Complaints about commercial sexual exploitation of minors and sex crimes involving minors in Costa Rica: temporal and geographic trends in a ten year period according to government statistics.

Author:Monge-Najera, Julian


For many years local and international media have presented Costa Rica as a sexual tourism destination with a serious problem of commercial sexual exploitation of minors, leading to legislation of 4-8 years of jail for people behind programs, campaigns or adds projecting the country as a tourist destination accessible for the commercial sexual exploitation or prostitution of persons of any sex or age (Costa Rican Codigo Penal, Articulo 162 bis). This legislation was approved in a political context that is strongly supportive of the patriarchate (Chamorro-Calvo, 2002; Monge-Najera, 2003). In a larger context, the position of the Costa Rican state has always been in line with what Weitzer (2012) calls the "oppression paradigm", a position of the religious right that has been reflected in biased sexual exploitation statistics used by the State Department in the USA as well as by conservative governments in other parts of the world (Weitzer, 2009; 2012).

Patriarchal legislation, originally uncontested, is still dominant and even international organizations apply it (e.g. PANI-UNICEF, 2009). However, in recent years it has been criticized by the scientific community and by some writers within the legal community, as well as by the people more directly involved, the sex workers themselves. In a series of books, Kempadoo and colleagues review a large mass of scientific literature concluding that the simplistic image used by legislators is inadequate (Kempadoo, Sanghera & Pattanaik, 2011).

The paradigm fails to reflect the variety of sexual activities associated with the exchange of money and other resources, in which forced prostitution and exploitation are not the rule, opposite to the view often presented in the media (Kempadoo & Doezema, 1998; Kempadoo, Sanghera & Pattanaik, 2011). The situation is similar in Costa Rica, where despite the stereotype, recent field studies concluded that women providing sexual services are mostly adults who chose that activity, not exploited minors or forced prostitutes (Monge-Najera, Rojas, Morales & Ramirez, 2009; Monge-Najera & Vega, 2011; Rivers-Moore, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013),

The associated "doctrine of superior interest" has also been criticized from the legal point of view. According to Viola (2013), this doctrine, which considers that humans are "children" until one day before their 18th birthday, violates several principles, among them, the right of minors to construct their own judgments and manifest their opinion; and their right to progressive autonomy according to the development of their faculties. The position presented by Viola is supported by research too numerous to cite here but reviewed by Levine (2002). Furthermore, Couso (2009) wrote that the establishment of a particular age for sexual consent is inadequate, adding that there is a need to recognize the possibility of proving an "expression of autonomous sexuality" in those cases that lack evidence of coactions or manipulation of adolescents. This position is not reflected in any way in Costa Rican legislation, which is based exclusively on the superior interest doctrine. In fact, Costa Rican law defines a series of unlawful conducts that, according to Monge and Issa (1999), undermine freedom and the integrity of sexual determination, and in the case of minors, damages their psyco-sexual development and personal autonomy (Munoz, 2002).

According to Couso (2009), the state exposes adolescents to stigmatization and unjustified criminalization by applying -without scientific justification-legislation that has unlimited intromission in youthful development, a position documented also by Levine (2002). Independently of their age, sex workers can be considered victims without personal autonomy, for example by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (Brunovskis & Surtees, 2010), or as a complex group ranging from free-will contractors to victims, as done for example by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (Kempadoo & Doezema, 1998; Outshoorn, 2004). The complex group approach is taken in Costa Rica only by one ONG, La Sala (see Rivers-Moore, 2009).

Despite the prominent treatment given to commercial sexual exploitation in Costa Rica by the media (Monge-Najera, Vega & Gonzalez-Lutz, 2013) and by the state (e.g. CONACOES, 2007), my search of the literature failed to find any scientific studies of complaints about sexual exploitation in the country. In this article I describe official statistics and test three clearly defined hypotheses: that there are more complaints in the two provinces associated with sexual tourism (i.e. the provinces of San Jose and Puntarenas, see Rivers-Moore, 2009); that the legal reforms and official campaigns have resulted in an increased number of complaints in the decade covered in this study, and that crime rates explain the importance given to this problem by local and international media, as well as by the Costa Rican state.


To test the hypothesis about provincial differences I tabulated complaints independently for each province and used rates per 100 000 inhabitants to correct for differences in population size among provinces. For the hypothesis of increasing number of complaints I separated data by year and considered a period of ten years, and to test the hypothesis about crime rates I compared the resulting rates with rates for other crimes from the same government statistics.

I examined the data published by the Statistics Section of the Planning Department of the Judiciary Branch of the Costa Rican Government ( for the period 2001-2011 as well as additional documentation kindly provided by the Section (Appendix 1). I found that the statistical data published by the government do not mention the sex or age of the victims and took this into account in the analysis. Graphs present trends that are statistically significant (Chi-Squared tests, p

Legal descriptions and other regulations are from Sistema Costarricense de Informacion Juridica (, downloaded December 2013) (Appendix 2).

The activities punished by law are classified in five groups that I summarize here (for exact wording, see the original Code):

Sexual Acts with Minors for Remuneration (official Spanish name Actos sexuales remunerados con personas menores de edad): paying or promising to pay or provide economic advantage or some other kind of advantage to a minor for performing sexual or erotic acts. The original law referred to sexual relations and was later changed to sexual acts.

Corruption of Minors (Corrupcion) refers to promoting corruption of minors and the incapable, or using them for that purpose in the presence of others. The acts refer to erotic, pornographic or obscene purposes, shows or exhibitions, public or private. A reform added perverse, premature or excessive sexual acts, even if the...

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