Issues in Anthropology: Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean/Sex Tourism and Neocolonial Power Relationships in the Caribbean

Sex Tourism and Neocolonial Power Relationships in the Caribbean

Caribbean countries participating in the global economy have turned to tourism as their primary financial strategy. Sex tourism has been an integral, if not explicit part of this strategy. This paper provides evidence that colonial power relationships are perpetuated through sex tourism, exploring this theme from the macro level of global economics to the micro level of intimate sexual relationships involving tourists. Dominant themes on both levels are imbalances of power based on economic dependency and ineffective advancement strategies. Tourism marketing can be seen as the link between the macro and micro levels. Stereotypical racialized fantasies play an important role in both tourism marketing and sex tourism relationships.


Tourism has become the primary financial strategy for Caribbean countries participating in the global economy. The tourism industry promotes an image of the Caribbean as "fantasy islands" based on "four S's": Sun, Sand, Sea and implicitly, Sex (Campbell, Perkins and Mohammed 1999; Lowry 1993). Sex tourism, loosely defined as tourism that involves sexual relationships between tourists and locals, is a vast and growing global phenomenon that is a popular research topic. As Kamala Kempadoo (1999) suggests, sex tourism provides a clear example of how power relationships that began with slavery and colonization are perpetuated between the "1st" and "3rd" world countries through globalization processes. Caribbean countries are forced into marketing their beaches and also their bodies as commodities to the tourist markets of North America and Europe as the Caribbean becomes a tropical playground for the globally powerful to explore their racialized fantasies. This paper presents evidence to support the theory that global power dynamics perpetuate colonial relationships, from a "macro" to a "micro" level: 1) At the macro level global economic forces promote tourism as a development strategy in the Caribbean; 2) Tourism marketing is the middle link, and plays on persistent colonial stereotypes and fantasies; and 3) At the micro level, tourists and locals reinforce these stereotypical roles and power dynamics in their relationships. Common themes on both the macro and micro levels are imbalances of power based on economic dependency and ineffective advancement strategies.


What is Sex Tourism?Edit

The lack of a consistent definition contributes to the deficiency of statistics on sex tourism, but it is estimated to be a multibillion-dollar transnational industry (Mullings 1999). The sex tourism industry has been fueled by the advent and growth of the internet (Scheeres 2007). A growing consensus in the literature is that most definitions of "sex tourism" are too narrow, and critiques of the various research approaches and categories abound in the literature. Opperman (1999) and Herold, Garcia and De Moya (2001), and Cabezas (2004) argue against defining sex tourism as necessarily involving the exchange of money for sex. As Cabezas points out, involvement with tourists does not necessarily have to be sexual, and beyond monetary exchange there is the prospect of further opportunities such as for recreation, migration and marriage (2004). Cabezas (2004) critiques the focus in research on relationships that are public and easily perceived, pointing out that many sexual relationships occur with employees of other tourism related positions, such as hotel chambermaids or taxi drivers. The term "open-ended prostitution" was introduced to describe the ambiguous types of relationships such as those that are long-term or involve affection and companionship (Kempadoo 1999:25).

Martin Opperman points out that the term sex tourism usually conjures the idea of older, out-of-shape white men traveling to developing countries for cheap sexual pleasures not available in their own countries (1999). But sex tourists are male and female, heterosexual and homosexual (Cabezas 2004, Kuar Puar 2002, Wonders and Michalowski 2001). Some tourists travel with the specific intention of participating in sexual activity, for others it is not anticipated. Many tourists, despite their sexual intentions, do not believe themselves to be "prostitute users" or the locals they interact with to be "prostitutes" (Opperman 1999, Cabezas 2004).

