Can #MeToo help stop sex tourism?

Women in impoverished countries are exploited by Western men who publicly declare solidarity with women but behave differently in private.

On a casual Friday night out in Vilnius, I was having beers and catching up with my girlfriends who I hadn’t seen in awhile. We had all been living or traveling abroad for some time, and meeting up in our hometown was a rare treat. Though we had all changed in so many ways, Vilnius, it seemed, had not.

“Those girls are here for the free drinks and cash, nothing else,” one of my friends commented, looking at two gorgeous, giggly blondes hanging out at the bar. The young women were surrounded by four English men — all of them drunk — pinching and squeezing the women’s shoulders and behinds. Jokingly, of course.

In 2009, stag parties were a regular occurrence in Lithuania. Irish, Scottish, and English men would flock to Vilnius on weekends, celebrating their upcoming nuptials in the crudest way possible: by purchasing the services of young local escorts. Although prostitution was — and still is — illegal in Lithuania, bar and nightclub owners would openly “procure” girls upon request;whatever happened afterwards was considered consensual sex, regardless of differences in economic power, age, or intoxication levels.

Lithuania in 2018 is a different country, and thanks to many factors — including a female president serving a second term and, in part, the #MeToo movement — the public climate is finally starting to shift. But sex tourism hasn’t disappeared; it merely moved to Ukraine and Moldova, as well as other more impoverished countries, and white Western men are finding other more disempowered girls and women to exploit.

Underage sex tourism is booming in Colombia; in Cuba, child prostitution is reaching alarming levels; and in Asia, sex tourism involving children is growing exponentially. And it’s hardly a secret: online publications like theHuffington Post or TripIvy.com publish tips on how to find prostitutes while holidaying abroad. Award-winning travel writer Christopher Paul Baker — surprisingly, endorsed by National Geographic, and less surprisingly, Playboy — openly promotes sex tourism in his book.

Nine years ago, one of the most common “compliments” to Lithuanian women from Westerners was: “Eastern Europeans are so much more feminine than English women. They’re always dressed up, they take care of themselves, wear make-up, are always so pleasant, and they just love sex.” Echoing what women heard in my home country back then, sex tourists from other countries express this same sentiment today. According to some, paying for sex abroad is a means to escape from the #MeToo movement back home.

“The only way to fight #MeToo is to sleep with prostitutes, or save up for sex tourism,” says Mac, an online forum commentator. And he isn’t alone.

While Western men have been pushed to publicly claim solidarity with women and to state their opposition to sexual harassment and rape, this has not translated to similar support, rights, or freedoms for women in developing countries. From mail order brides to underage prostitutes, women from impoverished countries fall victim to Western men who publicly declare solidarity with women but privately feel no qualms about exploiting them.

But can #MeToo have a different impact? Can it help stop sex tourism and sexual exploitation of women and girls, as well as sexual harassment and rape?

A show of power

According to a recent study done by Ending the Sexual Exploitation of Children (ECPAT), sex tourism isn’t just about prostitution: Western men, apparently, particularly enjoy feeling superior in developing regions of the world.

The study explains:

“Travelling offenders who operate in developing countries may not be wealthy or powerful by global standards, but they inevitably have more disposable income than their victims. Cheap travel options allow offenders who enjoy little social status at home to arrive in destinations where they appear to have power and status because they are able to pay cash to achieve their ends. A study of offenders in Moldova, for example, concluded: ‘The only common element identified was that offenders had higher incomes than the average Moldovan.’”

In other words, sex tourism isn’t just about sex: it’s about power.

Tsitsi Matekaire, manager of the End Sex Trafficking program at Equality Now, a global NGO fighting for the rights of exploited women and girls internationally, says that the white Western status is sometimes enough to coerce women and girls from developing countries to offer sex in return for gifts or, sometimes, just promises. Matekaire explains:

“In Kenya, for example, a girl may believe that a white man will marry her and bring her to Europe, and so she’ll offer sex in return. Sex tourism has so many forms, and sometimes money doesn’t even exchange hands. But promises of marriage or travel are still coercion, and it’s still taking advantage of someone vulnerable, someone with few options.”

According to her, the “client is king” concept means that even if a country has anti-prostitution and child protection laws in place, governments will often turn a blind eye.

“Tourism means revenue, and many governments simply don’t want to rock that boat,” Matekaire says.

“A tourist or traveler — some sex tourists are people traveling for business or conferences, not just holidaymakers — often feels invincible. And that can lead to sexual exploitation of children, especially adolescent girls. Even when countries do have laws in place, law enforcement rarely looks at them as children. When it’s a 10-year-old, it’s obvious that it’s a child who’s being exploited. But a 15 or 16-year-old girl, as an example, can be seen as a ‘temptress’ rather than a victim in many regions of the world.”

