(Last updated on: 19/10/2020)
Sex tourism is not a new concept. In fact, sex tourism has been around probably as long as tourism has. The problem is that it is difficult to identify, measure or manage due to it being ‘hush hush’ in many, if not most, instances.
Whether legal or illegal, many people do not wish to discuss their sex lives, particularly if this involves acts or behaviours that friends, family or acquaintances might not approve of. It is for this reason that the true scale of the sex tourism industry worldwide is not known.
There are signs all over the place though. I’ve seen prostitutes stood on the street corners of Alicante. I’ve seen young African men ‘pimping themselves out’ to older Western women in The Gambia. I’ve seen ping pong shows in Thailand(no- I would not recommend it!). I’ve walked the streets of Amsterdam where women advertise themselves as ‘for sale’ in shop windows. I’ve seen sex hotels in Brazil.
Whether you’re looking for a one night stand, a week of romance or a marriage, you will surely find what you’re looking for if you look hard enough. The sex tourism industry is booming. In this post I explain what sex tourism is and what the different types of sex tourism are. I also discuss the ethics of working in the sex tourism industry and child sex tourism. Lastly, I provide a brief background on some of the most popular sex tourism destinations in the world.
What is sex tourism?
Sex tourism involves travel to a particular destination to pursue sexual services.
Sex tourism is usually associated with prostitution, although the sex tourism industry also encompasses the search for ‘mail brides’, sex shows and sex slavery. Sex tourism is illegal in many countries. Popular sex tourism destinations include Amsterdam, Thailand and The Gambia.
Sex tourism definitions
There appears to be no clear-cut definition of the term ‘sex tourism’. In fact, it is a rather ambiguous concept. Does one have to engage in commercial activities to be a sex tourist? Does money need to change hands? What about if a person watches a sex show? Or goes for a drink in a bar and there just so happens to be a naked Thai lady dancing on the table (yep, this has happened to me…)- does that make them a sex tourist?
A sex tourist is traditionally defined according to their predominant motivation, which revolves around the notion of seeking commercial sexual relations whilst on holiday according to Graburn (1983). Opperman (1999) argues, however, that sex tourism is rarely the tourist’s sole purpose and activity and that you can still be a sex tourist, even though this may not be the prime reason for travel.
For many, sex tourism invokes connotations of commodification and prostitution, but it is not simply about sexual activities. Sex tourism is a response to the complex interaction of gender, class, cultural, sexual and power relations in both the tourists and the person offering sex’s society in which they live (Hall, 1996).
Tourists involved with sex activities are not always categorised as sex tourists. This is perhaps due to the ambiguities in the definition and the common perceptual parameters limiting a sex tourist to one who directly pays for sex. Bandyopadhyay (2013) identifies that there has been a paradigm shift away from the typical association with commercial sex, to a more diverse and multidimensional perspective.
Although scholars have now begun to take a less judgmental approach to the complex relationship of sex and tourism, as recommended by Opperman (1999), the sex tourism industry continues to remain under-researched. We know that the sex tourism is there, but we are far from knowing everything about it.
Types of Sex tourism
Ryan (2000) promotes sex tourism as having several paradigms that can be placed anywhere along the spectrum from non-commercial to commercial and voluntary to exploited.
The largest segments constitute prostitution and mail brides, whilst smaller paradigms include sex slavery, casual encounters and romance.
Opperman (1999) further questions the nature of sexual encounters, suggesting this be expanded to sex attractions such as strip clubs or peep shows. Although he continues to define this as sex tourism only when there is opportunity to partake in some form of physical sexual act, it could be argued that simply watching such forms of entertainment constitutes a form of sex tourism.
In light of the above academic work and from my own reading, I have put together a diagram demonstrating the sex tourism spectrum.
Prostitution is the exchange of sexual services for money. Prostitution is perhaps the most well-known form of sex tourism and has been around since before records began.
Some destinations are well known for their sex tourism industries, which have grown and developed for a number of reasons. In Amsterdam, for example, the industry has grown significantly because it is legal, causing tourists to travel from other destinations to take part in this type of sex tourism. Here the streets are lined with shops, where women promote and undertake their sexual services.
Read also: Social impacts of tourism
Likewise, in Thailand, the sex tourism industry derives from military activity during the Second World War, when troops would pay local girls for their sexual services. Once the Thai people saw the monetary value in the sex tourism industry this continued to grow and evolve into the commercial and commodified market that it is today. The documentary below demonstrates how this industry has grown to the size that it is today.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tcnf8PBCqo0Sex tourism in Thailand: CBC Documentary
Sometimes prostitution will be very blatant. Spain, for example, is famous for having prostitutes lining the streets looking for business. Other times, it is more discreet, for example in the Philippines where ‘happy ending massages’ are a popular choice amongst travellers.