Work in the tourist sex trade in the Caribbean is characterized by a relative lack of organization, in comparison to other global markets such as Asia (Cabezas 2004, Kempadoo 1999, Pattulo 2005). In the Caribbean, many sex workers interacting with tourists are "freelancers" operating without middlemen such as pimps or brothel owners. According to Polly Patullo (2005), formalized prostitution is becoming a problem in the Dominican Republic and Cuba, and that from the Dominican Republic trafficking in women between islands and to Europe is evidenced. Klaus Albuquerque states that "So large is the Dominican sex industry that young women have become one of the principal exports of the country" (1998:95). The bodies of Caribbean natives are another "resource" for wealthy first world consumption, yet another manifestation of an imbalanced economic power relationship between the global "North" and "South" that began during colonial times.

The Caribbean Region and its Colonial LegacyEdit

The Caribbean region consists of the islands framing the Caribbean Sea from below Florida in North America to near Venezuela in South America. Mainland areas in Central and South America such as Belize, which are historically and culturally considered part of the Caribbean (Pattulo 2005). The diverse area shares a heritage of slavery and colonialism, based on plantation economies (Pattulo 2005).

The legacy of colonialism in the Caribbean has been well-covered in the literature (Canterbury 2005, Clarke 1983, Knippers Black 1997, Shankar 1999). A Caribbean "pigmentocracy" or social hierarchy based on skin color is an often cited as an example of colonial legacy (Albo 2006; Clarke 1983). This hierarchy can also be found within the sex tourism trade today, as "Racial and sexual ordering reflects consequences and legacy of colonialism as they play out on this current stage of global capitalism" (Cabezas 2004:998). Sex has long been a part of economics in the Caribbean, such as was evidenced in the breeding of slaves, and in the use of concubines and prostitutes by colonial plantation owners (Cabezas 2004). During slavery, many black women were mistresses to white males, and prostitution rates were high. Yet this can be seen as a strategy of women for both survival and advancement, as mistresses occasionally could get preferential treatment and through prostitution women attempted to purchase their freedom (Albo 2006).

The Macro-Level: Tourism as a Development StrategyEdit

For Caribbean countries, there was a relatively rapid transition from colonial rule to being heavily indebted and dependent on tourism. The post-colonial era in the Caribbean has been characterized by dependency on foreign trade, and an economy focused on extractive resources and export products (Pattulo 2005). In the latter 20th century, many former colonies transitioned to become nation states, yet old economic patterns of dependency on foreign investment and export economics persisted (Pattulo 2005).

Since the 1980s restructuring of the global economic system has included structural adjustment programs (SAP's) enforced by the international lenders for the repayment of debts. Most SAP's have involved drastic reductions in public spending and focus on resource extraction and export production and foreign investment has been encouraged and benefited from national laws (Kempadoo 1999). The results of SAP's in the Caribbean region have included a rise in unemployment and poverty, leading to a "search for new survival strategies at both community and national levels" (Kempadoo 1999:19). One of the main "new survival strategies" has been the promotion of tourism.

In 1995 the Caribbean Tourism Organization stated "Trading blocs such as the NAFTA and the European Community have made it increasingly difficult for traditional Caribbean manufacturing and agricultural industries to remain competitive, giving tourism an even higher priority throughout the region" (Pattulo 2005). Tourism has been promoted by the United Nations, the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as an effective strategy for debt-ridden countries' participation of in the global economy.

Despite the promotion of tourism as a development strategy, most tourist resorts are controlled by foreign investors and outside corporations, which coupled with the promotion of all-inclusive packages purchased in the tourists' home countries has meant that capital continues to accumulate in industrialized nations rather than in the host countries, a phenomenon referred to as "leakage" (Kempadoo 1999, Wyllie 2000). Management and higher positions within the tourist industry are often filled by people from the companies' home countries, while jobs created by tourism that are available to locals are service-oriented and low-paying, meaning that often tourist-oriented prostitution is more lucrative or can provide desperately needed additional cash (Wyllie 2000). This illustrates how global forces promote sex tourism, as people struggle to earn a living in an economy that keeps them and their countries in a position of disadvantage.

