Sex Tourism: The client royalty. The Other, most often female, a sexual slave Print E-mail

The market also feeds off the opposition between poverty and beauty in a structurally unequal world. Emotional poverty in the developed world contrasts with economic poverty in the underdeveloped world. The material beauty of the consumer goods available in the developed world contrasts with the beauty and spirituality of the landscapes, people and traditions of the underdeveloped world


August 2006

Mass-marketing sex tourism

Sexual tourism, a mercantile form of extreme leisure with its roots in prostitution, is on the rise. It can be seen as an extension of the service aspect of mass tourism, in itself a modern version of the old colonial attitudes towards the world.
By Franck Michel

As sexual tourism, like traditional tourism before it, is democratised, prostitutes are becoming a standard holiday option. In Phuket or Ko Samui in Thailand, it is no longer unusual to encounter a western backpacker with a “girlfriend” hired for the week or month perched on the pillion of his motorcycle or clinging to his arm. And as it grows, sexual tourism is being mass-marketed.

In Thailand, young westerners in search of adventure and excitement are gradually supplanting a previous generation of German, Japanese and American tourists who themselves succeeded US and Australian troops serving in Vietnam. New clients from Malaysia, China and South Korea are arriving on the beaches and in the bars.

Tourist-oriented prostitution is developing in many third world countries where there is a ready supply of poor, ill-educated, easily exploited young men and women, who may not want to work as prostitutes, but are more or less forced into it. Affluent tourists flock in, looking for cheap, easy sex with young, available, submissive bodies. Many of the visitors, to salve their own consciences, convince themselves that they are not abusing the vulnerability of these young people, but are just helping them, supporting them, even contributing to national development.

In the wake of the boom in mass tourism in these countries, the increase in the number of individual tourists encouraged the expansion of prostitution. There is a specific geography of sexual tourism: women go to Goa, Jamaica and Gambia, men prefer southeast Asia, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, Surinam and Mexico. In Brazil half a million children are estimated to be involved in prostitution (1).

For many westerners, mass sexual tourism offers a revived colonialism, adapted to a more mobile contemporary universe. Some, in a desperate attempt to separate forced from voluntary prostitution, assert that in certain cities in the developed world, or in prosperous enclaves in some poor countries, “free”, up-market prostitution can allow women to operate independently and dispose freely of their own bodies.

But westerners have to concede that in most third world countries, as well as in the poor districts of cities in developed countries, prostitution is still dominated by pimps and by the threat of violence and rape (2). The myth that in developed counties prostitution is the result of individual choice makes combating it more difficult in underdeveloped countries.

Other tourists try to maintain a spurious distinction between child and adult prostitution. The more the consensus condemns the sexual abuse of children, the easier it becomes to excuse the abuse of adults (male and female) as an inevitable consequence of the world in which we live. Everyone condemns child abuse but turns a blind eye to traditional prostitution.

No one is guilty

Sexual tourism becomes a practice for which no one is responsible or guilty, particularly since it is closely linked to the established sex industries of pornography and prostitution; prostitution being just the practical application of what pornography proposes (3). While both these industries exploit human beings and commodify their bodies, media and advertising are preparing the way for the official recognition of the sex industry. The omnipresence of sexual violence in the media serves to normalise it. Even its condemnation furthers this goal: a paradox typical of the chic soft-porn culture that celebrates the domination of men at a time when their virility seems less secure.

To encourage and stimulate sexual demand, the goods on offer must be more enticing. The market is expanding and diversifying. A worldwide supply of ever younger women from all over the world is attracting new clients. The flow of sex migrants, drawn by consumerist illusions, guarantees a steady turnover of disposable submissive bodies. Competition drives prices down. The new popularity of female sexual tourism shows that women are walking in men’s footsteps, repeating the same representations of power, dominance and exploitation.

There is an important symbolic relationship between sexual tourists and organised tourists, those who rely on an agency or tour operator to arrange their holidays, and who shrug off all responsibility as soon as their feet touch the soil of their exotic holiday destination. As a traveller at Hanoi airport in Vietnam said: “Here I am, just off the plane. For the next few weeks I’m handing over my life to my guide. I’m totally shattered by my job and while I’m on holiday I don’t even want to think, I just want to be carried along.” This tourist wasn’t talking about sex, but other tourists would easily take the next step towards it.