Sex shows are live shows that are put on involving acts of sex. Said shows will often involve props, such as eggs or razor blades, and will feature graphic scenes of sexual activity.
Destinations that are famous for offering sex shows include Amsterdam, Thailand and Cambodia.
People who choose to watch sex shows are often not the same people who seek prostitutes. They are often groups of young travellers such as backpackers or those on stag or hen parties.
I hate to admit that I did once attend a sex show in Bangkok. Aside from being genuinely traumatised by what I saw, I felt sincere feelings of sadness for the workers. If you just took one look at their face (which most people do not!), you would see the sorrow in their eyes.
These women do n to enjoy this line of work, but they are often forced into it because of their financial needs. I was once told that a Thai woman can earn the same amount that she would earn working in the fields in the agricultural sector for an entire month in just one night when working in the sex tourism industry. It is therefore no surprise that women become sex workers. They have families to feed, a life to sustain etc.
The reality is, that if nobody attended these sex shows they simply wouldn’t exist. I know that I contributed towards this awful part of the sex tourism industry. I may be only one person, but it all adds up. So when you stumble out of a bar on Koh San Road in the early hours of the morning and a tun tun driver offers to take you to see a sex show, I urge you to say no!
the term mail-order-bride comes from times when women would literally list themselves in a physical catalog as being ‘for sale’. Nowadays women may be found on dating apps or just simply in areas where they know that they are likely to find a suitable partner.
One place that will never escape my memories was Walking Street in Pattaya. Here there were hundreds of women who flocked to the area in search of ‘love’. The only Western faces were those of middle aged or elderly white men. Needless to say, I felt very out of place and uncomfortable here. You can get a feel for what it’s like on Walking Street in this video clip-https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwPbQgzx2A0Walking Streep, Pattaya at midnight
Sex slavery is when a person is forced to undertake particular sexual activities. Most commonly associated with sex trafficking, people (usually women and sometimes children) are taken against their will and forced to work in the sex tourism industry.
According to research by the International Labour Organisation, there are 4.5 million people who are victims of forced sexual exploitation worldwide. However, as I pointed out before, it is difficult to accurately measure the extent of the sex tourism industry due to its covert nature. The International Labour Organisation also claim that the global commercial profits for sexual slavery are estimated to be $99Billion.
Read also: Types of tourism: A Glossary
Child sex tourism
The United Nations defines child sex tourism as ‘every human being below the age of 18 years’. It is the sexual exploitation of children by a person who travels from their home town or region in order to have sexual contact with children. Child sex tourism may or may not be their primary motivation for travel.
Child sex tourists can be domestic or international tourists. Whilst the typical association is men, child sex tourists can be any gender, age or nationality. Most child sex tourists will hide their activities or intentions and are disguised as ordinary travellers. There are many examples, for instance, in Asia, where volunteer tourists have abused the trust awarded to them by sexually exploiting the children that they are working with.
Below is an Air France advert which was aired to raise awareness of the issue of child sex tourism.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jFHzcc32hcAn Air France advert which juxtaposes the price of cheap knickknacks vs. the price of a child
Child sex tourism has been recorded in many parts of the world and awareness of this issue has grown in recent years. It can be found in different types of venues, from brothels in red-light districts to beaches or five-star hotels. It can occur over a long period of time, for example, where the child is ‘groomed’ or it can be quick, for example when a child is ‘sold’ into the sex trade.
Below is a map by EPCAT demonstrating the scale of the child sex tourism industry.
Child sex tourism is a particular problem in many parts of central and southern America. This informative documentary demonstrates the scale of the problem in the Dominican Republic.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ZyppB5xTn4Documentary on child sex tourism in the Dominican Republic
Ethics of sex tourism
Whilst many people would argue that sex tourism or morally unethical, for others, there may be an argument for maintaining the sex tourism trade.
Yes, it is obviously wrong to force somebody to work in the sex trade or to involve children under the age of 18. But, what if somebody chooses a profession as a sex worker? What would happen in the Netherlands changed their laws and copied suit of many other Western nation s by making prostitution illegal? Their tourism industry would certainly take a big hit and so would their economy. The sex workers themselves would be out of the job and there may be dire financial consequences for them and their families as a result.