According to her, there are no hard statistics on the average age of a prostituted girl or woman in developing countries, but she says most enter the sex trade at around 14.

“Some of the figures will show that the majority of women in prostitution were abused or exploited when they were as young as 14 or 15 years old. Afterwards, many stay in prostitution. Sixteen to 24 is the most vulnerable age group, and adolescent girls are at the highest risk.”

But what about the happy hooker narrative? That is to say, the claim that women choose prostitution of their own volition, because they enjoy or feel “empowered” through selling sex? Defenses like, “Well, at least those girls make some money,” “Sex is just natural to them in X country,” “They can support their families,” and “They seem happy” are common misconceptions expressed about sex tourism. Matekaire explains:

“Most sex tourists only see the woman or the girl for a short, fleeting moment. To solicit business, she often must look happy, or tell the johns she loves sex. Few people realize how many women and girls are trafficked or coerced into prostitution, how many of them have very few viable options to earn an income. Global migration and refugee crises, poverty, gender inequality, organized crime — all of these are factors that put women and girls at risk. So sex tourism may often look like a fun holiday adventure, but what is actually does is harm the locals in many different ways.”

She adds that even in countries like Germany or the Netherlands, where prostitution is completely legal, the majority of prostituted women aren’t German or Dutch, but Eastern or Central European, North African, or Slavic — in other words, women with fewer options than their Western counterparts.

#MeToo: Fueling a global change

Awareness is key to ending the sexual exploitation of women and girls, human trafficking, and sex tourism. Matekaire believes that #MeToo can help women all around the world, because victims’ voices are heard, survivors are sharing their experiences, and some governments are finally taking action. “At Equality Now, we work with governments and partner up with local NGOs who help lobby for changes in law,” Matekaire says. “Sometimes the laws are already in place, but law enforcement largely ignores them or doesn’t take victims seriously, so we partner up with local organizations to provide training or information to the law enforcement.” She says the stories told by survivors of prostitution and sex trafficking can be powerful and effective tools to make governments pay attention and keep their promises.

She sees the new legislation being implemented in various European countries — like Northern Ireland, Ireland, and France — that treats prostitution as an issue of women’s rights, penalizing the johns instead of the women, as an example of this.

Matekaire says the work to end sexual exploitation and trafficking of women and girls worldwide can sometimes feels like one step forward, two steps back. “We may shut down a travel agent that organizes sex tours targeting developing countries, but a new refugee crisis might put a high number of women and girls at an increased risk at the same time,” she says. “Still, I believe that education, awareness, and survivors’ voices are our most powerful tools.”

Some facts about sex tourism

Sex tourism is a $1 billion a year industry — among the top five largest industries within the world — but profits are concentrated in the hands of pimps, hotels, tour operators, etc., not the prostituted women and girls themselves. The profit made through the sexual exploitation of children for tourism is estimated to be worth $20 billion USD per year.

A United Nations report shows that, in Western Europe, 74 per cent of human trafficking victims are women and girls, and they are mostly trafficked for sexual exploitation (67 per cent of victims), while 73 per cent of human trafficking offenders are men. In North America, 77 per cent of trafficked victims are women and girls; the Caribbean has the highest numbers of trafficked girls at 51 per cent (26 per cent adult women), 56 per cent of whom are trafficked for sexual exploitation purposes.  Sex tourism and human trafficking together rank as the third most prevalent criminal activity in the world after drug trafficking and arms dealing.

Sex tourism both directly and indirectly fuels human trafficking and exploitation of women and girls worldwide. It isn’t just harmless holiday fun, or a “cool” way to celebrate a stag party. It’s a billion dollar industry where men enjoy all the fun and profit, and where women and girls suffer, often with nowhere to turn for help.

Egle Gerulaityte is a writer, adventuress, and traveler currently riding around the world on a motorcycle and discovering curious places and people along the way.

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  • TwinMamaManly

    I’m in Australia (not sure if you are too), but we can arrest and charge men for sex offences committed overseas, and for travelling overseas for the purpose of child sex abuse. They do catch these guys from time to time but its mostly a very small percentage of these creeps.

    • Tired

      ha ha yep #metoo (as in live in Australia)

      We get almost everything wrong with refugees and also have a long way to go with indigenous rights but we have sex tourism absolutely nailed.

    • Wren

      But prostitution is legal in Australia. I’m saying I find this interesting in a contradictory way.

