Inside Rio's Oldest and Largest Red-Light District

RIO DE JANEIRO— Vila Mimosa, Rio’s largest and oldest red-light district, is a far cry from the glamorous sex scene of Copacabana. Away from the hubbub of downtown Rio on the west side of the city, the entire neighborhood is currently engulfed by construction works; it is easy to miss, unless you know what you’re looking for.

A mixture of ramshackle houses, laundry services, pool halls and bars clutter the main drag, posing as “respectable” businesses. Although prostitution is legal in Brazil, running a brothel is not; each of these establishments therefore holds a legal registration of trade.

Despite its unassuming façade, business at Vila Mimosa is thriving. According to the residents’ association, the district receives close to 4,000 visitors a day, generating $430,000 each month. An estimated 2,000 women work here, providing cheap thrills to a primarily straight, working-class male clientele (male and transgender prostitutes are confined to other quarters of the city).

In dimly-lit rooms—some throbbing with neon-tube lighting, some adorned with the odd Halloween decoration—scantily-clad women drape themselves across door frames and chat in half-empty bars with friends. It is a world away from the image of the “happy” prostitute learning English or the boutique “love motel” commonly associated with sex-for-sale in Brazil. Prices bottom out at $20 per “program” and many of those found working here do so out of desperation, necessity and a lack of real alternatives.