For many in the immediate post-Vietnam War era, the words sex tourism were associated with organized trips to the massage parlors and brothels of Thailand or to the red-light districts of cities such as Amsterdam and Hamburg. The phenomenon seemed apparently simple and was explained in terms of men exercising the dominion of the wallet over women, who were generally perceived as unwilling victims. Where women were categorized as other than victims, the conceptualization often owed much to Victorian concepts of the diseased woman, an outcast from mainstream society, to be banished from respectable society. However, the nature of the debate as to what constitutes sex tourism, and the impacts it has, had widened considerably by the turn of the twenty-first century. Factors that contributed to the expanded debate include the growth of feminism and a concept of sisterhood that embraced and gave voice to prostitutes, and the adoption of the terminology of sex worker to emphasize a point about the nature of female work in the sex industry; the realization that females could also be predatory, as evidenced by trips to the Caribbean to find sex with the rent-a-dread (dreadlocked Caribbean male); and the context of freer sexual expression illustrated by advertising, television soaps, and dramas. Alternative terminologies are also used, such as romance tourism—yet even this remains essentially a commercial transaction, albeit softened by gift giving as distinct from the payment for the thirty-minute or hourly transaction in the brothel.
Whereas the rent-a-dread may occupy an honorable mention in the academic literature, Kamala Kempadoo (2004) notes that this style has gone, to be replaced by the Michael Jordan look, and by males locally named as the rentals in their stylish dark glasses and baggy shorts. She continues to also note that the former rent-a-dreads have progressed to being tourist guides, ganja dealers, souvenir salesmen, and property caretakers. Just as the rent-a-dread terminology is symptomatic of a given time period, so, too, are other concerns.
Historically, it was argued that Thai sex tourism arose from the history of the Vietnam War and the presence of U.S. military on leave. Equally, massage parlors are still found to be located near military bases in countries such as South Korea and the Philippines. Although connections exist with sex tourism, the relationship is not consistent, and sex tourism flourishes in different locations that do not possess such histories—for example, Kenya. Arguably more pervasive is the role of the Internet as a means of communication and access to sex workers, and in that sense, the purposeful sex tourist is able to access sex workers more easily, and the Internet has made the organized sex—tour as it was understood in the 1970s—less needed.
One factor that has led to the involvement of government agencies with sex workers is the incidence of HIV/AIDS. With the advent of this disease in the 1980s and before the wide dissemination of antiretroviral medication, one major means of halting the spread of the disease was to ensure that sex workers practiced safe sex. This required a recognition and validation of consortia that represented sex workers and at the same time empowered groups of sex workers by legitimizing their concerns about the need for safety, protection from corrupt practices by local police, and a need for degrees of freedom from prosecution.
For females who work in the industry, examples can be found of those who view sex work as a continuation of an older tradition of the vestal virgin, as protector of a knowledge of the female derived from an older age when various incarnations of the fertility goddess ruled supreme. Such workers, however, form a minority, albeit vocal group. Most sex workers in European and North American societies perceive sex work as a means of securing a good income, with hours of work that are temporally and spatially flexible, and as being consistent with other female roles such as motherhood. In many countries it is possible for such women to work within a framework of mutual female support through brothels or massage parlors. Escort agencies are also able to ensure the safety of female sex workers by using trusted taxi drivers who maintain notes of clients and addresses. A few females use the opportunities provided by the industry to meet their own needs for sexual adventure, for diversity of experiences, and to satisfy basic sexual hunger. Such workers tend to reject the notion of the sex worker as victim, arguing it is, to a degree, an occupation of choice—or at least, a choice within the constraints that many women face without access to higher education, limited work opportunities, and the challenges of single parenthood.
It is also necessary to recognize that several areas of prostitution are arenas for the victimization of females and exploitation of the worst possible kind. Louise Brown (2000) in her work Sex Slaves: The Trafficking of Women in Asia, makes clear that female children as young as ten years of age are deliberately traded for purposes of prostitution. She additionally writes persuasively of the political and social amnesias to such circumstances that mark many countries—particularly, she feels, in some countries characterized by strong Islamic movements.
