Many studies have demonstrated the prominent role legal frameworks and local policies play in the shaping of prostitution, by informing to a large extent the conditions governing the exercise of the sex trade, while promoting a certain definition of this activity and its protagonists. However, the role of private organizations delegated the mission of providing social or medical assistance to people selling sex should not be overlooked. These organizations are still under-researched, despite the fact that they often occupy a pivotal position between those involved in the sex trade, public authorities, and the general population. Our contribution aims to provide an overview of the relevant landscape of third sector organizations in both Belgium and France and, more specifically, retrace the genesis of associations that have implemented programs to prevent sexually transmitted infections. We will also examine their relations with the public authorities and the legitimacy they enjoy in each country, before highlighting their potential influence on the structuring of representations and regulation of prostitution.
Paradoxically, in the 19th century, an era very concerned with public virtue, prostitutes were increasing being represented in Western European cultural expressions. Prostitution was a prevalent social phenomenon due to the rapid urbanization of Western Europe. People were on the move as both urban and rural areas underwent considerable material and normative change; the majority of Western European cities grew rapidly and were marked by harsh working and living conditions, as well as unemployment and poverty. A seeming rise in prostitution was one of the results of these developments, but its centrality in culture cannot be explained by this fact alone. Prostitution also came to epitomize broader social ills associated with industrialization and urbanization: “the prostitute” became the discursive embodiment of the discontent of modernity.
The surge in cultural representation of prostitutes may also be seen as an expression of changing norms and a driver for change in the public perception of prostitution. In particular, artists came to employ the prostitute as a motif, revealing contemporary hypocrisy about gender and class.
In recent years, many European countries, including Italy, have witnessed an increasing penalisation of uncivil (anti-social or nuisance) behaviour at the local level (Peršak, 2017b; Selmini and Crawford, 2017). In England and Wales, Belgium and Italy, this has been the result of the enactment at the national level of vague legislative provisions, which have entrusted local authorities with enhanced powers in the area of urban safety and security (Di Ronco and Peršak, 2014). Local authorities have used their increased public order powers to target a wide range of behaviour, which they considered to be “anti-social”, a “nuisance” or a “threat” to public safety and urban security (Di Ronco and Peršak, 2014). This behaviour also included the nuisance caused by street prostitution. Punitive measures against street prostitutes and their clients have been taken at the local level, for example, in England and Wales, where Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) were issued against street sex workers and clients until 2014 (see Sagar, 2007, 2010; Scoular and O’Neill, 2007). In addition, administrative sanctions have been imposed in Spain (Villacampa, 2017), as well as in Belgium and Italy (Di Ronco, 2014).
Based on ethnographic data collected during the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this article is interested to examine urban processes which reinvent the changing (sexual) landscape. Focusing on the way (host) cities shape sex work both imaginatively and physically, we explore the (lived) realities of neoliberal imaginaries that shape urban space. Often thought to exist in the urban shadow as an absent-presence in cosmopolitan processes, we demonstrate the manner in which sexualized and racialized women creatively resist the political and economic trajectories of neoliberal urbanism that seek to expropriate land and dispossess certain bodies. In the context of Rio de Janeiro—as in other host cities—this is particularly evident in the routine encounter between sexual minorities and local law enforcement. Mindful of the literature on state incursion into social-sexual life, we remain attentive to the everyday strategies through which those deemed sexually deviant and/or victim navigate local authorities in search of new opportunities for economic salvation in the midst of the sport mega-event.