Many of us enjoy being a tourist. Exploring new places and cultures, tasting different kinds of food, and bathing in the sun while it's cold and rainy back home. Tourism (up until the pandemic) has been booming. Both international and domestic travel is easier than ever, with tens of thousands of commercial flights happening daily. And although there are many positive sides to a booming tourism sector, the negative sides demand some attention.
Like many other sectors, the tourism sector is one in which trafficking frequently occurs. A constant changeover of guests creates an environment of anonymity, which is used by traffickers to make victims unnoticeable. In our previous blog, we highlighted places frequently utilized by residents and vacationers where trafficking occurs. Tourists especially come in contact with those exploited in the hospitality industry, like in hotels and restaurants. It is estimated that, in the European Union alone, there are more than 115,000 victims of trafficking within the tourism sector. There is a whole other area, however, where exploitation thrives... called sex tourism.
Sex tourism is defined by the United Nations World Organization as: “trips organized from within the tourism sector, or from outside this sector but using its structures and networks, the primary purpose of effecting a commercial sexual relationship by the tourist with residents at the destination.”
Although the sex industry has existed for centuries, sex tourism is likely to have begun during the first and second World War. Soldiers in need of relaxation and sailors looking for entertainment, after months at sea, created a demand that needed to be fulfilled. It didn’t take long for bars and brothels to appear at sites where soldiers were likely to be found. Since then, not only soldiers but men and women from all over the world started to travel with the intent of engaging in some sort of sexual relationship.
When picturing this type of tourist, the white Western man traveling to South-East Asia for sex is often the dominant portrait. Professor Julia O’Connell Davidson describes two different types of Western male sex tourists: the “Macho Lad” and the “White Knights”. The Macho Lad desires a feeling of control over Third World Women, whom they see as slaves. They don’t want any relationship and care little for who it is they sleep with.
“I use them (Thai prostitutes) like I use any other amenity, a restaurant or a public convenience. It answers my needs. No questions, no answers, no future. It’s clean, it’s efficient, it’s over. I’ve never made the mistake of falling for them. Love in my book is a dirty word. F*ck isn’t” (Seabrook, 1996: p.33).
‘White Knights’ don’t have the intention to engage in sexual acts during their travels, but it occurs while traveling. These men often see themselves as the ‘good guy’, simply engaging in commercial sex to allow their payments to help these women that often live in poverty. Some even continue to give payments once they have already returned to their home country. “He feels as if he is helping the local women who are otherwise 'damaged' by the local men.”
It is not only those from developed countries who travel to developing countries looking for cheap sex. One of the most famous sex tourism destinations in the world is the Netherlands. Amsterdam’s red-light district is located near the city center, where women of all ethnicities are on display through glass doors. Commercial sex has been legal in the country for more than 20 years, which has attracted many tourists over the years. Though legal, many women are reported to have been victims of trafficking, numbers varying between 40% and 90%.
It's not just men who travel to various destinations to engage in sexual activities. Although the count seems to be a lot lower, female sex tourists have also been noticed. Most of them are single, wealthy, older white women, and in search of a certain romance. Female sex tourists travel to different destinations than men do, often to less developed countries. The most popular destination for females is the Caribbean, where women are on the lookout for “Beach Boys”. These ‘boys’ hang out on the beach during the day, trying to get the attention of a Western woman. They often engage in sexual activities because they are aware of the economic lifestyle of these women. Female sex tourists are often seen as less harmful, because of their longing for romance. They often engage in longer romantic encounters, in comparison to the Macho Lads, who are looking for brief and meaningless sex.
Just like any other form of exploitation, sex tourism affects minors too. An estimated 250,000 tourists engage in sexual relations with a minor while visiting Southeast Asia each year. Tourism in this region is growing so rapidly that local legislation and changing norms are having trouble keeping up, in regards to better protecting children, which is making children increasingly vulnerable. Some tourists specifically select young girls to satisfy their desires. As psychologist Beth Hedva describes: “Some men are fascinated by sleeping with virgins – they get excited thinking that they’re the first to show a pre-pubescent girl how to have sex.” It goes as far as some girls needing to undergo a specific surgery repeatedly, where a piece of skin is attached at the vaginal opening to make her appear to be a virgin, since men are willing to pay more for a virgin. Asian men believe it will make them younger and have certain healing effects. Somaly Mam, co-founder of an NGO working in Cambodia plainly states: “These children are commodities who will be killed when they’ve outlived their usefulness, or they die from the torture.”
Unfortunately, this is not the only way children are victimized by sex tourism. In places such as Angeles City in the Philippines, many local children look visibly different than their family members and neighbors. This is because their fathers were sex tourists. Some of the men visited the city for the ‘girlfriend experience', where you pay a woman to be your girlfriend for a day, a night, a week, or a month. Others were regulars and visited the same woman multiple times over the course of a few years.
One tourist talks about the ‘working girls’ who have children by their clients: “I would say 40% to 50% of the working girls in A.C. had their first kid from a monger (a tourist), either European, Australian or American, and these mongers aren’t supporting their kids... just left them.” Some men know they have children with their clients, but refuse to be involved. A woman named Aiza told the father of her daughter, who was a regular, that she had fallen pregnant, but he classified it as her own fault. “He had already paid for the sex.” Many of these local kids try to find their families overseas, but all they have is a first name, which is often a nickname. They have no proof of their parentage. As a result, sex tourism has left a generation fatherless.
Thoughts or questions? Leave a comment, fellow Changemaker!