Erica Lorraine Williams. Sex Tourism in Bahia: Ambiguous Entanglements. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013. 224 pp. $28.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-07944-3; $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-03793-1.
Reviewed by Melanie A. Medeiros (SUNY Geneseo)
Published on H-Histsex (February, 2016)
Commissioned by Chiara Beccalossi (University of Lincoln)
Sex Tourism in Bahia, cultural anthropologist Erica Lorraine Williams’s first book, examines how racism, sexism, and socioeconomic inequality are complicit in the sex industry of Bahia, Brazil. Winner of the National Women’s Studies Association/University of Illinois Press First Book Prize, this ethnography chronicles the perceptions and experiences of a variety of actors participating in and affected by the “ambiguous entanglements” of Bahia’s sex tourism industry, including tourists, sex workers, ship workers, and tour guides, redefining what encompasses “sex tourism.” Williams uses an interdisciplinary approach both methodologically and analytically. Methodologically, she presents data resulting from the more traditional anthropological methods of participant observation and qualitative interviews, as well text analysis of historic and contemporary posters and pamphlets. Analytically, her ethnography includes thorough reviews of historical literature and engages with perspectives from transnational black feminism, geography, and tourism studies. The result is an ethnography that clearly and comprehensively investigates the ways in which pervasive racist and sexist ideology influence the sexual, emotional, and intimate interactions between Brazilians and foreigners.
Throughout the book, Williams borrows from Arjun Appadurai’s concept of “ethnoscape” (Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization ) to describe the “touristscape” of Salvador as encompassing “the many sites within the city of Salvador where the tourism industry is a central focal point—beaches, bars, cybercafés, plazas, and cultural institutions—as well as the many people who occupy and move through these spaces on a daily basis (p. 6). “Touristscape” is a useful framework for examining the variety of places and actors involved in or affected by sex tourism. Through focusing on the “touristscape,” Williams takes her ethnography out of people’s homes and into the rua (street), where much of urban Brazilians’ day-to-day lives and desires are acted out. She effectively describes how the Salvador touristscape consists of both cultural tourism products, such as Afro-Brazilian dance, music, capoeira, and religion, and the desire for sex and romantic encounters. She pinpoints the way the marketing of Afro-Brazilian culture racializes and eroticizes black cultural production in a way that creates desire for black bodies. In describing the way cultural tourists seek out sex with black Brazilians—either from individuals identifying as sex workers or individuals interested in temporary or long-term romantic liaisons—Williams draws a strong connection between cultural and sexual tourism that other scholars have underestimated. Further, she reveals the extent that Afro-Brazilian women in this touristscape are treated as hypersexual objects of tourists’ desires whether or not they identify as sex workers or have any interest in romantic entanglements with tourists. This finding highlights the ways that tourism further perpetuates the sexualization of black women’s bodies. Herein lies Williams’s concept of the “spector of sex tourism,” and “the broad and wide-ranging implications of tourism that go far beyond self-avowed ‘sex workers’ or ‘sex tourists’” (p. 3).
Also compelling is Williams’s definition of sex tourism which includes “ambiguous entanglements,” such as a broad range of liaisons and relations formed in Salvador’s cultural/sexual touristscape. According to Williams, these entanglements reflect complex transnational and cosmopolitan desires that go beyond notions of sex tourism as transactional sex between a tourist and sex worker, or tourism for the sole sake of having sex. She describes interactions that range from tourist andsex worker one-time transactional sex; to tourist and sex worker romantic entanglements that include multiple days of spending time together, gift giving, and other demonstrations of affect; to Afro-Brazilians “dating” foreign tourists whether temporarily or long term and vice versa; and to a myriad of others. These interactions and relations enable low-income, most often Afro-Brazilian, women and men access to the world either through travel or experiences with travelers that increase their connectivity to the global flow of people and goods, thus, as Williams argues, increasing their cosmopolitanism. Additionally, for some women who identify as sex workers, transactional sex with foreigners offers a sense of self-worth related to autonomy and affect. Williams successfully positions these women as agents rather than victims of the sex tourism industry, while at the same time problematizing the ways race and gender inequality have an impact on their experiences in the industry.
Interwoven into the text are mini-institutional ethnographies of Brazil’s tourism industry, Aprosba (the Association of Prostitutes of Bahia) and CHAME (the Humanitarian Center for the Support of Women). Analyzing Brazilian tourism marketing efforts over the last eighty-five years, Williams describes how national and state government initiatives used Afro-Brazilian culture to attract tourists, while simultaneously failing to acknowledge and address the longstanding social inequality and marginalization facing Afro-Brazilians. Williams also effectively demonstrates the ways in which such organizations as Aprosba and CHAME aim to inform, educate, and advocate for women, but at the same time often perpetuate race-based marginality and notions of vulnerability. Aprosba, an organization that advocates for all sex workers but attracts more low-income, Afro-Brazilian women, is led almost entirely by Euro-Brazilian women. In an effort to combat the trafficking of women, CHAME characterizes human trafficking so broadly that any low-income Afro-Brazilian woman thinking about traveling abroad with a foreigner is considered a potential victim of trafficking. Williams argues that Brazilian public and private institutions are complicit in disseminating ideologies of Afro-Brazilian women’s hypersexuality and vulnerability.
In her effort to highlight a broad range of ambiguous entanglements, Williams shares the voices of a variety of actors, including caça-gringas (Afro-Brazilian men in the pursuit of foreign tourist women), individuals who work as tour guides and connect tourists to sex workers, individuals who work in cultural tourism, Afro-Brazilian women who date foreign men, working- and middle-class straight and gay tourists, women self-identifying as sex workers, and human rights workers. However, this broad approach also results in the reader wanting to hear the perspectives of the other actors whose voices are not included, such as garotas da programma (women who are less likely to identify as sex workers but do exchange sex for money), or the ship workers who form the basis of many sex workers’ clientele. Thus, in sharing the individual stories of a broad range of actors, the lack of certain voices is felt more strongly. Furthermore, while ship workers play a critical role in sex workers’ narratives, one could argue that Williams has broadened the category “tourism” a tad too widely. Similarly, the book made me curious to know how the participants themselves, particularly the ones not identifying as sex workers or hiring sex workers, define and categorize their “ambiguous entanglements.” Since Williams is redefining sex tourism to be more inclusive, the subjective definitions of her research informants would have been a welcome addition to this ethnography. Lastly, this ambitious ethnography covers such a wide range of topics that one wonders if a more in-depth examination of fewer areas and issues related to sex tourism, with more ethnographic examples from her research participants, would have made for an even stronger ethnography, if not book.
Sex Tourism in Bahia is a very successful ethnographic text that raises interesting questions and issues related to how we define “sex tourism” and “sex work,” the ways government and institutional programs are complicit in perpetuating racial and gender stereotypes of hypersexuality and vulnerability, and the links between transnational desires and the proliferation of sexual and affective liaisons. Among the book’s strengths is its interdisciplinary approach, both methodologically and analytically, as well as the development of the useful conceptual frameworks of “touristscape,” “spector of sex,” and “ambiguous entanglements.” Additionally, by including perspectives from gay informants and sex workers, Williams is successful in her effort to “queer sex tourism.” This book makes a strong contribution to the anthropology of globalization and tourism, as well as transnational black feminism. Limited only by broadness in scope, which some fields would not consider a limitation, Williams is still able to connect local experiences to global trends in a way that pushes the study of race, gender, and sexuality in new directions.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-histsex.
Melanie A. Medeiros. Review of Williams, Erica Lorraine, Sex Tourism in Bahia: Ambiguous Entanglements.
H-Histsex, H-Net Reviews.
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