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NEGRIL, Jamaica - A baby-blue bandana covering his nascent dreadlocks, Anthony Dixon strides up to a female visitor on a beach stroll. ''Want to smoke?'' Dixon offers. Then, with the unsubtlest of glances: ``Your lips are so soft.''
It's an abrupt and slightly corny line, but Dixon says it has helped him pick up plenty of female tourists on the beach by ``telling them some nice things they want to hear.''
Dixon is one of 200 gigolos who Jamaican police say ply Negril's seven miles of sand to court women in exchange for money, gifts, or possibly marriage and a life in the United States. Known as Rent-A-Dread, the phenomenon -- which officials say is contributing to the region's AIDS crisis -- has flourished along with tourism over the last decade in Jamaica, Barbados and the small island of Tobago.
Remember Stella, and how she ``got her groove back?''
The main character from the bestselling Terry McMillan novel flew here for a vacation. Over a French-toast breakfast on her first morning, the 40-year-old stockbroker fell for a handsome local man half her age. The book is based on the author's own experience in Jamaica.
Although actress Angela Bassett played the lead role on film back in 1998, many other Stellas are still grooving.
Middle-age American and European women, looking more homely than sexy in sneakers and blue jeans, gather daily at beachside reggae clubs such as the Roots Bamboo. They attach themselves to muscular young studs, like koalas to a eucalyptus tree. The men hold tight, too. In this highly competitive business, plenty of others troll nearby, pitching what the women see as their ''exotic'' looks.
''Looking for a Rasta man?'' one offers, referring to the Rastafarian religious sect. Another screams above the music: ``I'm from the Blue Mountains, the tallest in Jamaica.''
Mostly young, poor and unemployed, the beach boys leave the countryside and come to Negril to make a living, said Kendric Davis, president of the Negril Chamber of Commerce.
''They come to the resort to find their future, their Dorado,'' Davis said.
Dixon has found a bit of his. His longest relationship, with a computer programmer from Michigan, lasted for one year. The most recent, with a Wisconsin woman, went on for a week. Most of his ''beach boy'' friends have gotten lucky, too -- many now living across the Midwest with American wives, he said in an interview.
Meanwhile, as a business group, the chamber would rather see the beach boys leave. But Davis is quick to note that their success rests on the fact that foreign women travel to Jamaica's northern coast to seek them out.
''If you didn't have any takers, there wouldn't be any givers,'' he said.
So hotels shush them away. The police try to crack down, but find it's easier to jail someone for illegally braiding hair on the beach than to prove that someone paid for sex with a gigolo, said police Cpl. Cornel James, who has spent more than a decade working on the beach.
Complaints are rare, he said. And usually, when he approaches a hustler soliciting a woman, the tourists protest.
'If I say, `Leave her alone,' she'll get mad at me,'' James said.
A 2001 study by two British researchers found that most of the women who had sex with local Jamaican men -- about one-third of the 170 reached in a beach survey -- were repeat visitors. The men approach, in spite of looks.
''If you've been ignored in the West for years, being older or overweight, and you go to places like that where the men are completely chasing you, it feels very nice,'' said Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor, a sociologist at Leeds University in England, who has written extensively on sex tourism.
Taylor and sociologist Julia O'Connell Davidson also found that 30 percent of the women who found sex partners reported not using condoms.
That worries officials in the Caribbean, where close to half a million people are infected with the HIV virus -- a rate second only to Africa's. Jamaica's Prime Minister P.J. Patterson recently called HIV/AIDS the greatest threat to development in the region.
While there are no studies linking the beach boys to the spread of AIDS, they are a factor, said Dr. James Hospedales of the Caribbean Epidemiology Center.
Concerned about the possibilities, the Jamaican government is considering putting condom dispensers in hotels and is already educating tourism workers -- both men and women -- in resort areas such as Negril and Montego Bay, which has the highest AIDS rate on the island. Jamaica's AIDS rate of 36 cases per 100,000 people is twice the U.S. average.
The beach boys are aware of the risks of their behavior, said Verity Rushton, coordinator for Jamaica's National AIDS Committee.
``The knowledge levels are there, but the behavior change isn't.''
Some of the beach boys have worked their AIDS awareness into their pickup spiels.
Dixon, a few minutes into conversation, mentions without prompting that he has a great fear of ''diseases,'' a subtle reference to AIDS, and that he takes care of himself and goes to the doctor even at the sign of a little cut.
He also offers up that he isn't promiscuous, and that he certainly doesn't get paid for being with women. Not in cash anyway.
The orange Nike shorts he is wearing, like his drawerful of Timberland and other clothing, were shipped over from ''friends'' in the United States.
He wears brand names only, he says.
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