Sex tourism

Sex tourism is a commonly mentioned type of tourism, but it is poorly defined and has very negative connotations. Revisiting the elements of its definition and reframing the phenomenon (in historical, geographical and gender terms) and clearly distinguishing sex tourism involving children from that involving only adults makes it possible to re-assess this type of tourism, but leads us to question the heuristic value of this category.

Common definition

The commonly accepted definitions characterise sex tourism as a form of tourism that aims to obtain sexual services at the tourist destination as part of a commercial exchange. But there are many problems with these definitions.

Due to the lack of data and because of the difficulties with this category, sex tourism is very difficult to quantify. Its main destinations (South East Asia, Caribbean) and tourist-generating countries (Europe, North America, China, Japan, Arabian Gulf) are known, but most of the work focuses on specific situations, which are mostly approached from a qualitative and monographic, and often ethnographic, perspective.

All categories designating a type of tourism (cultural tourism, sustainable tourism, etc.) are problematic in that they tend to differentiate, reify, essentialise and entrench practices. It is artificial to single out and isolate one practice from the other, and there is a risk of creating research artefacts. Thus, a sex tourist is not only, and not always, a sex tourist. He strolls around cities, visits tourist sites, goes to restaurants, etc. Why should one of his activities be singled out among others, and his tourist practice be reduced to this? Conversely, is there one tourist for whom sexuality is not an issue, with the liminal space-time making all reconfigurations in this area possible?

Sometimes the tourist is a woman, and it is a man who is selling a sexual service (cf. infra). However, these configurations are so marginal statistically that we have deliberately chosen here not to adopt a gender-neutral language, which would imply that the tourist and the person who provides the sexual service could both, and indiscriminately, be a man or a woman, and that sex tourism develops in a context of gender equality. That is not the case. Indeed, for some people, the idea of female sex tourism would almost be a contradiction in terms.

Intentionality and commercial sexual service: problems of definition

Firstly, the definition presupposes intentionality, and even a plan. A sex tourist is one who travels for the purpose of obtaining sexual services. Therefore, a tourist who travels mainly for other reasons but who, in the destination country, has recourse to a sex worker (although this was not originally planned or was a secondary purpose of the trip) is not a sex tourist. This can be called a “situational sex tourist” (O’Connell Davidson, 2006). Given the practice and the sex worker concerned, this distinction makes little sense. However, this aspect of the definition raises questions as to the motivations of these tourists: why can they not be satisfied with the offer from sex workers in their own country, who in fact often come from abroad? The reasons are numerous and diverse, but some do refer to the appeal of the tourist environment and exotic context in which the sexual experience takes place, a context in which sex tourists are tourists like others.

Secondly, it is not always easy to decide what a commercial sexual service is. On the one hand, the services provided by sex workers are not limited to sex. They may include an important emotional dimension (the girl friend experience). The sex worker can also play the role of a guide, introducing the tourist to the local gastronomy, accompanying him on his visits, etc. On the other hand, the commercial nature of the exchange is not always clear since the quality of the service offered is based precisely on its concealment. The sex worker can find very indirect ways to obtain a remuneration, even non-monetary, and the client can turn a blind eye to the nature of the exchange to enjoy it more: he will have the more pleasant impression of giving a spontaneous gift. More fundamentally, there are many forms of economic-sexual exchanges, as part of a continuum with the two poles being prostitution at one end and marriage at the other end. In that sense, a wife who performs her marital duty in order to have peace or continues to enjoy the benefits of her marriage would also be a sex worker.

Geographical framework, gender relations, CST and history: need for reframing

The category “sex tourism” is also problematic because of the connotations it carries.

Firstly, there is often a tendency to reduce sex tourism to an international practice, whereby customers from Western countries go to poor countries where the sex workers are. Yet, the primary customers of Patpong, the red-light district of Bangkok, are Thai men. Domestic sex tourism is very significant. In addition, not all international tourists who come to Patpong are Western. Many are Chinese or Japanese. And while Southern countries are sexscapes (Brennan, 2004), characterised by very strong inequalities between tourists from rich countries and local sex workers, some rich countries are themselves popular destinations for sex tourism: the reputation of the red-light districts of Amsterdam, New Orleans or Paris has attracted and still attracts many tourists there.

Moreover, sex tourists are not necessarily men, and those who offer sex services are not necessarily women, although this is certainly the most common pattern by far. Sex tourism can be outside the heteronormative framework: as early as the 19th century, some European homosexuals would go for example to the Maghreb to find sexual services from other men that were difficult to get in their country of origin, at least without incurring risks. There is also female sex tourism, whereby tourists often from Northern countries go, often to the countries of the South, to find sexual partners. Whether in this case the exchange is more emotional and less sexual (we then speak of romance tourism) than in the opposite case is a subject of debate. Female sex tourism is the subject of many articles in the mainstream press, documentaries and fiction films, and in many scientific articles, reflecting the disproportionate attention given to the phenomenon and the little consideration given to male sex tourism, though it is by far the most predominant. It would seem that male sex tourism is a matter of course, while its female counterpart always needs to be explained, since it seems to question a well-established order.

