The Invisibility of MSM Sex Workers in Haiti
The Invisibility of MSM Sex Workers in Haiti
In his 1990 book The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies, John Urry explains the gaze’s prescriptive and self-fulfilling nature: “When we ‘go away’ we look at the environment with interest and curiosity. It speaks to us in ways we appreciate, or at least we anticipate that it will do so. In other words, we gaze at what we encounter. And this gaze is socially organised and systematised.”1 The tourist gaze projected on Haiti—one of the many legacies of colonialism—constructs and reproduces Haiti with each tourist interaction. The gaze operates with a confirmation bias; it affirms both the tourist’s image of the “native” subject, and perpetuates the cycle of the tourist gaze. This gaze subjects Haiti to a specific set of expectations and constructions. Tourists’ subconscious situating of circumstances, ability to interpret information in accordance with preconceived constructions of the Caribbean, and consumption of locally and internationally produced tourist materials and performances ultimately confirm established representations of Haiti. In the essay below I explore how the gaze tourists and travel literature project onto Haiti impact the visibility of male sex workers who service male clients—referred to hereafter as MSM (men who have sex with men) sex workers.
Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. Yet while the Dominican Republic attracts millions of visitors each year, Haiti receives less than a few hundred thousand.2 The difference between Haitian and Dominican tourism is particularly vast when it comes to the sex tourism industry. There is a plethora of information—both scholarly and consumer generated—about heterosexual sex work and sex tourism in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Yet the most readily available information about sex work in Haiti, from both news publications and academia, strikes a decidedly tragic tone, most often citing a rise in female prostitution as related to the 12 January 2010 earthquake, and heterosexual user-led forums like Worldsexguide.com are full of threads with skeptical titles such as “How Safe is Haiti?”3 Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic is mentioned in—if not the focus of—virtually every canonical academic study about Caribbean sex tourism.4 Threads in the Dominican Republic category on Worldsexguide.com rarely mention safety; instead, they advise users which resorts and hotels are most lenient when it comes to having overnight guests. The quantity as well as the quality of threads varies between the two countries. On Worldsexguide.com, there are a total of 1,457 archived threads about the Dominican Republic, in comparison to the 8 about Haiti.5
Nowhere is the discrepancy in information about Haiti and the Dominican Republic more striking than when it comes to the subject of gay sex tourism. Entire books have been written about male sex workers in the Dominican Republic who have sex with male tourists,6 but almost no material exists on this topic in Haiti. This raises a very simple question: Why? Could it be that there are no Haitian male sex workers servicing male tourists? Unlikely. The more probable cause of this relative silence is the fact that, unlike in the Dominican Republic, sex work is a criminalized and therefore underground industry in Haiti. Homosexual sex work is doubly stigmatized through its performance of nonnormative sexuality within an informal and socially censured sector. The lack of information on this topic, therefore, does not signify nonexistence of MSM sex workers but rather an overwhelming denial of their presence. This leads to what is, in my opinion, a series of far more interesting questions: Why are there no studies on Haitian MSM sex workers? Why are there no blogs detailing male tourists’ sexual experiences with young Haitian men? Why is this an undocumented industry?
Understanding the development of the tourist gaze of Haiti is crucial to understanding how and why discourses about MSM sex workers formed. Central to this discussion are the different foreign-generated (and occasionally nationally maintained) constructions of the Caribbean. The Caribbean is first constructed as a site of pleasure, sweetness, and indulgence. This representation—which dates back to empires’ marketing of their colonies to entice settler relocation and to the subsequent rise of the sugar cane export industry—presents the Caribbean as a destination for spring-breakers, wealthy retirees, and cruise ships. Caribbean people, travel literature tells us, are “exotic,” “uninhibited,” and sexually available. This Caribbean is paradise, a playground for adults, or what Louis Turner and John Ash termed in The Golden Hordes “the pleasure periphery.”7
The second construction of the Caribbean—tactically generated first to justify US military occupation and then, later, US aid—depicts the Caribbean as a site of tragedy. This is the Caribbean visited by humanitarian groups and nongovernmental organizations. This is the Caribbean of dirty, impoverished black and brown bodies, a far cry from the voluptuous and sultry women and lean, muscular men promoted as inhabitants of the Caribbean playground.
Despite sharing the same island, Haiti and the Dominican Republic represent two different Caribbeans and therefore serve as the subjects for two different discourses. Haiti is tragic. The Dominican Republic, although saddled with its own economic and political problems, is fun. Neither of these two versions reflects the actual identities and social ecosystems that make up Caribbean countries but instead reveals the ways they and their inhabitants are fantasized in the global market.
