From São Paulo and London with Love: Sex in the Blogosphere in Brazil and England

Raquel Pacheco, aka Bruna Surfistinha

Raquel Pacheco, aka Bruna Surfistinha

China has Mu Mu and Muzi. England has Belle. Brazil has Bruna.

Similar to Mu Mu and Muzi, who I discuss in this post, Belle de Jour and Bruna Surfistinha are respectively a British and A Brazilian woman who blog about sex, thus presenting an opportunity for a three way comparison of cultural attitudes towards sex – both in general, and in the blogosphere specifically. The biggest difference to point out between them is that, whereas the Chinese bloggers were just Chinese citizens who posted sexual content to their blogs, Belle and Bruna are ex-prostitutes who were actively blogging during their tenures as a sex workers. But even taking that fact into consideration, both Belle and Bruna would write about themselves, their personal lives, and their boyfriends on their blogs, thus ensuring their blogs do not have a fundamentally different format from the Chinese blogs.

Belle

Subtitled The diary of a London call girl, Belle provides no real introduction to her blog, which suggests that it emerged somewhat spontaneously as a by-product of her profession. But on this blog, Belle chronicles different aspects of her life – primarily the sexual aspects, although she will occasionally include writings on other topics as well. In the (more complete) introduction to the U.S. release of a book version of her blog entries she published in 2005, she describes her move to London as a recent college graduate and the discovery of how hard it is in contemporary Western societies to bridge the divide between college degree and entry-level job. From there it’s a fairly typical road she follows – limited job prospects and the expense of living in London drew her first by accident and then by specific intention to the world of prostitution. The most interesting part of her entry into this world comes as the last sentence of her introduction in her book:

And it wasn’t too long after deciding to do it [become a prostitute] that I started keeping a diary

This diary of course turned into her blog.

Belle’s life seems to have changed since the days she was blogging about prostitution. On May 23 (Mai 23, as she writes it in French), she posted about getting a job and has since jokingly referred to herself as “Belle de Office.” She has also continued turning her blog into a commercial publishing venture. In addition to her first book, she has published this 2007 follow up. But she still writes about sex and different social attitudes towards sex on her blog, as well as providing different vignettes on her life, her friends, and her activities.

The main reason I bring Belle into my comparison is to provide a Western European perspective on sex blogging – what kind of content goes into it, what cultural factors affect or don’t affect it, and how readers respond to it. That said, culturally I find England to be the most similar to the United States of any European country. Having seen different parts of England with a British friend on one hand, and also having lived in both France and Greece and traveled to other cities in Europe on the other, I find it quite obvious which nation American revolted against in order to gain independence. I am not at all suggesting that British and American culture are the same, only that I find them closer to each other than I find comparisons between the cultures of America and other European countries. And as always, I invite discussion of this idea, either agreeing or disagreeing with me.

With this in mind, I find Belle’s blog the most culturally similar to a blog one would find in America. Her writings aren’t affected by the constant threat of government censorship the way Mu Mu’s are (and to which Muzi’s writings fell victim). (And no I’m not suggesting that censorship doesn’t exist in England – only that it doesn’t exist to the same degree that it does in China). Nor do Belle’s writings reflect any one pervasive element of British culture, the way Catholicism acts as a pervasive cultural element in Brazil, affecting Internet content and use, and occasionally make its way onto Bruna’s blog.

Belle also doesn’t explicitly discuss the use of technology or social media as a vehicle to make her online diary available to the world. I’m sure this absence is a result of multiple factors, ranging from what topics she feels are worth or not worth discussing, to the comparatively ubiquitous level of Internet connectivity in England as opposed to Brazil or China. (Drawing from data from the International Telecommunications Union and other sources, Internet World Stats reports 62.3% Internet penetration in the United Kingdom, as opposed to 22.8% in Brazil and 12.3% in China). My thought is that the relative ubiquity of Internet connectivity in England makes it more just an everyday feature of life – not the kind of cultural force it is in Brazil, where average netizens seem to dedicate much more explicit thought to the connection between their social interactions and the Internet. While it isn’t the focus of her blog, Bruna does talk a lot more about the explicit connection between the Internet and her diary chronicling her work in prostitution, as I discuss below.

