The pleasure tourist

Chapter 6
The pleasure tourist

Sex tourism as a legal dilemma

Another familiar image of the Red Light District is of packs of men, young and old, couples holding hands and pointing in shock of it all, giggling groups of women celebrating a hen night, and busloads of Japanese tourists toting cameras (except not in the direction of the female entertainers! Strictly banned!). This is proof enough that the RLD deserves a visit, if not a little look in.


Sex, pleasure and tourism

While the impact of terrorism on tourism may have been to remove from the experience of being a tourist some elements of pleasure more usually associated with escaping everyday existence, the connection between sex and tourism appears to be a more obvious match. Indeed, much has been made of the use of sexual imagery in tourism advertising,1 and the extent to which tourism leads directly to a concern with sex. That is to say, does the phenomenon of so-called ‘sex tourism’ qualify a particular form of tourism, or is it an aspect of what tourism is.

As a consequence, much of the literature on sex tourism spends a great deal of time on its definition. Martin Oppermann, for example, begins his analysis of the phenomenon by noting that it is ‘everywhere’.2 However, he also notes that it conjures up different images in different parts of the world, from ‘the image of men, often older and in less than perfect shape, traveling to developing countries (in Asia, Africa, Latin America, or the Caribbean), for sexual pleasures generally not available, at least not for the same price, in their home country’,3 to certain African countries where female sex tourists are more prominent.4 He notes that the literature until that point produced a very narrow definition of sex tourism – travelling to engage in sexual relations.5 He regards this as too narrow and introduces other variables into an understanding of sex tourism – purpose of travel, length of time, relationship, sexual encounter and who falls into this category of travel.6 What this produces is a far broader approach that suggests sex tourism may not necessarily be a practice with that aim alone, as he notes many tourists who have sex while travelling are not travelling primarily for that purpose, such as the business tourist.7

Oppermann also discusses the manner in which sex tourism is too often equated with what occurs in South East Asian destinations, such as Thailand. In this understanding it is also assumed that the sex tourist is from the developed world and is male. But as he suggests:

Sex tourism within developing and developed destinations has also received very little attention, perhaps partly because it is difficult to place it in a dependency perspective. However, several authors have noted that domestic demand for sex in developing countries, including Thailand, is of similar if not greater importance than highly publicized international sex tourism. In Thailand many international sex tourists reputedly also come from neighboring countries in Southeast Asia … furthermore, many Western women can be seen in Gogo-bars and other establishments in Thailand, apparently in a voyeuristic role observing male sex tourist behaviour … female tourists are [also] to be found in massage parlours, perhaps testing out their lesbian nature. Clearly, many red light districts around the world constitute major attractions for tourists who do not pay for sexual services, but rather visit those places for voyeuristic purposes.8

Ryan and Hall discuss sex tourism within the context of the liminal nature of tourism and sex work as:

being a tourist is to occupy a liminal role within a temporal marginality. It will subsequently be argued that this is important in our understanding of sex tourism as in the western world the prostitute is also marginalised. The act of sex tourism can therefore be explained as an interaction between two sets of liminal people – but with a difference. The one, the tourist, is enacting a socially sanctioned and economically empowered marginality, while the second, the prostitute, is stigmatised as a whore, a woman of the night, as the scarlet woman.9

They do acknowledge that within this description it would be wrong to assume that the prostitute and ‘homosexual and lesbian holiday markets utilising sex for reasons of relaxation and self-identification are also of growing importance’.10 The other aspects of their analysis which are most useful for our purposes is that they also regard the holiday as a ‘source of self-identification’11 and that sex tourism challenges dominant norms:

They also recognise that while it can be claimed that the (female) prostitute can be seen as a woman who has taken control of her sexuality to earn an income, others will see this as exploitative of women.13 Their rejoinder is that ‘ambiguity is inherent in the very nature of liminality’.14