Within Caribbean countries, the dependence on foreign exchange combined with the lack of work fuel migration to cities or tourist areas for employment. Sex is but one of many services that can be offered to tourists in order to earn a living. Although sex tourism is often maligned as a form of harassment and "threat to the industry" (Mullings 1999:55), sex tourism may actually be tacitly encouraged by governments and the tourism industry because of heightened attraction and profits (Kempadoo 1999). Government responses to sex tourism range from official regulation or informal tolerance (Kempadoo 1999). Because of the variety of activities that fall within the practices of sexual tourism, regulation can be difficult. In most Caribbean countries prostitution falls under "gray areas" of the law, and is usually not itself illegal. Arrests are often based on "harassment" of foreigners, and usually involve arbitrary sweeps of unaccompanied and often racially profiled women (Cabezas 2004, Kempadoo 1999, Sanchez-Taylor 2001). Amalia L. Cabezas (2004) points out that because tourism is a major source of income generation for the state, a reliance on former colonial powers for economic stability is perpetuated. And sex sells.

Promoting Tourism and Sex: Bodies and BeachesEdit

Caribbean tourism has been branded and marketed based on the West's imaginary idea of "tropical paradise" (Henshall Momsen 2005, Sheller 2004). As Janet Henshall Momsen points out, "the word ‘Caribbean' conjures up Kodachrome images of azure seas with matching skies framing green palm trees along unblemished white sand beaches, awaiting Robinson Crusoe's footprint" (2005:209). In 1492 Christopher Columbus, the first white tourist, wrote to King Ferdinand, "Sire, these countries far surpass all the rest of the world in beauty" (in Henshall Momsen 2005:209). Henshall Momshen states that "Thus the region's first publicist sold the image of an Edenic, unspoiled paradise to attract investment and visitors half a millennium ago. Little since has diminished tourists' fascination with islands" (2005:209). Lowry (1993) states that tourism advertisers rely on a sign system, informally known as the four S's of tourism advertising: Sun, Sand, Sea and Sex. This has been particularly prevalent in promoting tourism in the Caribbean. Lowry's analysis of tourism advertisements includes one from the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism, featuring a young, attractive couple in a very sexualized pose on a beach lounge chair on a deserted beach, with a tropical bird perched above them and the caption "The Perfect Vacation All Year Round: The Dominican Republic, Where Dreams Have a Special Way of Coming True" (1993:195). Other suggestive marketing slogans include "It's better in the Bahamas" (Sheller 2004:33). Mimi Sheller further illustrates how the sexualization of ‘exotic' bodies has become a standard promotion tool of the Caribbean tourist industry and "feeds into the development of sex tourism in the region" (2004:33). She describes a British Airways magazine article that promises that in Jamaica ‘you'll be in the nearest thing we have on earth to the Garden of Eden, and to make it even better, it's after Eve tempted Adam with the apple' (2004:35). Sheller concludes that this promotion strategy lends to tourists "hedonistic abandon to its associated sexual temptations without guilt" and that "the transgression of moral boundaries serves to reinforce the constitution of geographies of difference that define the North as ‘civilised' and the Caribbean as ‘unreal', like ‘going back in time'" (2004:35). These constructions of difference are fundamental in understanding what "fuels" sex tourism. As Wyllie discusses, "tourism is whorism" when "Like many prostitutes, poor countries have few economic alternatives at their disposal, and have little to sell but their physical attractiveness" (2000:81), and the marketing strategies involved in this commoditization cater to and reinforce the stereotypical gendered and racial fantasies of the potential tourists.

The Micro-Level: Power Dynamics within Sex Tourism RelationshipsEdit

The Role of Racial Stereotypes in Sex Tourism RelationshipsEdit

Culturally produced racialized fantasies play a role in the demand for sex tourism. Research shows that a large percentage of sex customers seek sex workers whose racial, national, or class identities are different from their own (O'Connell, Davidson and Sanchez 1999). Sex tourists say that sex is "more natural" in 3rd world countries, perceiving prostitution as proof of this belief (O'Connell Davidson and Sanchez Taylor 1999). This justifies the use of prostitutes for tourists who would not patronize them in their own countries, and they do not perceive themselves as participating in prostitution. Further, the idea of "naturalness" of prostitution in the third world reassures the tourist of their cultural superiority, continuing the traditional Western idea of the opposition between the "civilized" West and the "barbarous" Other (O'Connell Davidson and Sanchez Taylor 1999). Research finds this is true for both male and female sex tourists.

