The Secrets of Sex Tourism in the Caribbean

The Secrets of Sex Tourism in the Caribbean

An exposé on legal prostitution in one of the world’s most popular destinations for sexscapes

Under green and blue strobe lights, the dusty dance floor quickly fills with fifteen couples as a popular bachata song by Romeo Santos queues up. It is a weeknight at La Bodega, an open-air night club in the heart of Las Terrenas, a resort town on the northeastern coast of the Dominican Republic. To the untrained eye, the energy on this dance floor would appear to be nothing more than an organic gathering, one of the few places in the small Dominican seaside town where tourists and Dominicans can be found in equal numbers. But everything is not as it seems: nearly all the Dominican women here are sex workers.

Occupying a legal grey area in the Dominican Republic, sex work is “not legal but not illegal,” to quote many locals. While this is a contradiction in terms, it fits the atmosphere of the Dominican, where a common refrain is “anything is possible if you pay enough money.” While pimping and operations like brothels, where sex workers are obligated to stay, are explicitly outlawed, a person is entitled to do what they want with their own body. “It is a liberty of expression,” explains Juan Pablo, a 27-year-old dancer at La Bodega. “You can express yourself how you want. If you want to go out and pay for a person, it’s your choice.”

“Here, prostitution is normal,” says Maximiliano Nolberto, a pastor who works at a Methodist church in the center of town. Describing sex work as “easy and convenient,” he says a person “can prostitute and make some money or get to know a foreigner who can buy [them] a moped or help with rent.” Nolberto explains how sex work factors into the local economy. The majority of hotels, villas and restaurants hire employees seasonally during the winter months or high season, he says, and then lets them go. Part-time employees aren’t entitled to severance and the lack of year-round employment weighs heavily on many residing near this former fishermen’s village.

“Before the tourists, [Las Terrenas] was healthier,” says Dr. Cesar Rodriguez, a doctor who moved to Las Terrenas 30 years ago. Explaining how the tourism-based economy affects all parts of life, he says “when young tourists come, they look for drugs, sex…if a young person doesn't have work, it makes sense for them to go look for drugs to sell to the tourists.”

The unpredictability of work, as well as the seemingly flashy life of tourists, is especially difficult for the youth. Almost four percent of Dominican women ages 15 to 49 are sex workers, accounting for between 80,000 and 100,000 people, according to Centro de Orientación Integral, a social advocacy organization founded in the 1980s and known as COIN. This is compared to somewhere between a sixth to a third of a percent in United States, based on data estimated by various NGOs, though a true approximation is nearly impossible to quantify in the U.S., with the profession legal only in Nevada.

The typical profile of a Dominican sex worker is a young woman in her early twenties with a low level of education, up to three children and no financial support from a partner. Many will leave their children with their parents while they travel or move temporarily to the touristic zones of the country to make money, sending remittances back to their families.
The idea that a transactional relationship can grow to be something more is repeated throughout my interviews, with women saying that because someone pays at first doesn’t mean it can’t become real love.
“If you don’t know how to read and write, if you don’t know how to work in an office…you are going to go do it,” says Juan Pablo. “The body is the way to win money.” The idea of transactional relationships cuts across gender, with an estimated four and a half percent of Dominican men ages 15 to 49 years working in the sex industry as well. Colloquially referred to as "sanky panky,” this phenomena began in the 1980s with male resort workers dating older, foreign, predominantly female tourists. The industry has grown so much that the number of male sex workers, or sankies, now outnumber female. The practice has even made it into the movies, like Sanky Panky and Sanky Panky 2.

For health advocates, male sex workers are a particularly hard population to reach because they don’t have the same reproductive needs or financial concerns as single mothers. Describing sankies as “men looking for a way to live,” Eduar Limon says that they are not bad, they are just looking for an opportunity. “It’s a way to live better,” he says. Of course, because homosexuality is not widely accepted in the Dominican, partnerships between sankies and male tourists are rarely seen publicly and impossible to measure.

Telling me how some of his friends who are male sex workers now have family afuera, or outside, Limon, 30, says that even when a relationship begins as a transaction, love can develop. The idea that a transactional relationship can grow to be something more is repeated throughout my interviews, with women saying that because someone pays at first doesn’t mean it can’t become real love. At the local schools in Las Terrenas, a stream of older, European-looking men drop off Dominican children in the morning. As these couples raise their families in the town, or move to Europe, the relationships are looked upon as any other pairing, despite their transactional origins.

These kinds of “transactional relationship” are newer phenomena according to Dr. Gomez, who has worked with these populations for decades at Centro de Promoción y Solidaridad Humana or CEPROSH. He explains that “now they might have their partners and then one or two days a week they would go to the street to look for sex work. It’s changing.” Although sexual labor existed in Las Terrenas before the growth of tourism, it is impossible to analyze the practice without the context of the rapid development of the village. As a whole, the Dominican has shifted rapidly from the agrarian economy it was in the 1960s, when sugar cane ranked as its leading export. Variations of rapid development in Las Terrenas is visible in other seaside towns, too, where government initiatives and foreign interests have made the “old way of life’ practically non-existent. In 1977, tourism accounted for nine percent of goods and services exported. By 1990, that rose to 40 percent.