The interaction of these representations with dominant constructs of masculinity—specifically masculine sexual agency—has repercussions on the bodies of Caribbean MSM sex workers. Normative constructions of masculine sexuality seem to coexist with the tourist gaze projected on the Dominican Republic. Therefore, popular discourse of the Dominican Republic can incorporate MSM sex workers. Conversely, normative constructions of masculine sexuality clash with the popular gaze of Haiti. As a result, public global discourse of Haiti omits MSM sex workers altogether.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Haiti was known as a sex tourism hotspot, particularly for gay North American men. At this time, Haiti was seen as an exotic locale swarming with sexually available (read, rentable) black bodies. This changed, however, with the 1980s AIDS crisis. Popular opinion held that AIDS originated in Haiti. In 1982, the American Center for Disease Control (CDC) declared that individuals of Haitian origin had a greater likelihood of contracting HIV. As a result, Haitians became part of what were colloquially known as the “4 H’s” to avoid: homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin-users, and Haitians. The Haitian Bureau of Tourism estimated that with the popularization of this belief, tourism “declined from 75,000 visitors in the winter of 1981–82 to under 10,000 the following year.”8 Associated with two of these “4 H’s,” Haitian MSMs were doubly undesirable as objects of sexual desire and as subjects of a marketable Caribbean.9
Haiti’s contemporary image in mass media is now largely defined by the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands and left more than one million people homeless. The country is noticeably absent from most contemporary travel guides about the Caribbean. On some travel websites, Haiti is not even labeled as a destination; the western third of Hispaniola is simply left blank on travel maps that brightly advertise the Dominican Republic (such as in this example). Haiti is portrayed as a territory of ambiguous nationhood, a no-man’s land. It is also absent from the majority of guidebooks for the Caribbean. Neither National Geographic Traveler: The Caribbean (2012) nor Fodor’s 2015 Caribbean (2014) nor DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Caribbean (2013) includes Haiti in its extensive list of Caribbean destinations. Haiti, like its male sex workers, is invisible. Lonely Planet Caribbean Islands (2011) is one of the few guidebooks with a section on Haiti; it terms the nation a potential “alternative travel destination.” The Lonely Planet website is less subtle: “As both failed state and media whipping boy, Haiti has long played the dark shadow to the bright sunlight of the rest of the Caribbean. . . . We can only hope that . . . Haiti can finally emerge from its murky past and tragic present.”10
Royal Caribbean Cruises (RCC) docks at one location in Haiti, a place it has titled—and trademarked—“Labadee.” Until several years ago, the RCC did not identify “Labadee” as part of Haiti; it was marketed simply as an exotic Caribbean destination on the island of Hispaniola. Although the RCC now admits that “Labadee” is, in fact, part of Haiti, the travel literature assures its patrons that this “secluded spot” is “reserved solely for Royal Caribbean guests.”11 While Dominican bodies are a central part of the Dominican Republic’s appeal as a tourist destination, Haitian bodies seem to be a deterrent—guests are essentially promised that they will not have to come in contact with Haitian people.
Online comments on forums and articles reveal a widespread American perception of Haiti spanning a variety of demographics. Comments on a National Public Radio article from 2013, “For Your Next Caribbean Vacation, Haiti . . . Maybe?,” capture some of these popular attitudes: Commenter “ellen ritgers” wrote on January 2013, “Sorry, before I plan my next Haitian vacation, they’re going to have to do something about the rape and murder rate, also the cholera and typhoid epidemic. Not my idea of an ideal vacation spot.” Her comment was “up-voted” fourteen times. Another commenter, “Oscar Myer,” added, “Haiti is a place to escape from, not go to.”12 Commenters on Worldsexguide.com expressed similar opinions on a thread called “A thought on D.R. and Haiti.” On 4 January 2005, “Arecho Monger” asked, “But What about the Aids [sic] Problem in Haiti?” And on 13 May 2010, member “PFactor” posted in a thread titled “A day at the Beach with Badbear and 3 babes,” “I would be a bit concerned about security in Haiti after the earthquake.”13
Turning to gay travel texts, one can see Haiti is presented as a hostile, unsafe, and potentially grotesque location for gay travelers. In an essay titled “A Visit to an Exotic and Troubled Land” on the website Globalgayz.com, contributor Richard Ammon writes, “Haiti has a vibrant colorful soul unique in the Caribbean. But as a brief visitor to this half-island nation, I write from the impression I felt stepping into the bowels of the teeming congested Port au Prince.” Ammon continues, “I walked through the city, . . . sidestepping open sewers and manholes, rural women squatting on the ground selling fruit, dented taxis, . . . sweaty poverty, . . . and of course pitiful rough-hewn beggars.” The website Gaysontour.com warns against Haiti, terming it the only Caribbean country other than Jamaica—a country in which homosexuality is illegal—that is “absolutely life threatening for gays.”14
The tourist gaze (re)produces Haiti as a monolithic, primitive pit of trauma and despair. This is the tourist gaze’s dominant construction of the country; all subsequent discussions of Haiti’s global image must operate with it as a working representation. Sex work is thus only mentioned in tragic narratives of women forced to (re)turn to prostitution following the 2010 earthquake. Homosexuality is primarily discussed in terms of HIV/AIDS or the threat of violence against queer-identifying Haitians. Most important, masculinity presents as a hypermasculinity in keeping with the “black stud” trope of slavery—rough, savage, threatening, biologically driven, and possessing an inherently male sexual agency.
