If you missed the last news cycle, there was a scandal involving US Secret Service agents and prostitutes in Cartagena during their work leading up to the 2012 Summit of the Americas. On the scandal, I’ll only echo Senator Susan Collins:
[I]t is basic ‘counterintelligence 101’ that Secret Service personnel and others holding sensitive positions of trust in the U.S. government should avoid any situation that could provide a foreign intelligence or security service or criminal gangs with the means of exerting coercion or blackmail. Yet two of the primary means of entrapment — sexual lures and alcohol — were both present here in abundance.
After an avalanche of talking heads and opinion, however, I’ll say more. This from a Fox News op-ed:
In an effort to support “consensual prostitution,” the media has plastered photos of Dania, the most famous “escort” involved in the secret service scandal, dressed in sexy outfits and sporting a dazzling smile, on the covers of newspapers and magazines.
I have to take issue with her claim that the media is trying to support consensual prostitution. Most lay the blame on poverty and human trafficking. Who puts “consensual prostitution” in quotes? If anything sells more newspapers and keeps viewers tuned to a show, it’s scandalous fare like human trafficking and poverty. That the media is trying to “support” consensual prostitution is absurd.
In the more typical, played-out, intellectually-lazy vein, this CR op-ed asserts:
This combination of a poor population and a constant stream of wealthy visitors creates the prime conditions for sex tourism. Yes, the lax laws and wide acceptance of prostitution make the purchase of sex a much more accessible and simple enterprise in Cartagena than in other places around the world. But that has very little to do with the reasons why women are selling their bodies, and the reasons men are buying them …
[T]he majority of women working in prostitution around the world are doing it because they are struggling to survive…
There’s a qualifier about lax laws and wide acceptance, but the piece claims those reasons are less relevant than the mix of poverty and wealthy visitors. This is an easy conclusion to come to, but it doesn’t stand up to even a little scrutiny. Here are three quick examples that render that thesis WRONG:
- Post-war Europe and Vietnam vs. Iraq and Afghanistan
- Cartagena vs. Cusco
- Thailand’s Lack of Poverty
Post-war Europe and Vietnam vs. Iraq and Afghanistan
War poverty is the truly ideal situation for prostitution. You have a huge number of “wealthy visitors” who are overwhelmingly male, hard-up, earning first-world, upper-middle-class salaries (accounting for food, shelter, benefits) and facing death every day. They’re stationed in a war-torn region with high poverty and desperate women whose men have died.
The first glaring anomaly to the poverty-wealthy visitors predictor are Iraq and Afghanistan, according to all my American military buddies’ testimonies. They had the worst opinion of both countries: piss-poor people, backwards culture, etc. And there was no fun to be had. They sit on base every day with nothing to do. There’s no partying or whoremongering. The only guys getting laid are the ones banging female soldiers.
This is the first time in modern American war history where this was the case. You can’t read far into Lost Generation literature without coming upon the whoremongering in Europe. Specifically France. Unlike Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan however, post-war European countries like Italy and France were only faced with situational poverty. Yet they quickly embraced prostitution. On the other end of the spectrum, despite generational and institutional poverty, Iraq and Afghanistan have resisted whoring their women.
Vietnam prostitution was so prevalent there were VD crises on bases, inspiring the US military to make propaganda videos warning men to steer clear. Here’s a video of the infamous Cam Ranh Bay Meat Market:
Unfortunately for the 21st-century soldiers, there was no Mosul Meat Market. When all the movies on Iraq and Afghanistan are made, there will be no Me So Horny scenes. While Vietnam inspired the award-winning play Miss Saigon, don’t bet on Miss Baghdad or Miss Kabul to come to a theater near you.
How have Iraq and Afghanistan thwarted the huge demand from hard-up American soldiers for pussy from meeting the huge demand from local women for US dollars? Clearly the answer is that Iraq and Afghanistan are Islamic law societies that prohibit prostitution and even drinking. This powerful cultural factor – religion – has handily trumped economics.
Cartagena vs. Cusco
Between January and August 2010, 111,465 tourists visited Cartagena. If you calculate tourists per day (500-600), tourism to Cartagena is dwarfed by tourism to Cusco, Peru, the starting point for tourists visiting Machu Picchu. The Peruvian government limits the number of visitors to Machu Picchu to 2500 per day. I haven’t met anyone who goes to Machu Picchu twice on the same trip, so where 2500 unique visitors would be a record-breaking day in Cartagena, it’s an average day in Cusco.
Also, many Cartagena tourists are passengers on cruise ships who stop only for the day. Many never spend the night. On the other hand, you can’t fly into Cusco and do Machu Picchu in just a day. Tourists to Machu Picchu must spend at least two days in the area.
