I recently traveled abroad to the Dominican Republic with some of my closest male friends.
Before I left, I read Don't Blame it on Rio: The Real Deal Behind Why Men Go to Brazil for Sex by Jewel Woods and Karen Hunter.
At the time I read it, I took some of the accounts in the book to be a bit "sensationalist." After all, in a book that is composed largely of black men talking about sexual exploits, you're likely to encounter some exaggerations. This dose of skepticism was doused when I arrived to my vacation destination, and I quickly saw the book come to life.
Written in an interview-style format, the book basically delves into the experiences of black men and their rationale for traveling abroad for women. Many reviews place the book as a compilation of "what black women lack," "what black men want" and "where black men find women", which have all appeared in mainstream African-American magazines. These reviews overlook two of the book's central issues: black male gender privilege and black male responsibility to the African-American community. While sex is at the center of the book, it's about more than black men's bed mates.
My first night at my destination, I met a black man from Boston who had been traveling to Brazil for three years to fulfill the sexual appetite his wife would not quench. One of Woods' goals is to understand why black men travel abroad for female companionship when there are black women locally who are looking for male companionship. In exploring this, Woods takes us through the process of how black men with resources begin to see the world as their playground by investigating gender roles from college campuses to Copacabana.
The most powerful, beautiful and disturbing dimension of the book is that Woods allows black men to speak for themselves. While many things are written about black men, all too often their voices and opinions are eclipsed by an author's perspective. In graphic detail, men explained their decisions for traveling abroad for female companionship and the realities they faced after returning from these trips. Over the past couple of years, black male sex tourism has been a "hot topic" in magazines, but most of these accounts haven't given enough weight to the larger social forces at play such as gender socialization, an expanding black middle class and the image of the black male in crisis.
Woods' and Hunter's book goes beyond exposé reports that often paint black men as sex tourists who are lured into sexual indiscretion due to a lack of watchful eyes. Instead, he describes how sexual appetites don't just "pop-up" upon deplaning in exotic locations; rather, they are taught and supported in the ways we raise our boys in the United States.
For the men in the book, sex is one of many components of the voyage abroad. The men featured discuss the ways that women in Brazil, the Dominican Republic and other locations provide them with a sense of manhood and satisfaction that they do not experience with their black female U.S. counterparts.
As a sociologist, good description is the beginning of the mark of a good book, but the analysis is what really brings the quality of the project home. For all the voices of black men who end up cavorting with women, often in tourist locales in developing countries, he doesn't take the analysis of these men as deep as they deserve. The authors acknowledge that the book's goal is to demonstrate why black women (read: African-American women) are indispensable to black men, and that the behaviors of black men abroad inevitably weaken these relationships. But his argument about the value of black women is thin in comparison to many of the men's rich narratives of disdain for black women in the United States. I imagine that Woods' argument about the endurance and loyalty of black women is too little to convince the brothers in the book who feel that women in developing countries offer them a different sense of support for "being a man."
At moments, it devolves into a "how-to book" about spotting the signs of traveling abroad for women's companionship and a praise song to the matriarch, which is one of the book's weakest parts. To me, this undermines the work, but in a world where He's Just Not That Into You was a best seller, I can see how some will love this.
Some will pick up the book looking for advice on how to figure out if their partner, brother or father is participating in these covert trips, others will come to it to read it for "tales of the hunt," and even others may just stumble upon it. Regardless of how one comes to it, the book begins to open a dialogue about black men, male privilege and morality that has been shut for far too long. While the book has numerous flaws, it begins this dialogue between black men and women not with blame but with truth and accountability and the hope of reconciliation.
R. L'Heureux Lewis is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology & Black Studies Program at the City University of New York.