Moral Panic, Public Emotions, and the 2014 World Cup: The Campaigns against Sex Tourism and Sex Trafficking in Natal, Brazil

In Brazil, the opposition to sex tourism has a long history, and the advent of several mega-sporting events – most notably the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics – has fuelled a new moral panic about the threat of sex tourism and trafficking. The recent resurgence of evangelical, state and NGO campaigns in the city of Natal speaks to the salience of this panic. While existing research has shown that this threat is not necessarily corroborated by empirical evidence, the moral panics that mega-sporting events generate often lead to repressive changes in law and public policy including ‘rescue campaigns’ that target local sex workers and that curtail women’s mobility and sexuality. This project seeks to map out the material effects of this new moral panic through an ethnographic analysis of the anti-trafficking and anti-sex tourism campaigns during the 2014 World Cup, with a focus on the city of Natal, one of the twelve host cities. Natal offers a unique case in point due to its long history of anti-sex tourism campaigns and the complex politics that are expressed through them. More specifically, the objectives of this project are threefold:

  • Empirical objective: This project aims to analyze the anti-trafficking/sex tourism campaigns as they materialize in the city of Natal during the 2014 World Cup. It seeks to examine how forms of civic mobilization triggered by the new moral panic generate repressive social practices that curtail the mobility and sexuality of racialized, low-income, young women and participate in the (re)production of social exclusion, stigma and ‘differentiated citizenship’ (Holston 2008). This project follows recent work on host cities of mega-sporting events and the practices of visibility/invisibility and inclusion/exclusion these cities engage in, as they market themselves to the outside world.
  • Theoretical objective: This project seeks to make novel contributions to the scholarly literature on the role of public emotions in activism. Despite expressions of disgust or anger that accompany mobilization around moral panic issues and play a vital role in making repressive interventions socially acceptable and desirable, this key element is largely absent from the scholarship on sex tourism and trafficking.
  • Educational objective: Finally, the proposed project is motivated by a larger goal: the production of an educational graphic novel and associated website to disseminate knowledge about the effects of anti-sex tourism/trafficking campaigns during the World Cup on low-income, racialized, young women.

This project is generously funded by a SSHRC Insight Development Grant, and involves the collaboration of both sociologist Dr. William Flynn, a lecturer at the University of Ottawa, to develop the graphic novel and doctoral students Sabrina Fernandes and Lauren Montgomery, to assist with the research.