Strippers vs hookers
IT'S a warm and breezy Friday night at a popular adult entertainment establishment called Pablo's, on Eastwood Park Road in St Andrew.
There is a sea of expensive-looking cars in the parking lot, and several male patrons are outside in the yard swilling liquor. A group of young women are gossiping and checking out the men - and there's a burly security guard in a black shirt, cap and jeans standing by the small gate collecting the $300 entrance fee from the patrons as they roll in.
The second you walk into the club, they notice you. There seems to be a ripple effect of some sort. Two good-looking, skimpily-dressed young girls walk by, looking at me smilingly, like I'm the most attractive man they've ever seen. The women, dressed in fishnets, tiny shorts and bras are strippers - also referred to as 'go-go' or 'strip dancers'.
By all accounts, the operators of these establishments - found in major towns across Jamaica - the dancing girls and the men flocking to the clubs to pay to see them, are collectively driving the sex industry in Jamaica, which is reportedly raking in millions of dollars.
Back inside the club, the place is lined wall to wall with men. The bar is buzzing and a pool table nearby is like a flame attracting some of the men. I choose a corner spot and settle down to watch a rotation of beautiful girls (most in their twenties) of various sizes and descriptions dance onstage. There is even a pregnant dancer onstage working the pole like a pro. A few make eye contact. Lisa, a fair-skinned girl and the skinniest of the bunch, turns towards me after seeing my notebook. She makes her way over and a conversation ensues.
"I've been dancing for about two years now and I like it a lot. I have a nine-month-old son and that is how I take care of him, by dancing," the 24-year-old says.
She is intelligent.
"I dance like three nights a week and use my days off to spend time with family in Montego Bay."
She makes it clear that she is strictly a dancer who does not engage in any kind of "loose behaviour". She only provides lap dances.
"Darling, to tell you the truth, when I get tips that is when I make most of my money. I don't need to do anything else with the men. I am satisfied. My boyfriend takes care of me otherwise. He trusts me because it was at the club I first met him, and now we have a baby together," she reveals.
By this time, a group of heavy-set men enter the club and Sasha, 26, takes Lisa's place by my side.
She is wearing a two-piece bathing suit with six-inch heels.
"I love my job; it is fun. I don't feel no way about what I do. It is just a job like what anybody else has. It's what we do to make our living,"
Sheryl, 33, also has no qualms about her line of work, pointing out that she enjoys getting large tips and is saving up to open a beauty shop.
"I don't do 'business'," she says, meaning sex for money. "I don't agree with it. I will dance and collect the tips plus my weekly pay from the boss. That is enough for me," she adds.
As the night picks up, more men enter the club.
But it's not just men; a few women are here too, some with male companions and some by themselves. A quick chat with one of the couples reveals that they're here "to spice up their love lives". Others say they're here out of curiosity. Whatever the reason, the dancing girls don't seem to mind. In fact, they seem to gyrate their hips more wildly in front of the couples than for men sitting alone.
Sunday Observer checks reveal that the most popular strip joints in Kingston boast provocative names like 'Bodies', 'Hummingbird', 'Pretty Pum Pum', 'Palais Royale', 'Caesar's', 'Platinum' and 'The Office'. Out-of-towners are known to frequent 'Shades' in Ocho Rios, 'Finger Pole' in Mandeville, 'Silver Spoon' and the 'Back Road' area of Port Henderson in Portmore, St Catherine.
At the same time, there are many players who work in the field of sex work: the dancers, the prostitutes, the pimps, the operators of strip clubs/escort agencies/ massage parlours and the patrons who shell out the big bucks. And if the words of Garcia, the supervisor at Pablo's, are anything to go by, most strippers make "decent" money nightly.
"Yes, they make good money. We pay them separately from the tips that they get from the men. On an average night, they get upwards of $1,800 and on special nights they get over $2,100. For the week, they can make over $10,000. When they add that to the tips they get, they are alright for the week. They are able to work up to five days a week and they get two nights off. But that's just in Kingston. On the north coast and in places like MoBay and Negril, the girls make much more," says Garcia, a short, light-skinned lady with low-cut dark hair. "We provide a safe environment here for them. The security is tight, and everybody is well-protected. If you respect your job, it will respect you. The dancers are not allowed to go out into the yard or on the street in their costumes."
The dollars seem to flow freely inside the club.
It's the same at another hotspot we visited in New Kingston, where the men range from husbands with dazzling wedding rings to young, thug-looking brothers.
But these days the money is not flowing freely for sex workers of every category. While the strip clubs and sex shops are reporting good business these days, the street prostitutes make it clear that their 'business' is not as lucrative as it once was. According to several of them who shared their stories with the Sunday Observer recently, the clubs are wooing their men. But that's not all. With the spotlight now being focussed on the sex industry more than ever, they say many of their regular customers have become fearful and refuse to visit them on the streets. Consequently, life is bleak for New Kingston hookers like Pat, Marcia, Likkle Miss, Audrey, Apple and others.
