Still want sun, sand and sex on the beach?

August 23, 2002

In the last of our series on tourism, Chris Ryan considers how academic studies of sex tourism can help sex workers gain human rights and promote responsible travelling

Sex tourism as a topic of academic research has undergone a change over the past two to three decades. Although some textbooks published in the 1970s and 1980s failed to mention the subject or decided there was little relationship between tourism and prostitution, a number of studies began to emerge about the behaviour of "sex tourists", particularly in Thailand, in part engendered by moral concerns. Most notable were studies associated with the Ecumenical Coalition on Third World Tourism and campaigners such as Ron O'Grady, whose book Third World Stopover was published by the World Council of Churches. These studies not only questioned the role of tourism in generating a demand for prostitutes, but asked whether tourism itself brought more negative social impacts than benefits, and sought to make travellers aware of the need to act responsibly. This issue of "responsible" travel continues today.

Although feminist studies triggered moral outrage at images of pot-bellied male European tourists to the Philippines and Thailand, there was a growing realisation that the issue had to be contextualised through a more sophisticated understanding of political, social, economic and psycho-social structures. Among the first academics to look at the lives of sex workers was Eric Cohen, who began implicitly to ask questions about who was exploiting whom in his 1986 analysis of love letters sent by Europeans to their Thai "girlfriends", and descriptions of how Thai sex workers would try to ensure a steady flow of generous boyfriends throughout the year. While the growth of the Thai sex industry was generally attributed to demand generated by American servicemen during the Vietnam war, it was quickly appreciated that significant reasons for its continued survival lay in inequalities of wealth within southeast Asian countries.

For writers such as Ryan Bishop and Lillian S. Robinson, authors of the 1998 book Night Market - Sexual Cultures and the Thai Economic Miracle , there was a knowing conspiracy between western powers and corrupt Thai governments. They argued that the aim was to power economic growth through, in part, the promotion of tourism that knowingly exploited impoverished Thai sex workers - although they have been accused of over-estimating the economic value of sex tourism and of being blinkered by moral indignation.

While the initial feminist critique was one of rejecting perceived male hegemonies, that stance became fractured over questions of female empowerment. Collectives of sex workers around the world increasingly rejected the view that they were simply victims. Rather, they sought to claim their rights as human beings and to seek recognition for the legitimacy of a choice of work that they saw as a logical response to the alternative of poverty and as no different from any other form of work. In extreme cases, it was seen as a form of labour that was not only emancipating economically but also psychologically, if not spiritually.

A further issue that some feminist writers had to face was that it was not only males who were the clients or patrons of sex workers, and not all sex workers were female. An emergent literature described how female tourists from North America and Europe were travelling to the Caribbean to "romance" the beach boys. Indeed, there seemed to be close similarities between Thai female sex workers and their beach-boy counterparts: both juggled their diaries to cater for incoming tourists, who would claim that they had a genuine affection for them.

Here there is a clear tension between the descriptions by "romance tourists" of affection for their "holiday partners", and those researchers who see these female tourists as having the same motives of racism and exoticism that have been attributed to male clients of Thai female sex workers. In both cases, they argue, clients are acting out fantasies based on erroneous notions of racist stereotyping that demean the objects of their desires.

One characteristic of the literature of the past decade has been that these stereotypes are breaking down. On the one hand there has been categorisation of different types of "sex tourists", while on the other there has been a closer examination of the lives of various participants - something that forces an examination of the role of the researcher. This is demonstrated by Cleo Odzer's book, Patpong Sisters - an American Woman's View of the Bangkok Sex World (1994), in which she not only traces her friendship with Thai sex workers and their families, but also with her boyfriend, a Thai boy. It is also tackled in the film The Good Woman of Bangkok in which film-maker Dennis O'Rourke fulfilled the role of a client of a Thai sex worker in order to expose the irrationalities and complexities of the situation. He went on to write: "I believe it is critical that both film-makers and film viewers be rid of the fantasy that a documentary film can be some kind of pure and unproblematic representation of reality, and that its 'truth' can be conveniently dispensed and received like a pill to cure a headache. My acts of provocation and heresy are a way of flushing out these frightened ones who are not interested in the expression of an ultimate, indefinable idea of truth with all of its messy and upsetting ramifications."

Nevertheless, whatever the complexities related to it, sex tourism must be viewed within a framework that, in some countries and societies, condones denying women and children basic human rights. While researchers have reached easily accessible locations such as Patpong and the Caribbean, these are tips of an iceberg not patronised by tourists or researchers. Louise Brown's 2000 book Sex Slaves - The Trafficking of Women in Asia , is one of the few in English that exposes practices in places such as Pakistan and India. Her work leaves no doubt that while in some places, sex work might have redeeming features, in others it is based on the most base exploitation of women and children, driven by severe inequalities of wealth and power and located in religious practices that effectively place women in inferior social positions.

As to a possible way forward, I support attempts to decriminalise prostitution, which, in my view, will permit sex workers to enjoy full access to police, health and other services without fear of prosecution. It will, equally, make it easier for social welfare and police authorities to enforce legislation against those seeking to exploit women and children for commercial sexual purposes. It stops sex workers being condemned thrice over: first for being in a situation in which sex work is their only real source of income; second for then being potentially classified as criminals; and third, as criminals, for being potentially subject to blackmail and coercion from those who would wish to exploit and abuse them.

Chris Ryan is professor of tourism at the University of Waikato, New Zealand, and a co-author of Sex Tourism - Liminalities and Marginal Peoples (Routledge, 2001) and the World Tourism Organisation report The Incidence of Sexual Exploitation of Children in Tourism (2001).

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