Here then is the notion of tourism as transgression, in the form of sex tourism. But even more importantly Ryan and Hall seem to be suggesting it is in the idea of tourism that one discovers sex tourism. They see the tourist and the prostitute as existing in the same liminal spaces:

it is not surprising, given the hedonistic nature of tourism, that in many places the spatial areas of both tourist and sex worker overlap, and many hotel managers can bear witness to the fact that their premises might be regarded as both holiday accommodation and brothel. In some parts of the world the overlap becomes obvious and explicit. Amsterdam’s red light district and the soi of Patpong are tourist attractions for clients and on-lookers alike.15

They thus write of sex tourism being located ‘within the wider discourse of tourism’.16 They connect sex work and tourism through broader social and economic forces and discuss the role of the law in marginalising sex work. For what purpose? According to Ryan and Hall this has much to do with the process of industrialisation and the need for a disciplined workforce which was potentially undermined by how leisure time was used:

Industrialisation separated these two worlds, but it went further. It emasculated the latent challenge of non-work lives as an alternative lifestyle. It commoditised periods of consumption of leisure in places other than home, and made safe such periods by the processes of consumption associated with the forms of capitalism common from the start of the twentieth century. The period of holidays, being a consumer product, no longer represents embryonic alternative lifestyles. Rather, the worker consumer needs to continue to work in order to afford the holiday period, and remnants of the Puritan work ethic continue as we declare that ‘we have earned our holiday’.17

This has created sex tourism as an interaction between two groups of liminal people that escape other roles, doing so on the margins of society, a marginal status which is reinforced by legal rules and discourse.

Sex work and tourism

Ryan and Hall, while constructing the sex tourist and prostitute relationship as symbiotic, do recognise the potential for exploitation within sex tourism.18 In particular there is the exploitation of children and women from poor backgrounds which organisations such as End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT) highlight.19 They also refer to the literature which argues that the relationship is not simply exploitative, but that it can provide income to otherwise poor families.20 This is clearly problematic and creates a dilemma for those attempting to eradicate the sex trade.

Of course, the status of tourist might also be used to justify engaging in acts which are exploitative. Tourists might seek to rationalise such acts as part of the tourism experience rather than simple acts of oppression. As Ennew notes:

Whether it is the Spartacus guide catering for the paedophile tourist, or the many advertisements appearing in the press in developed countries encouraging heterosexual males to enjoy the delights of submissive Asian girls, tourists and agencies alike often use the myth that there is no harm involved because the culture of the host country entails a greater sexual freedom than that enjoyed in the tourist’s homeland. The actual sexual morality of the host countries is ignored. What is conveniently viewed instead is an apparent freedom created by the demands of the tourist customers. In a mutual exchange of dreams, the tourist finds the exotic promiscuity of Sri Lanka, Seoul or Bangkok, while the prostitutes come into contact with the bountiful, prosperous developed world.21

The view that the tourist is aiding the prostitute by handing over ‘hard currency’ is, as we suggested above, often used as a justification for such acts. It may be true that the prostitute will earn more from the act of prostitution than he or she could earn in their village or in a local factory. But this fact ignores the question of why such alternative sources of income are so poorly paid. It is a very real question whether the use of cheap labour in certain countries by transnational corporations (and their resistance to increasing wages in those countries) contributes to prostitution being taken up by some people in those countries as a more financially beneficial occupation.

Of course, this connection cannot explain all acts of prostitution – simply because not all poorly paid workers resort to sex work to make more money. But to the extent that some tourists might seek to justify their use of prostitutes in places they visit in these terms then that explanation or justification must be scrutinised. Seabrook analyses the manner in which a number of factors contribute to the rise of the sex industry in Thailand – a mixture of economic and social laissez-faire, social inequality and little official concern with remedying such disparities in wealth.22

The point here is of course that the sex industry – including sex tourism – flourishes in an environment of social inequality. This raises the question of the extent to which that industry depends on such inequality and thus whether it needs to maintain the status quo. Where, for example, would the pool of prostitutes come from if wages were high for all workers? In those circumstances those who control the industry might have to pay prostitutes more (or allow them to retain a greater share of their earnings) if they are to attract people to that form of work. In other words, they would have to compete in the marketplace for a workforce. In such circumstances would prostitution hold out the same level of attraction for those who run the industry or would they shift their attention to more profitable forms of business?

