THE BLOG
08/20/2014 02:47 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2014

Sex Tourism Encounters in the Dominican Republic: Reflections as a White Man of Privilege

Duncan Walker via Getty Images

My nieces. Everywhere I look here, all I see are my nieces.

All of them -- from the 14-year-old to the 24-year-old, many of them girls and women of color -- are on my mind here in the Dominican Republic.

It breaks my heart and sunders my soul to observe the sex workers here, to see young girls and women the same age as my nieces wooing white male tourists for sex in order to eat, to have a roof overhead or beds to sleep in, to care for a sick family member, to survive. A selfish part of me wishes I didn't know what I know, and wishes for blissful ignorance of the activity around me.

This is me being selfish. Selfish and... something. That second word is difficult to identify; so many adjectives could occupy that space.

I didn't know what to expect coming here. Reading about the sex tourism industry in the Caribbean and more specifically the Dominican Republic, I wasn't sure what I would experience. The book I read was published seven years ago -- so the research was outdated and conditions surely must have improved, I told myself, although deep down I guessed it had not.

In any case, reading did not prepare me for the emotional impact of seeing the country's sex workers for myself. On the streets of the Zona Colonial where we stayed and worked for two weeks in Santo Domingo, our group observed that most sex workers were women. There were a few men, but they were on the periphery, offering massages, or waiting to be approached. There are sex-seeking apps to identify them. Their profiles are suggestive although not overt about offering sex, and they often provide sex services to both men and women.

There are two parks nearby: one for gay male sex workers and another for transgender women sex workers. We witnessed many young girls: 14- to 17-year-olds with white men in their 50s and 60s, and in one case a man clearly older than 70. Most of the time, the girls looked sad and disengaged.

It wasn't only senior white men partaking in the sex tourism industry. In our own hotel there were two Italian men in their late 20s or early 30s who purchased sex. One man brought a pair of women to his room for sex the day of his arrival, and purchased another sex worker's services the next day. While I was in the lobby two days later, he came down texting on his phone. A few minutes later, a car pulled up with tinted windows, with a male driver and another male, presumably the pimp, in the front passenger seat. The back door opened up with a female sex worker in the back seat. The man from our hotel climbed into the car while fishing out his wallet.

The other man brought down to breakfast the sex worker he had that night. She looked between 17 and 19-years-old. Like the many others we saw, she did not smile, looked sad, and stealing glances our way watching us talk and dine together. The two barely spoke at the table while they dined, and left the hotel shortly thereafter.

Still another time at lunch together as a group, we saw a girl, no older than 15, at lunch with a white man in his mid- to late 60s. I cannot un-see her in my mind. I caught her gazing longingly at our table filled with young women students, most of them women of color, laughing and enjoying themselves. The old man could not have cared less. He occasionally said something to her, placed a hand on her leg, and went back to his meal indifferent to her obvious suffering. Her hunched posture and the sorrow in her eyes at such a young age -- it haunts me.

Our team struggled a lot in witnessing the sex work in the Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo. We all, at times, had powerful urges to go up to the American and European men -- to confront them about the pedophilia with the underage girls, to force them to see the misery of the women with them, or to ask them how they reconciled their behavior.

But what good would that do except deny these girls and women the money they need to eat, have shelter, and survive? Or put their lives at risk from their pimps if they lost that client through our interference? Jobs are difficult to come by in Santo Domingo, especially ones that pay enough to care for you and your family. Condoms and birth control are even scarcer or too expensive to purchase. Female sex workers get pregnant by their clients, who then leave the country without any recompense for the children they've fathered. Abortion is illegal in the Dominican Republic. That leaves women to care for children without sufficient jobs or living wages, childcare services, healthcare insurance, food, and sometimes even shelter. There is a scarcity of sufficient services from religious entities, government, and non-government agencies to help. I encourage you to read the previous blog posts on children who live in poverty in the Dominican Republic if you have not done so.

Tell me, what would you do?

In our work with transgender women, some of whom are also sex workers, we heard stories of violence and brutality. As mental health clinicians, we are taught to observe everything, including signs of abuse or neglect. Here, we all noted deep physical scars on every transwoman we met. When our group began asking about those scars, we heard horrific stories of their clients attacking them with spikes, rocks, machetes, and even guns. This was corroborated by another one of our teams working with those formerly incarcerated in the Dominican Republic. There is widespread police corruption, and many youth are improperly arrested and imprisoned. Like here in America, you can never fully escape your past after you have "paid your debt to society." Criminal records are a major barrier to employment in the Dominican Republic, the same as it is here in the United States. Sex work or dealing drugs becomes a last avenue for survival.