Secondly, sex tourism is sometimes misunderstood as child sex tourism (CST). In the context of sex tourism, the economic-sexual exchange can be legal, consensual and benefit both parties. A sex worker, provided she is of age, may exercise her profession by choice, freely, and profit from it. Not stigmatising sex workers (not calling them prostitutes for a start) is to consider them like any other workers, and to believe them when they say they do not exercise their profession under duress. This is evidenced in a lot of research. However, there is concern that in some countries of the South, poverty and wealth disparity between the inhabitants and the tourists are such that for some women sex work can be the only way to escape. They are positioned at the intersection of several domination matrices (race, class and gender). But these tragic cases must by no means be generalised and all tourist sex workers must not be reduced to the status of victims. However, there is clearly no consent when it comes to CST, which can only exist under duress and which constitutes a crime. Child prostitution exists everywhere and is rightly prohibited, and there is a fight against CST everywhere. Tourists practising CST can in fact be prosecuted even on their return to their country of origin. Fortunately, CST is an exception: the vast majority of sex workers who offer their services to tourists are adults, and their clients do nothing illegal (as long as prostitution is allowed or at least tolerated – as in Thailand – in the country concerned). They do not necessarily face more constraints than those who do not have tourists as customers.

Thirdly, sex tourism is often presented as a new phenomenon, which emerged in the 1970s due to the restructuring of the sex industry in Thailand after the end of the Vietnam War and following the development of international mass tourism. Indeed, new forms of sex tourism emerged at that time, though the older forms must not be ignored, especially since there is no continuity solution between the former and the latter. Thus, the institutionalisation of sex work, specific to most colonial empires, and the eroticisation of indigenous people, specific to the colonial imagination, drove tourism practices of which current sex tourism is a direct heir, since it plays on the same fantasies and the same power relations.

“The Orient was a place where one could look for sexual experience unobtainable in Europe.”

Edward Said (1977: p. 219)

A category tainted by moral sensibility, an expression to be avoided?

Sex tourism certainly has a bad reputation, whether it is because of the stigma attached to prostitution, its (abusive) assimilation to CST, or the fact that the tourist environment is considered to exacerbate the problematic nature of economic-sexual exchange. It is difficult to get rid of the negative connotations and value judgements that the expression carries. However, unless one is touristophobic, there are no more (or no less) reasons to condemn sex tourism than sex work itself.

The expression “sex tourism” was created in the 1970s to denounce this practice, at the time by Japanese tourists going to South-East Asia seeking sex workers. The term then spread and became widely used in a context where it was almost always a question of condemning the practice and the clients, and of victimising sex workers. This is generally not true of the scientific literature on the subject, abundant since the 2000s, which mostly adopted a nuanced positioning and avoided generalisations and value judgements, even pointed out that sex work can be empowering for people who do it by choice.

Probably, from the point of view of the social sciences, the category “sex tourism” poses more problems than it solves, and we could stop using it. Obviously, it is not that there are no tourists who travel to purchase prostitution services, but rather that there is nothing to gain by stigmatising them in this way. And the focus on “sex tourism” obscures tourist sexualities, that is to say, the changes in sexual desires and behaviours specific to the pattern of tourism, which are far from limited to the novelty presented by the prostitution supply in the destination country, and of which we know very little.

For example, Tahiti is a sex-tourist destination, whether because of the eroticisation of the body of the vahine (Tahitian word for woman) or because Polynesia attracts honeymoon couples. Because of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, Pierre Loti, Paul Gauguin and many others, the imagination of all tourists who dream of going to Tahiti is imbued with an eroticism that is till today a resource for the tourism industry (Ill. 2). Travellers who visit Tahiti are sex tourists in the sense that the sexual component partly determines the attractiveness of the island, some of their expectations and some of the initiatives taken by the tourism industry to meet these expectations (such as hotels employing young men and women selected for their looks, and who perform their work simply clad in a pareo). However, we cannot talk about sex tourism in Tahiti in the classic sense of the term, as the local prostitution supply is not intended for tourists.

Rather than endorsing a restrictive and problematic definition of sex tourism, we can adopt a broader (and somewhat provocative) meaning, which has the heuristic benefit of including all tourists, at least those with a libido.

Ill. 2. The eroticisation of the vahine’s body, from P. Gauguin’s paintings to Air Tahiti Nui’s advertisement  (Staszak, 2012: P. 32)

Jean-François STASZAK


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