Sex tourism is sexualized imperialism


I remember the moment vividly. I was at the beach in the Dominican Republic with my sister and had just gone up to the bar to get some food when an older man started a conversation with me. He told me his name and said he was from France. Perhaps naively, I was excited for an opportunity to practice the French we had been learning in school with “a real French person,” so we chatted for a bit while I waited for my food. He said he was a public administrator at a hospital. “Quel age a vous?” I said in my broken French. “Je suis cinquante-sept,” he replied (57 years old). After a while I started looking for my sister, about to leave, when it happened. The man ordered a second drink and handed it to me. My face must have conveyed confusion as I began to realize his less-than-wholesome intentions, because he placed his hand on top on mine, leaned in and whispered, “Don’t worry. You don’t have to do anything yet.” I was 17 years old.

An episode on the Huffington Post Love+Sex Podcast titled, “Here is what it’s like to be a sex tourist” (subtitled: Leaving the country never felt so good),” co-hosted by Carina Kolodny and Noah Michelson asks us to rethink sex tourism. They begin by stating that the podcast is not about “the sex tourism that a lot of people imagine; something like an older man going to a poor country and spending the week with trafficked underage girls.”

The word “imagine” implies that the dynamic of an older man looking to pay for sex with younger, poor locals is just a figment of our imaginations, not a reality, and therefore up for debate. In order to further distract us from that reality, sex tourism is defined for the listener in the most vague and imprecise way possible — according to both Kolodny and Michelson, “Sex tourism can mean many different things depending on who you are and what you’re looking to find.” The definition is so loose that we are tempted to do away with any empirical understanding we already have of the issue.

During the episode, we hear from two men who travel abroad to engage in sex tourism. One of them is a man named Matt from Australia who travels to San Francisco and the other is a man named Jay who identifies himself as a “public figure” who needs to “protect his identity” while he fulfills what both he and the podcast itself define as “a need.” The third guest is a woman named Jody Hanson who wrote a book on the sex industry called The Business of Sex, and the fourth is a man named Elard Tissot Van Patot, founder and CEO of the Red Light District Tour in Amsterdam.

Amsterdam, Australia, San Francisco… Forget about people traveling to poor countries looking for sex with local girls and women who have no choice but to sell sex for survival — sex tourism is cosmopolitan and fashionable!

In the sex tourism industry, globalization and patriarchy cooperate so that, even in wealthier countries, it is still the bodies and lives of marginalized women and girls that are commodified and objectified in order to ensure profit and pleasure for the privileged. Most women and girls prostituted in wealthier countries (like in Western Europe, for example) are still immigrants from economically poorer countries, like Eastern Europe as well as Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Buyers don’t need to travel abroad to find their choice of “exotic” women and girls — in the global sex trade, they are shipped in.

The hosts focus an inordinate amount of attention on apps and how strange it is to “find sex” without them. Michelson asks “what did people do before apps?” and Kolodny replies, “Such a sad question. Because I feel like everyone can apply that question to every sector of their lives. Like, how did I drive without GPS?” Never mind that owning a phone, having an internet connection, or having a car are, in and of themselves, marks of immense privilege… Only about a quarter of the world’s population even own a smartphone, but according to the hosts, this “sad” reality confines people to “the dark ages.” Knowing full well what sex tourism looks like first hand in a global south country, the unchecked privilege and obliviousness of the hosts and guests featured in the episode is infuriating.

As is becoming common practice among Western, privileged, liberal feminists, Hanson’s book describes the sex industry as if it were a grassroots organization, driven by the supply side rather than the (overwhelmingly male) demand side. “Sex is a business,” reads the blurb on her website. “For a sex worker, it is a way of making a living; for a madam, it is a service industry enterprise; for a stripper, it is creating an illusion; for a dominatrix, it is maintaining control; for a consort, it is getting paid for what he might do anyway.” Ignoring the fact that very few women or girls would be coerced into the industry in the first place if demand from men were not so intense creates a mythical image of prostitution, one that says women simply “choose” it because they enjoy sex with strange men so much.

When asked to address reservations people might have about sex tourism, Hanson says, “People tend to get moralistic about it,” adding, “They don’t really understand how it works.” She wants us to believe people’s concerns are not about exploitation, poverty, or wealthier men seeking out marginalized girls and women, but can simply be chalked up to people being prudish about sex.

Almost as an afterthought, Kolodny introduces the idea that “there definitely is conclusive and extensive evidence that sex tourism leads to the exploitation and enslavement of vulnerable people and that a lot of times, they are started younger… and have really no [way] of breaking out of that.” To which Hanson responds, “Well, that’s quite true.” She then goes on to say that, although Kolodny’s point is fair, we need to have “a balanced focus.” In other words, “Yes, we know there’s exploitation. Yes, we know there are children being pushed into the sex tourism industry… but what about the happy hooker narrative?” As if a few stories of empowerment through exploitation somehow offset the system as a whole. As if poverty justifies exploitation.

