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Love and Lust. American men in Costa Rica by Jacobo Schifter - HTML preview

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Jacobo Schifter, PhD

Costa Rica


In a talk given at the Albany campus of Massey University of New Zealand on the epistemology of research, Chris Ryan and C. Michael Martin (2000), authors of Sex Tourism: Marginal People and Liminalities,1 provided a metaphor likening research truths to an onion. In their study of prostitution in Thailand, they found that the women involved in the industry of sexual tourism had different answers to questions posed by different people in different circumstances. They described this as being like a sheet of an onion, which has its own truth, and its own logic that changes each time you peel it. They postulate that, as sex researchers, we confront partial truths. The truth lies in the whole onion rather than at a ―core‖ or at one single layer.

Sexual work aims to please others and offers a theatre where fantasy and reality intermingle. This is the reason why sex researchers, who enter a brothel, nightclub or massage sauna, will receive a variant representation, generally the type of information they themselves want to hear. ―Are you doing STI prevention?‖ our ethnographer asks a prostitute. ―Yes, we are all concerned here and use condoms all the time,‖ she responds. Yet, later she charges a client double to perform sex without a condom.

If the people who work in the sexual industry know that researchers belong to a nongovernmental or private organization in the health prevention field, they will probably say when questioned that safe sex is generally practiced, that the consumption of drugs is low or nonexistent, and that they work inside the industry because of harsh economic difficulties. Although we found other realities in our 2000

1 Chris Ryan and Michael Hall, Sex Tourism and Liminalities, Routledge, New York- London, 2001, p.xiv.


survey with sex workers, it is very probable that most of them underreported the amount of unsafe sex, drug consumption and misrepresented their reasons for engaging in sex work.

We did not find in our 2000 Survey a total commitment to safe sex. As a matter of fact, unsafe sex was high. Nevertheless, it is to be expected that if we factor in the underreporting – especially with regard to condom and drug use - the risk index would have been much higher.

Information gathering and illegality

Information-gathering and illegality

In Costa Rica, sex work is legal and the country has a strong tradition of tolerance toward prostitution.

In 1894, the first laws ( Ley de Profilaxis Venérea and Reglamento de Prostitución) were enacted to regulate and control the activity under the rationale that it was important for guaranteeing ―hygiene and public morals.‖ From then on, sex workers were subject to a weekly medical check-up in order to detect sexually-transmitted diseases (STD‘s). Prostitutes had to register with the police and those who failed to do so, could be sentenced to a maximum of 10 days in prison. Women who were infected were forbidden to work and were subject to longer prison terms. Sex workers were prohibited from living 200 meters from schools and in cases of scandalous behavior, were expelled from their neighborhoods.

Sex workers were listed in the public registry and could only be removed if they were married or had proof of a ―respectable job.‖ In the 1943-1944 Penal Code, supervision of sex workers was handed to social workers. This proved to be problematic as the sex workers evaded the officials. In the present Penal Code of 1970, it is again the Ministry of Health that is responsible for periodically testing registered sex workers. Those who do not comply are subject to arrest by the police. 2

The Costa Rican Penal Code of 1894 was emulated by the Netherlands in its 1911 Code that legalized prostitution. The Dutch penal code defined the broader context for prostitution laws and regulations in their colonies: brothels were banned throughout the kingdom and the active promotion of prostitution, as in Costa Rica, was criminalized. Nevertheless, prostitution was considered a necessary social evil, and sex work itself was not criminalized, allowing some forms of tolerance of sex work and the legal existence of the social category of the prostitute. In Dutch colonies such as Curazao and Aruba, there was greater tolerance than in the Netherlands, and brothels –like the famous Campo Alegre- were set up. This led to government intervention in and regulation of prostitution and provided an active role for the police in guaranteeing that sex workers were ―free of disease.‖ Thus, the states that legalized prostitution and took it upon themselves to protect ―society from prostitution‘s evil influence,‖ became directly involved in the sex trade.3

2 Asamblea Legislativa de Costa Rica. Código de la niñez y la adolescencia. Ley N°

7739. San José, Costa Rica, 1998.

________________. "Código Penal", Ley N° 4573. San José, Costa Rica, 1970.

3 Kamala Kempadoo, Sexing the Caribbean. Gender, Race, and Sexual Labor, Routledge: New York and London, 2004, ebook, p.1652.


