Kamala Kempadoo begins her monograph, Sexing the Caribbean: Gender, Race, and Sexual Labor, with the following quote: “Territories that once served as ex-havens for the colonial elite are today frequented by sex tourists, and several of the island economies now depend upon the region’s racialized, sexualized image” (1). This statement sets the tone for the rest of her book as she analyzes the intersection of gender, sexuality, and race with economics in the Caribbean. Kempadoo argues that there is an engrained “heteropatriarchy” seen through Caribbean societies, which draw from colonial theory to continue oppressive practices to further economic advances in the islands (9). Sexing the Caribbean strives to provide its audience with a dynamic, non-Western ethnocentric understanding of the history and role of prostitution and sex labor in the Caribbean today.
Sexing the Caribbean begins with the historical background of colonial involvement in the islands, like Jamaica, Trinidad, and Curacao, and how race came to be sexualized. Kempadoo retells the history of different areas in the Caribbean being settled by colonial powers, which imposed new social hierarchal frameworks that were mostly based on race (5). Even after emancipation from these white men, white bias still defined sexual relations as local men began to prefer one skin color of women to another. Here the introduction of the “SanDom,” or “a migrant woman of lightly brown skin tone with a slender though shapely body and loosely curling hair,” became a common reference in society (144). Kempadoo continues to explain the impact of migrants to the countries located in the Caribbean, not only racially but also economically. Through her retelling of women’s internalization of gender roles and their role in society as sex workers, she highlights the intersection of race and economics. The intersectionality of race and economics was explored by Kempadoo in her analysis of sex laborers and the job opportunities available to them based on race. It was intriguing to read about how women in the Caribbean took pride in the fact that—for the majority of sex laborers—they envisioned themselves as their own boss, creating their own hours; it was a form of women empowerment in a paternalistic society. Sex became a source of power for women as they “capitalized upon white men’s sexual desire for women of color” (54). Women in this environment established their dominance and power by setting boundaries with clients—such as certain body parts like lips and breast were off limits—and defined the notion of romance and love for their community. Through this loophole of empowerment, women of the Caribbean found a way to be economically sufficient and gain power in society. Although Kempadoo champions the strength of these women of color, she also recognizes that not every woman was so lucky to gain a hold in society. For example, she touches on stories of women acting as “pimps” of other women, and men controlling the income and working hours of a prostitute. Just as women affected each other, men visiting the Caribbean also played a role in determining the economics of prostitution. As tourism plays a huge part in the economics of the Caribbean, Kempadoo also interviewed many male tourists looking for female company. She states that, “The woman are not, in the imaginations of the men, prostitutes who are having sex for money, but are perceived as poor women who genuinely enjoy the sex” (123). This particular framing shows the different global perspectives of prostitution and how the local interpretation based on colonial history and job opportunities greatly differ.
Kamala Kempadoo says that her work draws on the foundations of Third World feminism, which is based on gender relations and “material-feminist traditions” (11). As written about in her work, she relies on a bottom up approach to her qualitative research through interviews, recording personal stories, and local opinions and myths (11, 65). Kempadoo shares little research has been done on this region of the world in regards to the “historical racialization of social relations” (55, 64). Therefore, the basis of her data collection—before she could conduct any interviews—relied on the works of scholars, historians, and anthropologists (17). Synthesizing the information of other scholars is how Kamala Kempadoo situates herself in conversation with other authors. By learning the structure of society and the influence of cultural in specific areas, Kempadoo could contextualize the impact that colonial history had on defining race and sexuality in the Caribbean. Important structural factors Kempadoo had to analyze ware the legal codes written about prostitution. I found this aspect of her work to be a strength of her argument as it gave the readers a better understanding of the time and history of how government played a part in regulating prostitution (89). As well as relational structures, the author continually references to the importance of needing to know the local slang, like SanDom, to comprehend the complexity of the history and role sex laborers play in everyday society.
While reading Sexing the Caribbean, Kamala Kempadoo did a brilliant job of both intriguing and greatly disturbing her readers. As a political science major, I find one of the most intriguing features of sex work in the Caribbean to be the role of the government institutionalizing legal regulations for prostitution by women, but also, on the flip side, criminalizing the economic transactions of sex by homosexual or bisexual men. This in depth analysis of the intersectionality of politics and sexuality was very interesting to me. One story she including about “The Happy Camp in Curacao” was particularly disturbing and illustrative of the oppressive situation surrounding sex (90). Kempadoo did a wonderful job of drawing her readers in through similar stories of how men referred to workingwomen. One quote that stood out to me was a man referring to a woman as “butt ugly” (124). The way Kempadoo reflects the cultural interpretation of “hegemonic constructs of sexuality” served her purpose as hooking the audience into the conversation about sexuality and politics in the Caribbean (2).
Another area I thought Kempadoo did justice in explaining was the role of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Caribbean. Kempadoo acknowledges that “AIDS is now established as the leading cause of death in the Caribbean” and the “initial problem of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Caribbean is traced to gay sex tourism” (167). She traces the history of the epidemic as well as explains the role this disease has in the local communities regarding gender roles, sexuality, and economic consequences. One question I had for the author was how the organizations targeting vulnerable populations, such as female sex laborers, and the government interacted since the government regulated these “vectors of disease” in the first place and criminalized homosexual acts (169, 170). Another question I had for Kempadoo is why she did not focus on organizations—if any—trying to reach homosexual sex laborers as she previously states the illness was introduced via “gay sex tourism” (167). Also I have questions about how the these organizations were continuing to operate within a society that regulates and perpetuates a stigma of discrimination against sex workers. Many scholars forget to include the vulnerable populations, such as sex workers, migrants, and adolescents, but Kamala Kempadoo successfully created a mental picture of the complexity of the HIV/AIDS issue at hand in the Caribbean. As someone who has an interest in medical humanities, her inclusion of medical violence as a disturbing aspect of daily life was very effective. She discusses how although “the government tolerates all activities in the name of servicing male sexual desires” many at risk groups for contracting HIV are denied healthcare and treatment (102).
Kamala Kempadoo effectively outlines the influence of colonial history on the racial and economic boundaries seen today in the Caribbean, especially when discussing women in sex work. She also includes a political aspect to her analysis, which adds another dimension to her argument that gender roles were established by colonial powers and instilled in local culture. Kempadoo demonstrates strength as an author by equally intriguing and disturbing her audience as well as providing an informative historical and legal context. Sexing the Caribbean should definitely be read by students participating in a Gender and Sexuality Studies course, if they have an interest in human rights and prostitution, or would simply like to be well aware of the impact of colonialism has today on social structures and sex work.
Kempadoo, Kamala. Sexing the Caribbean: Gender, Race, and Sexual Labor. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.