Continued from Part 1 – For another thing, Costa Rica is close, a four-hour flight out of Atlanta. The hard-core-sex destinations—Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines—require major investments in airfare and flying time, twenty-two hours to Manila on a direct flight, twenty-three to Bangkok. Costa Rica, on the other hand, can be done in a long weekend.
It’s relatively safe, fairly well developed, and friendly toward Americans. Plus, with the notable exception of San José, it’s a lush little emerald of a nation with plenty of other plausible reasons to visit. Tell your wife you’re going fishing with some buddies, spend a night at the Holiday Inn, two more in Jacó or another one of the beach towns now overrun with prostitutes, then fly home and brag about all the big ones you caught. Who has to know?
Exactly how many tourists come here every year looking for sex is impossible to determine; “get laid” isn’t one of the boxes that can be checked off under “purpose of trip” on the immigration form. But there are clues. Of the 500,000 or so Americans who visit the country each year, for instance, 25.8 percent are single men. There are also at least eleven companies that offer either complete package tours to San José, including airfare, or lodging, transportation, and women once you land. Solo Adventures bills itself as “a Full Service Travel Agency specializing in pre-designed adult companion packages to all regions of Costa Rica for the single (body or mind) Gent.” Bendricks International Men’s Club will fly you down, put you up in one of eight luxury resorts for three nights, and supply “companion escorts” for $1,695. “You can enjoy the private company of South American women who can satisfy even the most active imagination in one of the world’s great adult travel vacation destinations for men,” the Bendricks Web site says. (The company won’t say how many men they take down each year. In fact, the guy behind the desk in the Miami office won’t say anything at all—he just shakes his head at every question.)
But the commercial tours account for just a fraction of the gringos renting women in Costa Rica. (Only the truly inept and incompetent need to hire a middleman anyway.) Aside from the dedicated sex tourists, there are legions of part-timers, guys who come for some other reason and take a side trip, so to speak. The problem is, how to separate the dedicated ’mongers from the dabblers? The group from Chicago that flies down to San José every summer, outed last year by the local ABC station and its hidden cameras, would presumably lean toward the dedicated-’monger camp, considering there is absolutely nothing to do in San José other than gamble, drink, and pick up prostitutes. (ABC7’s ominous tagline—“ the Shameful Obsession”—would suggest as much, too.) The so-called Michigan Boys, on the other hand, might tilt toward dabbler. They hold a legitimate annual fishing tournament, one that in 2004 drew 167 contestants—including a suburban police chief, a school-board president, and a judge—only it was based at a resort that happened to be stocked with prostitutes. “The problem with our trip,” one of the organizers told WXYZ-TV in Detroit, which followed the Michigan Boys to Costa Rica, “is that some of the guys go there and party, and they talk too much. And then somebody hears in a bar about [it]—wife or sister-in-law hears—and it’s sad because not everybody goes there and does it.” Yeah, that’s the problem—they talk too much. Not surprisingly, though, every other guy that WXYZ asked about the trip denied cavorting with whores. (Warren, Michigan, police chief Danny Clark actually said, “I did not know that they were hookers.”)
Or ignore the statistics and junkets. Just look around. Stand at the edge of Parque Morazan and watch the parade of white guys with young brown girls. “This place,” says that American expat former cop, “has to be the number one destination in the Western Hemisphere for horny, middle-aged moron-loser-gringos jacked up on Viagra.”
Take these American guys in the bar overhanging the lobby at the Holiday Inn—three of them, clean-cut, midthirties. They staggered in on separate flights, which is apparent because they’re swapping reports on how crowded each plane was. This is some kind of reunion for them, and they’re sitting around, waiting for seven more friends to show up.
Rain is coming down hard outside. “I remember a lot of heavy rain last year, too,” one of them says.
“Yeah,” the second one says, “and I remember a lot of heavy screaming.”
They all bust up at that.
A fourth gringo shows up, then a fifth, a sixth. Same pattern every time: flight report, bitch about the rain, recap last year’s highlights, always with dramatic emphasis on the last syllable or three.
“I know this massage parlor, anything you want. An-nee-thing.”
“I had this girl, a hundred thousand colones”—200 bucks, give or take—“and I had her for the whole night. The whole night.”
It goes on like this until the last two guys show up. They’ve got American girls with them, one a wife, one a girlfriend. Now the boys are talking about…rain forests and rafting. And dinner. They’re going to the restaurant at the Hotel Del Rey, where the food’s pretty good.
One guy looks spooked.
“Nah, don’t worry,” his buddy tells him. “They don’t bother you in the restaurant.”
“Yeah,” another guy says. “They just stand outside and watch you. And wait.”