      • TwinMamaManly

        It varies from state to state in Australia. My understanding is the same old pro-prostitution arguments are trotted out as in Canada or NZ. Meghan has done some great podcasts on this – one in particular with Melinda Tankard-Reist (an Australian). So there is a small minority punishing back.

  • TwinMamaManly

    Check out Project Karma, The Grey Man or Destiny Rescue – ordinary guys catching paedophiles in Asia and offering rehab to the girls they free from sex trafficking, and supporting them into life beyond sexual slavery.

  • Pera Raks

    Hey, that’s actually a very good idea

  • Candice Smith

    You know, Thom, I agree with your comments. I was always against the collapse of communism and the restoration of capitalism (not that there wasn’t a class system under communism) because I knew that the women and girls would suffer. Of course, prostitution also existed in the USSR and the Soviet Bloc because prostitution is not totally economic, but it existed to a lesser extent. (There have also been some theories that it was lesser in Russia/USSR because of education and the determination of the government; but more prevalent in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.) USSR had female social workers to assist women and girls out of prostitution, and under Soviet Russia, it was recognized that the causes included childhood trauma and low self-esteem; but the Eastern Bloc wasn’t as determined to deal with prostitution. Of course, when capitalism was restored, things got worse for women and girls. I am against prostitution anywhere, including in wealthier countries. I also don’t believe legalization of prostitution (or drugs) would reduce criminal activity. Porn and arms (weapons) are legal, and organized crime is involved with those things. By the way, see the great articles (Feminist Current and other publications) on Jeremy Corbyn and his support for the Nordic Model. Thanks for your support and comments.

  • Hanakai

    Yes. The reason that Haitians were among the early demographic groups at high risk for AIDS was that homosexual men from New York and the US East Coast would fly to Haiti where in the poor areas of Port-au-Prince, they could buy sex with poor boys for a pittance. Sex trafficking, forced prostitution, male promiscuity, all are vectors for spreading disease.

    One wonders why women have bothered to be such supporters of gay men, who after all are men with all their male privilege and vile misogyny. Women will not advance until they start putting their effort and energy into supporting and advancing women.

  • FierceMild
  • Candice Smith

    Hi Stefy, when prostitution was run by the mob, was this when under Soviet control, or after when capitalism was restored? Because I’ve tended to believe that the collapse of the Soviet Union has made things worse for women.

  • Cassandra

    I
    Hate
    Men

  • Cassandra

    This makes sense, sadly enough.

  • some woman

    With respect, I think teaching men is a waste of time. If it worked, it would already have worked by now. Men don’t *want* to learn.

    Teach women instead. To stand up for their rights, to rebel, to organize, to support each other, to unlearn the patriarchal mindset of female rivalry. Men don’t have a chance when women unite. They know this, which is why they’ll do anything to keep us divided.

    • TLT

      yes, i agree.

    • James Dosher

      “Men don’t *want* to learn.”

      I’m going to have to disagree with that. Furthermore …

      “… to unlearn the patriarchal mindset of female rivalry.”

      Really? Have you listened to a room full of feminists trying to decide what ‘real’ feminism is? People disagree on just about everything. It isn’t patriarchal ~ its Human nature and the ‘benefit’ of having complex brains.

      “Men don’t have a chance when women unite.”

      Good luck with that. Since men haven’t been able to unite EVER about ANYTHING, I’m unsure how women, as our EQUALS, will do any better. If you do it then will have won because, by doing so, you will have shown you can do a better job guiding the Human Race ~ far better than us fractious males.

      • Hanakai

        It seems to me that men have united remarkably well and on a global scale in adopting the ideology of male supremacy, in viewing women as inferior and sex objects and unpaid domestic servants, and adhering to patriarchal values.

  • James Dosher

    Seriously, what do you suggest?

    • TLT

      holding men accountable for their actions…
      empowering women to stand up for themselves, teaching women they don’t have to tolerate objectification…
      job opportunities that offer a livable wage….

      i dont know james…i don’t have all the answers…i do think there is at least more awareness now than before (maybe in part due to ‘me too’ and maybe even social media), but i still don’t think things have gotten better…that is just my opinion

      • James Dosher

        Thanks for the response, TLT.

        “holding men accountable for their actions…”

        I agree, but it has been done and is being done ~ even in countries where they don’t penalize the prostitutes themselves. To the vast majority of the male population, buying sex is illegal, they know it is illegal, but they do it anyway.

        I do think laws which punish men in their home nations for engaging in sex tourism shows some promise. Such laws do allow the ‘Rich’ nations to dictate legal definitions to the ‘Poor’ nations, for both good and ill.