Note: poverty stats has changed, given Peru is now rich as f***.
For a generation Peru was a hotbed of growth stunting — when children don’t grow to their natural height because of malnutrition. Almost a third of Peruvian children (44% in rural areas) suffer from stunting. In addition to stunting, Peru has one of the highest malnutrition fatality rates in Latin America.
Poverty in Peru is centered around rural, indigenous populations, and Cusco is the heart of the rural and indigenous Peruvians. If any city were ripe for sex tourism according to the poverty-wealthy-tourists guesswork, it would be Cusco.
In Cusco, the biggest tourist trap I’ve ever visited, you’re constantly hounded to buy all kinds of things: paintings, t-shirts, food, gadgets, handbags, keychains, tours and more. You’ll say “No” at least 20 times every day. There are hungry panhandlers, but there’s one thing you won’t be offered: sex.
In all the days I spent in Cusco on two different trips, I was never solicited by whores or procurers (the “chicas chicas” guys from Colombia). In all the time I spent living in Peru, meeting tourists and fielding emails from whoremongers, I’ve never even heard of a whorehouse in Cusco. I’m sure they exist, but I haven’t heard of them nor met anyone who’s been to one.
I emailed Ward from Life in Peru, who’s lived in Cusco for almost five years. I asked him about prostitution in Cusco and, specifically, why doesn’t there seem to be any?
I’ve been to Cartagena a few times and prostitution seems to be everywhere, in Cuzco I don’t see anything like that out in the open.
When we go out (which isn’t all that often since we have the baby) it seems like there are a lot of local girls who are out to have fun and maybe meet some gringo, but you don’t see prostitution.
There are some brothels in Cuzco near the industrial park by the airport (probably in other areas too) but I imagine mostly locals go there. I only happened to pass by there one night on the way back from a friend’s house and it didn’t look like the part of the city where I would want to hang out at night. Also, one girl in my neighborhood is said to be a “working girl,” but it’s just whispers behind her back. When you see her you might think it could be true, but not in the obvious way like you see in Cartagena.
My only theory is that maybe the “serranos” are more prude than others. I know it’s bad to stereotype, but I would say on average Cusqueñas tend to put up a front of proper / prudeness. I always thought that when I was teaching. Sometimes I would make a risque comment and all the girls in the room would react in a very pretentious “I’m so offended” kind of way.
By the way I like the idea of Cuzco not being seen as a destination for sex tourism (like say Thailand).
Despite similar poverty and even more tourism, prostitutes are hard to find in Cusco. Again, as Ward confirms, culture matters. And Peruvian culture – specifically the poorest, indigenous Peruvians (AKA serranos, cholos, indios, Incas) – is more conservative than Colombian culture.
Thailand: The World’s Sex Tourism Capital is Not Poor
At 8.1%, Thailand’s poverty rate is so low it’s in striking distance of being a developed economy. By some methodologies, poverty in Thailand is lower than in the U.S. and UK. However, Bangkok is the world’s sex tourism capital.
From San Francisco to Amsterdam, you can find “Thai massage” parlors and Thai whores. Despite its being the world’s sex tourism destination, this un-impoverished nation EXPORTS prostitutes. Thailand supplies its world-leading, domestic sex-tourism market AND exports Thai females into prostitution, and has the infamous ladyboys to boot.
How does this country over-supply sex workers with such a low rate of poverty? Thai attitudes toward sex are more lax than anywhere in the world, so much so that this Thai high school gave ladyboys their own bathroom — an idea that is still controversial in the United States. Many Thai people believe prostitution keeps rape and sexual assault down. Others don’t view it as a moral issue, but as something akin to exercise for Americans.
Not far from Thailand is one of the seven nations home to 65% of the world’s hungry: Indonesia (along with India, China, Congo, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Ethiopia). Why isn’t Indonesia the sex-tourism destination, being as poverty stricken as it is, while the un-impoverished Thailand is? Again, culture matters. Indonesia is Muslim country with very different attitudes toward sex and morality.
Poverty Prostitutes in Colombia
At my chicken joint in Bogota, I noticed the same two employees work every day. When I asked, they confirmed they work every day, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Colombia’s minimum wage is 535,000 pesos per month. Depending on how many days off a worker has, it’s safe to say no- to low-skilled laborers in Colombia earn 20,000 pesos a day ($11). The poverty prostitutes I’ve met charge 20,000 pesos for one date.
The daily wage for most Colombians is what a poverty prostitute makes with one client. A second client doubles the daily minimum wage. It’s more money, and it’s easier money.
