A Reflection on Prostitution and Spatial Segregation in the Cities

A Reflection on Prostitution and Spatial Segregation in the Cities

Sex Day is an unofficial holiday created by marketers celebrated on September 6th in Brazil, highlighting one of the greatest taboos in modern society: sexuality. From an architectural and urban point of view, the immorality associated with sexual activities, especially in exchange for payment, deeply impacts our society and also affects the territory.

While sometimes considered morally wrong, sinful, forbidden, and impure, sex, sexuality, and pleasure are all inherent to human physiology. Prostitution is sometimes referred to as "the world's oldest profession," playing a fundamental role in our societies, as well as in our territory, in the spatial organization and dynamics of cities. This practice is at the margins of modern society and therefore has ended up occupying segregated spaces in the cities.

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"Display windows" of the red-light district at Bom Retiro neighborhood. Image via São Paulo Passado by Edison Loureiro

There are many examples of cities in history in which the areas surrounding ports or commercial centers were invaded by clubs and brothels, usually in narrow streets and alleys, with no basic sanitation and overcome by poverty, hunger, and degradation. According to Diana Helene Ramos, prostitution and all of the activities it entails, such as brothels, bars, nightclubs, motels (in Brazil, the term motel, plural: motéis, is used to refer to an "adult hotel" or love hotel), and many other "immoral activities," are concentrated in areas of the city that can most "tolerate" this type of practice:

They are mostly "transitional neighborhoods," with vacant land, interstitial areas, obsolete or ill-defined activities, average functional and real estate value, and a modest population devoid of material resources. They are peripheral spaces, not only geographically but mainly in the sense of a social periphery, aiming to segregate the "impure" from formal society. — Diana Helene Ramos, 2015

This is a territorial, social, and legal issue: in Brazil, up until 2009, it was a crime punishable by law to "maintain, for oneself or on behalf of a third party, a house of prostitution or place intended for meetings with libidinous purposes, regardless of whether there is an intention of profit or direct involvement of the owner or manager." It was only after 2009 that it became possible, for example, for a motel to become legally recognized within the cities. However, these motels are still submitted to other regulations. In São Paulo, for example, according to the city's zoning laws, motels are restricted to predominantly industrial areas, highways, and riverside expressways, which perpetuates the segregation and isolation of sexual activities from the formal city.

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via Photo by Christian Felix Möller Somers on Unsplash

The devaluation of these areas leads to degradation, therefore, providing an opportunity for urban redevelopment, regeneration, and renewal. The decrease in property prices due to urban degradation allows for real estate speculation and projects that take advantage of this vulnerability to displace residents, and all their "sinful" activities, to create new gentrified urban districts. Tsaiher Cheng explains this by analyzing cases in Hong Kong, Taipei, Montreal, Antwerp, and Amsterdam. Even the most consolidated areas, such as the Red Light District in the Netherlands, are subject to new urban redevelopment projects seeking to change the type of public visiting the area.

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via Photo by Lara Puscas on Unsplash

Despite the stigmas and all the efforts to eliminate prostitution and marginalize entire communities from society, these groups resist strongly, both by creating organized social movements and simply by their actions and the way they occupy the territory. In São Paulo, for example, there is a curious phenomenon that catches the eye of those who look carefully. The city center is organized in a kind of patchwork of different building types and eras, where offices, bars, stores, and guesthouses merge through small doors and windows. In between them, peculiar lettering uses poetic license to subtly create a letter that does not exist in our alphabet: an "H" combined with the letter "M" is used to spell the word "hotel" on the sign. This adaptation is used to communicate the activity of the venue but also implies many other territorial issues.

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Prostitutes dance for prospective clients in a bar in the red-light district, Pat Pong, Bangkok, Thailand. Image via axlright is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

According to local zoning laws, love hotels are forbidden in that region in an attempt to avoid prostitution and all the imagery associated with it. However, this area was used by prostitutes long before the law, and they skillfully resist. Downtown São Paulo, as well as many other large urban centers, is one of the most desired locations for the real estate market. While the area displays obsolete and precarious urban infrastructure, it is also targeted by large urban renewal initiatives that seek to "clean up the area" and change its characteristics. In this context, that made-up letter is used to indicate that this is a place of conflict, to defy the rules, resist segregation, and reveal the morality of society. 

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Cite: Martino, Giovana. "A Reflection on Prostitution and Spatial Segregation in the Cities" [Sexo e cidade: refletindo sobre segregação espacial e prostituição] 21 Sep 2021. ArchDaily. (Trans. Duduch, Tarsila) Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/968630/a-reflection-on-prostitution-and-spatial-segregation-in-the-cities> ISSN 0719-8884

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