Sex Trade Flourishes in Dominican Republic

Cronkite Borderlands Initiative

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – As a worker in the Dominican Republic’s burgeoning sex trade, Odalis, a 34-year-old mother of three, has been gang raped, robbed and harassed.

But she keeps selling her body, mostly on weekends, she said, so she can feed her children.

There is no law that explicitly prohibits or legalizes prostitution in the Dominican Republic, a country that has developed lavish resorts along its beautiful beaches.

But as the country's popularity as a tourist destination grows, so does its sex tourism, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development’s profile on HIV/AIDS in the Dominican Republic.

The Center for Integral Orientation and Investigation, a non-governmental organization for sexual and reproductive health in the Dominican Republic, estimates there are almost 100,000 sex workers in this country of 10 million.

While sex work is most prevalent in large cities and tourist areas, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins and COIN, many sex workers like Odalis have local clients.

Odalis has a youthful face and a girlish physique. One day in late spring, she was dressed casually in leggings and a fitted T-shirt. She quietly described her experiences working for more than 14 years in the Dominican Republic’s sex trade.

“I remember a time when a man took me for a long distance way up in the mountains and started to beat me,” she said.

Her voice was calm, her face expressionless, as she recounted how the man proceeded to attack her physically and sexually, again and again.

“I was just looking up saying, 'Don’t kill me.'”

While Odalis continues in the sex trade, she has found an advocate in Jacqueline Montero, the president of MODEMU, Movimiento de Mujeres Unidas or Movement of United Women. Montero, a former sex worker, now spends her days fighting for the rights of sex workers in the Dominican Republic.

MODEMU was established in 1996 after the first congress of sex workers in the Dominican Republic. It is made up of current sex workers, like Odalis, and former ones, like Montero. The organization, which is dedicated to promoting the human rights of commercial sex workers, educates prostitutes on how to limit their exposure to AIDS and offers support for those hoping to transition out of the sex trade.

“Almost always a sex worker starts because of a friend or because she was a child who has been sexually abused or she has a very bad husband,” Montero said. “To me, all three of these happened.”

Montero has turned her life around. She was elected to Santo Domingo’s city council and plans to run for Congress in 2016 in order to “promulgate a law that will respect the rights of my compatriots,” she said.

She also has been asked to speak at conferences and meetings in the U.S.

University of California, Riverside, Women Studies Professor of Amalia Cabezas hosted a fundraiser at her home for Montero’s presentation to her class. Cabezas, who wrote the book “Economies of Desire: Sex and Tourism in Cuba and the Dominican Republic,” spent years researching the sex trade in those countries.

“MODEMU has been very successful in educating women (in the sex trade) of their rights, letting them know they have labor rights, human rights and giving them language and tools to defend themselves,” Cabezas said. MODEMU “raises their self-esteem and their knowledge of sex practices.”

She and Montero said a major problem facing sex worker advocacy organizations such as MODEMU is lack of resources. A religious organization that once helped fund Montero’s group recently decreased its contributions, which will make it difficult for women to develop literacy skills and support systems to leave the sex trade for other jobs, Cabezas said.

Meanwhile, Odalis continues to meet her three johns on the weekends. When she leaves for work, she locks her 13-year-old son in his room until her return. He knows what she does and wishes she wouldn’t “go out” anymore.

“He hears things and he worries,” Odalis said.

Odalis’ dreams for her four children are the dreams of most parents – a respectable job, a good education, health.

But Odalis adds one more wish: that her four children will never be drawn into the industry that has sustained them.