Sunday, October 01, 2006

Sex, sun and HIV

The Turks and Caicos Islands are known for idyllic beauty.

Unspoiled beaches ramble for miles and coral reefs teem with life. But behind the beautiful façade lies a shocking trend: an explosion of HIV/AIDS illnesses fueled by foreign prostitutes, native gigolos, and the sex tourists who frequent them.

Health officials said that trend is helping to spread AIDS in a country that has one of the highest incidences of the disease in the Caribbean. Only Haiti has a higher percentage of HIV/AIDS cases.

And government officials said they are doing all they can to stem cases of the killer virus.

But the island is not alone. More than half a million Caribbean people live with HIV/AIDS, according to the Trinidad-based Caribbean Epidemiology Centre, and the area has the highest number of HIV/AIDS cases in the Western Hemisphere.

The Turks and Caicos Islands are an archipelago of 40 islands about 600 miles off the coast of Miami. Most of the country's population of 32,000 resides in Providenciales, a rocky island dotted with construction sites, resorts and expensive homes.

Sex workers are not the only ones contributing to the HIV/AIDS problem. A culture of promiscuity among Caribbean men is also to blame.

Local men, or "belongers," who have joined in the sex trade, can make a month's wages in an evening by catering to wealthy European and American women, according to native islanders. In addition to sex work, some men practice "sweethearting," or having a relationship with both a wife and a sweetheart.

"Part of the society really doesn't want to work and want a girlfriend to maintain them," said local Ricky Ebanks, 28.

One local journalist, who did not want to be named for fear of job repercussions, said many of the women are the sole earners in their families, and see prostitution as a way to make a lot of money in a short period of time.

"They come willingly," he said of foreign sex workers. "They don't stay once they've made a certain amount of money."

Locals, many who are outraged by the influx of sex workers, told the AmNews that a lot of the women are from Eastern Europe and the Dominican Republican.

But, Ebanks said both locals and the island's large expatriate population have contributed to the demand for sex workers, whose prices can range from $200-$350 per hour.

More than 10 years ago, the government launched an HIV/AIDS offensive to curb the disease. In addition to condom distribution and free medication and treatment to all HIV/AIDS cases, Keziah Nash, assistant coordinator for the National AIDS Program in Grand Turk, said that a number of other programs and services are available to treat and prevent the disease.

Residents receive free AIDS testing, and the government-sponsored "Buddy" program pairs people with AIDS with a buddy who provides emotional support while making sure the client is cared for. The National AIDS Program is currently treating about 64 clients, according to Nash.

The problem, Nash said, is identifying sex workers.

"We don't have a clear idea to who the sex workers are; they haven't been identified," she said in a telephone interview this week from Grand Turk. "We have condom distribution points, though. We leave them at bars, hotels, the airport, and at the National AIDS Program in Providenciales and Grand Turk."

Tony, 31, a short Dominican man with a dead tooth in the front of his mouth, is a one of a handful of men who provide women to customers.

Tony, who did not want his last name used for fear of being deported, said there were three types of sex workers: ones who are looking for a long-term love, ones that are lured into the sex trade after not finding a job with a comparable wage-earning potential and ones that come specifically to work in the sex trade.

"There are plenty of ladies here," he said, motioning to his cell phone.

Inside Providenciales' Club Cameo's, a place where female prostitutes meet clients, several scantily clad women quietly sip beer until a couple of tanned tourists enter. One woman, slender and dark-skinned in a form-fitting white dress, approaches one of the men and whispers in his ear while rubbing her hand up and down his back. After a few drinks, they leave together in his Jaguar.

By: Cunningham, Jennifer, New York Amsterdam News, 8/24/2006


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