In part this is the argument of Leheny.23 Although he focuses mainly on the changes in consumer demand it nevertheless suggests that the degree to which a sex industry flourishes is not a given. If new markets open which are more profitable one might well witness a flight of capital from brothels and bars and towards those other activities. It is instructive to note that it seems to be the case that countries which have limited means to earn foreign exchange often depend on tourism for such earnings and that prostitution can become an important part of this. For example, consider Cuba where prostitution was ‘wiped out’ after the revolution in 1959 but where it is claimed that it is now increasing as the nation deals with boycotts and hard economic times.24

Prostitution as a tourist attraction

It is problematic to discuss sex tourism as exploitative when we consider the extent to which many cultures have internalised the notion that prostitution is ‘the oldest profession’ incapable of being wiped out presumably because of the insatiable market for the services of prostitutes. There are of course long traditions, particularly in Western nations, which debate acts of prostitution as victimless crimes (where the activity is illegal) or matters which would be left between the parties where both are adult and consenting. This approach logically leads to talk of ‘regulation’ of prostitution rather than ‘prohibition’.

There is also a tradition of regarding prostitution as a possible tourist attraction in its own right. The red-light district of Amsterdam is notorious in this regard. King’s Cross in Sydney may be another example of the manner in which prostitution – or at least the sites where it occurs – can be portrayed as a cultural experience to be viewed by tourists. In this regard there is no doubt an element of ‘sociological voyeurism’ in this phenomenon. One only has to cite the popularity of guided tours of the red-light district in Amsterdam to illustrate this point. There have also been successful organised tours of legal brothels in Melbourne. Once again this supports the notion that ‘sex sells’.

Clearly there is always going to be interest in the ‘taboo’ areas of life and the opportunity to participate in such areas is often going to be facilitated when one is a tourist for the reasons outlined above. This is after all the essence of Ryan and Hall’s thesis with respect to the same liminal spaces that tourist and sex worker share. The notion that tourism contains within it the raison d’être for sex tourism rather than it being the ‘dark side’ of an otherwise noble pastime is confrontational to many. It is in sex tourism that we see tourism as transgression in a very clear form.

The problem for the state is how to address sex tourism as a legal problem. While some may see it as a ‘natural’ part of the tourism experience, it also has to be recognised that many in society regard prostitution as an exploitative practice – as well as the sex industry in general. For such members of the community the notion that prostitution should be seen as a tourist attraction is repugnant. To some extent this is resolved by tourism discourse rather than the law. Tourist promoters, when marketing places as tourist attractions based on their ‘sex appeal’ will avoid direct references to sex. Often tourist brochures will make vague references to this aspect of the place (e.g. Hindley Street as ‘something for everyone’ or ‘cosmopolitan King’s Cross’) rather than make clear reference to the availability of sexual matter or activity. On the other hand as Ryan and Hall point out, one must not forget that there exist publications for those who do wish to seek out sexual activity when travelling. One cannot simply analyse the mainstream tourist literature.25

Alternatively, certain areas of cities may be so well known that their connection with the sex industry becomes part of the fabric of the city and a tourist attraction in itself. For example, La Pigalle in Paris, the red-light district in Amsterdam and perhaps even the bars in Bangkok might well find they become part of tours directed at the ‘general’ tourist market. But of course, such tours also point out such locations for any of these tourists who might wish to return later. And they may even provide a certain degree of respectability to such places and for those who visit them – not as tourist attractions but as sites of sexual trade.

