Why is coupling such a contentious topic in the black community? Yesterday's explanation was that black men are all gay and secretly on the "down low." This pseudo-sociological approach explained everything from high HIV rates among black men and women to why marriage rates are so low. It fed anxieties and provided for salacious stories of men "trapped in the closet" and living double lives. That explanation created excitement for a while, but ultimately failed the smell test. The majority of unmarried, good-looking African-American men are not gay or bisexual (not that there is a problem if they are).
Stripped of that bogus explanation, another, equally implausible answer has emerged South of the Border.
The recently published book, Don't Blame It on Rio: The Real Deal Behind Why Men Go to Brazil for Sex, by Jewel Woods and Karen Hunter, an infamous Essence magazine article by William Jelani Cobb, and Web forums have now focused on the new explanation why African American women are having problems with black men: Brazil or more specifically Brazilian women.
In this new storyline, all the eligible black men are slipping off to Rio where they're having such an amazing time that they permanently trade relationships back home for a series of "Girl Friend Experiences" (GFE) with Brazilian semi-pros and professional sex workers. This new argument casts Brazilian women as servile, sexual superwomen with all the right assets and skill to use them. The rift between black men and women can be laid at the feet of these eager-to-please women, who look like a cross between Halle Berry and J-Lo and are luring black men to Rio de Janeiro in droves to re-enact their most base Snoop Dogg video fantasies.
Aside from the fact that this narrative demonizes these women on the international stage much in the way rap videos do black American women, the danger in the persistence of this myth is that it ignores the real, more important issues surrounding global inequalities, race and gender among our Brazilian brethren.
Sex tourism is nothing new. Men have long traveled to exotic locales to have sexual liaisons with prostitutes. But this privilege was typically reserved for wealthy and/or military men. Now that international travel is more accessible, sex tourism has been democratized (so much so that recent reports show middle-class, middle-aged European women touring Kenya for sex with young African men, and professional African-American women voyage to Italy on Bella Donna tours billed as the "Black Women's Brazil.") The free flow and ease of travel means that sex in foreign locales is now also available to men and women of different classes and races—including, yes, a growing class of African-American men with disposable income.
The reigning hysteria about the Brazilian sex trade focuses on places like Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana Beach or the Dominican Republic's Puerto Plata, which are depicted as giant strip clubs/bachelor parties where there is sex in the champagne rooms. There are "all-inclusive cruises," all-inclusive hotels, discos with hired "hostesses" and even resorts for upscale men that fly in women from Eastern Europe. Some African-American men can be found interacting with the semi-pros at discos, cafés and bars near the beaches of Rio.
One problem I have with the work in these places is: None of the popular authors speak Portuguese or it seems even bother to hire and interpreter. In fact, neither do the men who visit. Sex tourism of this variety is based on the profound income disparity in the world. The minimum wage in Brazil is $248 a month. For young, poor but beautiful women in Brazil, sex work is a way out. There is a substantial allure for them to help support their families but also have access to items and luxuries that are not imaginable in their neighborhoods. Thus, these women make the trek to Copacabana Beach and sell what is now a global commodity for free trade: their bodies. This disparity in income means that for a relatively small amount of money requested for "gifts," "food," "tuition" or to help a sick mother, men can have a girlfriend (or several) in Brazil for a week or so.
Often the African-American men can't speak Portuguese and the women have very limited English. However, money talks and the "tall, tan and lovely Girls of Ipanema" don't just walk by, but have honed their skills of gathering high-paying clients for the weekend. Unlike in every other aspects of life, African-American men are coveted there. They travel in groups and with the exchange rate, can splash large enough amounts of cash to run Nelly's "Tip Drill" on a budget. In contrast, the average white American who travels to Brazil for sex goes alone and tries to get as much as they can for as little as possible. In fact, they complain on Web sites that African-American men are "spoiling" the women.
With few exceptions, most men go once or twice. Very few stay in Brazil, and while they have the momentary delusion that the women they meet are "girlfriends," almost none entertain the idea of bringing them home or maintaining any relationship with them beyond the vacation. In the world of sex tourism, variety is the spice of life, even for regular visitors.
These books and articles largely miss the point. People should be free to sleep with whomever they choose. Those who are married or in relationships, have their own conscience to answer to, but that is not my business. I have heard of no case where some otherwise married man leaves his happy home for a Brazilian "girlfriend" met on the beach. The real problem with sex tourism isn't sex at all. It's that it exposes the glaring problem of inequality and exploitation in the global economy. We rarely hear the stories of poverty and desperation from the women who must choose sex work as a route to a better life. Even the tourists never really hear their stories because of the substantial language barriers and the true tales of poverty and inequality are too depressing for revelers on vacation.
For me, the outrage is that women of African descent in cities like Rio, Cartagena and Puerto Plata are so poor and have so few options for social mobility that their bodies are all they have to generate value and a decent income. It also angers me how these women are portrayed by the Americans who write about them. Brazilian women are stereotyped as sexual superwomen always ready, sexually available and willing to do anything. The message is: Brazil and Brazilians are good for one thing, sex. An Afro-Brazilian female Ph.D student in the United States always gets a knowing stare and comment, "Oh, you are Brazilian" when she reveals the origins of her accent. The suggestion and actions are that she is sexually available, easy and entirely uninhibited, a veritable sexual carnival ride.
Brazil is a complex place with the largest population of African descent outside of Africa. The country is struggling to overcome poverty and enormous inequality. There is a white elite that lives a "first-world" lifestyle as chronicled in Edward Telles' book, Race in Another America. Meanwhile, blacks and browns struggle to make ends meet. Afro-Brazilians have fought hard to maintain their history and culture, to develop black magazines, and universities have recently won the implementation of affirmative action over an ideology that denied the existence of racism.
Black Brazilians welcome African Americans, but too many of us buy into the myth and go there focused on their sexual fantasies learn nothing of these struggles. Activists resent the perceptions of Afro-Brazilians as oversexed, hedonistic people who have no concerns or struggles. Those of us who do serious work in Brazil resent the continued suggestion that our travels there are for sexual tourism. Many of us are involved in bilateral efforts like the organization "Levantamos"or "Uplift" that encourages educational and economic development in African-American and Afro-Brazilian communities. These organizations get scant attention compared to the focus on sex.
Modern relationships are complicated. In looking for explanations for why black men and women can't get together, we cannot scapegoat sisters who speak Portuguese. We also can't fall victim to the salacious stories that overstate the effects of sex tourism on African-American women in the United States. The real concern here is the poverty and desperation of our brothers and sisters in Brazil, Colombia and the Dominican Republic.
But it is important to note they are not all prostitutes. Many are just regular black folks like us, who just might find an African-American man or woman attractive and pursue a romance. Using prostitutes to characterize Brazilian women is worse than using rap videos as a measure of how most African-American women approach relationships. They are not taking anyone's man or woman; we are free to pursue romance and love in an open market. That market is now more than ever international. The moral question is not about sex and cheating, rather, should we be exploiting their poverty or lending a helping hand?
Mark Q. Sawyer is an associate professor of political science and African American studies at UCLA, director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics and author of "Racial Politics in Post-Revolutionary Cuba."