For America's professional black men, Brazil has been a secret destination for sex for many years, according to a study by Jewel Woods, a Toledo native and doctoral student at the University of Michigan.
In the last couple of decades, Mr. Woods contends Rio de Janeiro has grown into a "black man's sexual paradise" for men of certain financial means, men who take weeklong excursions into the South American country's notorious sex tourism industry.
"For many years now, this practice of professional black men going to Brazil for sex has been such a big and well-kept secret," Mr. Woods, 37, told a group of about 50 participants at the University of Toledo's third
National Conference on Prostitution, Sex Work, and the Commercial Sex Industry yesterday.
It used to be an insider's tale, Mr. Woods said, mostly shared within a circle of professional black men in cities across America. But the phenomenon has grown into a hot topic of debate in African-American circles nationwide.
His research work into the practice, The New Ugly American: Professional Black Men, Sex, and Brazil, was the basis of an article in the September issue of Essence, a national magazine mostly read by black women. The Essence article, "Blame it on Rio," sparked a debate that has since been sizzling in African-American chat rooms online, on national radio talk shows, and at college symposiums.
A PhD student in social work and sociology, Mr. Woods said he didn't know about the phenomenon until two years ago when he heard about it from a friend, who, in turn, had heard about it from another friend.
Mr. Woods, a community organizer who in 1994 founded Community Outreach Initiatives Inc., a mentoring program for African-American youths in Toledo, said he was intrigued at the prospect of researching the phenomenon because of his interest in studying the attitudes and behaviors of middle-class black men.
After conducting interviews with 50 black male professionals in Toledo, Cincinnati, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, Philadelphia, New York City, Washington, Los Angeles, and Charlotte, he concluded that an estimated 2,000 black professionals make annual trips to Brazil.
"These are highly accomplished men in various fields, from company executives to doctors and lawyers," he said.
The recent revelation about these sex vacations, much like the debate in the African-American community with the unraveling of the "down-low culture" a few years ago - black heterosexual men having relations with other men - is critical in understanding issues of masculinity, male privilege, and morality.
"This is not just about men seeking sex in Brazil," said Mr. Woods, a New Voices Fellow at UM. "We need to ask ourselves why the most coveted men in the black community are going overseas on these sex trips.
"What is it that they are not finding fulfillment about their lives here? There is an absolute societal poverty when it comes to understanding men, and in particular professional black men," he said.
The issue is all about gender and societal affirmation, said William Jelani Cobb, an assistant professor of history at Spelman College in Atlanta. He spent a week in the streets, restaurants, and night clubs of Rio de Janeiro gathering research for his freelance story published in Essence.
"It was obvious in Rio that many of the black men were mostly there for more than sex. It was more psychological than it was sexual," he recalled. "From the minute you arrive at the airport, all you hear from these very beautiful women is how much they like black men and how attractive you are. It is that kind of affirmation that has been attracting black men to Rio for many years."
Mr. Cobb wrote a daily online diary for Essence during his trip to Brazil that attracted a storm of chat-room debate about why black men go there and their responsibility in society as trailblazing professionals.
He said he was not surprised by the ensuing debate, but he was surprised by the number of people who had not heard about the phenomenon.
"There was a lot of anger about the story," he said. "Many black men hated it. They felt that it should not have been discussed, and some women felt a sense of betrayal by black men."
But both Mr. Woods and Mr. Cobb, who have been featured panelists on national talk radio shows including the syndicated Michael Eric Dyson Show, and News & Notes with Ed Gordon on National Public Radio, said this phenomenon underlines a much bigger dialogue that needs to happen within the African-American community.
"Professional black men are one of the most marginalized groups of people in this country," Mr. Woods said. "The process of becoming a professional is itself very isolating for many black men, who often find themselves challenged by situations in their professional and private lives that they are not prepared for."
Some of those challenges include explaining why there is an increasingly smaller number of black males on college campuses, and a growing tension between professional black men and women, Mr. Woods said. Many young black males are never really prepared to assume the identity that comes along with their success, he added.
"In Rio, these men experience a sense of class validation that is rare. In many instances, many of them said that they did not feel like they were looked at as just symbols of success in their community," he explained.
Seated in her office at UT, Celia Williamson, a leading scholar on street prostitution and the driving force behind yesterday's national conference, said Mr. Woods' study is ground-breaking not only for delving into the international sex trade, but also for looking at a "protected class" of men who generally never get profiled in prostitution studies.
"It is a very interesting look at prostitution that challenges us with many questions," Ms. Williamson said.
"What does it mean for men who have been oppressed for many years to take on oppressive roles in another country?"
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