With Memorial Day weekend fast approaching in the United States, the flyers start to appear. Some read “Beach Fest”, “Freak Fest”, and “Urban Paradise”. They all advertise some kind of Caribbean get away and most of them feature an overtly sexual image of a bikini clad Latina, who is meant to represent the island where the weekend fantasy escape is being held. Set against a backdrop of pristine blue waters, white sand and upscale resorts, she has a “come hither” look in her eye that promises, for your weekend package of less than $1,000 all inclusive, a non-stop roller coaster of freaky beach fun. Throw in some urban, rap or Latin music celebrity involvement and a good time will be had by all, right?
In the February 2010 issue of Essence Magazine, writer Keith Murphy blew up the spot with an article “Fools Paradise” which detailed that men, and especially African American men, are traveling to the Dominican Republic for “sexual vacations”. As a young Dominicana, who grew up in the neighborhoods with some of the very girls and young ladies who are exploiting themselves (and being exploited) for sexual gain of tourists, I thought I take a closer look at the link between prostitution among school aged youth and the “new” sexual tourism these weekends promote and how the two contribute to the spread of HIV and other STDs among the diaspora in the Dominican Republic and neighboring United States.
I was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. Growing up I would witness a lot of women from my small neighborhood standing outside, into the wee hours of the night. I grew very curious about why these young women would wore exotic clothes with heels and stood to wait for cars driven by men to pick them up. I never understood the reason behind this till I asked my mother one day. I was 11 at the time, still hitting puberty and very curious just about anything. When I have asked my mother about it, my mother said, “that is the work place for most of those women”. I didn’t understand why someone would go to work dressed in such manner and have pickups from different men at different times of the night. I guess at that time I was young to understand prostitution so my mother kept it from me.
Prostitution has always existed in every corner of the globe, and goes as far back as time itself. While in many countries, including the United States, prostitution is illegal, in the Dominican Republic, it is legal, as long as a third-party does not benefit (e.g. a pimp, brothels, etc.). No go betweens. In some countries, it is usually not viewed as a “serious crime”. This is seen as a morality issue instead. Every country has their specific respective view of prostitution and the Dominican Republic is no exception.
In general, prostitutes are depicted on American television and in Hollywood films in a wide range of ways from drug addicted homeless women lurking in the shadows of urban city streets to high priced escorts who cater to some of the richest men in the world. Growing up I had no idea the pretty faces with great bodies and provocative clothes were simply doing their job, selling their bodies. Since I lived in middle class neighborhood prostitution was common for both sex. More often young girls, more so than young boys, were seen being escorted by “johns” who will go to get a pickup in exchange for money. Quickly rumors spread about girls my age and especially the ones infected with HIV/AIDS.
My mother offered no help. Sex was – and still in – a touchy subject in my household. My parents were very private when it came to this subject. When I came across my menstrual cycle my mother was the only one who opened the subject but wasn’t entirely open to it either. I completed elementary grades first through fourth grade in the Dominican Republic. In my opinion, public education in Dominican Republic is not that great, as compared to United States. I was attending public school in my neighborhood of Santiago in Dominican Republic, when sex education was introduced to me. Typically, in DR, when it comes to boys, typically families they never speak about the subject. Men just grow up with the influence of what is around them in typical neighborhoods. Parents don’t talk to boys about sex the same way they talk to girls. Girls are handled in a more protective, strict and prudish fashion. They are not aware or taught proper sex education. Most families in Dominican Republic are either Christian, catholic or Jehovah Witness. Religion and cultural mores play a huge role in how a child is raised and educated about sex.
