Generating Discussion! Between Love and Money: Sex, Tourism, and Citizenship in Cuba and the Dominican Republic

Summary: In this article, Amalia Cabezas presents several problems with the common conceptions of sex work in the Dominican Republic and Cuba. She takes issue with the term ‘sex work’ being used to define any practice of sex for the exchange of money, as its expression is often more varied and complicated than a simple transactional relationship.
Cabezas points to increased tourism as a cause of increased sex work, and “flexible reorganization of the labor process through the creation of seasonal work, the proliferation of informal market arrangements, and the erosion of boundaries between the formal and informal sectors of the economy” in both the Dominican Republic and Cuba (though she notes that historical conditions of poverty are more consistent in the Dominican Republic, due in part to the lack of social services offered in comparison to Cuba). The increased prevalence of sex work in these areas has contributed to a diversification of the types of relationships between tourists and hosts. Cabezas points to the many instances where what is deemed “sex works” goes beyond sexual acts in exchange for cash.

Both countries have terms which illustrate the variety of jobs available to people who cater to tourists. Not all of these positions explicitly cater to sex; for example, sanky pankys in the Dominican Republic are young black men who serve as tour guides for white women, as well as female entertainers who lead men to recreational activities and sightseeing. In both of these cases, it is often found that both parties are looking for something more long-term than transactional sexual acts, and for the “entertainers,” the work provides the opportunity for advancement, travel, and romantic relationships.

However, Cabezas does note that an increased “officialization” of sex work and tourism through companies like hotels has resulted in prioritization of certain bodies (light-skinned, primarily) over others when catering to tourists. The last half of the article discusses the problems with the term ‘sex work’ in its unequal application; it really only applies to certain “types” of people/work, and that influences the way it has been policed, enforced, and the way only some people have been protected. She says, “desire and affection are defined as “lighter”and prostitution as “darker,” effectively racializing the entire process. This binary opposition presumes relations not tainted by economic dependence, speculation, motivation, and interest, which apparently take place between individuals of the same racial, national, and class background.” As a consequence of these attitudes, it is very common to find mass arrests and sexual abuse of dark-skinned women who are accused of being the “bad” type of sex worker. And while there have been rehabilitation centers who are supposed to be of assistance to the women being targeted as undesirable sex workers, they have often fallen back on ideas of these women as greedy and unclean, rather than addressing the structural inequality that the system is set up on. Cabezas point as far as reform is that we need prioritize women’s sexual rights, while acknowledging the prevalence of racism and classism that exists in sex work.

Questions:
-What would be an effective way to address the broadness of sex work/tourism? Are more terms required to encompass the variety of relationships between the travelers and hosts in countries where these relationships are common?
-How do we differentiate between exploitative sex work and one that is mutually beneficial for the participants? And, following that, can those differentiations help us determine a better solution to the problem of exploitative sexual trade?
-What can be done to combat the underlying racism/classism when it comes to the lack of protection for some women and the prioritization of others?

Sex Tourism in Thailand

From the in-class readings which detailed colonial attitudes toward indigenous women (and later, slaveholders’ attitudes toward black women), it is clear that the pervasive attitudes toward “exotic” sex workers today have a historical basis; they aren’t a recent development. Additionally, according to Kamala Kempadoo, the enslavement and trafficking of women abroad for the benefit of American men is more complex than a “women-as-victims” relationship.

Cover of "Thailand Tourism"

It is necessary to delve into the interactions of various factors, chief among them existing power structures and economic inequity, in order to fully understand why these institutions are so pervasive and marketable. This is particularly important when looking at recent efforts to curb sex trafficking in places such as Thailand (the region I’ll be focusing on), and how failing to address these underlying issues prevents real progress from being made. Many well-intentioned organizations fall into the trap of simply trying to remove women from brothels in which they are enslaved, only to have them become enslaved again soon after, because the situations that brought them there in the first place hadn’t changed. I also plan to explore the perspectives of all the different people involved in the process of sex slavery, including the male pimps and female “recruiters,” as well as the American consumers and Thai sex workers.

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Sex Tourism in Thailand

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The topic I’ve chosen for my project is sex tourism in Thailand. The industry has been a result of (and maintained by) transnational relationships such as conflicts between nations, economic instability, adherence to traditional ideals of beauty and femininity, as well as a mix of all these factors (intersectionality!). I was actually quite unaware of sex tourism at all until a few years ago, when I was in a Chinese hostel and overheard another American tourist recounting his experiences with sex workers in Thailand. Since then, I’ve learned that sex tourism is rife with violence and exploitation, and is strongly affected by lingering Western colonialist attitudes.

http://books.google.com/books/about/Disposable_people.html?id=P9ZhnLljWssC
It has been a while since I read this book, so I’ll have to revisit it, but one of the chapters is focused on a brothel in Thailand, and details the process of buying young girls from their families and how the girls are held in slavery through an accumulation of “debt” from boarding and food, which they are expected to pay back through sex work.

http://exoticthaivacations.com/
This site made me admittedly uncomfortable, but it’s a different perspective on sex tourism. This is basically an advertisement for women in Thailand, and it really reminded me of the excerpts from the European colonialists to their friends back home; the general sentiment is that this country is full of exotic, sexually voracious women who can’t get enough of Western men. For example:

  • When you leave your Bangkok hotel…BAM! There are local girls who want to meet you!
  • When you go to the Pattaya pool……..BAM! Girls are hitting on you!!!!
  • When you go into a Thailand bar……….BAM! Girls try to take you home!
  • When you go to the Pattaya beach……BAM! Girls want your attention!!

http://www.wnd.com/2002/02/12616/
This is an interview with a Thai sex worker named Mylee. Her experience highlights the “ideals of femininity” aspect of the sex tourism industry: ““I can tell you that my body is hard currency,” she explained. “Men want certain types of skin color, a compliant attitude. Submission and curves,” as well as the effect of relationships between nations: “When the transnational military exercise Cope Tiger 2002 brought 1,100 foreign troops to Thailand – including many American soldiers – the Thai government’s Interior Ministry enacted special legislation to help the soldiers enjoy Thailand’s sex industry. The 2 a.m. closing time for most bars was extended, and sex workers and others involved in the industry were warned against raising prices.”

http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Penguin_atlas_of_women_in_the_world.html?id=G-7tAAAAMAAJ
One of the pages in this atlas highlights Thailand as the most important ‘source’ and ‘destination’ country for global sex trafficking. Despite this, prosecutions for sex trafficking are abysmally low, which is something that is referenced in Kevin Bales’ book as well: often, law enforcement officials are complicit partners in the sex trade.