A Jackson Pollock-esque drizzle of syrup and bacon crumbs trickled down *Lorenzo’s t-shirt as “Living in America” blared on repeat over the house speakers. He stood stooped over an overflowing plate held inches from his face, his basketball shorts’ pockets inexplicably hung inside-out. At 4:00 am I had no right to question him because my appearance wasn’t any more polished than his after another night of user testing.
In retrospect it’s darkly poetic that the best all-you-can-eat American breakfast buffet in Rio de Janeiro is in a brothel, a sexual buffet of sorts. Lorenzo gazed impatiently down at the metal serving tray, neurotically opening and closing the lid in hopes it would magically replenish itself with Eggs Benedict. And I too was almost as determined to get my 14 reals worth of arterial congestion. Even amid that dystopia of lust and gluttony, there was a faint glimmer of compassion in how perhaps as consolation to the women having slow nights, they’d always eat for free.
Only during those twilight hours before the sun broke over Copacabana, between steaming stacks of pancakes and sausages, the weary prostitutes would seem to let their guard down. Sometimes we’d dine next to the women on bar stools, our silent chewing intermittently interrupted by occasional slurps of orange juice. Other times, in an ironic role reversal, Lorenzo and I were still attempting to sell them on our app and explaining its benefits.
Breaking the Taboo
It became an unlikely weekend routine for us, two broke foreign entrepreneurs each running our separate businesses the rest of the time. Lorenzo would endearingly refer to the beachfront blocks below his Manhattan-priced studio apartment as “‘Stoot Row,” and whenever he’d GChat me “stoots tonight,” I’d know my evening plans.
After keeping it to ourselves for so long, the story of how Língua Boa came to be had to be told. It wasn’t as if Lorenzo and I were lifelong friends. We only really knew each other by being gringos trying to accomplish something against the tide of Brazil’s horrendous business climate.
However, our paths to the country were quite different. Having cultivated a passion for Brazil from various visits, I flew to Rio on a one-way ticket two weeks after college graduation to grow my alternative travel venture Favela Experience. On the other hand, when given the opportunity to create the Brazilian software sister company of his dad’s hardware startup, Lorenzo moved knowing merely a few words of Portuguese. Yet, what we most had in common was an aspiration toward greater opportunity for marginalized Brazilians–Lorenzo via quality education from affordable technology and I via increased income for favela families from community-empowered tourism.
One of our first times together was in the fall of 2013 alongside his dad who was visiting for meetings. The conversation fittingly drifted to the looming Copa do Mundo. Lorenzo asked, **”Did you hear about this story with the prostitutes in Belo Horizonte getting English classes for the World Cup?”
Of course I had. After all, my business depended on the FIFA tournament to the point of me maniacally refreshing my Google News feed. That piece of news had recently been the top-trending article on CNN because, well, what’s better click-bait than the stereotyped sensuality of Brazilians and futebol? Disregarding its salaciousness, the report’s context was pertinent–the country’s English fluency rate was miserable. More urgent was that 600 thousand inebriated, predominately male fans from around the globe were set to arrive in less than a year; and contrary to popular belief, no, you really can’t get by on Spanish in Brazil.
Lorenzo nonchalantly continued: “On the side, I started messing around with making an app to teach English to Brazilian prostitutes.”
I was incredulous. Sure, Lorenzo was hardly a buttoned-down guy, but he and his business were publicly visible. Despite that buying and selling sex are both legal (with restrictions) in Brazil, why tarnish your personal and professional reputation associating with such a polarizing industry? Moreover, Lorenzo had to focus on far more important things, like maneuvering government bureaucracy for his business and making rent.
Still, the concept behind the app was intriguing. Of course, he wasn’t imagining its users delivering doctoral thesis defenses, or even having substantial conversation in their new second language.
Instead, he explained, “There’s this Tim Ferriss blog post about how the 100 most common words in English are used half the time.” That meant that hypothetically that a language learner could very quickly begin to communicate with little study. Applying that thinking made sense, and I saw how this was just another example of the 80-20 rule in action.
On top of that, Lorenzo’s dad added that he founded an NGO in developing countries to employ the poor at business process outsourcing centers. Though the workers don’t learn to converse in English, they’re trained in just the technical lexicon needed to be effective at their jobs.