Many researchers have examined the phenomenon of female tourists who visit the Caribbean in search of "romance" with local men. In their study of tourist interactions with Jamaican male hustlers or "rent-a-dreads," Deborah Pruitt and Suzanne La Font coined the term "romance tourism" to distinguish these relationships from male "sex tourism", under the rationale that neither the women nor the local men consider their relationship to be prostitution, and due to their "emphasis on courtship" (1995:423). Klaus Albuquerque (1998) challenged this distinction, arguing that there is essentially no difference between female and male tourists, with the prime motivation being "sexual fantasy as it is derived from racist mythology," for women that being the hypersexualized black male, and for men the "hot mulatta" (1998:92). O'Connel Davidson (1998) similarly believes that females are just as exploitive as males in using their greater economic power to gain access to third world partners. Herold, Garcia and DeMoya (2001) further explored the distinction, actually interviewing female tourists who interacted with Dominican "beach boys" (and taking Albuquerque to task for not doing so) and stressing the importance of the females belief that they are engaging in consensual romantic relationships and suggesting a continuum of romance/sex motivations for both male and female tourists. Sanchez Taylor (2001) points out that the problem with the argument between "sex versus romance" tourism lies in essentialist understandings of male and female sexuality, and a privileging of gendered power over racialized and economic power. She points out that ideas of racial "otherness," particularly racist ideas about "hypersexuality," played a key role in allowing women tourists, like male tourists, to ignore imbalances of age and economic power (2001:759-60).

Both male and female sex tourists seem to be seeking an idealized encounter, seemingly stemming from their frustrations with gender relations in their home countries, as many of the men's and women's complaints sound very similar. According to Robert Wyllie some men feel "they are losing out in the ‘battle of the sexes'" (2000:83). Ronnie Shawe (2001) found that male sex tourists in Costa Rica harbored complaints about women from their home countries based on this idea. One man stated that "The average American woman figures she doesn't need a man anymore. Women here like the traditional role," while another said "American women are too independent and strong minded, it's intimidating," and yet another felt that: "... American women have lots of hang-ups, they're afraid of commitment and, worst of all, sex," and according to another "... my former girlfriend was more interested in her career, pets, and even her mother more than me" (2001: no page). According to Pruitt and LaFont, the women seem similarly frustrated with men from their own cultures, complaining that they are "inattentive, preoccupied with careers, unemotional, or confused about their male role..." (2004:320).

While men are often seeking "submissive" women in contrast to the liberated women at home, Pruitt and LaFont described the romance tourists as seeking the "archetypal masculine" (2004:324) and state that while many women are seeking or enjoying control and power in their relationships the "are simultaneously drawn to conventional notions of masculinity" (2004:331). According to Jaqueline Sanchez Taylor, "tourism allows both male and female sex tourists to seek experiences that are ‘fictionalized, idealized or exaggerated models' not simply of social life, but of social relations of power"(2000: 51).

