What is Sex Tourism?
On a recent trip to Thailand, I was walking along a street of bars in Chiang Mai, a northern city. As I walked past the bars, I observed that each held thin local women with long, straight hair. They wore high heels and big smiles and issued occasional giggles. Beside them were flirtatious foreign men. “Those are girly bars,” my companion explained. That’s the term for bars for sex tourists. The foreign men were buying drinks for the girls and later they would pay for sex with them.
Sex tourism is defined by Clift & Carter (2000) as “travel for which the main motivation is to engage in commercial sexual relations.” The client will travel to a new destination specifically for the purpose of buying sex from local sex workers. In this regard, he or she is in a unique position compared to a local who buys sex in his or her own city and has fewer options.
Where Is Sex Tourism And Why?
Anywhere in the world where there is sex work there is the potential to attract sex tourists. However, there are certain countries, such as Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, the Netherlands, Spain, and Brazil, that are well-known as hotspots for their red-light districts. Regardless of the legality of prostitution, in these countries it is easy to procure sexual services. To give an example of the scope of sex tourism in a hotspot wherein the industry is tracked officially, Statistics Netherland reported in June 2014 that the Netherland’s famous red light districts and “coffee shops” contributed 2.5 billion euros per year, or about 0.4 percent of the national gross domestic product. This may not seem very high, and is certainly much lower than the estimated 5% of GDP attributed to the sex industry back in 2001 when the Netherlands began requiring brothels to be licensed as businesses, but accounting for a contribution of even 1% from sex tourism to a country’s GDP changes how the country’s debt to output ratio is calculated and may consequently help the country appear better financially compared to other countries.
According to Chris Ryan (2000), tourism in general is a “socially sanctioned escape route for adults into play, fantasy, and adventure.” Sex tourists are looking for sexual experiences beyond the realm of their everyday lives. Filmmaker and director of Rent A Rasta, J. Michael Seyfert, explains in a live interview with Huffington Post that bars, resorts, and known sex tourism hotspots are like “sexual Disneylands.”
Aside from appealing to a desire for novelty, many countries that are popular destinations for sex tourists are underdeveloped or developing nations, where the cost of sex is much lower than in Western countries. Thus economic disparities may drive whether a country will become a hub of sex tourism. Another contributing factor perhaps related to economic disparities that may encourage proliferation of sex tourism in a given country is local acceptance of sex work and ease of procuring services. For example, Tim Rodgers shares that it’s common for young adults from the U.S. in his acquaintance to go to Latin America where they perceive buying sex to be “straightforward” and “convenient,” even though they don’t have issues “getting girls” in their home countries. And sex tourism also may be motivated by racial stereotypes, as tourists often seek out relations with individuals from”exotic” and hypersexualized racial backgrounds that they would not pursue back “home.”
Who Are The Tourists?
While conventional wisdom associates sex tourists with white, middle-aged Western men, there are younger men, men from Latin America, and even women participating in this type of tourism. Because there are a wide range of classes of sex work, from cheap street walkers to high-end escorts, tourists of all income levels can be clients.
Middle-aged, heterosexual Western women are becoming more frequent sex tourists, especially in Jamaica and Ghana, according to writer Jody Hanson in a HuffPost Live interview. After examination of posts exchanging details about long-distance romances with men in Jamaica on a social networking site, Julie Bindel reached out to interview a few of them and made the following observations. These women are usually overweight or deemed sexually undesirable in their home countries. Some even report having been involved in abusive or unhealthy relationships in the past. They are typically approached on the beach by “beach boys”- male sex workers. The men initiate a “vacation romance,” where during the length of her stay they shower her with attention, affection, and sex. In exchange, she buys him gifts and drinks, and often gives additional monetary compensation. This is consistent with Seyfert’s comment in the HuffPost Live interview, when he explains that a short vacation romance with one of these men is an “easy way to feel appreciated and important and beautiful.” Thus, at least among this growing population of female sex tourists, romance is an additional element fueling their endeavors. As many of them are coming from disappointing relationships and little success in the dating world, their time with the “beach boys” fills a void – not only physical closeness, but emotional closeness as well.
How Does Sex Tourism Affect The Community?
The consequences of sex tourism have economic, social as well as public health aspects. Although there are concerns of sex trafficking and child exploitation, University of Miami professor Thomas Steinfatt argues that while trafficking and child sex exploitation do occur, they amount to an small portion of the industry. That stance is contested by other researchers. Krittinee Nuttavuthisit of Chulalongkorn University writes that child exploitation in Thailand does happens and such human rights violations cannot be denied. In a case study of sex tourism in Samoa, Lurlene Virginia Christiansen (2015) demonstrates that the child sex tourism industry is a serious issue fueled by poverty and family dysfunction.
In terms of economic consequences, Laura Secorun Palet observes that sex tourism has the potential to be a positive force in a developing economy. Because many sex workers come from disadvantaged backgrounds, sex tourism gives them the opportunity to earn a significantly higher income than working other jobs. In developing countries, higher wages contribute to a higher standard of living. Palet writes:
“Even when it’s not on the books, sex work can become a vital part of the economy. In the mid-1990s, well before its peak, sex tourism contributed as much as $27 billion to Thailand’s GDP, according to the International Labor Organization. Not all of that went to the prostitutes, of course; it also benefited hotels, corrupt cops, restaurants, tourist agencies, beer gardens, saunas, cabarets and, of course, health clinics.”
While the potential for economic benefits for locals suggests sex tourism can benefit residents of a country, there are also positive and negative social consequences. As noted above, sex tourists may be able to experiment sexually and fulfill fantasies that they could not do at home, either due to social norms or comfort. Julie Bindel quoted one of her interviewees as reporting that it was like “total freedom…I couldn’t get enough of that beautiful body.” For those who feel undesirable or have difficulties in the dating world at home, it can be a thrilling and rewarding experience to feel desired and appreciated. In contrast, residents and government officials of many of these hotspots do not approve of sex tourism. Thailand for example has endeavored to crack down on the sex tourism industry, which it associates with crime, stigma, and disease.
Which brings us to another negative consequence: as with any sexual encounter, there are concerns for public health safety. For example, research by Herold, Garcia and DeMoya (2001) found that “beach boys” are less likely than female sex workers to use condoms, perhaps because they do not always label their interactions with female tourists as constituting sex work. Thus, both tourists and “beach boys” have higher chances of contracting sexually transmitted infections and then sharing those infections with their other partners. In locations where sex work is illegal, sex workers also face risks of rape and theft with little legal recourse – as they could be arrested or harassed for engaging in sex work if they approach local law enforcement. Thomas Steinfatt argues that in countries where sex work is decriminalized, the police exist to protect the well-being of the sex worker as well as the clients. In this way, if violence or theft occurs, either the worker or the client can seek help. His comments echo the recommendation by three United Nations agencies in a 2012 report that countries in Asia and the Pacific tackle the negative consequences of sex tourism by decriminalizing prostitution. Decriminalization empowers those who are voluntarily providing sexual services to protect themselves and enables government agencies to mandate and regulate condom use and testing.
The world of sex tourism is diverse. Any country can be destination for sex tourism and sex tourists aren’t only rich, white men as might be expected. Sex tourism may be fueled by a variety of economic and social factors. The sex tourism industry can be lucrative for workers, but it can also contribute to local corruption and the spread of STIs among workers and tourists. In my next installment, I will discuss how some sex tourism hotspots have responded to the threat of STIs in their communities.
Allison Yates received a B.A. from Indiana University in International Studies. She is interested in researching cross-cultural relationships, sexual education, and violence prevention.