We were still talking about prostitutes, though, so I laughed off the absurdity of Lorenzo’s excitement over something so taboo. Now I see how hypocritical I was as someone working to change the perception of favela residents, another heavily stigmatized group. Specifically, my prejudice stopped me from recognizing that anyone should have access to learn anything, especially if that thing can improve quality of life.
Around that same time I was consumed by generating awareness of my fledgling community homestay operation in time for a pre-World-Cup crowdfunding campaign. I was studying SEO and realized how much links from reputable sites would advance my internet marketing efforts. Online PR from respected publications could not only convince customers concerned with safety and legitimacy but also boost Favela Experience’s Google rankings. Yet when the traditional route of cold Tweets to journalists was failing, my desperation made me more drastic.
A month after not discussing or even contemplating Lorenzo’s far-fetched idea, we were loitering outside of an Ipanema bar while commiserating about our business problems. A mass of giddy hostelers overflowed into the street before us, foreshadowing a gringo surge magnitudes greater the coming summer for 2014’s FIFA tournament. Suddenly, a wave of brilliance overwhelmed me.
Lorenzo’s app wasn’t so ridiculous after all!
I proclaimed, “We’re going to build the prostitutes app together. It’s sex, soccer, Brazil, and technology all in one. It’ll be too good for the press to resist. And they’ll have to at least add links to my business when they talk about who made the app. Favela Experience will be number one on Google. I’m a genius!”
But, we had to take this seriously. There’d be no half-assing. I was so intent on employing the Lean Startup method that it would’ve made even Eric Ries himself cringe. Before writing a line of code, we were going to get ample, structured feedback on the idea from prostitutes and adjust accordingly. We couldn’t spend a lot of time building something that no one wanted to use. After all, what if prostitutes didn’t even have smartphones? (It turns out they almost all had at least simple Android devices, even a year and a half ago.)
There was one glaring problem. As I was already familiar with strangers’ attacks on the ethics of my controversial business, I worried how the media would portray us. They could paint us as greedy, unscrupulous American male techno-pimps exploiting vulnerable women for profit (even though we never wanted or tried to make any money directly from the app). At the very minimum, they could claim we were contributing to an “immoral” trade.
Our dilemma was that we figured sex workers would only download the app if they thought they’d earn more money through better communication and negotiation with foreigners. For many people that premise in and of itself was reprehensible. So, I proposed we hedge our bets by sneakily incorporating features that could enhance prostitutes’ health and safety outcomes. However, striking the right balance would be tricky. We couldn’t be overbearing and risk deterring users; but the social good component had to be prominent enough that we could reasonably defend ourselves.
Separately, I realize in hindsight I was abruptly asserting part ownership of Lorenzo’s app without even asking. I may have been taking away this cathartic release from the stress of his job. I’m now embarrassed that I was too impressed with myself to care. Fortunately, Lorenzo is so agreeable that it didn’t matter, and he seemed excited that I’d be helping.
Paying to Not Have Sex
One Friday night shortly thereafter my declaration, rough work weeks behind us, we descended Lorenzo’s apartment to begin our research. I was nervous since I’d never actually been inside a brothel, nor even knowingly talked to a prostitute before. We already understood generally where sex workers congregated; however, I was shocked how out in the open it all was, particularly in side street nooks adjacent to five-star hotels like the iconic Copacabana Palace. Having frequently passed through this prime tourism area in daylight, I never noticed any of these seedy establishments.
What made me especially uncomfortable was the men in dark suits on street corners who’d accost us to promote certain brothels and bars. They were seemingly agents guiding potential customers to different establishments, possibly for a commission.
We let one man lead us into a tight alleyway where he opened a door to a musty room full of women standing and aggressively inviting us inside. I was instantly overwhelmed because something about it scared me. Quickly signaling to Lorenzo we should move on, I hoped we could find a more laid-back bar that was more conducive to conversations.
Leaving the suited man behind, we wandered the streets perpendicular to the beach until we peeked into a nearly empty bar with a more mellow atmosphere. We walked in, sat down, and two women soon joined us while others took turns apathetically pole dancing. The staff was at best unenthused and at worst grouchy. Still, it seemed like our best option, so we stayed.