Although prostitution is legal in Costa Rica, pimping4 ( proxenetismo) is not. Many practices can be considered pimping and thus be illegal. According to a strict reading of this law, an individual who owns a nightclub that promotes prostitution can be prosecuted for pimping. Massage parlors, hotels that cater to prostitutes, and bars with private rooms, can all be legally prosecuted as well. Furthermore, the manner in which sex workers are paid can determine what is considered legal and illegal. Dildoman, for example, explains to other sex tourists that Art y Sauna, a massage parlor, was closed by a

―technical‖ interpretation of the Law: Since the receptionist would ―collect all the money from the client and then pay the ‗ chicas‘ the authorities considered that as pimping.‖5

In addition to pimping, establishments and individuals are often prosecuted for other reasons. The police and the Ministry of Health may crack down on places that employ HIV-positive sex workers and illegal residents, detain American tourists who do not have their papers at hand and imprison owner and managers if there is a minor on the premises. This vulnerability to police harassment and blackmail is one of the worst fears among those involved in the sex industry.

The first warning usually comes from newspaper articles. A.M., a newspaper, tells mongers that the Ministry of Health will make sure that the Massage Parlors are not being used for prostitution and that it will take measures to "avoid the camouflage of places of prostitution that function under the name of massage parlors." 6 A few days later, the police raid the Massage Parlors and their clients are imprisoned. In other circumstances, the arrival of a questionable individual is the trigger. Jeff99 –for example- is aware of the danger that ―Easy‖, a sex tourist, is in San José. This man is looked for the police for ―his Sex Wax scam he perpetrated last November‖. Since he is in town he thinks, ―new raids are to be expected this week.‖ Mongers or sex tourists –he believes- will pay collective punishment.

―The smart thing to do‖ he adds ―is to remember that Easy is a long time member of this Forum‖ and to

―carry your passports this week if you are in town, especially if you‘re in the vicinity of Mr. Easy. Easy arrives on June 28th. Be on the lookout. Be careful out there gentlemen.‖ 7

The manner these mongers act reminds us of the homosexual harassment in the 1970‘s. In that decade, the police used to have periodic raids on gay bars. Once the police was spotted, bar owners would turn on a red light to warn their customers. Gay couples were to immediately stop dancing with each other and run to the exit doors. Twenty-years later, straight heterosexual American males are the ones who run away for their lives.

Romulus, for example, is coming to town and wants to know if there have been any raids recently. If the answer is affirmative, he asks other mongers what to do: ―Do you run for the elevators or exit doors? How about stairways or inside the kitchen downstairs?‖8

Paco Loco, another sex tourist, does not understand why there are raids if prostitution is legal in Costa Rica. 9 Romulus explains to him that the harassment is ―irrational‖ and that American tourists are not 4 Pimping: the act of a third party benefiting from the prostitution of another individual or group of individuals.







immunized to police raids.10 The Government wants, for its part, to show that ―they are fighting prostitution.‖11

There is an ongoing debate among experts on how the illegality of sex work affects both the sex tourist and the sex worker. Ryan and Hall in their work on Southeast Asia view sex tourism as an interaction between two groups of equally positioned yet marginalized people - tourists and prostitutes. They identify three main features common to tourists and sex workers. The first one is the power of dressing, the second involves sensuality or undressing; and the third, the formation of particular spatial communities. The authors argue that tourists and prostitutes both occupy a position of power, the