After leaving the dangerous streets back in my country, we moved to a tiny community of Dominicans in downtown Brooklyn. Sex education became more clear and respectful to talk about it with my school counselors in public school, where I finished my puberty years. Now in the United States, I began to see the same pattern - girl friends that would work late hours and miss school because of their alternative way of living. Now college aged, I am more sexually educated and aware of the sex trade that exploits young girls and women. Flyers that advertise my favorite artists will appear during Memorial Day Weekend “urban fantasy escapes”, or even during Spring Break vacations, are meant to capture my attention, but I often wonder if the young men, some my peers, who are attracted to the promise of unbridled sex, are thinking about the consequences. Surely, everyone is not packing condoms in their swim trunks for the nighttime beach bikini affair. Unfortunately, some of these “urban fantasy escapes” can lead to unwanted HIV, STDs. Not exactly the music video fantasy advertised on the flyer.
According to statistical data from the Presidential AIDS Council (COPRESIDA), in the Dominican Republic it is estimated that approximately 46,500 people are living with the HIV virus. Statistical data revealed that 18 % of the AIDS cases reported in the country occur among young people of 15 to 24 years olds.
These are only with the possibility that some may have children infected as well. The disease has greatly affected the female population, as it has become the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age. There are currently 23,000 adult women between the ages of 15 and 49 with HIV/AIDS. COPRESIDA stated in the same article that HIV/AIDS has also greatly affected children in the Dominican Republic. Estimates indicate that they’re 2,200 children below the age of 15 infected by the disease, and that approximately 58,000 children were either orphans or at risk of becoming orphans because of HIV/AIDS infected parents.
The especially disturbing news, given the sexual tourism trade that flourishes on the island, is that the main mode of transmission of HIV/AIDS in the Dominican Republic is through heterosexual sex. According to the article, “HIV/AIDS and the Dominican Republic: A look at a Pandemic” (http://dr1.com/articles/hiv.shtml), roughly 1.7% of the Dominican population has been infected with the disease, which translates to an estimated 46,500 people infected in the country. Of the 46,500 infected with HIV/AIDS, 23,500 are adult men between the ages of 15 and 49.
According to the US National Library of Medicine, the abstract article of “HIV/AIDS and Tourism in the Caribbean” (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2791250/), published January 2010, “Studies suggest that tourism areas are epicenters of demographic and social changes linked to HIV risk, such as transactional sex”. It continues that “Despite this, no formative HIV-prevention studies have examined tourism areas as ecologies that heighten HIV vulnerability.”
While there is still a sexual tourism epidemic, many charities and organizations are collaborating together to stop and limit the spread of HIV (and other STDs) by informing people and creating policies that provide protection. Some of the local main organizations where you can always find information are the DREAM Project, Outreach 360, Sister Island Project and the Una Vida organization. Mainly all of these programs share the common mission to spread the awareness of this fast growing epidemic disease that is ending pretty young lives.
Looking at the statistics on HIV/AIDS in the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean can be overwhelming, but it could be said that there is a move towards curbing the rise of the pandemic in the region. I hope with the help of new volunteers and other organizations we are able to decrease this number of infected people and continue to empower communities with interventional educational programs for the younger crowd who sweeping the streets right now; and also who the highest in risk of being infected. I hope that other young Dominicans like myself, will stem the cycle of not talking about sex and take time learn more about HIV and other STDs. We need to collectively talk more openly about sex and break the cycle of silence, for all of our sakes.
I hope that all children born in the Dominican Republic have the opportunity to receive an education and learn to their full potential. It is my hope that organizational efforts can be multiplied to allow the opportunity for every child and adult sex education be met with support. We cannot do so unless we break the cycle of poverty and change people’s destinies in alleviating poverty, strengthening education, and enhancing public health. It is my dream that the world will be a better place for the children and families of the next generation.
We can’t do it alone. So, before you book that “urban oasis fantasy getaway”, ask yourself, will what happens on vacation, really stay on vacation? Think about it.
GET DOWN Youth Blogger
For HIV information and assistance in the Dominican Republic:
The World Health Organization
United States Peace Corps
Family Health International
For youth and family assistance and empowerment in the Dominican Republic:
The DREAM Project
The Outreach360 Project
The Sister Island Project
Una Vida Project