Who are we to say that these people shouldn’t work in the sex tourism industry if they want to?
Some destinations have argued for the legalisation of prostitution. After all, people do it anyway. At least if it was legal we could collect taxes from workers, give them workers rights and put the relevant regulations in place. This would surely make it a safer practice?
There are arguments both for and against sex tourism. My personal opinion is that I don’t like it much, but there are people that rely on this industry to support their livelihoods… you have to look at it from different perspectives I guess.
Read also: Dark tourism explained: What, why and where
Sex tourism destinations
Emerging research has demonstrated that in contrast to the usual evoked image of (often older) men traveling to developing countries such as Thailand or Cambodia for sexual pleasures (OConnell Davidson 1996), there are also destinations such as Kenya, The Gambia, and several Caribbean islands that attract female sex tourists (e.g. Brown, 1992; Herold et al, 2001; Sanchez Taylor, 2001).
More recently, Bandyopadhyay (2013) has questioned whether there could be a female sex-tourist presence in Asian markets, with a widely held belief in Asia that white women love to have sex with exotic Asian men.
Furthermore, some suggest that tourists may be in search of more than the physical act of sex, wanting a relationship or even marriage (e.g. Cohen, 1982; Herold et al,2001; Sanchez Taylor, 2001). This is particularly prominent in Thailand where it is common for ‘farang’ men to marry native Thai women who may or may not have listed themselves on some form of catalogue (online or otherwise), thus classifying themselves as a ‘mail bride’ (Cohen, 1982; Ryan, 2000; Sarker et al, 2013).
Below I have provided a brief summary of sex tourism in some of the prominent sex tourism destinations around the world.
Sex tourism in Thailand
Sex tourism in Thailand is estimated to be worth US$6.4 billion a year in revenue, which accounts for a significant portion of the national GDP.
The primary sex tourist areas are often identified as the red-light districts of Bangkok and Pattaya as well as Patong Beach Resort on Phuket Island. Sex tourism in the country largely encompasses prostitution, bars centred around sex acts or sexual dancing, sex shows and shady massage parlours.
Child sex tourism makes up a significant part of the sex tourism industry in Thailand, where it is estimated by EPCAT that there could be as many as hundreds of thousands of children working in the sex trade.
Sex tourism in The Gambia
Unlike Thailand, where it is generally men who partake in sex tourism, The Gambia attracts female sex tourists. Middle aged and older women travel to the country in search of young African men. Sometimes a holiday romance is sufficient and other times women are seeking long term relation ships. There is a lot of controversy over sex tourism in The Gambia, just take a look at the comments thread in this post!
Want to learn more about sex tourism in The Gambia? This interesting documentary explains everything.
Sex tourism in the Caribbean
Sex tourism in The Caribbean is rife. The number one hotspot is the Dominican Republic where it is estimated that there is anywhere from 6000 to 10,000 female work in the sex trade. Cuba, Jamaica and Barbados are close competitors, with their own red light districts and sex tourism areas.
Sex tourism in Amsterdam
Amsterdam is renowned for its sex tourism industry. Unlike most Western nations, sex tourism in the Netherlands is legal, meaning that tourists flock to the destination in search of sexual pleasures that they cannot legally achieve in their home country.
Amsterdam’s famous red light district boasts hundreds of women advertising themselves in shop windows and has become somewhat of a tourist attraction in its own right. There are also a large number of sex shows that are particularly popular with groups of young travellers on party breaks or stag holidays.
A colleague of mine who I met at a conference a couple of years ago has put together a really interesting video on Amsterdam’s sex tourism industry- I recommend you take a look!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYQZVavA1OMTravel Professors- Sex tourism in Amsterdam
Sex tourism in Spain
Lesser known for its sex tourism industry is Spain. However, the country has one of the highest prostitution rates in the world. Prostitution is legal in Spain, although the industry has not grown in the same way that it has in Amsterdam. It is less formal and remains somewhat covert in nature.
Brothels are found in most major towns and cities and prostitutes can be found lining the streets 24 hours a day.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pbJU7P-s7KY
Sex tourism: Conclusion
As you can see, the sex tourism industry worldwide is big business. There are different degrees of sex tourism ranging from commercial to voluntary and from the likes of sex shows through to child sex tourism and sex trafficking. I’m not sure that we will ever know the true scale of the sex tourism industry, but what we do know is that it exists and is here to stay. careful management is key, but with a subject so covered as sex, this is easier said than done!