"This is the worst year of all. trus' me. The man dem not coming out to we like one time; dem scared. So mi have nuff bills pile up right now," explains 24-year-old Marcia, a single mother of one, who has been a prostitute for seven years. A friend introduced her to the practice.
I encounter over a dozen variations of Marcia's story. Some complain that the homosexual male prostitutes are taking away their customers and are ridiculing them. (The gigolos, we are told, work from sex houses). The prostitutes say they sometimes drop their prices. For sexual intercourse, they charge $1000, for quickies and oral sex $800 and to spend the night with her will cost $5,000.
"We haffi deal wid police harassment, too, because sometimes the police dem run wi dung and make it worse fi wi nuh make no money. If them catch we wid a man, them charge the man dem some $10,000 and $15,000 and we not making that," shares Stacy, a 30-year-old. She is clad in black lingerie.
Stacy, who operates in the Braemar Avenue area, says she has to provide financially for her two kids. "And from the government start talk 'bout sex tax, it getting worse fi we. We don't want so much attention. It not good fi business at all. I have two kids to send to school and I don't have no help. This is my only source of income."
Out on Trafalgar Road in New Kingston, Pat, 38, and Likkle Miss, 41, also share tales of close encounters with men who tried to rob and kill them. But with no other source of survival, they still come out after dark to sell sex.
As the women share their sad tales, a few cars drive pass.
A few of the drivers slow down but none of them stop, despite the pleas and compliments from the women.
In the meantime, Sunday Observer sources reveal that in towns like Ocho Rios and Montego Bay, the experiences of sex workers are vastly dissimilar. Reportedly, some sex workers (including the transgendered variety) seek out tourists to date, sometimes without asking explicitly for cash in return for 'favours'. Instead, they derive benefits from staying at swanky hotels, dining at expensive restaurants, partying at all-inclusive resorts and attending high-end social events.
"Many of these women regard themselves as 'escorts' who do not charge for sex but for the 'island girlfriend' experience. They often cook and clean for these men, and even carry them on tours of the town. It's very discrete," one source tells the Sunday Observer from a popular hotel in Ocho Rios. "You also have male escorts who cater to female tourists and this is very popular here in Ochi and in MoBay and Negril where you have the major all-inclusive resorts."
Last summer, during a Sunday Observer visit to the White River rafting attraction in St Ann, we met O'Neil, a lifeguard who bragged about the many female tourists he's had sex with for money.
"Whenever the whitie dem come down pon the plane or the cruise ship, tings always gwaan. Mi get nuff tips and ting. One of them even promise fi send fi me so mi a wait fi see how dat go," he boasted.
Beyond the monetary hustle that goes on in the sex industry, one cannot avoid the fact that there is an underside to this sexual candyland. The HIV epidemic is everywhere and sex work, by definition, entails exposure to sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The sex workers, both in the clubs and on the streets, insisted that they use protection whenever they engaged in sex acts with customers. But with the prevalence of STIs in Jamaica, Lovette Byfield, Director of HIV Prevention at the Ministry of Health, says interventions and peer education training for sex workers is important in contemporary Jamaica as the number of sex workers operating in Jamaica continues to climb at alarming rates.
"The figures keep jumping all over the place so we don't have a set [total] to give. We are working on that currently," Byfield said. Health workers from the ministry including Richard Reid and Bernice Fearon visit strip clubs and prostitute hangout spots weekly to distribute condoms and impart knowledge about safe sex practices.
"We just come out to educate the sex workers and the men who come here about condom use and STI prevention. We try to engage them in risk reduction conversations," said Fearon, whom we met at Pablo's.
Reid said they also use their weekly visits to invite patrons to their workshops on safe sex practices.
"We also teach them how to invest their money wisely. I think it's an honest living for these women and some of the men who do it too, so we don't condemn them," Reid said.
While local and international experts like Dr Veronica Salter argue that many women who turn to prostitution and other forms of sex work are "hurt and abused women looking for love", psychologist Dr Leahcim Semaj says this is not always the case.
"There are women out there who simply enjoy dancing and granting sexual favours in exchange for money. You have some dancers who love their work and see it as a semi-professional way of getting into prostitution. There are dozens of reasons for women becoming prostitutes," Semaj explained.
Meanwhile, Marsha Grant, who works with the National Sex Workers Association, said she also believes the number of sex workers in Jamaica is growing rapidly. A group of them, she said, came together in March of this year to form the association.
"They're really just a group of sex workers who've come together so that they can better address issues affecting sex workers in Jamaica, like lack of access to health care, education and security." said Grant. She added that the group was looking out for the best interest of sex workers.
Back inside Pablo's, Lisa is relaxing on a black sofa. Like many other Jamaican sex workers, she says she has ambitions for "a better future".
"I'm saving up my money to go to cosmetology school. People might look at me, and because I'm young and they see me dancing, they might think I'm confused but I know what I want in life," she declares boldly.
"I plan to continue dancing and making this money until I'm ready to stop. The men like it. That's why they come to the club."