In the last 15 years, Las Terrenas received electricity, running water, an international airport and, perhaps most importantly, a highway connecting it to Santo Domingo, enabling travel to and from el capital in less than three hours. This advancement has exacerbated the conflicts within communities.
Country-wide initiatives to shift the national reputation away from a sex tourism destination have granted the so-called tourist police the authority to apprehend sex workers under the guise of protecting tourists
“We raised the prices…and the Dominicans are still in the same shit,” says Daniela Dallera, an Italian expat who settled in Las Terrenas 13 years ago with her son. She finds it disturbing that, despite development, Dominican social services, like access to higher education and proper infrastructure, remain limited. As relatively wealthier foreigners flood the town, international relationships are seen by many as a way out. In her book What’s Love Got to Do With It?, Dr. Denise Brennan, a trafficking, migration and labor anthropologist at Georgetown, discusses how “global hierarchies” can emphasize limitations within sex-scapes, reenforcing gender dynamics and income inequality. And yet, the hundreds of sex workers she interviewed all viewed international relationships as the best opportunity for themselves and their families.

Dr. Brennan found that many sex workers do not self-identify as such, instead describing themselves as “good mothers” who are pursing an opportunity for the sake of their children. This was a problem that I ran up against in my reporting; although I interviewed many sex workers, they did not self-identify. Instead, they discussed the culture of love and sex in the Dominican as if they were outsiders. They would discuss past relationships, why they preferred to be with foreigners and what kinds of financial contributions they expected from partners, but it was not framed as sex work.

When discussing phenomena like male sex workers, feminization of the workforce and changing family dynamics, many Dominicans see these as a product of the new tourism-based economy. They say that older people didn’t do these kinds of things because it was pecado, or a sin, and they often talk about the campo, or countryside, in nostalgic terms, as if the crush of development hasn’t upended the social structures in every segment of society. However, this shift has affected all parts of the country, with touristic towns like Sosúa, Las Terrenas and La Romana experiencing waves of intramigration from other regions, making public health initiatives more complicated and traditional ways of life seemingly anachronistic.

“The minors who are in the beach who are working—that is a huge change,” says Dr. Rodriguez. “If there is a 15-year-old at the beach, looking for a life with an older man who is proposing $100 or $200 dollars for the night, the girl is going to think this is okay. It is work. But there are many consequences.” Although specific statistics are hard to come by, as sex with minors is illegal in the Dominican Republic and therefore under-reported, in my interviews, townspeople bring up the topic of underage sex workers again and again. On the main street, there is a full-size billboard with the mug shot of a plump, elderly European man in a holding a sign that says, “PAOLA 17 AÑOS” next to bold letters saying that sex with minors is illegal. The target audience is obvious: foreign men.

“We are working on a plan to identify the factors that determine [why young girls sell their sexual labor]. Maybe it’s money, violence, education, drugs,” says Mariluz Martinez, a psychologist at COIN. Explaining that minors having sex for money is more prevalent in the areas with beaches than in smaller towns without tourists, Martinez says that it is a difficult issue to address, as the Dominican outreach is limited without cooperation from foreign governments to curb demand.

To locals in Las Terrenas, there doesn’t seem to be a way to prevent this kind of “bad tourism,” as it is generally acknowledged that restricting tourism restricts the economy. “On one hand we have the depraved tourists that come for prostitution, who are with minors and are using drugs,” the Pastor tells after apologizing for his description, which he pointedly says does not apply to all visitors. “On the other hand we have the tourists that come and give life to Las Terrenas.”

All of these factors—poverty, rampant sex tourism, a deficiency of governmental programs—could create a perfect storm for a public health nightmare, and yet the HIV/AIDs rate is at, or equal to, one percent in the Dominican Republic, according to COIN. This is much less than other parts of the Caribbean, where sex tourism is not as popular. When asked about this, industry advocates and sex workers are explicit: it is thanks to the work of sex-worker-led organizations as well as its semi-legal status.

The Dominican Republic is a deeply Catholic country and yet COIN has been successful by any measure, despite the stigma associate with sex work advocacy. Operating across the country, they work on prevention of disease, conducting workshops with vulnerable youth, as well as combating discrimination against workers and advocating for them politically. However, the threat of arrest still looms over sex workers, as their work remains unprotected by the law. Recently, country-wide initiatives to shift the national reputation away from a sex tourism destination have granted the so-called tourist police the authority to apprehend sex workers under the guise of protecting tourists and “cleaning up” the streets.

“Corruption is very big,” in the police force, says Dr. Gomez, a doctor who works with CEPROSH, an HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention organization based out of Puerto Plata. He explains that a woman who is picked up by the tourism police, often by profiling, can pay anywhere from $20 to $40 as a bribe to be let go. “This puts her in a more difficult situation since she will have to look for that money, which she probably borrowed,” says Dr. Gomez. This in turn will lead a woman to be more aggressive with potential foreign clients, creating a “vicious cycle” that Dr. Gomez feels “is a form of corruption that harms women.”

This policing leads to inherent prejudice, with people being apprehended because they “look” like sex workers. Vulnerable populations, like transgender and gay people, are especially at risk when policing is based on profiling. Although there are no statistics about transgender people specifically in the Dominican, they are reported to experience more violence and most are assumed to be sex workers. Public health officials, aid workers and sex workers all agree: If the country wants less prostitution, there needs to be more opportunities, not more policing. “The thing that is needed are options of other jobs,” says Dr. Gomez, who points out that in two days of work, a woman can make as much as she would in a month at a non-sex work job. “For many, if they would find a productive job they wouldn’t be in the street looking for money."

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