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Journalism: Rio's Trans-Gender Prostitutes

Adriana, one of Rio's many trans-gender prostitutes.


The trans-gender male to female prostitutes do not have an easy life on Rio's streets after dark, but they are able to get by. For the few young travista that can pass as women there is very good money and with education, respectability and "straight" work sometimes in the fashion industry. But for the majority it is at best exciting — and at worst survival — sex, with risks of mental abuse, physical abuse, and transmitted diseases.

Jennifer & Adriana. Jennifer says, "The police treat me with respect and look out for me."


The police generally ignore the travista and the neighbors do not harass them. This unique situation is because Brazilian law protects sexual minorities and also the general inertia of the police. Prostitution has always been a part of Brazilian life and Rio in particular has a very relaxed attitude of "live and let live." Prostitution is a profession I neither condemn nor support, but the fact is prostitution has been around forever and will continue to do so.

Adriana on the streets of Rio. She worked as a teenage prostitute in porno films.


The "carioca," Rio's inhabitants, accept the presence each evening of prostitutes and generally are not moralistic. (Cariocas seldom let religion get in the way of their pleasure.) However travista face the risks of discrimination, problems getting employment, victimization and violence, inadequacy in passing for a woman, loss of close human contact such as family, internalized marginalization, and substance abuse. On the other hand, the dual life of hiding as a man is stressful and self-acceptance problematic.

Camila: "I like my penis!"


The travista I photographed and made taped interviews with were all males transitioning to females through estrogen hormone treatments, augmented sometimes with plastic surgery to enlarge the breasts. Jennifer had recently begun the process while Mirella can pass for a woman. None of the dozen travista has taken the step of surgical removal of their genitals. While they all want to pass as women with soft voices, long hair, breasts, and clothes they stop at surgery saying the risks involved, cost of procedure and convalescence make it unviable. The unstated reasons are indecision. "I like my penis!" Camila said with a laugh.

Jennifer: "After estrogen treatment my hair became finer and breasts larger."


The travista while changing to a more feminine appearance has the same internalized prejudices of the Brazilian culture as before his transformation. These preconceptions reinforce acceptable traditional roles that males are macho and active while females are passive. There is a large "gay for pay" sex industry where "active" (top) attractive masculine men hire themselves out for sex with women, gays, or travista. These "gay for pay" prostitutes are "straight," frequently married and have children. The majority travista are heterosexual and not gay. Travista I interviewed do not consider themselves "gay for pay" or for that matter as homosexuals though strictly speaking male-to-male sex is what they are performing.

Michele on the streets of Rio de Janeiro.


There is a stigma with being gay and so the travista avoids that by being a woman. The order of preference in negotiating a "programa" with a client is flirtation, massage (non-sexual), frottage (with sex), oral sex, travista (anally penetrating the client), and being passive and penetrated by the client. The prices increase as more is expected.

Foreigners and married Brazilian men are the typical travista clients and are expected to pay anywhere $50 to $75 for full "programa". Negotiating with a client before getting into their car prevents any misunderstanding. Rarely does a client fail to understand that he will be having sex with a biological male rather than a woman, though he will claim otherwise the next day with his buddies.

Juliana: "The men promised to pay me in the car, but beat me up instead."


Each of travista we interviewed had a unique perspective and the interviews, while candid, cannot be taken as fully reliable. Though no one reported arrests or harassment by the police in Rio (it does occur in other towns of Brazil), young men in a car had beaten up Juliana. She had to cancel the photo shoot and interview.

Juliana: "I have been doing programas since I was 17."


Rio de Janeiro is well known for the beauty of its scenery, beaches and people. Brazil is also known as the country with greatest disparage between the rich and poor in the world. There are extremely successful people who live in Rio because they know the opportunities; the majority is by comparison very poor. The juxtaposition of wealth and poverty can be steps away.

Happiness does not favor either exclusively though money helps. It is a fact of life that youthful poor carioca's sometimes sell themselves for easy money, for fun, for drugs, and the dream. In one very good evening a travista with three paying clients can pay his modest room and board in the favela for a month. (Three tricks is about $200-$250. or a month's salary at Brazilian minimum wage.) The unemployment and low salary make prostitution a viable alternative at least during youth.

Adriana: "My goal is to marry a rich Italian."


The dream that all the travista and prostitutes share in common is to find the right man who will remove them from poverty and provide them with an apartment or the good life as seen in the movies. It is similar to winning the lottery and the odds are about the same. While travista share the dream, it is colored by their age, race, and circumstances. Some travista are clearly running away — such as Julia — and have no options except survival prostitution.

Others are barely literate and have little education; many have drug issues.

Julia: "I have a good relationship with my family except my father, whom I don't speak to."


The stories are similar in that a travista has a strong inner drive for feminine expression. For some clearly are feminine men and born the wrong gender, reassignment of sex is a natural change or fulfillment. Others find a sense of exotic freedom in dressing up as women, getting money, sex, sexual fulfillment. In prostitution the travista can be seeking fulfillment, recognition and acceptance of her feminine persona from macho men thru sexual means. There is strong sexualization of her femininity as can be seen in the pictures.

Mirella: "My boyfriend of 3 months is accustomed to my penis."


Rio and other large cities provide economic independence, anonymity, and expensive but sympathetic medical facilities as compared to rural towns where some travista grow up. The newcomer observes and imitates the mannerisms, attitudes, and dress of other travista who in turn imitate movie stars or fashion models. There is a period of unlearning old gestures and learning new body language. Some travista maintain a combination of masculine and feminine in the new persona, while others start to believe they are genuine women.

Julia: "When I began estrogen treatments, my body ached."


Femininity, like masculinity, is largely a performance and learned. Travista understand male to female roles as pluralistic and apply a broad concept of gender rather than seeing it as an absolute. It may be that prostitutes in general or travista have trust issues and difficulty with intimacy. A prostitute cannot afford to sell her intimacy; only her body. I need to do further work to distinguish between the two forms of intimacy.

Mirella: "I want to return to Venice, Italy, where I used to live with a lover."


The photographs and interviews were made in my photo studio in Ipanema after meeting each travista in the street. They were paid $125. each including cab fare for the 1-1 1/2 hour photo session and taped interview. Most arrive alone; Adriana came with Jennifer, and Mirella with her Bahiano security guard. My carioca assistant asked a dozen questions in Portuguese and noted the responses. These were then translated into English from the recordings.


It is my hope that this project will encourage people to see travista as normal variations in sexual expression and that moral implication are best left to participants.

On a modest note I encourage people to become more aware of the travista and support them in providing safer, healthier, and more sustainable alternatives to survival sex. One of the keys here is creating safe spaces where help can be expected not exploited. De-criminalization of prostitution and eliminating arrest and harassment would go a long way in making the travista lives better, safer, and more productive in all parts of the world.

Lage Carlson, 5/13/2009