April 27, 2006
Letter From Brazil
She Who Controls Her Body Can Upset Her Countrymen
By LARRY ROHTER
SÃO PAULO, Brazil — 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.
But it is not just her canny use of the Internet that has made Bruna, whose real name is Raquel Pacheco, a cultural phenomenon. By going public with her exploits, she has also upended convention and set off a vigorous debate about sexual values and practices, revealing a country that is not always as uninhibited as the world often assumes.
Interviewed at the office of her publisher here, Ms. Pacheco, 21, said the blog that became her vehicle to notoriety emerged almost by accident. But once it started, she was quick to spot its commercial potential and its ability to transform her from just another program girl, as high-class prostitutes are called in Brazil, into an entrepreneur of the erotic.
"In the beginning, I just wanted to vent my feelings, and I didn't even put up my photograph or phone number," she said. "I wanted to show what goes on in the head of a program girl, and I couldn't find anything on the Net like that. I thought that if I was curious about it, others would be too."
Ms. Pacheco parlayed that inquisitiveness into a best seller, "The Scorpion's Sweet Poison," that has made her a sort of sexual guru. A mixture of autobiography and how-to manual, her book has sold more than 100,000 copies since it was published late last year, and has just been translated into Spanish.
At book signings, Ms. Pacheco said, "80 percent of the public is women, which I didn't expect at all," because most of the readers of her blog appeared to be men, including customers who "wanted to see how I had rated their performance." As she sees it, the high level of female interest in her sexual experiences reflects a gap here between perceptions about sex and the reality.
"I think there's a lot of hypocrisy and a bit of fear involved," she said. "Brazilian women have this sexy image, of being at ease and uninhibited in bed. But anyone who lives here knows that's not true."
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.
"Brazil is a country of contradictions, as much in relation to sexuality as anything else," said Richard Parker, a Columbia University anthropologist who is the author of "Bodies, Pleasures and Passions: Sexual Culture in Contemporary Brazil," and has taught and worked here. "There is a certain spirit of transgression in daily life, but there is also a lot of moralism."
As a result, some Brazilians have applauded Bruna's frankness and say it is healthy to get certain taboos out in the open, like what both she and academic researchers say is a national penchant for anal sex. But others decry her celebrity as one more noxious manifestation of free-market economics and globalization.
"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," said Maria Clara Lucchetti Bingemer, a newspaper columnist and professor of theology at Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro. "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."
But Gabriela Silva Leite, a sociologist and former prostitute who now directs a prostitutes' advocacy group, argues that such concerns are exaggerated. "It's not a book like this that is going to stimulate prostitution, but the lack of education and opportunities for women," she said. "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."
Part of the controversy stems simply from Ms. Pacheco's forthright and unapologetic tone about her work. Traditionally, Brazilians feel sympathy for the poor woman selling her body to feed her children; she is seen as a victim of the country's glaring social and economic inequalities.
But Ms. Pacheco does not fit that mold. She comes from a middle-class family and turned to prostitution, she said, both as rebellion against her strict parents and because she wanted to be economically independent.
That a woman is now talking and behaving as Brazilian men often have may also offend some. Roberto da Matta, a leading anthropologist and social commentator, noted that even though role reversals were an important part of Carnival, other areas of Brazilian life, including sexual relationships, could be quite rigid and hierarchical.
Under the system of machismo that prevails in Brazil and other Latin American countries, "only a man has a right to command his own sex life, and that control is seen as a basic attribute of masculinity," he explained. "So when a young, attractive, intelligent woman appears and says she is a prostitute, you have a complete inversion of roles, leaving men fragile in a terrain where she is the boss, not them."
For all her willingness to break taboos, though, Ms. Pacheco's current life plan is conventional. She has a steady boyfriend and hopes to marry him, and is studying for the national college entrance exam, with a mind to majoring in psychology.
"Being Bruna was a role that left its mark on me, but I can't abandon her," Ms. Pacheco said. "There are people who still call me Bruna, and I don't mind, but I wouldn't want to be her for the rest of my life."
Nor is Ms. Pacheco immune to the influence of pudor, a concept important throughout Latin America that combines elements of modesty, decency, propriety and shame. In her book, rather than write out the words commonly used on the street to describe sexual acts and organs, she prints only their first letters, with dots indicating what everyone already knows.
"I think it's quite vulgar to say the whole word," she explained. "But I didn't want to be too formal, either."