Problematizing Neo-Economic Support of Sex Tourism in Gringo Gulch, Costa Rica

Written By Kanishka Sikri

I argue a two-point framework for solidifying Rivers-Moore’s, Gringo Gulch’s contribution to postcolonial feminist studies, as follows: Rivers-Moore illustrates that a) the homogenous categorization of a worker’s participation in sex work as one of hapless choice only for those outside of the “advanced west”, and b) the assumption that sex work is determined by colonial relations alone, is an inaccurate representation of both sex tourists and sex workers. However, Gringo Gulch is unable to move beyond its own usage of a homogenous one-dimensional understanding of sex tourism as one of simply class and economic mobility, and in doing so perpetuates the same method of analysis it critiques by over-determining the neo-economic relationship of sex work, but under-determining the role of oppressive consent and legitimacy in this transnational frame that we must interrogate “structurally” (Christian & Namaganda, 2018).

Rivers-Moore, and neo-economic theorists such as her, posit that sex tourism in Gringo Gulch, Costa Rica is an ideal form of labour for both women performing this dimension of care, and tourists who purchase it, as it leads to increased class mobility for both actors. Gringo Gulch then demonstrates within a purely economic standpoint that by framing Costa Rican sex workers as hapless victims who are not actively making the decision to partake in this dimension of labour, in contrast to other more advanced nations—Europe and North America who may share the categorization of the “West” as Costa Rica, but remain privileged over this nation because of their advanced economies and lack of sex tourism—is a tool to belittle and intentionally negate their agency.

In this capacity, it is clear that Rivers-Moore problematizes the ways in which Costa Rican sex workers within the tourism industry are distinguished further from the proposed western sex workers who are “educated, modern, [framed] as having control over their own bodies and sexualities, and the freedom to make their own decisions” (Mohanty, 1986). By thinking away from the binary of “clean geographic divides between North/South and East/West” (Piedalue & Rishi, 2017) as Rivers-Moore suggests, there is a need to restructure our perceptions of these hypothetical divides to recognize that “people in the global south do not exist in separate worlds or “contexts” from our own” (Mollett & Faria, 2013). I add here that the experiences of sex work and tourism while felt “materially diversely” (Christian & Namaganda, 2018) are still a part of the larger (re)structuring of transnational systems that commodify, surveillance, and trade women’s bodies beyond any specific locale.

Extending the problematization of homogenous thought further, Gringo Gulch is able to recognize and argue forth that the reduction of sex work in Costa Rica as attributable to colonial legacies but not to other intersecting forms of dominance, particularly neoliberal economic policy, serves to situate sex workers as one-dimensional victims of their colonial past. However, as (Stoler, 2010) eloquently put forth, and Gringo Gulch concedes with, “colonial politics was not just concerned with sex; nor did sexual relations reduce to colonial politics”. These systems of domination, as I add, while embedded by and through colonial projects were practiced, utilized, and manifested in different capacities in “rising degrees of importance” (Christian & Namaganda, 2018) which indicates a “spillage” as utilized by (Smith, 2014)—in this context differentiated from race—in the ways gender overtly manifests itself within sex work, class and colonial relations.

However, even with regard to the preceding successful points of Rivers-Moore’s argument, it is clear that Gringo Gulch in over-simplifying the relationship of sex tourism and neoliberal policy as unshaped by global restructuring forces, “is doing a disservice to the many moving parts of this perfectly designed machine” (Chakarova, 2015); consequently, employing a one-dimensional approach to development and sex work that an ideal postcolonial feminist praxis would dare not apply. Gringo Gulch remains superficial in its discussion of sex tourism in Costa Rica as similar to advanced developed economies which do not include sex tourist work, arguing that both contexts share universal consent for sexual labour; failing to recognize that both are rather arbitrary forms of consent and coercion. Therefore, while Gringo Gulch is able to recognize that the linkages between different geographic “divides” exhibit more similarities in class mobility than differences, and urges against this method of difference which serves to “distinguish the victims from the saviours” (Moolji, 2019), it fails to grasp the complexity that exhibits in the way sex work operates within a colonial capitalist supremacist patriarchy.

