Wrong-headed approach to sex trade obscures the real problems

The collaboration between Costa Rica’s immigration police and the non-profit organization Fundación Rehab in recent raids of San Jose nightclubs with reputations for prostitution, chiefly Hotel Del Rey and Key Largo, was a misguided response to a serious problem.

No, the problem isn’t sex trafficking — the combating of which was the pretext for the raids — at least in the nightclubs targeted. Genuine victims of sex trafficking (as opposed to voluntary immigrants) are more apt to be found in the downscale brothels, which despite being illegal according to the spirit of both Costa Rican and international law, operate with impunity under the auspices of pensión licenses issued with winks and giggles by the authorities.

The problem is sex tourism. At any one time, upwards of 5,000 women and girls in Costa Rica work as prostitutes, often with foreign clients, and over time tens of thousands of Ticas are involved in the industry. Indeed, the combined demand by locals and tourists for commercial sex forces Costa Rica to import about half of its prostitutes (a pattern of women’s voluntary labor migration that Fundación Rehab calls “sex trafficking”). The roughly 200,000 North American sex tourists that visit the country annually, coupled with perhaps a tenth as many sexpats who live here permanently, are a large portion of that demand.

But Fundación Rehab is not the group to combat sex tourism — much less one that deserves a police escort to raid private businesses and detain customers without a warrant. The non-profit simply doesn’t understand the sex industry, sex trafficking, or even prostitution.

According to Fundación Rehab’s Web site, prostitution is an extension of male domination to the point where men use women’s bodies for their prurient pleasure. This, however, is stale ideology that doesn’t fit the facts and isn’t even accepted by most feminist sex researchers.

While male dominance is often a component of female prostitution, the relevant domination usually occurs long before a woman turns her first trick. By the time she does, she frequently views prostitution as empowering retaliation for earlier exploitation. Her thinking is: If men will do this to me anyway, I might as well take charge and get paid for it!

To assume therefore that women in a nightclub looking for men who will pay them for sex are being exploited by those men is simply mistaken. On the contrary, by then the women often feel that they are the exploiters, while the men are frequently remarkably kind and generous.

Fundación Rehab’s ideology of male domination also conveniently ignores that mothers in Costa Rica often initiate their daughters’ into prostitution — and then live off the proceeds. Likewise, their ideology ignores male prostitution. Not only is there a thriving gay sex trade throughout the country, but there is also a documented female sex tourist industry centered in Limón.

Fundación Rehab’s emphasis on the exploitation of women’s “bodies” further betrays their sophomoric ideology. In reality, prostitution mainly involves “emotional labor” — smiling, listening, feigning affection, etc. — while the sex acts take only a few minutes. In fact, the prostitutes’ main physical complaint is that their feet hurt from hours of trolling in high heels.

Most disturbingly, Fundación Rehab makes essentialist assumptions about who is and who isn’t a prostitute. Research on sex tourism by the feminist scholar Amalia Cabezas shows that women’s identities are typically more fluid than labeling them “prostitutes” captures. A few are looking for love, more for a stable mistress-like arrangement, and most at least for friends. At both Hotel Del Rey and the Key Largo, the women don’t necessarily accept all offers — they exercise choice — and it is not uncommon for them to construe money they receive as “help” rather than a “fee.”

With what moralistic audacity does Fundación Rehab assume that the mere presence of a woman in one of these nightclubs brands her a prostitute? Isn’t the non-profit — backed by police power — the one foisting the demeaning puta identity onto them?

The real problem is that Costa Rica’s bloated tourism industry entices women who would otherwise finish school, get a job, and get married into the more lucrative sex trade. Again, these enticements are so powerful that thousands of foreign women are attracted to the country by them.

Beneath this problem though lurks a deeper one: The entrenched economic interests of the tourism industry — interest that include an entire government ministry and government tax collectors along with thousands of private business — most of whom profit more from sex tourism than the prostitutes.

Unfortunately, these recent raids show that neither Costa Rica nor the international community (Fundación Rehab receives grants from the U.S. Embassy) is prepared to confront the country’s festering sex tourism industry at its root — or even wants to.

Indeed, raids of safely middle-class nightclubs, where all of the women enter voluntarily, smack of a showy spectacle designed to appease the grant-giving international community rather than a sensible engagement with a serious problem.

Meanwhile, the only ones victimized by this showy spectacle were the women, who were illegally detained and stigmatized. But no one in Costa Rica has ever really cared about putas. They have after all been offered up as enticements to tourists for decades.

*Ken Morris is an expat living in San Pedro. He taught in the women’s studies program at the University of Georgia and published what Tammy Wynette’s biographer considers the definitive interpretation of Stand By Your Man.

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