SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- By nine o'clock each night, two dozen or more young women arrive at the La Herminia Night Club, where they exchange stories and perform their final primping before the start of a long evening of blaring merengues, copious amounts of beer and, they hope, a client or two for sex.
"If I earn 1,000 pesos, I've done pretty well," said Arele Diaz, a striking 20-year-old in a tiny, shrink-wrap black dress, of her hoped-for nightly purse of just under $100. "Five hundred pesos or less, and it's really been a bust for me."
As a domestic or factory worker, Miss Diaz said, she couldn't earn even a tenth of her nightly income in a week.
Driven in part by such harsh economic realities, vast stretches of this city have come to be blanketed with prostitution establishments running the gamut from the "Casas de Cita," literally rendezvous houses, where elegantly attired young women await a relatively affluent mix of locals and tourists, to drive-in car washes, which offer quick and cheap sex.
The Dominican authorities and sociologists who study this mushrooming demi-monde estimate that in a city whose population is nearly 2 million, there are at least 20,000 prostitutes. This number consists mostly of young women, ranging in age from 16 to 25, they say, but it also includes many men who cater to both sexes and much younger girls as well. Estimates for the number of prostitutes in the country as a whole run as high as 60,000.
But, for all the magnitude of the phenomenon, some officials concede that prostitution has only recently begun to be taken seriously as a national problem. And when attention has come at all, it has often focused on concerns that the Dominican Republic is acquiring an unsavory reputation as a major supplier for the sex traffic in countries as far-flung as the Netherlands, Greece, Suriname, and neighboring Haiti.
One expert said that in the tiny, tourism-rich Caribbean island of Antigua, there are now 4,000 Dominican prostitutes among a total of 80,000 people on the island. About 7,000 Dominicans are estimated to work in the sex business in Amsterdam.
Almost weekly now, newspapers here are filled with articles chronicling the woes of these young women abroad, including the frequent deportation of scores of them for the offense of plying their trade.
"How long are we going to accept the sad reality that the Dominican Republic has become one of the largest exporters of prostitution in the world?" asked an angry editorial recently in the Dominican daily Hoy?
Intellectuals, feminists, sociologists, health care professionals, and others say that despite the concern over public image shown by this country largely dependent upon tourism, there has been little serious introspection about the causes of prostitution here and even less determination to discourage it.
"There is an enormous indifference. We can't call it a national crisis. For many, it wouldn't even be considered a problem," said one editor.
Although several officials agreed with that observation, they say that since the advent of the AIDS epidemic, which has left about one percent of the population infected with the HIV virus, energetic attempts to control the spread of that disease have increasingly been accompanied by quieter efforts to understand and slow the growth of prostitution.
"There has long been a notion that sex costs money and that sex produces money in our society," said E. Antonio de Moya, a senior public health official involved in the control of AIDS.