Not long after we got to our table I realized Lorenzo and I had hardly discussed a game plan. What do we talk about, and how do we act? The assumption is that we want to pay for sex, so how do we handle that? Do we have to build some rapport first, or should we just tell them what we’re doing?
Luckily and unluckily, the women were professionals. We felt at ease talking to them, but they were doing their best to seduce us. That included pressure to buy very expensive drinks for ourselves and them. Since I don’t drink alcohol, Lorenzo ended up drinking for me, and his tipsiness didn’t help our cause.
At some point, the women took us for a smoke break outside where they gave us our first of many privileged glimpses into the personal lives of sex workers. One complained about working a boring retail job during the day. The other had a child whom she’d leave with her mom at night, and she was confident none of her family knew what she was doing. Even though these facts were all consistent with I imagined, hearing the women talk about themselves engrossed me.
After some more time together, the ladies excused themselves presumably to use the restroom. Somewhat panicked by our mounting tab, I turned to Lorenzo to regroup and outline what to discuss from then on.
Most importantly, we had to find out if the women even recognized the problem the app could solve. As foreigners ourselves, we could reasonably inquire, “Can knowing English help you make more money?” Once they came back, we talked a lot more about English, but that quickly devolved into them eagerly parroting sexual slang to us in barely understandable attempts at our language.
We weren’t accomplishing much, it was getting late, and it became clear to the women we weren’t going to leave with them, so we asked for the check. At that time Brazil’s currency was far stronger, making our hearts sink when we realized we each owed over $50, an unacceptable hit to the survival budgets we had imposed upon ourselves.
It was an expensive and ineffective outing, but at least we had begun. In the future, we’d have to be more deliberate with our approach and more efficient to get a significant sample size of responses in the short time we allotted ourselves on weekends.
Um Programa Para Garotas de Programa
On a subsequent trip, we finally narrowed down our target location. Unlike the more discreet locales we visited before, Balcony was an anomaly. It defiantly inhabited a beachfront corner of a renowned stretch of Avenida Atlântica grasping for its bygone glory days.
To call Balcony a brothel might be technically inaccurate, and even now I don’t understand its business relationship to prostitution. At street level it was an innocuous awning-covered restaurant serving mediocre, moderately-priced American fare (with the exception of its underrated 4 am breakfast buffet). Throughout the day and evening, couples and even families dined there. However, the establishment’s connected interior housed an ample sports-bar-like area where prostitutes and middle-aged, white male tourists mingled. While I never ventured there, upstairs was a separate nightclub apparently boasting rooms for hourly rates.
What was so ideal about Balcony, besides being two blocks from Lorenzo’s apartment, was that we could casually enter and exit because the property didn’t have bouncers or lines, let alone doors. On weekends the prostitutes and their raucous clientele would overtake the adjacent plaza, so sometimes we wouldn’t even need to go inside to meet potential users. This layout facilitated a relaxed, welcoming vibe that made conversation with the women easy and even enjoyable.
Perhaps most crucial, though, for our bootstrapped project was that we didn’t have to spend any money there.
Our light wallets and unique purpose created the issue of how to actually approach the women. Immediately stating our attention could draw bewilderment, whereas prolonged chatting under the guise of being typical customers could rob the women of precious time with income-generating men. After many negative reactions, we perfected our introductions to be a compromise between both ends of the spectrum.
Eventually our routine converged on either asking the women in Portuguese if they spoke English or just simply opening in English. We’d then use our own interaction as an example proving the need for our app, and if they were receptive, we’d continue soliciting more feedback. Frankly, the responses were mixed, and surely many positive reactions were to appease us while some negative answers just didn’t understand our shoddy explanations. With practice our pitch became so effortlessly delivered that we could split up to each meet a dozen women a night, and it was then that things started to get interesting.
NOTE: I’ll answer what you’re probably wondering. No, Lorenzo and I didn’t have sex with any of the women from our outings. Believe it or not, we couldn’t afford to pay the $50 to $500 to do so. Ethically and politically, I see nothing wrong with prostitution as long as it’s verifiably consensual, safe, and legal. Like drugs, prostitution happens everywhere regardless of regulations or norms. As such, my position is that we should seek to contain its risks while empowering sex workers. Nonetheless, I never have and never will pay for sex, not because I look down on it but because I myself am not fulfilled by that kind of encounter.
