Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The Political Economy of Desire: Geographies of Female Sex Work in Havana, Cuba (1)

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The Political Economy of Desire: Geographies of Female Sex Work in Havana, Cuba (1)

Article excerpt


The global political economy of desire influences the construction of gendered spaces in Cuba. One of the results of increasing global linkages has been the rise in sex tourism throughout the world. This is particularly salient in Havana where girls and women are increasingly being drawn to commercial sex work as a means for economic survival and access to dollars-only places, such as restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, and stores. Despite forty years of gender equity laws and a highly-educated population, sex work in Cuba has come full circle, and the nation is quickly gaining the reputation, "the Thailand of the Caribbean."

This case study draws on 38 interviews with sex workers, locally known as jineteras, in Havana's tourist districts. It examines the physical, social, and moral spaces in which sex work takes place and teases out some of the more salient power relations involved in creating and maintaining these spaces. Using a geographic lens illuminates some of the influences of sex work on Cuban society that otherwise may go unnoticed. Sex work in Havana is not merely a side note to the economic crisis of the 1990s. Rather, sex work affects many sectors of the dollars-only economy in Havana; it highlights race and class issues that many people think have been eradicated by Revolutionary ideology; and it shows how women's bodies, and not just sex workers' bodies, have been commodified for personal, and even national, economic gain.

Keywords: Cuba, sex work, global links


Cuba's geopolitical location and contemporary society are rooted in the nation's commercial links to colonial powers. Havana has been an important port of call since the early 1500s and "has always been linked to the outside world by the threads of desire" (Quiroga 134). Tomas Fernandez Robaina demonstrates that sexual services were a lucrative part of the informal economy until the 1959 revolution, and it should not be surprising that, with the re-introduction of ties to the West after the fall of the Soviet Union, these services have again become economically important (Strout 7). Scholarly work has focused on sex tourism in Cuba, in part, because of its resurgence in the face of the Revolutionary government's policies to eradicate prostitution and promote gender equity (Harris 91; Pope 57-89).

This article results from fieldwork conducted in Havana, Cuba from 1998-2003 examining the geographic, social, and discursive spaces where female sex work takes place. Sex for money, services, or goods is one of the many complex interactions that globalization has created between Westerners and Cubans. Sex work in Havana is a result of national policies, social practices, Revolutionary culture, the spatial organization of society, and increasing interconnectedness among countries. Space is an underlying theme in female sex work on the island; from public spaces of la calle and private spaces of la casa; to the neighborhoods in which sex workers meet foreigners; to the economic spaces sex workers occupy and/or modify; to the blurred spaces between communism and capitalism; and to global economic processes and outcomes that are modified (and often reified) by local sex work patterns. (3)

In this article I provide the social context of sex work, a conceptual framework, my research methods and findings in order to demonstrate how gendered constructions of space play out in the Cuban sex work "industry." (4) These findings show the utility of a geographic lens to examine physical spaces, such as the neighborhoods and local economies that benefit from female sex work and where sex workers are solicited. Sex worker identity is influenced by "discursive space," or the ways gender, sex, and capitalism are spoken about in Cuba and also globally. Additionally, I highlight the fact that while Cuban women have been commodified by colonial powers, the participants in this study are savvy enough to use these images and stereotypes for personal gain. …

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