- Economies of Desire: Sex and Tourism in Cuba and the Dominican Republic
In this brief, ambitious book, Amalia Cabezas theorizes about the lives and hardships of women in Cuba and the Dominican Republic who engage in what she terms sexual-affective relations or tactical sex to escape economic distress as well as domestic abuse. While the book is to a large extent theoretical and informed by existing studies, Cabezas's arguments are enhanced by numerous personal interviews over a ten-year period with mostly women engaged in the tourist industry and also by her own work in an all-inclusive hotel in Varadero, Cuba. The interviews and work experience are quite suggestive and add substantial insight and personal narrative to her theoretical constructions.
The author makes four important arguments. Her first argument is that sex work is to a large extent the byproduct of the exploitative, global capitalist system, and more specifically the neoliberal economic policies that the western capitalist nations, mainly the United States, have forced upon the Dominican Republic and now even Cuba. Although tourism is often seen as a way for countries to develop in this neoliberal context, the industry mostly benefits the industrialized nations and their multinational corporations. The comparison between the Dominican Republic and Cuba is a particularly insightful one since Cuba had practically eliminated prostitution during the revolutionary period, but now sex work has returned with the increase in tourism.
Cabezas's second argument is that what scholars often term sex work involves much more than simply sex for money exchanges and thus she labels them sexual-affective relations or tactical sex. This construction of the concept reflects that women have some degree of agency and also develop long term relationships that can lead to prolonged economic support and even marriage. For women in the Caribbean who have few opportunities for advancement for themselves and their children, these affective relationships are perhaps one of only a few routes out of abject poverty and domestic abuse. As a result, many of these women do not see themselves as sex workers, even less as prostitutes, and thus scholars should acknowledge the inherent complexity of such relationships.
Cabezas's third key argument is that the global human rights agenda has not necessarily assisted women who take advantage of the tourist industry to advance in life since these women are often seen as deviants and thus not entitled to protection from the state. Her final argument posits that the women who engage in sex work that is most condemned by the state are most likely women of color, since lighter skinned women engaging in sexual-affective work tend to have safer options and thus are less prone to harassment or arrest by authorities. Overall, Cabezas claims that the tourist industry in Cuba and the Dominican Republic has replaced the colonial plantation system, continuing racist and sexist exploitation.
The study of sex work and affective sexual relations is of course extremely difficult to study systematically, which is a weakness in this and in other similar studies. A sizeable [End Page 129] number of random surveys or interviews are almost out of the question and thus opportunity samples are the most practical route to research. Nevertheless, because this is an important topic, researchers should try to develop more precise analytical categories (as Cabezas does) and pursue larger, more systematic samples. Only then can scholars answer a number of important questions satisfactorily, such as the proportion of women engaged in these activities who are motivated by escaping violence and by economic advancement; the percentage of women in these exploitative situations who actually engage in sex work or sexual-affective activities; or the varying proportions of women engaged in these activities in the Dominican Republic versus Cuba. Perhaps these are questions that are impossible to answer, but future studies in this important area should make bolder attempts to answer them. In the meantime, this book provides a thought-provoking framework with which to ponder the pervasiveness and...