What's Love Got to Do with It?: Transnational Desires and Sex Tourism in the Dominican Republic

What's Love Got to Do with It?: Transnational Desires and Sex Tourism in the Dominican Republic

by Denise Brennan

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In locations around the world, sex tourism is a booming business. What's Love Got to Do with It? is an in-depth examination of the motivations of workers, clients, and others connected to the sex tourism business in Sosúa, a town on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. Denise Brennan considers why Dominican and Haitian women move to Sosúa


In locations around the world, sex tourism is a booming business. What's Love Got to Do with It? is an in-depth examination of the motivations of workers, clients, and others connected to the sex tourism business in Sosúa, a town on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. Denise Brennan considers why Dominican and Haitian women move to Sosúa to pursue sex work and describes how sex tourists, primarily Europeans, come to Sosúa to buy sex cheaply and live out racialized fantasies. For the sex workers, Brennan explains, the sex trade is more than a means of survival—it is an advancement strategy that hinges on their successful “performance” of love. Many of these women seek to turn a commercialized sexual transaction into a long-term relationship that could lead to marriage, migration, and a way out of poverty.

Illuminating the complex world of Sosúa’s sex business in rich detail, Brennan draws on extensive interviews not only with sex workers and clients, but also with others who facilitate and benefit from the sex trade. She weaves these voices into an analysis of Dominican economic and migration histories to consider the opportunities—or lack thereof—available to poor Dominican women. She shows how these women, local actors caught in a web of global economic relations, try to take advantage of the foreign men who are in Sosúa to take advantage of them. Through her detailed study of the lives and working conditions of the women in Sosúa’s sex trade, Brennan raises important questions about women’s power, control, and opportunities in a globalized economy.

Editorial Reviews

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“A smart, timely, eye-opening account. What’s Love Got To Do with It? makes both men’s and women’s hopes and strategies visible. It underscores poor women’s capacity for agency and internationalized thinking without portraying the international system of commercialized sexuality as one in which women and men are meeting on a level playing field.”—Cynthia Enloe, author of The Morning After: Sexual Politics at the End of the Cold War

“In this finely hued ethnography, Denise Brennan questions how transnationalization gets transacted, imagined, and experienced through an examination of the sex trade in a specific locale, Sosúa in Dominican Republic. Interweaving the grand themes of political economy and power inequities with those of desire and fantasy—and from the sides of both (foreign) customer and (local) sex worker—she has crafted a richly textured study of a ‘sexscape’ and its brokering of dreams as much as of money and sex.”—Anne Allison, author of Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club

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Duke University Press
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Latin America Otherwise
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What's love go to do with it?

Transnational desires and sex tourism in the Dominican Republic
By Denise Brennan

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3297-3

Chapter One


When I first traveled to Sosua, to interview Dominican women selling sex in its bars and nightclubs, I quickly learned that Sosua is not just a beach town with a sex trade but a site of interaction-at times contentious-between an unlikely group of neighbors. Almost all are migrants to this town on the north coast: Dominican migrants from throughout the country; Haitian migrants; an expatriate resident community of Germans, and an assortment of other Europeans and Canadians; elderly Jewish European "settlers" (refugees from Nazi persecution) and their descendants; and, of course, a constant stream of tourists, generally from Europe. With such a diverse community, what started out as a project on sex tourism expanded into a study on globalization and the changes, opportunities, and inequalities it has engendered within one tourist town. I ended up interviewing a wide range of individuals-Dominican and foreign-who live in or vacation in Sosua. What I heard were descriptions of a place that varied wildly and were often contradictory. Sosua, many things to many people, is a contested site in which individuals seek, to different degrees, to reinvent or to improve the conditions of their lives. One fundamental feature, however, supports the town'ssocial and economic life and affects all Sosuans: sex-for-sale by Afro-Dominican and Afro-Haitian women to foreign white European and Canadian men.

