As I fumbled with my fancy new camera trying to sneak a picture of a 200 pound, 50+ year-old white man holding a teen Dominican girl, the “uh-oh feeling” reiterated to me that all you need to know, you learned in kindergarden. With that simple feeling, I struggled to believe in this relationship, or the pretense of one.
It is very easy to say, “it’s none of my/our business,” “it’s every woman’s choice,” or “there will always be a demand and it’s a way to generate income.” However, the slippery slopes that are those arguments often overlook the complexities of the sex industry.
The Dominican Republic is statistically the 4th largest “exporter” of prostitutes in the world behind Brazil, Thailand and the Philippines, and ranks in the top two for sex tourism.² “While laws prohibit sex with those under age 18, prostitution is neither illegal nor legal in the Dominican Republic. And although it is practiced openly and widely accepted as legal by police, the legal gray area leaves women powerless.” ¹ An article on the Dominican Republic’s DR1 website, ironically framed by wet t-shirts and ads for Dominican Cupid, describes the high prostitution rates, criticizes the ‘choices’ of these women, and describes many of the causes of these staggering statistics in the tropical paradise.
First and foremost, the Dominican Republic suffers from a very high poverty rate. Over 25% of the Dominican population is said to be living below the poverty line. Educational standards are very low and the majority of people living in the campo (countryside) stop attending school at a young age. The adult literacy rate is a low 87.8 percent. For most, there is little or no opportunity. Unemployment is at a staggering 17% and many, who do have jobs, work for very low pay. There is also a very high rate of teenage pregnancy and fatherless families are extremely common. It is not surprising with so little opportunity and so little hope of future opportunity that many Dominican women turn to prostitution.²
While the “Only Ladies Accompanied” sign may seem like a pre 1920’s relic, it hangs today and is not unusual in Sosua. Many tourists visit the Dominican specifically for the opportunity of sex, and the women seeking to take advantage of the income opportunity saturate the town.
As described by Denise Brennan in “What’s Love Got to do With It?: Transnational Desires and Sex Tourism in the Dominican Republic,” the life of a sex worker is full of hope to marry “por amor” (for love) as a way out of poverty. Realistically and longitudinally, it almost always results in more financial hardship, bribes to authorities to get out of jail, and let downs by foreign men promising a better life.³
Moving past the initial discomfort, there are deeper questions to ask.
Is a choice to sell yourself truly a choice when driven so strongly by external forces like poverty? Are the dangers posed to women by the industry, such as abuse, exploitation, and disease, severe enough to feel as though we have a duty to protect those marginalized by a society? Would the elimination of the branding of sex tourism in Sosua allow for a more thriving tourism industry that could benefit more local people?
Right now, I am learning as much as I can in order to understand and fight, what I consider to be, a social injustice. I have brainstormed solutions including scare tactics about the risk of HIV infection, working with local government for strict laws (and then tackling any corruption in the police force), making another “white kid” documentary to appeal to western sentiment, and even introducing myself to some of the men involved to understand their motives.
Luckily, as I have realized this is currently not my battle, I have witnessed some inspiring advocates on the issue. Clinics that are putting women’s health as a priority, vocational training programs are offering alternatives, and outreach programs have acted as intermediaries between women, “negocios” (brothels essentially), and to the police.
We at Onwards are working to tackle the underlying issue of sexual exploitation, poverty. By empowering individuals to develop tourism-based business and connecting travelers with authentic, cultural, community-based experiences, we can transform the travel industry as a whole to benefit both world explorers and the local population. Join Onwards in exploring the beautiful Dominican Republic; engage with others respectfully as a citizen of the world.