This academic year, I'm using the AIP book review series, On My Shelf, to revisit the books in my personal library. Over the course of the next ten months, I rereading my collection of ethnographies and popular science books and to share some thoughts with you.

Brennan, Denise (2004). What’s Love Got to Do With It? Transnational Desires and Sex Tourism in the Dominican Republic. Duke University Press.

We spend a lot of time in Love exploring the fluidity of landscapes. On the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, about 30 minutes from Puerto Plata, Sosúa is thriving tourist destination. With many beaches and bars, it embodies the idea of what the Caribbean is: a warm, friendly, relaxed, exotic place. It also hosts a large sex tourism scene, and while global and national identities and responses loom in the background, we’re immersed in shifting personal landscapes as well.

Love documents Denise Brennan’s fieldwork in the sexscape of Sosúa. This small seaside community has become a destination for Afro-Dominican and Afro-Haitian women who are looking to sell sex as a means of attaining what they perceive will be a better life off of the island. To these ends, they deploy sex “for residencia not por amor.” They approach their sexual liaisons strategically, understanding that if they play their part convincingly enough, it could help them and their dependents immensely. They occupy themselves with cultivating these relationships when their clients return to Europe. They maintain communications through faxes, sending love letters and promises transnationally. And in Love, the sex tourists who participate in this landscape and develop relationships with these women are also strategically building identities and realities.

Sexscapes link sex work to the global economy through three defining characteristics: international travel from the developed to the developing world, consumption of paid sex, and inequality. With the focus on a specific geographic location, the act of exchange in this space highlights the power differentials between buyers (sex tourists) and sellers (sex workers) and emphasizes the positioning of race, gender, class, and nationality. We see how people are changed through their interactions within this space and with the space itself. Inasmuch as this is a story of agency and illusion, Sosúa itself is also a character that needs to be contended with.

When Brennan introduces us to Elena, she had just been released from jail, having been picked up in a sweep that captured non-sex workers and sex workers alike who just happened to be on the street at the time. It was the middle of the day and none of the women were actively engaged in soliciting clients. Her friend Andrea, who was with her at the time, was not arrested even though she too was a sex worker because her boyfriend was on the police force. Sex work was the primary means by which Elena supported her two sisters and her young daughter, who all lived together in a one-room wooden house where they rotated between sharing a double bed and sleeping on the floor. Andrea notifies Elena’s family and paid the needed bribe for Elena’s release. That was lucky, but even more lucky is that Elena runs into Jurgen, a former client who had come to Sosúa specifically to search for her. As testament to his affection, he had brought her gifts: perfume, as well as, a matching gold bracelet and necklace. After this fortuitous encounter, Elena returns home and her immediate female network of her sisters and young daughter help her prepare for an extended engagement with Jurgen. Elena gets her hair done and they help her choose her outfit for the night with the understanding that the gifts and money she would receive from Jurgen would trickle down to her family.

Jurgen is an older German man, and seems, at close reading, to typify sex tourists at the time. They are mostly older, white men. (When Brennan returns to Sosúa toward the end of the book, she finds that this demographic has shifted significantly.) In the minds of the women of Sosúa, they are more dependable and stable in comparison to Dominican men. This mythology is central to the persistence of sex work in Sosúa. During Jurgen’s stay, Elena moves in with him at the tourist resort and the image that unfolds very closely resembles that of a family: Jurgen takes Elena, her daughter and sisters out to eat, he wipes her daughter’s nose, she offers his money to pay for Brennan’s meal. These actions paint a very intimate picture of a budding relationship, so it is not surprising that Elena is distraught when Jurgen has to return to Germany. There is no controlling what will happen once Jurgen leaves. While he promises that he is committed to Elena, his departure means she’ll have to move back to her one room home and resume sex work to meet her financial commitments—like paying her parents’ grocer bills, and providing food and shelter for her sisters and daughter. Jurgen keeps his word, however, and not only sends money but moves to Sosúa, marries Elena and moves her and her family into a two bedroom apartment with running water and a electric generator. He buys furniture, a color television set, and pays for private school for her daughter.