Generally, however, sex tourism as practiced in many holiday locations exists spatially apart from such exploitation by a local red-light and porn industry. Because local consumers are unable to pay the high prices that tourists to third-world countries can afford, those who meet the needs of tourists tend to have higher degrees of control over their own modes of business. To meet the needs of tourists requires many social skills, including a command of a foreign language and the wherewithal to blend, at least in part, into the surroundings of hotels and resorts. In various works, Kempadoo (1999, 2004) has argued that, at least in the Caribbean, sex work generates positive economic multiplier effects for otherwise low-income communities, and through the earning of relatively significant sums of money, women are empowered and potentially able to break from lower-income backgrounds. The monies from servicing the sexual desires of tourists become the sources of capital for small business start-ups in other areas of economic activity.
There is, nonetheless, little doubt that there is trafficking in women, even in some areas associated with the sex tourism industry. Again, to cite Kempadoo (2004), female sex workers from the Dominican Republic can be found in many other parts of the Caribbean. Those (generally men) who organize such spatial movements of female workers commonly employ tactics such as withholding passports and requiring repayments much higher than the costs of transport and accommodation involved. However, from her studies Kempadoo observes that many women know what they are doing—that they see through the vague outlines of promised work in bars and strip clubs—and as professionals in their line of work, accept the risks for the rewards offered. Indeed, the role of victim can be useful to secure deportation in preference to imprisonment. The existence of sex work is a reflection of dominant economic and social structures in society—the same structures that permit tourists from higher income countries to visit the resorts and complexes built in less developed countries. Tourism and the sex industry are thus bound by social realities of relative deprivation and affluence, by those who have and those who desire to have—and the medium of exchange in this unequal bartering is sex.
Although the lines of demarcation are sometimes blurred, child prostitution represents a separate specific aspect of sex tourism, with places such as Bali, Cambodia, Fiji, and Thailand being mentioned by bodies such as ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes). This organization has special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC) and has done much over the last few decades to raise awareness of the problems. Organized sex tours are comparatively unimportant, unlike in the early 1970s, but individuals continue to seek sex with underage children. With bodies such as ECPAT acting as effective pressure groups, many countries have introduced legislation whereby a national of that country can be tried for sex against an underage person regardless of where the offense was committed. Thus, in this arena of law, the need for extradition orders may be averted.
Sex tourism occupies a subversive, liminal ground in contemporary European and North American societies: subversive because it is a recognition of needs and desires not met by the socially approved monogamous relationships of the Judeo-Christian belief system. In its emphasis on the body and the role of lust, sex tourism represents modes of behavior outside the approved confines of mainstream behavior. Liminal because sex workers occupy roles outside the mainstream of activity, and tourists, too, are temporary liminal people occupying spaces of escape from responsibility—escape that can extend to extramarital affairs with sex workers and others. Such an observation is obviously culturally constrained and cannot be held to be easily transferred to other cultures. Equally. the role of sex worker is different from, in degree at least, to that of mistress. In short, the phenomenon is both complex and fuzzy in its relationships with other social boundaries.
Brown, Louise. 2000. Sex Slaves: The Trafficking of Women in Asia. London: Virago Press.
Kempadoo, Kamala. 2004. Sexing the Caribbean: Gender, Race, and Sexual Labor. London: Routledge.
Odzer, Cleo. 1994. Patpong Sisters: An American Woman's View of the Bangkok Sex World. New York: Blue Moon Books.
Pruitt, Deborah, and Suzanne LaFont. 1995. "For Love and Money: Romance Tourism in Jamaica." Annals of Tourism Research 22(2): 422-440.
Ryan, Chris, and C. Michael Hall. 2001. Sex Tourism: Marginal People and Liminalities. London: Routledge.
Seabrooke, Jeremy. 2005. Travels in the Skin Trade: Tourism and the Sex Industry. 2nd edition. Chicago: Pluto Press.