Mastercard when we attend international conferences to talk about them.

  21. A good overview of the case can be found PESTRAF (CECRIA 2003:120–127). Other information can be encountered in “Morte na Espanha,” in Revista Claudia 2001.


  23. Whether or not the family did this and what the Consulate’s reaction was, if any, is not presented in any publically available sources.

  24. PESTRAF’s version of the Borges case has been reproduced dozens of times across the Internet. In spite of this, we have been unable to find information regarding further investigations into the role malpractice and prejudice played in the young Brazilian’s death. This in and of itself is significant in the context of the mythological reading of trafficking which we are critiquing here. It indicates that Simone’s supposed death as trafficking victim is of much greater importance to the media, Brazilian politicians, and other political actors in the field of anti-trafficking policy than the actual circumstances surrounding her death.

  25. And the Brazilian society’s earlier interest in doing precisely this should not be minimized. As Sueann Caulfield relates, Brazilian Dr. Afrânio Peixoto personally investigated more than 2700 women’s hymens during his work for the Rio de Janeiro Legal Medicine institute from 1907 to 1915, precisely in order to determine their virginity or lack thereof in conjunction with ongoing legal cases regarding seduction and deflowerment (Caulfield 2000: 51–52). According to this author, Brazilian “hymen mania” was internationally notorious in the early twentiethth century.


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Correspondence to Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette.

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Blanchette, T.G., Silva, A.P. & Bento, A.R. The Myth of Maria and the imagining of sexual trafficking in Brazil. Dialect Anthropol 37, 195–227 (2013).

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  • Trafficking in persons
  • Brazil
  • Myths
  • Immigration
  • Public policy