The book I read was published seven years ago -- so the research was outdated and conditions surely must have improved, I told myself, although deep down I guessed it had not.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: We witnessed many young girls: 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 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.
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. 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.
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