Gringo Gulch, while recognizing that sex work as a form of labour goes beyond the borders of the locale and has a global institutional frame for its implementation and practice, in which there is a “live unfolding…as scattered across the globe” (Piedalue & Rishi, 2017), it does not correctly identify what that relationship entails beyond the capacities of its existence. It is not that both western sex workers and Costa Rican sex workers operating in the sex tourism industry are “consenting” to sex work, but in fact the opposite, in which sex work is a coercive form of labour that has predicated itself on the embedded disengagement of women from formal labour markets; which in itself is a consequence of a capitalist system that not only allows but depends on the unpaid social care and reproductive labour of women. Through this disengagement and dispossession from labour that meets their sustenance needs for social freedom, workers are coerced by an oppressive system to consent to informal labour—both sexual and beyond—which at best is arbitrary consent, not full liberated consent as Gringo Gulch implies.

Deepening, and building onto Gringo Gulch’s economic structuring of sex tourism, we can see that sex work is an ideal form of labour within a neoliberal capitalist market since it satisfies the commodification of certain bodies performing certain labour. Sex work is then the best opportunity for women to gain access to wealth and change their class position within an economy that devalues everything, including the reproductive and sexual ability of their bodies. Women’s bodies then become synonymous and mere substitutes for cash and other economic goods, as demonstrated by a madan sara in (Hossein, 2015)’s piece, who illustrated that “if women are unable to make the fees required [these are bribes], then we are expected to pay the men with a [sexual] favour”. In extending Rivers-Moore’s argument we must problematize that Gringo Gulch much like the industry it is analyzing, reduces sex workers to commodities who should feel empowered in the dehumanization of their bodies. Sourcing from an article that interrogates the lived experience of sex workers and prostitutes throughout the Balkans, (Chakarova, 2015) illustrates that “they [sex workers] are cattle, cargo, a commodity to be used and resold as many times as possible.”

This is where the obligation to investigate Rivers-Moore’s argument resides. While Gringo Gulch has rightly so complicated the relationship of class mobility and neo-economic development in regard to sex tourism, it is unable to effectively gauge and utilize a postcolonial feminist praxis that would question and interrogate the intersecting mechanisms of oppression that both enable and disable sex work’s legitimacy. I nor prescribe sex work as legitimate in a free, just, liberated society nor do I ascribe to the idea that sex work should be isolated from other forms of oppressive labour in an illegitimate system as our current. Forced work in plantations is oppressive. Working in sweatshops is oppressive. Working a job where you cannot meet your sustenance needs is oppressive. Sex work is a logical process that evolves out of a colonial capitalist supremacist patriarchy. While sex work is legitimate in this system, the question then becomes—do we want it to be? And, if we do not, how do we change the system(s) that prescribe its legitimacy?


Chakarova, Mimi. “Going Undercover as a Sex Worker.” Europe | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, June 10, 2015.

Christian, M. and Namaganda, A., 2018. Transnational intersectionality and domestic work: The production of Ugandan intersectional racialized and gendered domestic worker regimes. International Sociology, 33(3), pp.315-336.

Hossein, Caroline. 2015. Black women in the marketplace: The everyday gendered risks encountered by Haiti’s madan saras (women traders). Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation, 9(2):36-50.

Khoja-Moolji, Shenila. 2019. “Death by benevolence: Third world girls and the contemporary politics of humanitarianism.” Feminist Theory,

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. 1986. Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses. Boundary 2-12 (3):333-58

Mollett, S. and Faria, C. 2013. Messing with Gender in Feminist Political Ecology. Geoforum, 45:116-125

Piedalue, A. and Rishi, S., 2017. Unsettling the South through postcolonial feminist theory. Feminist Studies, 43(3), pp.548-570/

Smith, C.A., 2014. Putting prostitutes in their place: Black women, social violence, and the Brazilian case of Sirlei Carvalho. Latin American Perspectives, 41(1), pp.107-123.

Stoler, A.L., 2010. Carnal knowledge and imperial power: Race and the intimate in colonial rule. Univ of California Press. 41-78

Kanishka Sikri

writer—poet—post-de-colonial theorist—transnational feminist working to dismantle our colonial capitalist supremacist patriarchy

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