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.