Bruna

Like Mu Mu, Bruna made her major debut to American audiences through the New York Times. Larry Rother introduces her thus:

She goes by the name Bruna, the Little Surfer Girl, and gives new meaning to the phrase "kiss and tell." First in a blog that quickly became the country's most popular and now in a best-selling memoir, she has titillated Brazilians and become a national celebrity with her graphic, day-by-day accounts of life as a call girl here.

Bruna, whose real name is Raquel Pacheco, says in the article that her blog emerged as kind of an accident that just kept growing ad growing. “In the beginning,” she says, “I just wanted to vent my feelings… I wanted to show what goes on in the head of a program girl [the Brazilian term for a high class prostitute], and I couldn't find anything on the Net like that. I thought that if I was curious about it, others would be too." Since this beginning, her blog has become one of the most widely read blogs in Brazil and she has adapted some of her blog entries into a book titled The Scorpion’s Sweet Venom, which was first published in 2005 and has been released in two English editions, as well as a Spanish edition. A second book, titled What I learned from Bruna Surfistinha, is on the way. Like Belle, Bruna has turned her blog into a full blown commercial publish venture. Also like Belle, she no longer chronicles her sexual activities online, although she will still devote parts of her discussions to the general topic of sex.

But in addition to introducing Bruna, Rother’s article also points to the ongoing debate over social morality to which the presence of a person like Bruna has led. While it considers questions of what thoughts should or should not be allowed, who is and/or should be empowered to make such a decision, and what to do with conflicting views on the topic, this debate over social morality is different from the censorship debate in China. In China, Party officials are considering from an official point of view what the government should or should not allow in Chinese Internet content. In Brazil the debate does not spring from an official government stance on what should or should not be allowed in the Brazilian Internet space, but rather from different segments of Brazilian society debating with each other. A national government can be involved in a debate of this nature – see for example this report by Nicholas Kulish in the International Herald Tribune about the Bulgarian government cracking down on prostitution by punishing individuals willing to pay for sex from a prostitute rather than punishing the prostitute himself or herself, as well as this report by Henry Porter in The Guardian opposing government intervention of this nature in England. But in each of these cases, the government in question is responding to a social morality debate in which its citizens are engaged, not (as is much more the case in China) setting their own policy irrespective of what their citizens think.

So the social morality debate in Brazil of which Bruna’s fame is a product springs not from the Brazilian government, but rather from different social attitudes of Brazilian citizens. And these attitudes frequently revolve around sexual liberalization, traditional feminine roles in Brazilian culture, and the presence of the Catholic Church. As Rother says,

Carnival and the general sensuality that seems to permeate the atmosphere can give the impression that Brazil is unusually permissive and liberated, especially compared with other predominantly Roman Catholic nations. But experts say the real situation is far more complicated, which explains both Bruna's emergence and the strong reactions she has provoked.

As a result, some Brazilians have applauded Bruna's frankness and say it is healthy to get certain taboos out in the open… But others decry her celebrity as one more noxious manifestation of free-market economics and globalization.

Rother further quotes a host of voices on the different sides of the debate. He frames the debate by quoting Richard Parker, an anthropologist at Columbia University and author of Bodies, Pleasures and Passions: Sexual Culture in Contemporary Brazil:

Brazil is a country of contradictions, as much in relation to sexuality as anything else… There is a certain spirit of transgression in daily life, but there is also a lot of moralism.

Rother then presents two voices, the first – Maria Clara Lucchetti Bingemer, a journalist and theologian at Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro – decring the presence of a person like Bruna in Brazilian society, and the second – Gabriela Silva Leite, a sociologist, former prostitute, and director of a prostitutes' advocacy group – arguing that moral concerns such as those Bingemer espouses are exaggerated. Bingemer says that

This is the fruit of a type of society in which people will do anything to get money, including selling their bodies to be able to buy cellular phones… We've always had prostitution, but it was a hidden, prohibited thing. Now it's a professional option like anything else, and that's the truly shocking thing.

Leite replies that

It's not a book like this that is going to stimulate prostitution, but [comment instead on] the lack of education and opportunities for women… I don't think Bruna glamorizes things at all. On the contrary, you can regard the book as a kind of warning, because she talks of the unpleasant atmosphere and all the difficulties she faced.

Last but not least, Rother quotes Bruna herself on the debate over social morality:

Brazilian women have this sexy image, of being at ease and uninhibited in bed. But anyone who lives here knows that's not true.

