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From the Marlboro Men of Jordan to the Beach Boys of Jamaica, exotic young men are giving affluent white women something to write home about. We saw the good that a dip in the cerulean Caribbean sea and a youth twenty years your junior can do for the soul in How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and we laugh at the flirty exchanges between Balinese resort employee Ketut and the brake-foot of a sunburnt Rhonda, but would we be so charmed if the genders of the players were reversed? While it may all be just a bit of fun in the sun, there are some real conceptual problems surrounding the gender division when we talk about sex abroad.
The “sex tourist,” as we know it, is a man, mostly white, always with some kind of economic privilege, travelling overseas in search for a little taste of the exotic. Be it marriage tours in Croatia or hitting the ladyboy bars in Bangkok, the sex tourist is one big umbrella term covering the gamut – from the Aussie paedophile pacing the beaches of Phuket to the UK pilot with a Brazilian girlfriend. Unquestioning, we all too often throw the men together into this one large and murky bracket, but why do we hesitate to include the middle-aged Canadian woman heading to Jamaica annually in search of “the big bamboo,” or the Dutch woman travelling to Gambia looking for some R&R with her “bumster”? The discourse is often confusing, the data lacking, and opinions varying from one extreme to the other, but the truth is there’s more than just driver’s insurance at risk when we overemphasise gender in sex tourism.
Western women have been travelling over to the Caribbean to hit up the resorts and discover themselves in the arms of local males since the early ’70s. Such women who indulge in this sex tourism are occasionally referred to as “milk bottles.” The connotations are two fold: these are white women looking to be filled/fulfilled, but they’re also feeding a weakling economy. With government spending tied-up in international debt, local currencies are low, social spending is few and far between, and the going labour rate is consistently grim. Approximately 60 percent of Jamaica’s GDP is created through the service sector – the majority of that within tourism – and the competition for work is stiff and wages nominal (averaging $2.05 an hour). The need to subsidise measly incomes, or the drive to avoid downright impoverishment, results in a blooming informal cash economy with locals hustling out a living through holiday-related services, like selling coconuts, drugs or jet-ski rides to the influx of western tourists looking to luxuriate on their shores. Amongst some of the female clientele, these young men – often still in adolescence – have come to be synonymous with a wet ‘n wild ride of a different kind. Offering a holiday package of sex, hand holding and local knowledge, these May-December partnerships may resemble courtship, but it is all economics at heart.
The anthropologists Jacqueline Sanchez-Taylor and Kamala Kempadoo have dedicated a good chunk of their life’s work to establishing a need to start thinking about sex tourism as a continuum, one that includes women. Positing women as “romance tourists” and men as “sex tourists”, funnily enough, has roots in radical feminism. The idea that prostitution must always be the site of male dominance is today a dated one.
Anachronistic discourse creates dangerously conservative policy. By not recognising that there is a vast spectrum of experiences of sex tourism, with both men and women at the helm, it actually can make the life and livelihood of those working in formal or informal sexual economies – statistically the already disenfranchised – even more socially excluded. If we confuse the agency of an adult woman supporting her family through sex work or the young woman seeking a better life through an international boyfriend with the complete lack of agency of those being trafficked, held in sex slavery or abused, we aide in constructing sex work as a social evil – resulting in social policies that often go against the betterment of those working within the industry. Additionally, radical feminist concepts around sex tourism actually reinforce conservative gender stereotypes, hence women’s exploitation of economic, cultural and racial privileges get oiled over as a saucy tale of sultry days and sexy nights – hot-ticket romance as we’ve come to believe.
When we get down to it, globe-trotting ladies on the prowl for sex are making use of the same social, political and economic privileges as their male counterparts. Equally important to note is the fact that they’re exchanging in the same sexualised racism fuelling the imagination of the male sex tourist. With a mind awash with fantasies of the rampant “big bamboo,” the older, often overweight woman makes sense of why a much younger, physically fit man would pursue her. It’s this same cultural imagination filling the sex tourist forums with ideas of petite Asian vaginas or naturally promiscuous South Americans. The “romance” in female romance tourism arguably relies on racial stereotypes thus assisting in the social and economic oppression of Caribbean men who are at risk of becoming systemically locked in a cycle of performance for pay, not to mention disease, rejection and heartbreak.
With such a vast array of possibilities, what is it that makes the phenomena of the middle-aged Canadian woman who engages in a sexual relationship with an adolescent beach boy for clothes and food, somehow more “romantic”? To rely on a static understanding of prostitution, one where women’s bodies are always victimised, leaves us open to damaging conceptual contradictions. Besides gender, what is it that differentiates the experience of the middle-aged man regularly sending cheques to his Thai “girlfriend,” to the middle aged woman who returns to Bali every year to spoil her “cowboy?” Every component of how agency and power are constructed has to be considered when examining the world of the sex tourist; simply a woman on a beach does not romance make.