Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Old Country, Older Profession

By David G. Young

Santo Domingo, March 19, 2012 --  

Widespread prostitution in the Dominican Republic isn't good for the country's future.

"Hello, how are you?" cooed the young prostitute in Spanish as she slinked toward me on the Dominican beach. My wife had stepped away from me for no more than 15 minutes -- ample time, apparently, for an unattended man to become a potential customer.

Such encounters are far from rare in the Dominican Republic, where the world's oldest profession legally thrives in America's oldest European-settled country. This poor Caribbean nation, with a per capita income of only $93001, and a huge disparity between rich and poor, has been a major center for sex tourism for over two decades.

In sex tourism destinations like Sosua, older European and North American men are commonly seen walking, drinking and even dining with much younger mixed-race Dominicans with sexually suggestive clothing. The highways feature countless "Cabaņa" motels complete with high walls around the property and privacy garages with names like "Paradisio" (Paradise) and "Amor Secreto" (Secret Love).

Yet international tourism and lack of economic opportunity only goes so far in explaining the prostitution's ubiquity in this country. Cabaņas are not just found in areas known for sex tourism, like Sosua and Boca Chica, but in non-tourist areas along highways near Santiago and here in Santo Domingo, and even in more rural areas. They are found almost anywhere with a significant population density, regardless of the presence of tourism. Clearly, Dominican men are in on the action, too.

And Dominican women have a much stronger presence in the prostitution industry then their economic circumstances would suggest. After the 2009 earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince in neighboring Haiti, it was Dominican women, not their much poorer Haitian neighbors, who crossed the border to serve foreign aid workers in brothels.2

Statistics on socially uncomfortable topics like prostitution are always hard to come by. A 2003 study put the number of overseas Dominican prostitutes in the Netherlands and Germany alone at 50,000.3 A widely used, but poorly documented count of prostitutes within the country itself is typically listed at 100,000.4

Clearly, the numbers are huge, especially relative to the small size of the country. The Dominican Republic has only 1.3 million females in the typical 15-29 age range for sex workers4, so a total of 150,000 would make over 11 percent of the country's young females prostitutes.

These numbers are especially surprising given that it is a nominally Catholic country. Regardless of your opinion on the morality of prostitution, such a widespread presence in a country can't be good for its development -- especially given its propensity to spread disease, promote substance abuse and its inability to provide women with income earning potential throughout their lives.

To be sure, the law has no place in restricting behavior between consenting adults. But that doesn't mean prostitution should not be discouraged via other means -- education, social pressure, and promoting alternatives. Yes, prostitution will always be with us. But other countries at the Dominican Republic's income level, like China and Tunisia, focus their economic energy on more productive endeavors that offer hope for a wealthier future. The women and men of the Dominican Republic would be wise to pursue similar ambitions.


1. CIA World Factbook, Dominican Republic, March 6, 2012

2. Christian Science Monitor, In Postquake Haiti, an Influx of Dominican Prostitutes, August 22, 2010

3. Centro Latinoamericano y Caribeno de Demografia, La Trata de Mujeres: Sus Conexiones y Desconexiones Con La Migracion y los Derechos Humanos, May 2003

4. Science, The Sun. The Sand. The Sex., July 2006.

5. U.S. Census Bureau, International Database, March 2012 (2012 Female Population of the Dominican Republic, aged 15-29 is 1,321,003)