The growing scandal surrounding Sen. Bob Menendez began with allegations of visits to the Dominican Republic to cavort with prostitutes. If the allegations are true, then Sen. Menendez is just the highest profile sex tourist. It isn’t uncommon for adults to travel to countries where the laws concerning prostitution are more lax.
But this sex tourism has a darker side. In many parts of the world, the prostitution trade is fueled by illegal trafficking in women and children. In the worst cases, underage girls are forced or sold into the industry and moved from country to country.
If any good comes of the attention the allegations against Sen. Menendez have received, it would be greater public awareness of how much the prostitution trade is based on sex trafficking.
As a nonprofit director who tries to help in the battle against this form of modern slavery, and as a former undercover agent for the FBI’s efforts to stop human sex trafficking, I have seen an increase in the number of people requesting information on human sex trafficking both in the U.S. and the Dominican Republic.
The US State Departments annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) of 2012 reveals that the Dominican Republic is widely known for being a haven for adult male tourists who wish to have sexual intercourse with underage sex trafficking victims and states:
The Dominican Republic is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. Reports indicate that Dominican women and children are subjected to sex trafficking throughout the Dominican Republic, the Caribbean, Europe, South America, the Middle East, and the United States.
The 2012 report specifically identifies the sex trafficking of minors and tourism and states:
Additionally, child sex tourism is a problem, particularly in coastal resort areas of the Dominican Republic, with child sex tourists arriving year-round from the United States and European countries.
In fact, the US government rates the Dominican Republic very similar to Thailand in terms of child sex trafficking. Thailand is widely known as a destination for those seeking the more troubling corners of the sex trade. Without significant government action, the Dominican Republic could become the Thailand of the Western Hemisphere.
Sex tourism may sound harmless. After all, the adult is generally complying with the laws of the country visited. But, as the trend grows, the pressure to supply the demand with victims of human sex trafficking intensifies. Even if it turns out that the allegations against Sen. Menendez aren’t true, hopefully the scandal can result in actions to combat trafficking.