The academic debate over whether prostitution is a good idea is pretty simple in its extremes. On one side are the abolitionists—some feminist and religious groups and, since 2003, the U.S. government. They believe that selling sex is always wrong, inherently demeaning, a fundamental violation of basic human rights. Whether they’re philosophically correct is irrelevant to the actual world. The global sex industry, ancient and entrenched, employs/exploits/enslaves (the verb you choose is a function of your politics and the circumstances of individual prostitutes) tens of millions of women and girls, and generates hundreds of billions of dollars annually. Abolishing it, purging the planet of every escort and bar girl and streetwalker, and prosecuting or shaming every john into submission is no more feasible than eliminating agriculture or the auto industry.
On the other side are libertarians, a tiny minority of prostitutes who prefer to be called “sex workers,” and, one would suppose, a good percentage of the men who pay for sex. They believe that consenting adults should be free to do whatever they damn well please, though probably the pragmatists among them will concede that the business should be regulated to ensure everyone’s health and safety.
That argument is worse than irrelevant: It’s just silly, a utopian notion bordering on idiotic.
Sure, there are a handful of brothels that enforce strict rules on condoms for the men and health checks for the women. But those are a minuscule proportion of the business, the vast majority of which is carried out in dirty hotels and strip clubs, in cars and on street corners, and almost entirely cash transactions between strangers who prefer anonymity—the very definition of unsafe and unregulated. In poor countries with thriving sex industries, enforcing any semblance of order would be impossible. Even if police corruption and criminal gangs magically vanished, places like Thailand or the Philippines have neither the manpower nor the financial incentive to monitor hundreds of thousands of prostitutes and johns. Even developed countries who attempt some form of regulation and encourage prostitutes to register have had dismal results. In the Netherlands, for instance, fewer than one in ten of an estimated 25,000 prostitutes have chosen to be officially licensed. Believing that will change, that it can change, is naive. Most prostitutes—the ones controlled by pimps or traffickers, the minors, the illegal immigrants—aren’t in any position to ask for government help, and the ones who are usually don’t want an official record of a profession they hope will be temporary. For all the blather about empowering sex workers, few women want prostitution on their résumés.
Moreover, legalizing it in any particular place—in other words, eliminating the risk of arrest and diminishing the immediate social stigma (at least for the men) —almost always increases demand, which in turn requires an increased supply. And since there are never enough local women clamoring to be prostitutes, especially in developed nations, they have to be imported. In the early 1990s, for example, an estimated 75 percent of Germany’s prostitutes had been shipped in from South America (a demographic that, since the fall of the Soviet Union, has been largely replaced by women from places like Russia, Romania, and the Ukraine). Common sense, as well as government statistics and a 2005 U.S. State Department report, suggests that at least some of those women were trafficked (that is, lured with the promise of legitimate jobs or simply forced) into the country by outlaw pimps—one of the problems legalization is theoretically meant to solve. What Paraguayan peasant—even if she truly wants to be a whore in Europe—has the money and the connections to get there and go into business for herself?
Or take the Czech Republic, where, for a decade, prostitution has been a misdemeanor offense so widely unenforced that it was de facto legal (and a pro-legalization bill is currently awaiting a vote in parliament). In 2004 the Interior Ministry counted almost 900 brothels, 200 in Prague alone—dramatic growth for an industry that, one expert observes, was “almost nonexistent” in that country a decade ago. On weekends, the Czech border town of Cheb (population 32,000) is flooded with 10,000 German men who sample the prostitutes from Russia, the Ukraine, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Albania—all countries listed by the State Department as sources of trafficked women. And the profits, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, are collected by fifteen criminal gangs.
And then there’s Costa Rica. For such a beautiful little country that markets itself so aggressively to ecotourists and fishermen, it can’t seem to shake its reputation as a sex paradise. San José has long been the hub; Death called it “the very best place in the world to get laid” way back in 2001, after all, and apparently both the Chicago contingent and the Michigan Boys have been chartering down for more than ten years. Yet rather than being contained and controlled in the capital city, prostitution has expanded across the country, growing along with the crowds of tourists that have increased from 435,000 in 1990 to 1,450,000 last year. Prostitutes now shuttle to the ports on both coasts where cruise ships dock, and they’re part of the scenery in most of the beach towns.
Fifteen years ago, a tico named Jorge used to drive two hours over the mountains with his family to Jacó, a surf town on the Pacific coast and the closest beach to San José. Look at the place now. On a slow night in low season in the Beatle Bar—another joint that’s “World Famous,” which is apparently code for where a gringo can get a whore—twenty prostitutes are wasting their time on seven white guys and a couple of coeds who don’t stay long. When it closes, the girls move down the strip to Monkey Bar. Farther down is Pancho Villa, where the kitchen in the downstairs club is open late, and the entrance to a strip club upstairs is around the corner. Two young guys, pale and preppy, come out with their arms around a couple of tall black women and grab a cab. Then three chicas—16, tops—stumble up the street in spike heels. (“You can always tell the prostitutes,” Jorge says. “They always look like they just got out of the shower. A really long shower.”)
BY SEAN FLYNN, GQ
Part 3 Tomorrow