Denise Brennan. What's Love Got to Do with It? Transnational Desires and Sex Tourism in the Dominican Republic. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 272 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-3297-8.
Reviewed by Blake Scott (University of Texas-Austin)
Published on H-LatAm (June, 2010)
Commissioned by Kenneth Kincaid (Purdue University North Central)
Vacation Fantasies and Commercial Sex: An Ethnographic Perspective
In the Dominican town of Sosuá, sex has become an essential commodity of the tourism industry, transforming an agricultural community into a “sexscape,” overwhelmed by sex workers and white foreigners seeking an array of vices on a budget. Sosuá, however, is not alone. Today, in much of the Caribbean, beachside towns are experiencing similar reinventions, becoming destinations for North Americans and Europeans hoping to fulfill retirement and vacation fantasies. While the Caribbean region’s asymmetrical connections to the developed world are far from new, the principal mode of production and consumption that bring it into contact with the global economy has once again changed shape. With the story of Sosuá, anthropologist Denise Brennan reveals what happens when one of the newest versions of globalization “touches down” in a particular community (p. 219). By examining the intimate relations between sex workers and European tourists, she develops a poignant critique of the social and economic opportunities that supposedly accompany tourism growth.
When Brennan first visited Sosuá in the early 1990s to conduct fieldwork, she saw a community struggling to reconcile traditional understandings of Dominican identity with its growing role in the transnational tourism economy. Europeans, especially Germans, flocked to the town on the Dominican Republic’s northern coast in search of an exotic, often erotic, paradise. As a result, a growing number of foreign and local business entrepreneurs, along with impoverished Dominican men and women, arrived and settled to work in Sosuá’s tourist trade. Brennan describes the influx of new arrivals as a sort of modern-day gold rush; everyone wanted to get in on the action and strike it rich. With little formal education or social and economic capital to find secure work, many poor Afro-Dominican and Haitian women looked to sex in the booming tourist economy to improve their lives. During the height of the vacation season, the town’s tourist bars filled with foreign men and scandalously clad local women. As word spread in both Europe and in the Dominican Republic, Sosuá became known as not only a conventional tourist destination, but also a site for paid sex.
Brennan explains that “opportunity myth[s]” attracted both foreigners and locals to Sosuá’s tourist scene (p. 14). For Europeans, the place offered a standard of living and level of social status unachievable in their home countries. Their middle-class incomes from Europe converted into a sign of wealth; and better yet, they lived in what they believed to be a tropical paradise. Young Dominicans willing to satisfy sexual desires, at a reasonable cost, were also a fundamental part of the attraction. As Brennan aptly points out, expatriate-tourist fantasies tapped into a long history of colonial racist hierarchies, characterized by economic disparity and sexualized otherness.
Sex workers and some Dominican men, locally known as “sanky-pankies,” also had their own dreams and worked to take advantage of sexualized stereotypes. The sale of sex and the performance of love promised a way out of poverty and possibly a ticket off the island. Brennan argues, as have such gender and sexuality scholars as Anne McClintock, that instead of victimizing Dominicans, sex offered poor local men and women access to a practical advancement strategy. She claims that the sex trade in Sosuá “presents an important counterexample to claims that all sex workers in all contexts are powerless victims of violence and exploitation” (p. 24). Money made through sex work offered poor, single mothers the chance to support their families and save money for household items. If attractive and clever enough, women--and men, who were normally not directly paid for sex--had the opportunity to marry a European and move abroad, the fantasy of every sex worker. Brennan meticulously recounts the stories of women and men, who seem to fulfill this dream.
There was, however, a catch-22. Brennan explains that, in the long-term, the overwhelmingly majority of Dominican men and women engaged in sex work were unable to hold onto the money, material items, and elevated social status gained from their intimate relations with European clients and lovers. These obvious setbacks bring up several important social and theoretical questions. What are the parameters of victimization and agency within these types of sexual relations? Can we separate social agency and identity from social context as Brennan and other scholars seem to contend? Does fleeting mobility and the luck of a few equate to agency? Brennan readily acknowledges that “the waters are murky when considering women’s agency in the sex trade, no matter how determined and creative their efforts [are] to get ahead” (p. 211). The bleak accounts of Sosuans should stimulate further discussion about the role of agency within similar transnational sexual relations.
A closer look at the impersonal forces that affect the lives of both the tourist and the “touristed” might help us better understand these complicated encounters. While Brennan giftedly depicts what happens on the ground, she only nominally explains how larger structural forces develop and arrive in this small community--a perspective initially declared as essential to the book’s objective. The frequently used term “globalization,” for instance, rather than operating as an explanatory tool, materializes as undefined and overly encompassing.
Brennan’s ethnographic study paired with a work more dedicated to structural analysis, however, could generate a fruitful dialogue about touristic encounters in the context of globalization. Her years spent building relationships with Sosuans, and particularly female sex workers, results in an account of the inner workings of global “contact zones.” The personal stories of sex workers buttress an analysis that would be difficult to achieve exclusively through textual or archival research. Daily lives, along with the physical, cultural, social, and economic changes that occurred in Sosua, are vividly recounted. Indeed, Brennan presents a valuable case study for any historian or social scientist interested in looking at the role of gender and post-colonialism in the Caribbean tourism industry.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-latam.
Blake Scott. Review of Brennan, Denise, What's Love Got to Do with It? Transnational Desires and Sex Tourism in the Dominican Republic.
H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews.
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