*Camila stuck out. Her dress, while form-fitting, was elegant and exposed far less than the other women. I doubted whether she actually was working by how she stood aloof from the schoolyard-like cliques of other women cackling and jerking around her. She appeared confident other than how she impatiently shot her glance repeatedly from the pulsing crowd to her phone and back. It was as if she awaited a date who was 10 minutes past standing her up. From that mysterious impression, my research goals took a backseat to discovering who she was and why she was there.
As if I couldn’t start with anything else after introducing myself the same way so many times, I approached with, “Hey, do you speak English?”
Yes, she certainly did. In fact, she expressed herself more fluidly and intelligently than most any other native Brazilian I could remember meeting. I was engrossed by everything she had to say because she was such an outlier.
“I learned English when I was little from listening to my uncle’s Rage Against the Machine CDs.”
In spite of her metal-infused educational foundations, she was witty and eloquent, defying society’s stereotype of sex workers. Moreover, she was in her final year of medical school at PUC-Rio, an elite private university where many of my upper-class Brazilian acquaintances studied. I wondered if she sat next to them in class.
Understandably, but to the chagrin of my inquisitive nature, she wasn’t too forthcoming with other details of her life. She told me she came from a little-known interior state that prostitutes its ecosystem to voracious Chinese appetite for raw goods. Moreover, by her atypical demeanor it made sense when she mentioned she’d only do this work around once a month to pay personal expenses. Yet never did she convey feelings of embarrassment about this side job even if it was a secret—a practical one considering machismo’s omnipresence in even Brazil’s most esteemed professions.
Lorenzo joined the conversation, and we must have talked for an hour before she likely remembered why she was even in that Brazilian Applebee’s-cum-bordello to begin with. In all the weekends we returned to Balcony, I don’t recall speaking with Camila again, though I sincerely hope by now her name is preceded by the honorable “Dra.”
Then there was *Solange, reminiscent of a carioca version of hip-hop celebrity Amber Rose, whom Lorenzo met without me at Balcony. As she was basking in her professional peak in her later 30s, she boasted of spending most of the year abroad where she made much more money. Still, she planned that the euros, or pounds, or dollars would lead her back to Rio for FIFA’s nearing June-July mayhem.
Solange was what Silicon Valley VCs would label in a deck as an “early evangelist.” She enthusiastically saw the need for what we were attempting, and she wanted to help. She was going to tell all of her friends about the app and make sure they used it. When our nights became monotonous, seeing her light up as we walked inside and wave Lorenzo over to introduce him to someone new made me reconsider my occasionally foul mood. Unfortunately, by the time we had a downloadable app, it appeared Solange had already jetted off to Europe before we could get a list of leads from her.
Still, perhaps most memorable of all was *Martina from the Amazon. Quickly getting to know us from our repeat visits to Balcony, she didn’t seemed concerned with wasting her time chatting. In particular, she recounted the saga of her romance with her abusive, on-and-off, wealthy foreign boyfriend whom she lived with at times in Europe. It was a lot to take in, but at the same time I was glad she trusted us enough to share the details. In return we told her a lot about ourselves, and she listened eagerly.
Most entertaining, however, was that while it was abundantly clear she was financially unattainable to Lorenzo, Martina seemed to genuinely pursue him anyways. Sometimes I had to return the focus from her flirtations back to app feedback and getting her colleagues’ contact information. Even before dawn as Lorenzo ensured the buffet’s cream cheese and jelly mostly skipped his mouth on a direct path to his t-shirt, she still didn’t give up on him.
Ultimately, the women’s diverse personalities and stories became a highlight of our project for me. As we had to suspect the intentions behind their words and mannerisms, the women could have just as easily mistrusted us, two dubiously Portuguese-proficient gringos with strange non-sexual requests. (Of course, that’s all neglecting both the blatant and more subtle gendered power dynamics at play.) Perhaps it’s wishful thinking that Camila and others’ interactions were real in the face of a sex marketplace predicated on feigned desire. Still, I like to believe what these women showed me amid the muffled soundtrack of ’80s power ballads was at least partially their true selves.