On the other side of the world, everything becomes possible and any taboo can be broken. A tourist in a party may consign himself to a guide or travel agent, and allow himself to do things that he or she would not normally consider back home. He or she may be prepared to offend Muslim fishermen by bathing nude on a Malaysian beach; or flirt with an urchin peddling cigarettes at tables in a Vietnamese restaurant.

This is how an ordinary tourist, far from home, can end up doing the unthinkable. There is a more ready desire for self-transformation because the experience of travel allows tourists, organised or not, to divest themselves of any sense of responsibility. For the organised tourist, the Other, the native of colonial times, is there simply to serve and to be exploited.

That a financial transaction has taken place can permit sexual tourists to deny any sense of human responsibility towards the Other. They feel no obligation to give respect or pleasure. By paying for a sexual service they have bought total access to an individual over whom, for a given time, they exercise absolute rights, including the right to reduce that person to the status of a commodity.

The client is king
They are not obliged to show consideration. Their victim must submit. They can do what they want, with no fear of expulsion or punishment by the local authorities. The client is royalty, especially when on holiday. The Other, whether treated well or badly, is reduced to the state of a sexual slave.

There are differences between organised and sexual tourism, but the transition between them can be surprisingly smooth. In her book, Sex Traffic, Prostitution, Crime and Exploitation, Paola Monzini wrote: “In general paid sex has become a more or less visible component of mass tourism” (4). But most sexual tourists still operate alone, because of the fear of being identified and denounced, and because of the egocentricity of the abuser.

Any organised tourist susceptible to the current cult of the body and youth, based on sexual desire and cultural malaise, can became a sexual tourist (5). The archetypal example is the protagonist of Michel Houellebecq’s novel Platform (6), whose immersion in sex and travel allows him to delude himself that he is more than just an unremarkable, submissive employee escaping from a dreary everyday existence. In the West, sexual tourism is represented in oversimplified and incomplete ways as either sordid or spiritual.

The main reasons for the unprecedented growth in mass sexual tourism include worsening poverty; the liberalisation of sexual markets, which encourages trafficking for prostitution; the persistence of patriarchal, sexist societies; and the degradation of the image of women through widespread, normalised sexual violence. There is also the explosive growth of international tourism and migrancy stimulated by two social factors: the democratisation of travel (huge numbers of tourists flying cheaply everywhere) and the hypersexualisation of the young, fostered by the media obsession with sexual violence.

The market also feeds off the opposition between poverty and beauty in a structurally unequal world. Emotional poverty in the developed world contrasts with economic poverty in the underdeveloped world. The material beauty of the consumer goods available in the developed world contrasts with the beauty and spirituality of the landscapes, people and traditions of the underdeveloped world.

When the World Tourism Organisation met in Cairo in October 1995, it adopted a declaration on the prevention of organised sex tourism (7), alerting the industry and its clients to a global problem that does not just involve children. The struggle against it is at least becoming better organised.

Translated by Donald Hounam

Franck Michel is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Corsica and runs the association Déroutes et Détours. He is the author of ‘Désirs d’Ailleurs’ (Presses de l’université de Laval, Quebec, 2004 ) and ‘Planète Sexe’ (Homnisphères, Paris, 2006)

(1) On the exploitation of children, see Jeremy Seabrook, No Hiding Place: Child Sex Tourism and the Role of Extra-territorial Legislation, Zed Books, London, 2000.

(2) On the sexual commodification of the body, see Richard Poulin, La Mondialisation des Industries du Sexe, Imago, Paris, 2005.

(3) See Michela Marzano, Malaise dans la Sexualité. Le Piège de la Pornographie, Jean-Claude Lattès, Paris, 2006.

(4) Paola Monzini, Sex Traffic, Prostitution, Crime and Exploitation, Zed Books, London, 2005.

(5) See the dossier “Tourisme et sexualité” published by the journal Téoros, Montreal, vol 22, no 1, spring 2003.

(6) Platform, William Heinemann, 2002.