Sex workers servicing tourists in the Caribbean enact the racial stereotypes and fantasies of the tourists, thereby reinforcing them. As Polly Patullo states, "Tourists whose expectations of the Caribbean are of one long bacchanal are rewarded by dollar-seeking locals, who cannot afford to be bothered too much by stereotyping" (2005:109). Denise Brennan (2004) found that women's "performances" of being in love with their foreign partners was a crucial strategy in their success and "while male clients delude themselves into thinking that brown-skinned women prefer them sexually to their own men," according to Dominican sex workers the main reason they "entered the trade" was for earning more money (Sharpe and Pinto 2006: 254). Similarly, Ronnie Shaw (2001) found that male tourists seemed unaware of how the sex workers actually felt, that racialized ideas about "Latin" women as being innately more sensual helped them rationalize the relationships. In his interviews with male sex tourists in Costa Rica, he found that western men make cultural assumptions about Latin women, and that the women sex workers manipulate these assumptions in their sexual transactions, perpetuating the stereotypes (2001). The phenomenon of "romancing," or creating aura of friendship and romance, is seen in research on both males females sexually servicing tourists, drawing attention away from the underlying economic motivations and creating the feeling that the relationships occur "naturally" and are mutually desired (Kempadoo 1999:25).

Sex Tourism as an Advancement StrategyEdit

Sex with foreigners for monetary gain can be seen as a strategy for survival and advancement, much as it was in colonial times. But studies show that advancement is quite difficult, also much as it was in colonial times. Denise Brennan's book, What's Love Got to Do With It? (2004) an ethnographic anthropological study of the sex tourism culture in the town of Sosua in the Dominican Republic, demonstrates through the stories of women's daily lives that despite the hopes of the women, sex work is in fact not a path to social mobility, and that most of the sex workers ended up in the same economic situation (or worse) than when they started. Brennan confesses "I had set out to write a feminist ethnography of the sex trade to raise questions about poor women's power, control and opportunities in a globalized economy. Yet the waters are murky when considering women's agency in the sex trade, no matter how determined and creative their efforts to get ahead" (2004:211). In their review of Brennan's book, Sharpe and Pinto point out that this admission is a "sobering reminder of how globalization has deepened rather than eliminated poverty" (2006:256).

Economically, sex tourism interactions involve disparities in wealth, with the tourists having the upper hand. Female sex workers and "beach boys" catering to tourists, are economically disadvantaged people who are hoping that tourists hold the key to a better life, an escape from poverty. According to one woman interviewed by Brennan "We come here because we dream of a ticket" (2004:306). And according to Pruitt and LaFont, the Jamaican male hustlers hope that getting involved with a foreign woman will "provide them with a way out of their limited circumstances" (2004:322). In both situations, the rare relationships that do provide some benefits usually do not last, as Brennan states that most women "leave the sex trade with little more than when they arrived" (2004:303) Similarly, Pruitt and LaFont describe the disappointment and conflicts that develop in relationships between the women tourists and the "Rastas" when the economic dependency becomes more evident (2004).

Thus, several important factors interplay in sex tourism relationships, including social factors, such as power relationships and cultural and gender stereotypes, as well as economic factors such as the disparities in wealth between the sex workers and the tourists. These relationships mirror the economic and political dependency of the host country on that of the tourists.


As Kempadoo observes, "that sex industries today depend upon the eroticization of the ethnic and cultural other suggests we are witnessing a contemporary form of exoticism which sustains post-colonial and post-cold war relations of power and dominance" (1995:75-6). This paper has attempted to provide evidence to support the theory that neocolonial global power relationships between the "global North" and the Caribbean are perpetuated through sex tourism. On the "macro level" sex tourism, like colonial relationships, is characterized by economic inequality and the dependence of the Caribbean region on the global North. Caribbean countries, remaining economically marginalized as they were under colonialism, turn to tourism to bring in needed funds and pay off debts. The tourism market is the wealthy nations of the north, and to sell themselves to these consumers the Caribbean region must rely on old fantasies of tropical paradise. The perpetuation of racial stereotypes and fantasies through the imagery of tourism industry marketing... On the micro-level, the importance of race and economic power is revealed on an individual level within intimate relationships, where both men and women of the global north can use their privileged positions to access the bodies of Caribbean natives. These dynamics are perhaps more subtle than under colonial or slavery conditions, but that doesn't mean they are any less wrong, only more insidious. In the Caribbean, impoverished people and impoverished nations sell themselves to the wealthy global north because they have little alternative. And the global north is buying.

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