Even before they arrive, the migrants and tourists imagine the town and what it can provide them in dramatically different terms. Sosua offers sun and beaches for tourists and inexpensive, Afro-Caribbean sex workers for white foreign sex tourists. A safe haven for European Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in 1941, it is now a refuge for criminals on the run from authorities in their own countries. For foreigners seeking a more privileged lifestyle and tranquility, Sosua is a place to retire. And for those valuing anonymity, it is a place to launder stolen or illicit money. For Dominicans, it offers not just employment but also the hope of economic and social mobility. Yet many Dominicans also refer to it as a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. These multiple images are both real and imagined, rooted in the material and the ideal, reality and fantasy. And for the thousands of poor women and girls who have flocked there since the early 1990s to work in its sex trade, Sosua is a stepping stone to migration-through marriage to foreign tourists-off the island.

This book compares some of the many images that draw people to Sosua with their actual experiences there. To understand how one town could be imagined, described, and experienced in such divergent ways, I consider why many perceive it as a place to better themselves or the conditions of their lives-what I call Sosua's "opportunity myth." Despite the wide array of perceptions about it, Sosuans agree that the locale represents a space of transformation-no matter how remote the possibility to improve one's life actually is. Sosua's power to act as a transformational space is bound up with its transnational ties. These transnational connections separate and distinguish Sosua from other Dominican towns. In Sosua we find networks of individuals and capital, networks linked together through tourism and sex tourism, through new marriage-based migration circuits, through foreign investment in Sosua, and through foreign residence there.

What can the experiences of residents and travelers in one tourist setting tell us about globalization? What happens when forces of globalization touch the ground and affect particular lives in one particular place (Sassen 1998)? What happens when towns such as Sosua become deeply enmeshed within the globalized economy and connected to distant places-both through economic relationships as well as personal ones? What role does the sex-tourist trade play in shaping social and economic life in Sosua? And how is this role different from the conventional tourist trade? The connection between "large structural forces" in the globalized economy and their effects on individuals is often difficult to discern, but in this book I seek to reveal these connections by examining two transnational processes that result from globalization and that affect all Sosuans: tourism/sex tourism and migration. These transnational processes, and the transnational linkages that result, affect individual lives unequally-depending on hierarchies of race, class, citizenship, mobility, gender, and sexuality. By ethnographically examining Sosua's tourist and sex-tourist trade, and the migration into and out of Sosua, this research contributes to what Sarah Mahler and Patricia Pessar identify as "the need to anchor or ground transnational processes in particular places and histories" (2001: 444) and thus helps make visible some of the effects of globalization. Since the centerpiece of this book is real people's experiences in a real place, the cultural production and transnational practices that occur in Sosua do not take place by "free floating people" in an "imaginary 'third space'" (Guarnizo and Smith 1998 on Bhabba 1990 and Soja 1996). Instead, I spotlight the on-the-ground experiences of Sosua's Dominican migrants, foreign tourists, and foreign residents, as well as consider how they "imagine" Sosua before they get there. I also examine how Dominicans "imagine"-and in some cases experience-life off the island, in Europe or Canada. With so much attention paid-both in academic scholarship and in the media-to anything associated with "globalization," ethnographic accounts of how people cope with the effects of a globalized economy help bring this otherwise overused (and often misused) concept into focus.