As the preceding discussion indicates the notion that sex tourism – in its broadest sense – is part of tourism may be accepted by many, but this does not make it an easy matter to make this connection when selling destinations or packaging what they have to offer. Factors which influence this area appear to include the extent to which sex is still taboo in may parts of the community and cultures making it a sensitive area to discuss and thus ‘sell’; the extent to which much of the attraction of the sex industry and sex tourism lies in the fact that it is a taboo area in many quarters; that to make such matters as prostitution into a tourist attraction means that one has to address issues connected to the human rights of those who work in the industry, questions of exploitation and whether the industry depends on social inequality to thrive; the extent to which sex tourism and the issues it raises in relation to exploitation and inequality particularly impact on women and children; whether being a destination for sex tourism is the image that the inhabitants of a location wish to portray for their city or town; whether sex tourism might attract the ‘wrong’ type of tourist; the extent to which sex tourism and any adverse impacts it has on a locality might be diluted by ensuring that sex tourism is not the only form of tourism which exists in the locality; and considering whether there is a need to draw a distinction between organised sex tours and individuals who travel and participate in acts of prostitution. This distinction might be valid on the basis that organised sex tours are too blatant a form of sex tourism, whereas a more discreet form of sex tourism does not provide inappropriate role models or present negative imagery. Of course, this leads to the question of whether ‘disguising’ the activity in some way addresses the many questions surrounding it.

This means that the role of the state in sex tourism is often going to be contradictory. In one sense sex tourism caters for a market which might demand protection in the name of the need to protect legitimate economic activity. But on the other hand, the moral issues surrounding sex tourism can raise the question of whether such activity is indeed legitimate economic activity. This is often the dilemma for those on the political Right – while they profess to be supportive of the free market when matters of morality arise the Right can be split between those who insist that the market alone should determine whether the activity occurs while others demand state intervention to prevent such ‘immoral’ activity.

Sex tourism vs child-sex tourism

It may well be that the dilemma of how to regulate sex tourism, for all the complex reasons described above, is resolved to some extent by a focus instead on child-sex tourism. Child-sex tourism can be seen as a ‘safe’ target because the view that children should not be involved in prostitution is almost universally shared and so it is not difficult to mount a case that this form of tourism is exploitative and should be wiped out. Of course, a concern with child-sex tourism does not deal with the many questions which sex tourism generally gives rise to. And a failure to understand the matters discussed above when considering how one might respond to child-sex tourism might also mean that one misses the mark. One must ask the question of whether child-sex tourism is a case apart from sex tourism in general or whether it is part of a more general social concern.

One might also consider whether governments legislate on child-sex tourism as an ‘easy option’ – that is, instead of tackling the larger matter of sex tourism and the powerful interests that would entail it is perhaps easier to deal with a part of the area for which there will be few opponents. This is not to say that governments lack sincerity in dealing with child-sex tourism – but an appreciation of the wider context might suggest a broader agenda is required.

For example, the very notion of ‘child-sex tourism’ is problematic. On the one hand is the problem of the ‘child’. Such laws which seek to protect children in relation to decision making about their bodies will always create issues around the margins about the capacity of the child to consent. For example, the law in many countries prescribes 16 as the age at which consent to sexual conduct may be given. But in the context of child-sex tourism is a 15-year-old (to which the laws apply) any less able than a 16-year-old to decide about sexual behaviour? One could equally ask of course why a 16-year-old is less deserving of protection than a 15-year-old. Of course, in part the answer is that there is a need to draw a line somewhere, but there is also the dilemma that if one carries the protection agenda to its (possibly) logical extension then one might prevent even adults from engaging in prostitution. Thus is the question really one which relates to child protection or is it to do with the preservation of the liminal spaces of tourism?

Tourism discourse and child-sex tourism

It is in the area of child-sex tourism that we return for the moment to the notion of the exalted tourist. The Global Code of Ethics contains a provision directed to sex tourism generally, but child-sex tourism in particular. Article 2(3) states:

The exploitation of human beings in any form, particularly sexual, especially when applied to children, conflicts with the fundamental aims of tourism and is the negation of tourism; as such, in accordance with international law, it should be energetically combated with the cooperation of all the States concerned and penalized without concession by the national legislation of both the countries visited and the countries of the perpetrators of these acts, even when they are carried out abroad.26

This article embodies a fascinating discussion of how tourism is to be conceptualised. In effect it could be seen to construct ‘sex tourism’ as not tourism at all. Of course this would depend on seeing sex tourism as exploitative. Indeed, it is broader as it regards any exploitation, albeit particularly sexual, as the ‘negation of tourism’. In placing sexual exploitation as a ‘special case’ it also creates a hierarchy of ‘bad practice’ in tourism. Exploitation of human beings in any form is not tourism, but sexual exploitation even more so.

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