        “empowering women to stand up for themselves, …”

        The huge problem is with the word ’empower’ and what it means. There is the old, worn argument that women ’empowered’ in their sexuality, can have sex with whomever they wish, for whatever reasons they wish … but is that really empowerment of any kind? The problem is that the above is both true and false at the same time.

        Yes, it is empowering for a woman to be the sole decider with whom she does, or does not, have sex with.

        No, it is not empowering because it doesn’t really change the age-old power dynamic in which the powerful (the male) is exerting power over the oppressed (the female) because of the oppressed’ socioeconomic circumstances.

        “teaching women they don’t have to tolerate objectification…”

        I think I get what you are saying, but the problem as I see it is what is the line between being objectified and a woman wanted to look beautiful? What norms of attractiveness do we, as a society, toss aside and which do we keep, if any?

        Does ‘defying objectification’ mean each woman demanding the basic tenants of human dignity and accepting nothing less? Would that would move it beyond a discussion of beauty standards and deal more with issues of both self-confidence, self-respect and communal respect (only treat others as you wish to be treated)?

        “job opportunities that offer a livable wage….”

        A discussion which reminds me it is not just a mountain, but a mountain range waiting for us out there. It is a living wage, income inequality, equal opportunity, income security and equality under the law too.

        “i dont know james…i don’t have all the answers…”

        I understand and this is why I ask questions. Sometimes I can’t tell if this quest to bring equity to our World is akin to building ‘The Great Wall of China”, or counting every grain of sand on the beach.

        “i do think there is at least more awareness now than before (maybe in part due to ‘me too’ and maybe even social media), …”

        There is awareness and then there is awareness fatigue.

        “but i still don’t think things have gotten better…”

        In my experience (I’m 54 and an amateur student of history) we only figure out if things have gotten better, or worse, by looking back on events. It is far harder to judge our progress and defeats as they are unfolding in our lives. It is hard to identify the raindrop which breaches the levee, or the first tumbling pebble which heralds the avalanche.

        We should never get too cocky, or too depressed, over current events. To me, persistence and endurance are some of the greatest of Human virtues. We often succeed by simply refusing to surrender.

        “… that is just my opinion.”

        And thank you for sharing yours.

  • James Dosher

    Your English was fine by me. I had no problem following your post. Thank you for your report ‘from the front lines’. Sadly, anywhere can be the ‘front lines’ these days.

  • -Jane Don’t-

    I briefly hung out (as in for 3 weeks) with this guy who admitted to seeing a prostitute while in Amsterdam. My opinion of him immediately dropped and I cut off contact with him. He couldn’t understand why it was an issue. (WTF?!) Thank God our hanging out only involved getting drinks at the bar down the street because I was utterly horrified when he told me this. Of course, he claimed she “wanted to do it,” enjoyed it, etc. Disgusting, vile human who also bragged about how much money he made as a pharmacist while I was struggling to pay rent b/c my roommate left a week before I was to be laid off from a temp job. I told him if he was so rich, he should be buying my damn drinks.

    • Oh boy, Dutch men, especially from Amsterdam… wrapping their hatred of women in “open mindedness” – and gaslighting anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their kinks as not as “worldly” and “open-minded” as they are.

      THE. WORST.

      Should I say some Dutch men?

    • ptittle

      Can’t believe how clueless some people are. (And I say ‘people’ intentionally; my neighbour didn’t even realize that her (female) house-mate routinely gave up her living room chair to the men who visit them — brother, married neighbour, etc.) until I pointed it out.

  • calabasa

    William Burroughs was a psychopath who shot his wife in the head William Tell-style and got away with it, and would bribe starving Arab boys with bread and coerce them to sodomize each other so he could watch.

    I don’t think he was for human rights for anyone, male or female, to be honest.

  • Hanakai

    I am really not interested in being lectured at by a male, especially one who espouses his twisted opinions as fact. Women are not who define or enforce masculinist norms.

    As for male promiscuity, yes, no demographic is as promiscuous as homosexual males. But it is heterosexual males who are responsible for the existence, perpetuation, proliferation and ubiquitousness of prostitution, and the hetero men who use prostituted women and children and these heterosexual men (and drunken frat males) are also promiscuous and disease vectors.

  • Wren

    Women never benefit from any particular political or economic ideology if it’s run by men.

  • marv

    James is an avid porn user and sees no harm in what he is doing. He admitted it in other comments.