So how do we define a poverty prostitute? Do her children have to be facing malnutrition and growth stunting? I see “Se Necesita” signs every day. They’re shit jobs, but I see them every day. If a lower-estrato woman with children chooses to be a prostitute over toiling in an arepa bakery, tienda, or factory, does that qualify as a poverty prostitute? If she’d rather party and have sex than work long hours for little money (as over 60% of Colombians do), is that poverty prostitution?
I’m not saying many Colombian prostitutes aren’t facing dire situations. But if we’re going to lay the blame on poverty, first we have to define a “poverty prostitute.” Does she have to be facing malnutrition or stunting? Or does opting for sex work over baking arepas and sorting flowers count?
Next, if you’re going to blame sex tourism on poverty, don’t be a lazy intellectual. Follow your argument through. Take the next step on the logic tree and conclude that, if it’s alleviating poverty, then sex tourism saves lives. Because without it, wouldn’t those struggling-to-survive prostitutes not survive?
Does Sex Tourism Save Lives?
This article was inspired by a comment on a [defunct] Travel Sex Life article from a sex tourist in the Phillippines:
[T]hink about the economics of prostitution. If you could flip a switch and eliminate prostitution in an instant, would you do it?
If so, you’d be responsible for an economic disaster and MILLIONS of deaths. Many of these girls send money home to their families. If you take away prostitution (or refuse to engage), you’re not necessarily improving their lives. In fact, you’re making it harder for their father, mother, grandmother, grandfather, brothers, sisters, etc, to survive. So if you eliminate prostitution, who’s going to support their family – YOU?
Prostitution is responsible for a HUGE transfer of wealth from the west to the east.
In the local tourist town where I am, I’d estimate at least $100,000 worth of prostitution goes through the town every month. Add on to that all the money spent on hotels, tourist activities, food, by people who come for the girls.
You’re looking at maybe $500,000 monthly, and that’s just the local town.
A large amount of that money will then be sent home to the provinces (by the girls), spent in the local stores, and otherwise invested in the Philippines.
I mean, all the people who take the moral high ground and belittle the people that do it, how are they solving the issue? What value are they creating for the world?
Except for a little bit of noise in the blogosphere, I think these people are doing very little.
Suppose I were to take the moral high ground and refuse to pay for sex in the Philippines. Who would that help? It certainly wouldn’t help the girls who need to send money to their families…
The point is that prostitution is a grey issue (like nearly everything in life). Simply abstaining from it and taking the moral or ethical high ground solves very few problems. Conversely, engaging in prostitution actually contributes value to their lives (if only monetary).
According to CR, 450 children die from malnutrition in Colombia each year. What would that number be without sex tourism? Maybe not tens of thousands, but it’d certainly be more. Especially given how developed the sex-tourism industry is in Cartagena and greater Colombia, if you assume the vast majority of women are doing it just to survive, then you have to conclude that sex tourism saves a significant number of lives.
If you argue that poverty is the main cause of prostitution, then you must conclude that sex tourism saves lives. If not, then you’re just being a reactionary social-justice warrior. Like we need more of that.
My Take on Prostitution in Colombia and Beyond
In Censorship and the Image of Colombia, I said the devil got balls-deep in that country. It’s not news to anyone who’s lived here. Does poverty play a role? Of course. But does a society’s moral structure also play a role? Definitely, and that’s the difference between countries like Colombia and Peru, or Thailand and Indonesia.
In another example, both Colombia and Peru are huge producers of cocaine. Yet the difference in drug addicts in the streets of Bogota vs. Lima is amazing. The number of filthy, aggressive addicts in Bogota is shocking. You don’t see anything like that in Lima, where cocaine is just as cheap and poverty about the same.
I’ve met prostitutes in Latin America – some desperately poor with kids, some living luxuriously and independent. Regardless which there are more of, 100% of non-prostitute women would condemn the business anyway.
Why? It spoils their game. Yes, women have sex because they want it. But in the long run, especially with a recurring partner, the woman will always try to get something out of the man – marriage, a house, child support, etc. It involves seduction and long-term manipulation.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for settling down and monogamy. But the way human sexuality is designed, it’s in the woman’s reproductive interest to convince the man not to have sex with other women (and possibly having children with other women, spreading his resources thin), in favor of committing to and supporting only her and her kids. Those women who seduced their men into committing and supporting them had children who survived at a higher rate, so we’ve evolved this way (men and women).
Non-prostitute women abhor prostitutes and their clients because it throws that scheme upside down. Prostitutes made the economic decision – whether by necessity or choice – that they won’t try to get a guy to stick around and provide for a family. They unveiled the veiled transaction, exposing the economics that all non-prostitute women are working for. And non-prostitutes need that transaction to work.
However insulting to non-prostitute women that may be, I actually side with them. I don’t believe in the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold. They’re damaged goods, precisely because they’ve boiled romance down to economics. Marry a non-whore.
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