―working girl exercises the power to earn cash; the tourist exercises power due to the possession of money.‖12 Conversely, Kempadoo, in her studies of sex tourism in the Caribbean, views sexual tourists as part of a dominating culture treated with respect by the country‘s police and by everyone in the sex industry. Sex tourists, mostly white, are seen as members of a distinguished and powerful group that provides work for millions of people. She believes the ―liminal model‖ does not apply to the Caribbean:

It is however not an explanation that serves the Caribbean well. The tourist as a marginal person is a questionable notion in the Caribbean context, given the extreme dominance of tourism in the region and the kinds of preferential treatment that tourists receive. Caribbean governments are subservient to the global economy and the foreign exchange brought in by tourists, and a person holding a greenback or Euro commands service and deference. 13

The Costa Rican case seems to follow more Ryan and Hall‘s model of liminality. Sex tourists are afraid of the police and with good reasons. Examples of this are a monger who had to dress as a Chef in a hotel to avoid being taken to prison; another who hid in the garbage to avoid the police; a third jumped over a fence, and broke his leg to avoid being caught inside a brothel. Contrary to the experience in the Caribbean where being white is a historical prerogative, it is not a passport to exercise power in Costa Rica. The Catholic Church has a much stronger influence in Costa Rican politics (It is the State Religion) than the protestant churches in the English Caribbean. Mongers14 in Costa Rica, may be more apprehensive about publicly participating in the sex trade and do not feel so powerful as to do whatever they wish with regard to sex workers. They know that in case of getting involved with minors, they might land in jail.

The vulnerable sexual industry implies that sex researchers are not welcomed and that none of the club owners are to volunteer information that could eventually put them in prison. Sex workers themselves are afraid of those whose motivations are not sexual. If the interviewer turns out to be a journalist or a policeman and gathers evidence that sex is being performed on the premises, the place can be closed down and foreign sex workers can be deported. In the case where the sex worker is a mother, she can lose custody over her children.

Nevertheless, with the present situation it is impossible to tell who is a researcher and who is an undercover agent and anyone who asks too many questions might be either one of them. We get evidence of the sex industry‘s fear from one of the sex forums when sex tourists discuss over an 10


12 Chris Ryan and Michael Hall, Sex Tourism and Liminalities, Routledge, New York- London, 2001, p.4.

13 Kamala Kempadoo, Sexing the Caribbean. Gender, Race and Sexual Labor, London: Routledge, 2004, ebook, p.


14 Mongers: name that refers to sex tourists


invitation by a Chicago journalist to do a piece on them. King Kosta thinks this is ―a very lousy idea…

please.‖ 15 Dboy agrees with him and considers the thought of helping write such an article something ―ridiculous.‖16 Tman asks others who might consider to participate: ―Do we really need to parade around the fun things we do in the dark to everyone in the world...including wives, mothers and Ch*ldren? Dont think so.‖ (sic) An article such as the one proposed is, for him, a ―public scrutiny and knowledge that bring out the witch hunts and double standards of government types to limit the personal freedoms of pleasure seekers.‖ Journalists and researchers only want ―sensationalism and anything ‗shocking‘ to sell newspapers, mags or get eyes on TV in Jerry Springer-like fashion.‖ For these reasons he suggests that ―The last thing I want to see is some of my favorite Ticas brought into the States, paraded on Springer and other like shows, and fighting on live TV over whether they both slept with me or not.‖ Finally, his recommendation is fierce: ―I encourage you guys NOT to spill the beans...‖17

Monger‘s fear makes it difficult to gain accessibility to the world of Costa Rican prostitution. The RAPID ASSESSMENT or RAP18 is a good tool to counteract the tendency to lie since it approaches this universe from different angles and different sources of information. By using triangulation it lessens the distortions expected from a community that is liminal, hidden and secretive, and wants to remain as invisible as possible. Despite our efforts, the RAP is a short intervention that lasts a couple of months and aims at gathering as much information as possible. The number of informants, focus groups, ethnographic observations and in-depth interviews are kept small.