Elena’s story is one realization of the objectives held by sex workers in Sosúa. She is able to get a European man to support her and her family. She does not leave the island, as many hope to do, but she is able to leave sex work and live a relatively middle-class lifestyle.

However she quickly finds that this dream is not entirely as she imagined. And this is the untold side of the realization of the dream. There are cultural clashes between her and Jurgen about the management of money. He feels she asks him for money all the time, and she does because she is managing money as poor, Dominican women do in that they shop for what they need when they need it. This means they may go to the market several times a day. As the initial appeal of the erotic/exotic start to wane, Jurgen looks for these things with someone new. Elena knows this is happening but it more concerned that he is not upholding his duties as her “esposo,” in this case, a common law husband. He eventually leaves her and denies the paternity of the son they have together, saying the child is too black to be his. And when he does, she finds that as she has been entirely dependent on him for their time together, she has nothing—the furniture is his, after all.

While Elena meets another German man years later and does eventually move to Germany, this relationship also falls apart. So she builds a sense of stability for herself by obtaining a position where she manages a bar to support her children. The owner spends a lot of time in Santo Domingo, which leaves her in charge.

There are many variations on Elena’s story in Love. What remains consistent in all of them are the dynamics of exchange. As with many discussions around agency in sex work, the women of Sosúa are actively looking to use their bodies to their ends. It is not a survival strategy, but an advancement strategy. Elena’s earnings are not reinvested in herself but in her family, specifically her children. (This becomes a severe point of critique later from Elena toward another woman: she does not save money to secure her child’s future but spends money on clothing.) Brennan advances the narrative that sex work can be a choice to sell one’s body. But these women are selling more than that. They are manufacturing and selling an experience where tourists can come to Sosúa and pretend that they are wealthy and renown. While any number of goods and services might be out of reach for them in Europe, in Sosúa very little is off limits. They also find familiarity on return trips within the smallness of the locale that is Sosúa. Bartenders and natives know them. They are celebrity, and eventually they may come to be locals. Both sides draw on stereotypes to fuel the exchange of sex for money. The exoticness of brown skin is conflated with sexual prowess, and while foreigners may use this as a justification for buying sex overall, Sosúa sex workers deploy it as means to further their trade. 

Sex tourists who settle in Sosúa and build lives with the women they once paid for sex are constructing a world for themselves in the image of what they believe the Caribbean is. This is evident in the reason that Jurgen initially gives for moving to Sosúa: it is a retirement of sorts. He claims he does not need to work as much as he does in Germany to get by and it’s a more pleasant and relaxed lifestyle. Long sunny days where he can spend much of that time in a bar rather than engaged in the more traditional work is appealing. In this imagined world of relaxation and with the perceived absence of traditional lifestyle obligations, women like Elena have a part to play in keeping the fabric of illusion intact. Similarly, the world they construct with the support of sisters and mothers, and sometimes husbands and boyfriends, may help propel their agency and control against a globalized expectation that they are commodities.

There are moments in this dynamic when the power differential can shift. We se this with Elena who leverages her relationship with Jurgen to lift her family above poverty, even temporarily. And later when she determines a means of supporting her family away from sex work. The sellers are claiming something for themselves in what they ask for payment. Despite marriages por residencia, love (and familial obligation) has a great deal to do with the decisions these women make. Mari, a friend of Elena who works with her in bar, is positioned at the intersection of these narratives. She leaves her German partner Claus, and he follows her back to Sosúa. And while she maintains she does not love him, she cannot deny the benefits for her daughter. She holds a fair amount of power in this relationship—she openly flirts with her patrons and is allegedly seeing another man. All of this, to some degree, happens because Clause permits it, but it interesting and significant that she feels that can do this at all. We do not get closure on her situation, but are left with the idea that love and needs can exact measured and strategic responses that may never be fully understood on the individual level.

Have you read What’s Love Got to Do With It? Comments have been disabled on Anthropology in Practice, but you can always join the community on Facebook.

Also in this series:

Patterns of Culture


The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

Blue Jeans—The Art of the Ordinary

The Illegal Trade of Twine