    • James Dosher

      Hello again, marv. I have NEVER made a secret about what I do either. I am precisely who I present myself to be. James Dosher is my actual name which if you bother to look up you will realize I have written both adult and erotica e-books. I am not here to advertise, troll anybody, or try to convert any other to my way of thinking.

      I am a 54 year old, bi-polar husband to a wonderful wife and father of two fantastic children. I also write porn and have since 2010. That’s another part of who I am. As for trying to deceive TLT ~ you can read my post from seven hours ago in which I tell her about a current story I’m working on. I’m hiding nothing.

      I have come here, to feministcurrent, to learn about feminism from actual feminists. More to the point, Ms. Murphy most likely knows all about me and I would hope would ban anyone who was out to damage your community. This has never been my intent.

      If you ever feel you have a need to ask me anything, or simply blast away, by all means.

      So, marv, if I may try once more ~ “… why do you insist I stop using porn?”

      It is an honest question.

    • Wren

      Yikes, thanks for bringing this to our attention.

    • Wren

      I just read the other thread. Yeah he’s a creeper. And fucking smug.

    • James Dosher

      Marv, I apologize. For some reason I am not getting updates to your posts on my Disqus updates. You did reply to my question and I’ll answer you there. Again, I apologize for the mix-up.

  • James Dosher

    [Fair Warning: I’m a porn writer, reader and watcher. I’m not a feminist. I come to this site to learn about feminism from actual feminists. If my statements, questions, or very existence offends you ~ I apologize in advance.]

    Wow, Ms. Smith (would you prefer Mrs. Smith, or Téa Smith?), that’s a lot to take in.

    “But we are just bitchy bitches who just compete with each other, right?”

    Bwahahaha … if I thought like that the line to kick my ass would start at my Mother, move through my Sister then Wife and end with my Daughter. I would never think that way because I was raised in a household were we always argued/discussed/though things out. My Mom (Dad died when I was 8) was a huge mystery novel buff and loved analyzing and dissecting issues and taught my Sister and I to do the same. Besides …

    ‘Bitchy’ is what a man calls a woman when he’s lost the argument yet isn’t Man enough to admit it.

    **

    I think I have a grasp on some of your arguments. It is like when a group of slaves are emancipated. Unless that ‘freedom’ comes with concrete economic and political independence, how free are they really? How ‘free’ is a share-cropper, or seasonal laborer?

    In the same way, as a mindset, if an ‘overseas colony’ isn’t permitted to create its own industries and manufacturing base, how will it ever be truly free from the ‘Home Nation’ ~ no matter what rights the colonist think they have?

    **
    “This constant conflating of critique of patriarchy with ‘hurt feelings’ and ‘feeling judged’ is the core of problem.”

    Funny that … when I was writing about an Amazon secret society, they always considered men to be the ’emotional’ gender. Due to their small numbers and hidden nature, the Amazons had to be careful and methodical in their actions while they witnessed the men in the patriarchical societies surrounding them boasting, blustering and running around screaming a whole lot.

    **

    “The personal is political… but political is not always personal.”

    Absolutely.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but if more men could appreciate feminism isn’t an assault on masculinity, but a struggle for a unique feminine identity, we would all be much better off.

    **

    “But as long as we don’t upset them by telling them that the bukkake porn might not come from a place of respect for women.”

    Na … na … NOT bukkake porn!!!! {goes off into a dark corner of my room, curls up and cries}
    Actually … eeewwww … bukkake is just … eeewwww!

    As for porn, marv is already taking me to task for my interests in pornography.

    I’ll re-read your post and give it more thought. Time for dinner for me (I’m on the East Coast).

    Take care and thanks for the response.

    • Just Téa is fine. Don’t get me started on Miss Mrs and Ms. None please. 🙂

      I don’t get a lot of time on here, but when I do, I try to give a long and considered response. I appreciate that it is given consideration.

      That said, if a man took the time to write you a response and disagree with you, would your reaction be “Wow, that’s a lot to take in”. The subtext is ALWAYS “shut up”, or “TL;DR” or something.

      I for one love the long and thought out comments here (trust me, the internet could do with more actual thought rather than 140 character “feelings”), so hopefully you can learn from them.

  • Why should a boy have to be taught this? And why should the fact that his Mother or Sister exists prevent him from being a decent human being?

    Why should your daughter have to be taught that it is on her to ask for respect? Why does her father then contribute to an industry that hurts women?

    I’m not really sure what kind of validation you are looking for, but that is the absolute bare minimum.

    Also, children learn from modelling far more than what you say. You are teaching your son to enjoy porn, and your daughter that it is ok that men objectify women. No matter what you “teach” them.