Sex-for-money arrangements are a controversial subject in our culture. However, some seem worse than others. For example, consider the growing number of middle-class young women in places like the UK and Japan who are reportedly paying their way through college by doing sex work. Most people would agree that there is a qualitative difference between that and the lot of a crack-addicted street hooker. In the minds of most, sexual tourism is, ethically speaking, another low point in the world of commercial sex. It’s difficult to find any media sources that are willing to put a positive spin on the practice of rich, middle-aged men travelling to poor countries in order to have sex, usually with young people.
However, astonishingly, there are sympathetic voices to be found, and in mainstream publications too. Try it yourself, do a search for Ã¢â‚¬Å“female sexual tourismÃ¢â‚¬Â and prepare for some Olympic-class mental gymnastics. You’ll find articles on the subject of female sexual tourism that not only rationalise the actions of the women involved but actually reverse things by depicting the women as victims. The hypocrisy of this double standard is aggravated by the fact that the group that write the articles, feminist journalists, typically espouse a disparaging and zero tolerance view of prostitution.
Articles such as these are worth seeking out, however. If you can overcome the outlandish rationalisations, they constitute some of the only sympathetic appraisals on the subject of sex work to be found from mainstream sources. The insights are particularly valuable as the subject is the third world sex trade, so you’re seeing a positive spin on probably the worst aspects of commercial sex.
The subject is particularly topical as the treatment of developing nations by richer countries has been pushed the forefront due to the disaster currently afflicting Haiti. And in case you’re wondering: yes, Haiti (along with other impoverished nations) is one of the top destinations for female sex tourists.
In fact, middle-aged women availing themselves of the services of Haiti Ã¢â‚¬Å“beach boysÃ¢â‚¬Â was the subject of the 2006 film Heading South. Needless to say, the film,Ã‚Â starring Charlotte Rampling, projects an extremely compassionate view of the subject. Furthermore, female journalists of the time were quick to praise the film for its Ã¢â‚¬Å“sensitive treatment of a complex subjectÃ¢â‚¬Â. Liz Hoggard, writing for The Indepedent, claimed that the film is Ã¢â‚¬Å“an intelligent, provocative take on sex tourism in the late-1970sÃ¢â‚¬Â. The film maker himself says of the characters, Ã¢â‚¬Å“More than sex, they are seeking a tenderness that the world is refusing themÃ¢â‚¬Â. Oh, the poor things. Perhaps the film is need of a sequel, a positive depiction of men who do the same thing? I’m sure it would receive rave reviews by the same women who were enamoured with Heading South.
As you might imagine, these writers typically make use of terminology that is at odds with the language employed in most articles about prostitution. For instance, the term Ã¢â‚¬Å“gigoloÃ¢â‚¬Â is used over and and over again. When I hear the word gigolo, I think of Richard Gere in his first staring role or perhaps a swarthy, well dressed foreigner who uses sexual flattery to trick a rich western woman out her riches. A poverty stricken man giving sexual favours at bargain rates to feed his family just doesn’t sound like a gigolo to me.
Vernacular comes into it in other ways too. Apparently Jamaican male sex workers refer to their female customers as Ã¢â‚¬Å“milk-bottlesÃ¢â‚¬Â. This practice is derided as Ã¢â‚¬Å“objectionable and racistÃ¢â‚¬Â by Tanika Gupta, the author of a play about female sexual tourism. Oh yes, I’m sure that if it were discovered that prostitutes working on the streets of Edinburgh were using disrespectful slang when referring to their clients there would be media outcry. Gupta goes on to tell the Guardian, the furthest left of all British newspapers, that this is an example that shows us that Ã¢â‚¬Å“it’s a mutual exploitation that is going on.Ã¢â‚¬Â I don’t disagree that there are two sides sides to exploitation in the sex industry, I’m just amazed that feminist writers seem oblivious to this fact when it’s men who are the customers.
All of the media coverage of female sexual tourism takes this tack. The usual excuses – the ones that are wheeled out every time women are caught doing something that is a no-no when men do it – are in evidence. It isn’t about sex, apparently, it’s about self esteem.
This brings us to another important point. Psychologically, there is a consistent theme, in the attitude of both the writers and the female sex tourists, of wilful denial.
Some of the women feel that they are not actually engaged in sexual tourism per-sec, they prefer the term Ã¢â‚¬Å“romance tourismÃ¢â‚¬Â. One of the case studies referred to in Liz Hoggard’s Independent article explains, Ã¢â‚¬Å“The words ‘sex tourism’ make me think of City boys who go to Thailand with their mates for seedy conquests to boast about. It’s different for women. When they go abroad for sex, it’s about wanting to feel special and escaping the boundaries at home.Ã¢â‚¬Â However, the common conception of romance seems at odds with that of the action of paying $80 for oral sex.
Gupta, the afore mentioned playwright, says that when she visited a foreign country for research, she was approached by an amorous 19 year old. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I kept telling him I wasn’t interested [...] but he wouldn’t take no for an answer.Ã¢â‚¬Â Despite her insistence that he look for someone his own age, he implored her, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Me no want the kitten, I want the catÃ¢â‚¬Â.
Can anyone who feels old and unattractive be blamed for being tempted by such an offer? I’m sure that many a man on holiday finds his self esteem buoyed no end when beautiful young women tell him that, contrary to his usual level of success with the opposite sex, he is actually very attractive and distinguished.
Apparently, according to the article in The Independent, many of the women who have been surveyed Ã¢â‚¬Å“[...]insisted they were helping the men, and the local economy, by giving them money and gifts.Ã¢â‚¬Â How kind of them. I hear that many men are arrested by international authorities each year for attempting similarly altruistic work in third world countries.
The truth is that the writers and the tourists are denying the real motivation (acquiring no strings sex with young partners) because they are attempting to deny something much bigger: that men and women are really very similar in all things, including sex. I’m sure that most people reading this would be appalled if a male friend recounted to them a tale of the Ã¢â‚¬Å“romancesÃ¢â‚¬Â he enjoyed while travelling to poor countries. Any man who gleefully pointed out that the women were young, beautiful and compliant in a way that the women back home were not, would risk being seen for the contemptible, cowardly creep that he really is.
Sex tourism: When women do it, it’s called ‘romance travelling’, The Ottawa Citizen
Women who travel for sex: Sun, sea and gigolos, The Independent
Write about an arranged marriage? No way!, The Guardian
Heading South (2006), The Internet Movie Database
A freelance writer, Michael Reed writes about technology, retro computing, geek culture and gender. He’s had articles published in various magazines and websites. See his website to hear more about his continuing adventures.