The phenomenon of male sex workers—particularly MSMs—interrupts the reproduction of the tourist gaze in Haiti. Haitian sex workers, the gaze insists, are sexually exploited, possibly disease ridden, and certainly subject to violence. Yet men can sexually dominate and physically overpower—even harm—others. The tourist gaze of Haiti provides no space for the reconciliation of both constructions within one body. These intransigent constructions result in the invisibility of MSM sex workers. Because they defy the tourist gaze’s expectations of Haiti, MSM sex workers are not “endlessly reproduced” in the mainstream narrative.14
For MSM sex workers, avoiding the tourist gaze with nonnormative sexuality might be a powerful act of resistance against a neoliberal oppressive force. If the tourist gaze captures and duplicates, existence outside the gaze’s scope allows for the possibility of ever-changing self-definition. However, there are negative consequences to eluding the gaze, primarily the lack of institutionalized, political, or popular representation that could lead to the establishment of identity-based services. In short, living “outside the system” means, literally, living outside the system. Invisibility prevents the development and provision of services—from health to housing to employment—geared toward unseen and vulnerable communities. The tourist gaze’s inability to align constructions of Haiti with constructions of Caribbean masculinity therefore sentences MSM sex workers to death with impunity. This goes unnoticed. After all, according to the gaze, the deceased never existed in the first place.
Sophie Ellman-Golan is a recent graduate of Barnard College, where she majored in Africana studies and human rights. She lives in Brooklyn and is an active member of the Campaign for Police Accountability at Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a radical Jewish, feminist, antiracist organization. She is an intern at the Social Science Research Counsel’s African Peacebuilding Network.
1 John Urry, The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies (London: Sage, 1990), 1.
2 According to the World Bank, while the Dominican Republic had 4,563,000 visits from international inbound tourists in 2012, Haiti received only 295,000. “International Tourism, Number of Arrivals,” data.worldbank.org/indicator/ST.INT.ARVL (accessed 14 October 2014).
3 Lisa Armstrong, “Haiti’s Horrendous Teenage Prostitution Problem,” Daily Beast, 16 June 2011, www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/06/17/haiti-s-teenage-prostitution-…; Kwame Dawes, “Bebe the Mother,” Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, 14 December 2010, pulitzercenter.org/blog/haiti-earthquake-women-sex-work; Nico, “Lost Innocence,” Haiti Today, 4 February 2010, haiti-today.com/lost-innocence; “The Secret Life: A Portrait of a Sex Worker in Haiti,” Housingworks, 28 October 2010, www.housingworks.org/blogs/detail/sex-lies-and-the-earthquake; Worldsexguide.com www.worldsexguide.com/forum/showthread.php?7903-How-Safe-is-Haiti (accessed 26 September 2014).
4 Examples include Mark Padilla, Caribbean Pleasure Industry: Tourism, Sexuality, and AIDS in the Dominican Republic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007); and Amalia L. Cabezas, Economies of Desire: Sex and Tourism in Cuba and the Dominican Republic (Philadelphia: Temple University Press).
5 www.worldsexguide.com/forum/forumdisplay.php?511-Dominican-Republic; www.worldsexguide.com/forum/forumdisplay.php?519-Haiti (accessed 29 September 2014).
6 See Padilla, Caribbean Pleasure Industry.
7 Louis Turner and John Ash, The Golden Hordes: International Tourism and the Pleasure Periphery (New York: St. Martin’s, 1976).
8 Paul Farmer, AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame (Berkeley: University of California, 1992), 146; cited in Gordon Waitt and Kevin Markwell, Gay Tourism: Culture and Context (New York: Haworth, 2006), 72.
9 It is important to note that MSM sex workers do not necessarily identify as homosexual.
10 Lonely Planet and Ryan Ver Berkmoes et al., Lonely Planet Caribbean Islands (Footscray, AU: Lonely Planet, 2011), 509; www.lonelyplanet.com/Haiti (accessed 29 September 2014).
11 Dan Howell Travel, www.danhowelltravel.com/d/3520_15143.htm; see also “Caribbean Travel Guide,” Fodors.com, www.fodors.com/world/caribbean (accessed 29 September 2014).
12 Jason Beaubien, “For Your Next Caribbean Vacation, Haiti . . . Maybe?,” National Public Radio, 29 January 2013; see comments at www.npr.org/2013/01/29/170187951/for-your-next-caribbean-vacation-haiti….
13 Worldsexguide.com, www.worldsexguide.com/forum/showthread.php?3551-A-thought-on-D.R.-and-H… (accessed 26 September 2014); www.worldsexguide.com/forum/showthread.php?50978-A-day-at-the-Beach-wit… (accessed 26 September 2014).
14 Richard Ammon, “A Visit to an Exotic and Troubled Land,” GlobalGayz.com, July 2006 (accessed 27 September 2014); “Security Information and Tips,” Gaysontour.com, www.gaysontour.com/index.php?page=254&lang=en#caribe (accessed 27 September 2014).
15 Urry, Tourist Gaze, 3.