With its constant influx of Dominican and Haitian migrants for work in the sex and tourist trades and of European tourists for play, as well as a large foreign-resident community living there year-round, Sosua has become a transnational sexual meeting ground. I am particularly interested in how the transnational process of sex tourism has quickly and flamboyantly changed daily life in Sosua-especially for Dominican women-as well as informed Dominican and foreign perceptions of Sosua and Sosuans in different ways than has tourism. Since Sosua has become known as a place where tourists can buy sex, Sosua and Sosuans have experienced monumental changes. Because sex tourism has played a critical role in the town's transformation, I see it as a space inextricably tied up with transactional sex-it has become a "sexscape" of sorts. I use the term sexscape to refer to both a new kind of global sexual landscape and the sites within it. The word sexscape builds on the five terms Arjun Appadurai has coined to describe landscapes that are the "building blocks" of "imagined worlds": "the multiple worlds which are constituted by the historically situated imaginations of persons and groups spread around the globe" (1990: 4). He uses the suffix -scape to allow "us to point to the fluid, irregular shapes of these landscapes" (with such terms as ethnoscape, mediascape, technoscape, finanscape, and ideoscape) as he considers the relationship among these five dimensions of global cultural flows (1990: 6-7). Sex-for-sale is one more dimension of global cultural flows, and Sosua is one site within a global economy of commercialized sexual transactions. Although a strict application of Appadurai's terminology to the global landscape of sexual transactions would describe Sosua as merely one point, or node, within a single global sexual landscape/ sexscape, I will, for convenience, refer to it as an individual sexscape.

Sexscapes link the practices of sex work to the forces of a globalized economy. Their defining characteristics are (1) international travel from the developed to the developing world, (2) consumption of paid sex, and (3) inequality. In a sexscape such as Sosua there are differences in power between the buyers (sex tourists) and the sellers (sex workers) that can be based on race, gender, class, and nationality. These differences become eroticized and commodified inequalities. The exotic is manufactured into the erotic-both privately in consumers' imaginations and quite publicly by entire industries that make money off this desire for difference. Let me be clear: these differences, between sex workers in the developing world and sex tourists traveling from the developed world, are essential to distinguish sexscapes in the developing world from red-light districts (or other sites where paid sex is available) in the developed world. So too are the radiating effects of consuming practices-of paid sex-which undergird social and economic life in sexscapes. Within sexscapes, the sex trade becomes a focal point of a place, and the social and economic relations of that place are filtered through the nightly (and daily) selling of sex to foreigners. In contrast, the sex trade in red-light districts in the developed world-such as in Frankfurt, Rome, or New York-by no means defines social and economic life outside of these districts. Nor do the female citizens of these places necessarily become associated with sexual availability or proficiency. As Altman notes in his book Global Sex, although sex is "a central part of the political economy of all large cities," few cities can base their economies on sex (Altman 2001: 11).

When sexscapes emerge within a globalized economy, globalized hierarchies of race, class, gender, citizenship, and mobility create undeniable power differentials among the actors in these geographic spaces, which, in turn, give them unequal opportunities. In Sosua, there are very different and often uneven opportunities for foreigners and locals, and men and women, while race and age also play a role. The asymmetries and inequalities that result from the mix of differences in Sosua reveal the "unevenness" Appadurai describes in his discussion of modernity as "decisively at large, irregularly self-conscious, and unevenly experienced" (1996: 3). In this sexscape, the buyers eroticize these differences-particularly gendered and racialized differences-as part of their paid-sex experiences. Meanwhile, the sellers often struggle to capitalize on these differences. One way is through their "performance of love" (this idea of pretending to be in love is detailed in chapter 3).

Since Sosua both offers sex-for-sale and houses an economically powerful foreign expatriate community, foreigners are more likely than Dominicans to find what they are seeking there. (And if they cannot find what they seek, they can always leave-unlike Dominicans.) While sex tourists can pay to fulfill their racialized sexual fantasies, expatriates can buy a life of comfort at a cheaper cost than in Canada or Europe. Sosua emerges as a kind of border town/ transnational space in which many imagine that their dreams for better lives will be attained. I pay attention to a range of individuals' experiences (Dominican and foreign) in Sosua while I foreground sex workers' experiences. Possibilities for economic mobility do open in transnational spaces such as Sosua but possibilities only for a few. Many foreign residents reinvent their daily lives, installing pools and hiring domestic help, while Dominicans-not just sex workers-only rarely make significant improvements to their economic status in Sosua's tourist economy, even though they imagine their prospects otherwise. Although most foreigners in Sosua are from the working to middle classes, they have sufficient resources to travel internationally or even to move permanently overseas if they so desire. Meanwhile, Sosua's sex workers have limited resources and face numerous legal constraints to migration off the island.

