After vacationing in Jamaica, an anonymous American woman logged on to Negril.com, a Web site devoted to the island. But she didn't want to comment on the weather, the food or even her tan. She wanted to talk about her new beau. "I found the man of my dreams," she wrote. "I am in love."
For increasing numbers of Western women, a steamy fling has become one of the most coveted souvenirs of a trip to the Caribbean. Since the 1970s, some upper-class European women have sought sex holidays in Spain and Italy, then considered poor and developing countries. But the rising popularity of cheap package tours--combined with women's growing sexual boldness--is encouraging a number of affluent women to look for love abroad. While Israeli and Japanese women tend to travel to Thailand and Hawaii for romance, Americans prefer the Caribbean islands. "They can do things they wouldn't be able to do on their own turf," says Margaret Byrne Swain, a women's studies professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who teaches a class called Gender, Sex and Tourism. "No one back home will know what happened."
To be sure, it's a difficult trend to document. Women are reluctant to discuss such exploits. And while male sex tourists have been widely studied, women have been largely neglected. But that's changing. Last year Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor, a sociologist at the University of Warwick in England, polled 240 female tourists traveling alone to resorts in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. A third said they had engaged in one or more sexual relationships with local men while on vacation. And many were repeat visitors.
Who are these women? They can be married or single, young or middle-aged, though most tend to be white and in their 30s or 40s, "probably because that age range has more money and travels more frequently," says Sanchez Taylor. The men they hook up with are primarily black and unemployed. Their initial meeting usually takes place on the beach or in a nightclub, with a local offering to take the woman on a tour around the island. "The men make an effort to be very attentive to their needs," says Kamala Kempadoo, a professor of Latin American and Caribbean studies at York University in Toronto. "The women are courted and, in many ways, cared for."
Hard cash rarely changes hands; payment typically ranges from dinner and drinks to Jet Skis or plane tickets. Sanchez Taylor says the encounters are not just about sex but about economic power. "A lot of women don't want to see that these sexual encounters are based on inequalities," she says. Racial curiosity is often the driving force. Last year Kempadoo went to Negril to interview American women tourists. She found that for many, "their sexual experience here was their first time crossing the racial divide." Sanchez Taylor agrees. "Partly what these women want to buy is that difference," she says. Falling in love is merely the froth on the pina colada.