Sunday, January 21, 2018

'Tis the season for prostitution?


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In the United States, men go to prostitutes more often during that country's official holidays. Does this also happen in Trinidad during the Carnival season?

That people have more sex during Carnival seems likely. While the average number of babies born in Trinidad averages 1,300 per month from January to August, this rises to 1,500 from September to December – a 15 per cent increase. There may be other factors causing more births in these months, but no one has identified what these might be. In respect to prostitution during Carnival, as far back as 1889 the Port of Spain Gazette complained about "courtesans" coming for Carnival from other islands "to swell the ranks of the immoral in Trinidad. They conducted their trade in broad daylight, were generally well-dressed, and often molested decent women in the streets."

But there is little or no data on prostitution in Trinidad, either historically or today. In the book SuperFreakonomics, economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner cite a 1910 United States survey of 310 cities in 26 states which suggests that, since 85 per cent of prostitutes were in their twenties, one in every 50 women in that age bracket was a sex worker back then. "Today prostitution is generally illegal in the United States, albeit with a few exceptions and many inconsistencies in enforcement," they write. Prostitution wasn't outlawed in the US until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when talk about "white slavery" became widespread. "The white slavery problem turned out to be a wild exaggeration," say Levitt and Dubner. "The reality was perhaps scarier: rather than being forced into prostitution, the women were choosing it for themselves." At that time, a shop-girl earned a weekly wage of about US$6; as a prostitute, she could make at least US$25 a week.

The same issue faced young women in Trinidad. In the 1930s, notes scholar Gordon Rohlehr in his book Calypso and Society, there were many calypsoes dealing with prostitution, when more women appeared to be turning to this avenue. "Some singers, indeed, presented the vocation of prostitution as the only alternative to that of housewifery, and warned young girls against leaving their mothers' homes," Rohlehr writes. But the 1940 Moyne Commission, appointed to look into workers' protests in various British Caribbean colonies, concluded that, "Commercialised prostitution is not common as a profession in the West Indies. The high percentage of promiscuity in the Colonies puts prostitution into the category of a luxury profession. When this profession is followed, it is usually for economic reasons and because the wages earned by the woman in her other occupation are often too low to obtain the necessities of life for her." And in his 1953 survey Social Stratification in Trinidad, UWI sociologist Lloyd Braithwaite noted: "In the lower-class sections of the town many well-known prostitutes abide, even though technically some have no fixed place of abode...the straitened and precarious economic circumstances that face working-class girls, particularly in the towns, must constantly make prostitution a temptation to them."

It is also well-established that prostitution increased in Trinidad when the US set up a military base in Chaguaramas during the Second World War. Two famous calypsoes which marked that era were "Rum and Coca Cola" by Invader, with the lines "Both mother and daughter/Working for the Yankee dollar" and, after the soldiers left, Sparrow in "Jean and Dinah" sang, "And if you catch them broken/You can get it all for nothing,/Don't make no row/The Yankees gone and Sparrow take over now."

So how many women in T&T become prostitutes nowadays? The only sources of data are indirect. Newspaper reports of police raids on brothels generally find between 20 and 30 women being arrested, but many of the women are foreigners (often from Colombia or other South American countries). The Personals section in the classified ads are another source. There are usually around 60 such ads, though some of these are for the same "agency" with different telephone numbers. Most of these places appear to employ around three girls, although one former escort says she worked in places where there up to six or seven girls.

Assuming that there are 50 such places in Trinidad with an average of three workers, that's at least 150 young women providing sexual services of various kinds. These places generate significant income which, since prostitution is illegal, is not taxed. A female working a normal job at an average minimum wage of $15 per hour earns about $720 per six-day week. If a prostitute earns $1,000 a week, this means that each "escort agency" or "massage parlour" has to generate at least $12,000 a month just to cover salaries, and probably $20,000 total to meet other expenses, such as rent, utilities, phone bills, etc. That means this part of the sex industry alone generates $12,000,000 a year.

From these figures, we can also hazard an estimate as to how many Trinidadian men go to such places. Calls to these agencies revealed that a massage costs about $200, while escorts are $300. If the masseurs/escorts earn $100 per session, they have to do 10 sessions a week to make $1000. That's 40 men per month (assuming no repeats).

Peaches (not her real name, nor even her real sobriquet), a former escort now in her mid-20s, says that the busiest days were from Friday to Sunday, when as many as 20 clients might come in each day. So a conservative estimate has around 2,000 men visiting massage parlours, but this figure doesn't include men who go to brothels (where the price for sex is lower) and assumes it's the same men throughout the year.

Add to this, another 100-plus women working at the various well-established brothels around the country, and estimating another 100-plus who work on the streets at night-time, and there may be at least 400 full-time prostitutes in the country. That might not seem a large number, until you consider that the age of females in such a profession is necessarily narrow: most would be between 18 and 24 years old. Since there are about 75,000 females in that age range in T&T, this would mean that one in every 190 young women in the country is a sex worker.

Are these women busier during the Carnival season? A survey by Sudhir Venkatesh of Columbia University in New York found that demand for prostitutes rises during the Fourth of July long weekend holiday in the US. "Most interestingly, this surge in demand attracts a special kind of worker—a woman who steers clear of prostitution all year long but, during this busy season, drops her other work and starts turning tricks," write Levitt and Dubner.

"Summer" (again, not a real name nor sobriquet), a woman in her late 20s who specialises in exotic dancing for bachelor parties and such events, says that business actually drops from January to March. "Men prefer to spend their money to go to a fete," she says. Her most profitable months are June to August, when there are weddings and other events. "Sex is constant throughout the year," she says.

Peaches, however, says there is an increase in demand during Carnival. If so, this is not reflected in the classified ads, which show only a slight rise as compared to other months (just 8-10 per cent). Nor are there more ads targeting foreigners, as might be expected if there was more demand for escort services at this time.

Nonetheless, Peaches does identify one holiday period which has the highest demand for the year. "Christmas," she says.