My own experience with the sex tourism industry came a little over a week after I came to the Dominican Republic. Up to this point, we had always traveled in groups of three or more to and from our destinations. However, early one evening, I needed to go to a store on the main market avenue called Conde. This was the first time I had walked this stretch from the hotel to my destination alone. As a white middle-aged American man, I was solicited by eight female sex workers on my eight-block walk to the store, and by seven on my return trip to the hotel. Fifteen different women approached me for sex. Some very directly asked what sex I was looking for; others, suggestively with lollipops or other candy in their mouths. When I walked past a place that gives massages, I was asked if I wanted one from a woman. When I refused, a man stepped forward and asked me if I wanted a massage from him.

It was an unnerving if not an unexpected experience. I had a hunch from our readings that I would be a prime target for solicitation. What was unnerving was the sheer number, as well as the offers that employed lollipops and other candy to demonstrate oral pleasure. As I processed this experience with several people in our group, we remembered that this was the tourism off-season -- more assertive techniques are employed to garner business. My mind understood, but my heart felt heavier.

The next day, I set out to catch up on some work and reading. I settled on a café on Conde in the late morning that was well liked by our group. Initially I sat at a table outside the café to read, but after three solicitations from sex workers in 15 minutes, I decided to move to a table in the café. Within 10 minutes came two more solicitations. I moved again, to a table in the back of the café, to no avail: Within another five minutes, another solicitation. It was clear I was not going to be able to read uninterrupted while sitting alone.

I decided to walk down Conde to see the large gate that once separated the slaves and indigenous people of the Dominican Republic from the European conquerors of their island. Every block produced more solicitations from sex workers -- some with their pimps eyeing me from the sidelines as I refused services. I began to worry about what would happen to them if they did not bring in income for that day.

Two blocks away from the gate, a sex worker came up and pressed herself shoulder-to-shoulder with me. No matter which direction I moved, she stayed in step with me to ensure we were touching despite my consistent refrain of "no." I spoke no other words, so as to not reveal my nationality. She switched between Spanish and English to tempt me to respond. She talked explicitly about her skills, demonstrating with a lollipop. She began asking what I liked sexually. When I continued to respond only saying "no," she began to use guilt. "Why are being so mean and cruel to me?" "Don't you think I'm pretty?" Still I didn't respond. As we continued to get closer to the gate, she changed tactics, promising I would be delayed only five or 10 minutes.

I did not depart from my monosyllable response, though my heart was breaking for this young woman. I wanted to desperately grab her hands, hug her tight, and tell her how beautiful a person she is, how strong she is for surviving, and how I hope one day soon she will find enough hope and resources to pursue her dreams -- the dreams that have to be locked away deep in order to continue the business of survival.

But that would be selfish of me. It would have eased my soul, and probably burdened hers. For I am certain that the reality of her work is ever-present in her mind, heart and soul, and that if given an opportunity, she would choose differently. Kind words were not what she was looking for. It was money to survive. Money that was not going to come from me. In the final 50 feet from the gate, she spotted an older white man sitting alone at a table in another café and broke off from me. She approached him, they began to chat, he invited her to sit down, and I could bear no more. I headed back to the hotel, the gate I set out to see forgotten.

I was sitting in the hotel lobby, alternating mindlessly from my book and staring out onto the street, when different groups from our team arrived from their day of wandering and exploration. I recounted my experiences, which were met universally with condolences for my inability to experience and enjoy the Zona Colonial as they had done that day due to the bombardment of sexual requests. I did not feel the same. I shared with them that I still have the privilege -- ah, that is the word for the blank line above -- of returning to a hotel to sleep and seek safety and shelter; of having money to eat and clothe myself; of having the freedom to travel and to work in a profession where I am not regularly raped, beaten, robbed, choked, burnt, cut, shot or infected with sexually transmitted diseases. People view me for the gifts, knowledge and experience I bring, not as an object for them to sexually use. It was a powerful teaching moment for us all. We had to face the privileges we were carrying and wrestle with the implications on all that we take for granted.

These women and men who work as sex workers, through circumstances of place of birth and family resources, perpetuated by social systems and structures, do not have these privileges. It is not merely personal agency or strength of character that will free them from sex work and its dangers.

I am grateful that my family's children were privileged to be born in places and within resources where sex work is not necessary for survival -- ours or theirs.

Otherwise, any one of those sex workers I encountered could have been them.

Yet, every last one of those sex workers is someone's daughter, granddaughter or niece.

And each are members of our family -- our human family.

Like I said, everywhere I look I see my nieces.