Carla de Meis, a medical psychiatrist at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro who has researched the mental health of Brazilian prostitutes, considers this debate in her own research. She points out in her article Subjectivity, Social Suffering, Liminality, and Suicide Among Prostitutes in Brazil that this debate is not just external, that a person can struggle with this question with respect to her own values and worldview. While the contrast is admittedly somewhat artificial, de Meis sets up a contrast between social roles in which a woman conforms to a societal definition of a dutiful wife and mother who honors her family, and in which she rejects family life to make a living through prostitution instead. de Meis notes that many of the prostitutes she interviewed for her research described making a wrenching decision when the elected to bypass the wife and mother role in favor of the prostitution role. She further notes that many prostitutes wanted to get out of their lives as prostitutes as quickly as possible and do their best to rid themselves of the stigma of having been a prostitute and live a life that more closely conforms to their society’s definition of a “good woman” (de Meis’ words).

Though this definition of a “good woman” – dutiful wife, honorable mother, moral woman, etc. – springs from multiple roots, de Meis and Parker both point to the presence of the Catholic Church as being a major factor reinforcing this role in Brazilian society. de Meis notes in particular Clara, a lady who wished to conform to her society’s definition of a moral woman and wanted to work her way out of prostitution to achieve that goal. As such, Clara differentiated herself from “real prostitutes” – women who willingly chose prostitution as a profession. According to de Meis:

Clara maintains that the real prostitutes are the women who begin early in life, explaining that those who begin later, as in her case, cannot adapt to it. She tells us that God curses prostitutes. However when I asked her if the curse of God would affect her she answered “No,” explaining that she pray every day and only works as a prostitute through extreme necessity. This would redeem her from the curse.

Regardless of whether one accepts Clara’s logic or not, her words demonstrate how deeply engrained Catholicism is in the Brazilian consciousness and social culture – even with the acknowledgement that many Brazilians are not personally religious.

As I noted in my discussion of social media in Brazil here, Catholicism is pervading the Brazilian sphere of social media as well. In this October 5 post Bruna offers two passages that touch upon religious themes. Writing about an interview she gave through an Internet chat service during a recent trip to the city of Salvador, she describes fielding a question from an “evangélico” – a person with an evangelical bend:

“As perguntas foram ótimas, mas cheguei na conclusão que eu posso estar onde quiser, em qualquer parte do mundo, que sempre terá algum evangélico com suas teorias macabras para cima de mim… Ele me perguntou se eu não tenho medo da morte… Afff. Sangue de Jesus tem poder ( é assim a frase?)!!! Amém.”

(I will e-mail some colleagues in Brazil to correct me, but in rough translation):

The questions had been excellent, but, as is the case anywhere in the world, there will always be some evangélico with macabre theories. I say this because the only question that left the focus [of the chat session] came from an evangélico… He asked me if I do not fear death... Afff. Sangue de Jesus tem poder (is this the phrase?)!!! Amen.

I do not know of an English equivalent of her last full phrase, “sangue de Jesus tem poder,” but if I read it correctly she is speaking in irony – in effect saying “oh dear God, what a ridiculous question” in response to the inquiry. (If any Brazilian or Portuguese readers can provide a translation, I would appreciate hearing from you). The translation aside, this exchange demonstrates not only the presence of Christianity in Brazilian society, but also the willingness to use the Internet as a forum to discuss it. And while Bruna seems to take an irreverent attitude towards its presence here, a little earlier in her post she describes her surroundings in Salvador as “the kind of life for which one would ask from God,” thus displaying a not-so-irreverent attitude towards religion in her post as well.

Diligent readers will point out the obvious problems with talking about the views and concerns of whole segments of the world’s cultures based upon just a few blogs from those cultures. This is an excellent point, and I do not seek to make any broad assumptions about a culture based solely upon the views of a few bloggers. With that in mind, I invite any commentary you have on the British, Brazilian, or Chinese segments of the blogosphere. I would love to read any discussion you would like to provide, as well as any examples of blogs or other Internet sources you know that support or refute my analyses. Thanks!

(The NY times requires a login to read their articles online. Creating a login and password for the NY Times is free and may be done here).

Work cited:

de Meis, C. (1999). Subjectivity, Social Suffering, Liminality and Suicide Among Prostitutes in Brazil. Urban Anthropology. V. 28:1. pp 65-101.

Posted by Aaron Bowen

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