Months of hiatus followed due in part to the demands of our primary jobs and in part to procrastination over actually incorporating user feedback into a working Android app. Largely from being in the right place at the right time, after the FIFA draw announcement amped fanfare, my travel business quickly made headlines—first in Forbes, then The New York Times, CNN, and other international media. Consequently my original reason for joining in on Lorenzo’s idea was no longer relevant.
By then it didn’t really matter. Both Lorenzo and I became motivated to get the app done and onto as many devices as possible before the FIFA opening ceremony. To be fair, that was Lorenzo’s goal the entire time as he envisioned a whole suite of trade-specific tools for professions that could benefit from English access—taxi drivers, bellhops, snack vendors, etc. He even had grandiose plans for enterprise software and consumer platforms for sex workers.
Unfortunately, we had only allocated one do-or-die weekend to lock ourselves in Lorenzo’s apartment and produce Língua Boa v. 1.0. It was going to be a rough “minimum viable product” and a rough, mostly sleepless 48 hours. Our fuel of choice (or by necessity) was $1.00 pastel chinês meat and dough bombs from the unappealing bakery below Lorenzo’s building.
We agreed the logic behind the app was ultra-simple. We’d make a glossary of the 100 most useful words and phrases listed in chronological order based on a standard prostitute-client interaction. Each entry would have the English and Portuguese translation alongside a relevant rights-free image with touch-activated English audio. The content themes moved from greetings to flirting to negotiation to sex acts, including the right amount of health, safety, and comfort-related vocabulary.
Because none of our female friends agreed to voice the bawdy audio, I was the one to recite “Nice to meet you” and “My name is” (among more NSFW terminology). Of course, the few friends I’ve showed the app to find that part hilarious.
Also worth noting is that the real use case is less a way for users to be able to recite useful words and more for them to operate the app as an audiovisual aid in their client interactions.
Since Lorenzo is the one who can actually code, I was left to select the vocabulary, find images, and figure out the Google Play Store. I’d like to say it was a 50-50 effort, but Lorenzo deserves most of the credit.
Notwithstanding his hard work after much frustration, I did come up with the app’s name, Língua Boa. It’s a smug double entendre that’s meant to appeal to the nature of the users’ work, and if you download the app (Android only) or view our hastily-made logo, you should understand.
Given the app’s content, it was a gamble as to whether the Google Play Store would accept our submission. Luckily we had nothing more than the $25 application fee to lose, and possibly because of Google’s laxness the app was never removed.
It’s the Journey, Not the Destination
I’d love to report we got our app to thousands of sex workers across the country during the World Cup and heard high praise of its utility. In a last-ditch effort to spark some PR, I did actually have an interview with The Guardian about the app, but it was never published.
The truth is Língua Boa is crummy, and it was supposed to be, at the least in its first iteration. It’d take weeks more work of testing and development for users to find some value in the app. Though we revisited Balcony a few more times in subsequent months, we didn’t invest enough time into making Língua Boa something anyone wanted.
Certainly we both learned a lot from this entire process. I was grateful for the exposure to a population I otherwise wouldn’t have come to know. I can’t claim to comprehend much about the economics and social reality of sex work or have much first-hand knowledge into the dark underbelly of that industry even if we did see some signs of illegal drug use and underage prostitution. (Balcony was suspiciously shut down on the World Cup’s opening day over child abuse allegations.) Though this project proved not all prostitution is demeaning or exploitative, I deeply respect the individuals, NGOs, academics, and public sector serving at-risk segments of the sex trade.
Toward the end, the experience for me became much more about the practice in empathizing with a taboo group and finding ways to improve sex workers’ livelihoods and well-being. No, we didn’t get far, but my point is that this is a fight worth fighting.
There’s untapped human and commercial potential serving not just sex workers but other “untouchable” populations like the disabled and the unexotic underclass, not to mention the 2.7 billion people living on $2 a day or less. Nevertheless, strides won’t be made without input from and ownership of new initiatives by these groups.
Open minds, creativity, and relentless resourcefulness are what we need to make progress. I’m ready to get to work—are you?
*Names have been changed upon request or to protect identities.
**All quotations have been approximated from memories of personal experiences taking place between September 2013 and June 2014.