This ethnography of "Sosua-as-sexscape" builds on and offers new twists on familiar themes in transnational studies. First, it showcases globalized hierarchies at work in one particular transnational space as a result of particular transnational processes-tourism, sex tourism, marriage migration, and migration. Second, it examines the processes by which transnational spaces distribute opportunities and inequities to the individuals who work and live within them. Third, it expands the notion of "transnational social fields"-what I will refer to here as transnational networks-to include those who do not actually move and whose transnational ties might be episodic at best, and unrealized at worst. Fourth, it allows for a fine-grained account of women's paid sexual labor in a particular setting where global capital is at work, a site where women workers have a fair degree of control over their working conditions. Finally, it stresses the importance of the social work of the imagination by considering how neocolonial race-based fantasies and stereotypes inform Sosua's sex tourists' (and foreign residents') expectations and experiences in Sosua-as-sexscape, as well as how economic fantasies of an easier life in an imagined Europe inform Sosua's sex workers' expectations of what foreign tourists can over them.

Sosua as a Transnational Space

Before I elaborate on how both sex and love are commodified in Sosua, let's look at how the place is imagined and experienced. So many foreigners (tourists and expatriate permanent residents) move into and out of Sosua that Dominicans often see it as a town outside of the Dominican Republic. With no place to buy a plate of Dominican rice, red beans, and chicken in downtown Sosua at Dominican prices, the town indeed looks and feels "un-Dominican." Instead, Sosua's streets, lined by German beer gardens and kiosks selling European newspapers, remind passersby that many non-Dominicans now live, own businesses, work, and vacation there. Time and time again I heard that Sosua is not the "real" Dominican Republic, and Dominican friends urged me to visit towns in the countryside to see "true" Dominican culture. As a banana plantation for the United Fruit Company in the early part of the twentieth century, and a sanctuary for European Jews at the beginning of World War II, Sosua has long been an economic, social, and cultural crossroads between the local and the foreign. Known now both for its beaches and for its sex bars, Sosua's development into an inexpensive tourist and sex-tourist destination is the latest phase of its encounters with the "outside." Tourism and sex tourism merely have sped up and intensified Sosua's engagement in the global economy.

This book explores what migrants and visitors seek in Sosua, why they believe Sosua will deliver these things, and what in fact they find there. Poor Dominican women, for example, establish new internal migration patterns by migrating from throughout the Dominican Republic to work in Sosua's sex trade. Once there, many hope to meet and to marry European or Canadian men who will sponsor their migration off the island. Poor Dominican women (and men) also migrate to Sosua to work in its tourist restaurants, hotels, bars, and shops. Like prospectors searching for gold, Dominican migrants imagine that once in Sosua "anything could happen," and it has the reputation of being a town in which Dominicans can get rich quick. It is this fantasy of what might be that keeps so many new people arriving everyday. Meanwhile, some foreign tourists and sex tourists fall in love with living in a Caribbean "paradise" and move to Sosua permanently. Although Dominican sex workers and other Dominican migrants usually end up disappointed and no better off economically than when they first migrated to Sosua, foreign tourists and residents usually find what they are seeking.

Dominicans imagine Sosua's tourist and sex-tourist trade differently. I am interested in how the Dominican migrants there strategize for the future regardless of the outcomes. These migrants attempt to circumvent asymmetries of power to turn Sosua into a space of opportunity, rather than a space of exploitation and domination, and are engaged in an ongoing struggle to wrest some of the profits and control away from the foreign owners who have taken over Sosua. With German citizens and other foreign nationals controlling much of the foreign-tourist industry, a tension between possibilities introduced by globalization, on the one hand, and locals' constraints, on the other, is played out every day on Sosua's beaches and in its souvenir shops, restaurants, hotels, bars, and discos.


Excerpted from What's love go to do with it? by Denise Brennan Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Denise Brennan is Professor and Chair of Anthropology and Sociology at Georgetown University.

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