When asked what should be done to prevent sexual exploitation in sex tourism, Hanson says that any regulations at all are detrimental because “the sex industry has a natural way of evolving on its own and that if you leave it alone people will sort it out.” This statement, as we have seen, is not only ignorant but also extremely dangerous given how the growth of the sex industry is fueling human trafficking and child exploitation. (And how badly free-market ideology has failed marginalized people, in general…)

Listeners are informed that the Netherlands is a place that “has been lauded for its approach to sex tourism and prostitution.” This is stated as fact and without mention that about 60 to 75 per cent of the people working in prostitution in the Netherlands are women and girls from economically deprived countries, or what sex industry advocates call “migrant sex workers” (many of whom are trafficked). In fact, according to statistics provided by the Dutch government, 71 per cent of the victims of trafficking in the Netherlands end up in the sex industry. About 88 per cent of those trafficking victims are women and girls who are, on average, 25 years old. That crime and legalized prostitution are deeply interconnected in Amsterdam and that trafficking has increased since legalization also goes unmentioned.

Founder of the Red Light District Tour, Elard Tissot Van Patot, frames the discussion as one of sexual empowerment for the prostitute and vigilant persecution from the state. But, again, where is the demand side in this industry? Why do people like Van Patot go to such great lengths to obscure who is actually driving such a profitable enterprise?

Van Patot’s website refers to prostitutes as “whores.” Under the heading, “The Hooker Through the Ages,” it reads:

“The whore is always the source of many different reactions. Jealousy is certainly one. And many a spouse was relieved to see her man go to the Red Light District, as she refused to have sex with him. The whore always made good money and so did those around her, like the pimp, the inn etc., as is apparent from all the inns in paintings, where leisure, beer, kissing and making- out is depicted in a straight forward way.”

This language references representations of prostitution from paintings done by men. It goes on to explain, “In present days, Lilith lives as much as back then. More and more women free their untamable Lilith energy — their free, dark, sexual, tempting, and creative powers.” This is narrative of prostituted women as sexually empowered hedonists is popular among those who prefer fantasy to reality, as most all johns do.

This podcast teaches us about sex tourism based on information from two johns, a woman who profits from the narrative of “sex work as female empowerment,” and a man who makes a living exploiting foreign nationals in a wealthy country. No wonder we end up with such a dishonest presentation.

Towards the end of the episode, we are reminded that sex tourism is not as bad as we think because women participate as buyers too. (Trying to argue that the exception makes the rule is a common tactic engaged in by those who wish to normalize or excuse systems of oppression.) In fact, when you google the words “sex tourism” you’ll find a multitude of articles about female sex tourists who visit poorer countries looking for young, sexy local men, as if that evens the score. These stories represent a very small minority that pales in comparison to male demand in the sex industry, but we are left with the idea that female sex tourism is on the rise, and that, therefore, it’s gender equitable.

When you prioritize the anonymity of privileged men in the Global North or wealthier countries in order to defend the exploitation of countess women and girls in the Global South, you see imperialism at work. When your justifications are directly tied to the objectification of a fetishized Other, you are engaging in racist, classist, sexualization — you maintain and perpetuate a system that assumes that the bodies of marginalized people (overwhelmingly women and girls) exist to satisfy the manufactured “needs” of wealthier, more privileged people.

That moment — when a 57-year-old French man placed his hand on top of mine, assuming my sole purpose for being at a local beach in my own country was for his pleasure — has replayed itself in my life countless times… German men, French men, men from the United States… It is difficult to explain what it feels like to know that the harrowing realities of poverty and scarcity in your country become pornified experiences for tourists looking for fun (or what the Huffington Post Love+Sex Podcast calls “sex positivity.”) I sometimes wonder what would happen if that French man had approached a 17-year-old French girl with an alcoholic drink in a public place and solicited sex from her in front of strangers, instead of me, a girl from the Dominican Republic. The conversation would be very different.

What happened to me is happening to many girls and women across the globe because our designation as “economically deprived” works in tandem with the exoticization of our bodies in a sickening way. As a fellow Dominican friend said, “Colonization never ended. It’s just changed its face.” And as the Huffington Post podcast put it, oh so casually, “It’s kinda problematic.”

Raquel Rosario Sanchez

Raquel Rosario Sanchez is a writer from the Dominican Republic. Her utmost priority in her work and as a feminist is to end violence against girls and women. Her work has appeared in several print and digital publications both in English and Spanish, including: Feminist Current, El Grillo, La Replica, Tribuna Feminista, El Caribe and La Marea. You can follow her @8rosariosanchez where she rambles about feminism, politics, and poetry.