NewsDOMINICAN REPUBLIC

The Sun. The Sand. The Sex.

Science  28 Jul 2006:
Vol. 313, Issue 5786, pp. 474
DOI: 10.1126/science.313.5786.474

BOCA CHICA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC—At the Plaza Isla Bonita bar that stretches from the main downtown street to the beach, the cocktail waitresses dress in campy “Ship's Ahoy” outfits with sailor hats and midriff tops. When not serving high-octane rum drinks, they dance suggestively to the blaring merengue, bachata, and reggaeton music. Tables and bar stools fill with young Dominican women, who flirt aggressively with American, Dutch, German, and Italian men twice if not three times their age. Sanky Pankies—local young men who favor dreadlocks, bling bling, and tank tops—cruise the perimeter looking for foreign women or men.

The waitresses sing along when a popular song comes on by the band Mambo Violento: Sin gorrito, no hay cumpleaño—without a little hat, there is no birthday party. But in this case, a little hat is a condom, and the birthday party doesn't involve cake.

Sex tourism is booming in several of the resorts here, says Antonio de Moya, an epidemiologist and anthropologist who has long studied the subculture and works with the presidential AIDS program COPRESIDA. In the past 15 years, the Dominican Republic has become a tourist magnet, attracting 3.4 million vacationers in 2004, more than double the number who visited in 1991, according to the Caribbean Tourist Organization. And the Caribbean as a whole entertained more than 21 million tourists in 2004. Today, sex tourism and HIV/AIDS have become hot topics in Jamaica, Cuba, Barbados, the Bahamas, St. Lucia, St. Marteens, and Curaçao.

Sails job.

The cocktail waitresses at the Plaza Isla Bonita bar attract male tourists, who often then find a sex worker offering her—or his—services.

Deanna Kerrigan, an international health specialist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, studies sex work in the Dominican Republic. She stresses that outside resorts such as Boca Chica, tourists are not the main clients. “There is a very large local sex-work industry,” says Kerrigan. Sex is sold everywhere, from brothels and rendezvous homes called casas de citas to discos and car washes. HIV prevalence in the country's estimated 100,000 female sex workers ranges from 2.5% to 12.4%, depending on the locale. Kerrigan says the places with lower prevalence reflect “intensive interventions” by nongovernmental organizations such as the one she collaborates with called the Centro de Orientación e Investigación Integral.

Sex workers of course could have both local and foreign clients, but three women working the main street here this warm winter evening insist that they avoid Dominicans. “A Dominican will pay 300 pesos and be on top of you for 2 hours,” says Aracelis, as the other women laugh and nod their heads. “And they don't want to use condoms.” Aracelis and her friends insist that sin gorrito, no hay cumpleaño, and all say they are HIV-negative. But they still worry. “The first thing I say when I leave the house in the morning is ‘Please, God, take care of me,’” says Aracelis. Then, as though her prayers were answered, she notices an elderly German man. “He's my boyfriend, not a client,” she says, prancing over to him. “He sends me money every month.”

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