What The Secret Service Scandal Teaches Us About Sex Tourism

After President Barack Obama slow jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon and The Roots, the president responded the talk show host’s question about the sex scandal that rocked the VI Summit of the Americas by saying a few “knuckleheads” should not discredit the entire Secret Service.

These knuckleheads comprise 24 secret service and military personnel who stand accused of misconduct with a local sex worker during the high-level multinational conference held in Cartagena, Colombia.

Weeks after 30 heads of state throughout the Americas failed to come to a resolution over hemispheric challenges such as the War on Drugs and the United States’ 50-year economic embargo on Cuba, the aftermath of the prostitution controversy continues to overshadow diplomatic tensions in the region and growing criticisms from Latin America and the Caribbean over U.S. foreign policy.

Despite its takeover of the headlines, the sex scandal poignantly draws parallels to Organization of the American States’ gathering because it reveals the crux of many issues plaguing the regions and demonstrates how American consumption often leads to Latin American exploitation. 

Much like the how the U.S.’s appetite for narcotics fuels the War on Drugs another illicit multi-billion dollar market booms -- sex.

Sex tourism in Latin American and the Caribbean has grown alongside the formal tourist industry at an alarming rate.  Each year millions of men AND women from the western world travel south looking to get their groove on and their groove back.

Encouraged by Washington-based organizations like the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank, developing nations have become heavily reliant on the direct foreign investment and currency tourism brings into its fledgling economies.  However with major tourist locations have also come a loss of land and sustainable farming and fishing, leaving many with few options but to cater foreign travelers in both the formal and informal economy.

However, referring to sex tourism as “informal” ignores its professionalism.  While brothels and independent solicitations for sex remain commonplace, a large number of transactions occur via the web.  A simple Google search of sex tourism in name-that-exotic-locale reveals pages of websites that inform the curious sex tourist.  Lists of agencies, clubs, sex guides, and even hotels are readily available at one’s fingertips despite the illegalities of such transactions.

Although sex tourism is not new to Latin America and the Caribbean, many tracing its beginnings back to the days of Christopher Columbus in the 15th century, it has boomed as the middle class grew and international travel spiked. 

Amongst these new vacationers were African-Americans who for some the acquisition of a passport gave way to new experiences and new sexual conquests. 

The book Don't Blame it on Rio: The Real Deal Behind Why Men Go to Brazil for Sex by Jewel Woods and Karen Hunter, the authors chronicle the narratives of Black men who engage in sex for pay abroad.  Even as scholars like Professor R L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy highlight the book’s shortcomings claiming it has not “… given enough weight to the larger social forces at play such as gender socialization, an expanding black middle class and the image of the black male in crisis,” it does provide a first hand account of how and why the sex tourism industry flourishes.

Yet one factor missing from the accounts of Black male tourists looking for sex overseas and its analysis remains that Black men in fact represent exploiters and the exploited in the international sex industry. 

In J. Michael Seyfert’s documentary the R&R or rest and relaxation stands for Rent a Rasta.  The film, set in Jamaica, describes how 80,000 women annually visit the island nation’s shores for paid sexual adventures revealing how sexual tourism is not a gendered problem.

The issue of pay for sex play is not unique to knuckleheads, or Black men, or men in general and while travelers seek to “enjoy” offerings abroad an estimated 500,000 sex workers from Latin America and the Caribbean are exploited annually.

The Secret Service sex scandal should not only serve as a national embarrassment, but also a warning. 

Despite the economic recession precipitating in a shrinking middle class and tourism downturn, sexual tourism driven by large events continues to be big business.  And as the world looks awaits the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Brazil, a popular sex tourism destination, the United States and the Organization of the American States should take heed to learn the lessons of this recent scandal and move proactively to implement stronger laws and harsher penalties for those seeking more than just fun and sun.

Jamila Aisha Brown is a freelance writer, political commentator, and social entrepreneur.  Her entrepreneurship, HUE, provides consulting solutions for development projects throughout the African diaspora.  You can follow her on Twitter and engage with HUE, LLC.