Rationalizing Sexual Tourism: How Some Countries Benefit from Selling Sex

By Jennifer M. Ward
2010, Vol. 2 No. 04 | pg. 1/5 |
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Brazil’s northeast coast has a perfect climate for a booming tourism industry. The beaches are unspoiled, the people are friendly, and the area required only a small amount of infrastructure to create a haven for tourists. While not a formal part of this design, sexual tourism has been an integral part of this boom. Though organized prostitution (through brothels or pimping) is not legal in Brazil, individual prostitution for one’s own sake is legal. This gray area of law is not limited to Brazil, but is in fact prevalent in many countries around the world. As Arreola (1996) points out in his article Border-City Idee Fixe, prostitution is not considered legal in either but “tolerated” in zonas de tolerancia (tolerance zones) along U.S. and Mexican border towns from Tijuana to Brownsville, Texas. (363)

According to the Brazilian Ministry of Tourism (2004), sexual tourism leads to child exploitation and human trafficking. Groups continue to fight against child prostitution fiercely in the Brazilian city of Fortaleza, but adult prostitution is still legal. Non-governmental organizations, the Brazilian government, churches and international groups are abundant throughout the city of Fortaleza and in 2006 and 2007 were willing to try and fix the problem of child prostitution, however adult prostitution was still not criminalized. In 2005, posters and pamphlets were placed in airports in over twenty Brazilian cities by the World Tourism Organization to combat sexual tourism involving children and teenagers. One-minute videos were played on and aboard international flights. The Ministry of Tourism (2004) set aside US$1.09 million in its budget to push the campaign against child exploitation. This of course begs the question: If both non-governmental organizations and the Brazilian federal government blame sexual tourism for child exploitation and human trafficking, why is prostitution still legal?

Sexual tourism has recently become a hot topic in political science research. Cities known for participation in sexual tourism range from Bangkok, Thailand to De Wallen, Amsterdam. In an increasingly globalized world, with the proliferation of the and growing access to international travel, sexual tourism is becoming more frequent. In the following analysis, while avoiding claims of sexual tourism being either good or bad, I examine the reasons a country might be supportive of such tourism, or at least not actively oppose it by making adult prostitution illegal. After collecting data through a series of in-depth interviews, short surveys in both Brazil and Mexico, and analyzing existing statistics, I infer that government support of sexual tourism stems from the belief that it provides stimulus to the economy. Rational choice theory is used as a framework for explaining this government support.

Defining Sexual Tourism

Sexual tourism involves travel across national or international borders in order to take part in a non-reproductive sexual encounter. The sexual encounter may be with an adult or minor, man, woman, transsexual or transvestite. It must involve an exchange of money or material goods for a sexual act. The area becomes gray when defining who is involved in sexual tourism as Meaney and Rye (2007) explain in their article The Pursuit of Sexual Pleasure. If a businessman meets a prostitute while in the city on a business trip, does he count as a sexual tourist? If a woman works as a hairdresser but has foreign “boyfriends” on the side, does she count as a prostitute? If a college student engages in a sexual activity with another college student from a different university while both are in Cancun during Spring Break, is this considered sexual tourism? Opperman (1999) agrees in his article Sex tourism that the tourist-prostitute relationship is complicated and colorful. Though many people may take part in a sexual encounter while traveling abroad, few would claim to be “sexual tourists.” (255) In Clancy’s (2002) article The of Sex tourism and Cuba: A Commodity Chains Approach, he says many travelers consider themselves the current boyfriend/girlfriend or “friend” of their sexual partner for the few weeks of their visit. Many tourists claim to be more of a situational sexual tourist who took advantage of an open situation or prefer to tell tales of “romance” encountered during their travels. (72) According to the Brazilian Federal Police (personal communication, June 29, 2007), only if a person enters the city with intent to engage in a sexual act with a local is he/she considered a sexual tourist.

The Foundation of Children and Family in Fortaleza (Funci/PMF) (personal communication, July 10, 2007) claims there are two types of tourism: “good” tourism and “bad” tourism. Good tourism is the tourism that brings in conferences, family outings and tourists who want to experience the food and of the northeast of Brazil. Bad tourism is influenced by the media and tourist agencies and portrays the northeast of Brazil as a hot, sensual and exotic place to visit where the women are promiscuous. Bad tourism attracts pedophiles, sexual predators and those in pursuit of prostitutes. Little research has been conducted on “bad tourism”. Statistics do not exist in the area. The government officials I spoke with claimed the city did not keep statistics.

Though no one would admit to me to being a sexual tourist in Brazil, American truck drivers on the Mexican border of Laredo, Texas spoke candidly. “Sure, we’re actual sex tourists. We come over here to Mexican for the sole purpose to have a good time with liquor and women. Some of the younger ones don’t have it figured out yet. They think the lovely, young Mexican girl sitting next to them is their girlfriend. As soon as he climbs back up in that tractor-trailer and takes off, she’s with another trucker. It doesn’t matter that he’ll be back next week or if he says he loves her, if he’s paying her bills or even if he marries her. She has to make money while he’s gone. I figure it’s a service I’m paying for. I don’t have much time off the road. They get paid and I get what I want. Everybody wins.” (Personal communication, April 20, 2008).

Similar to adventure tourism in which a person travels to Africa solely for the purpose of participation in a safari, sexual tourism as defined by the research of this paper occurs when a man or woman travels to another locale, either foreign or within one's own country, for the sole purpose of sexual gratification with a local individual in exchange for money or goods.

Sexual Tourism and Rational Choice Theory

Most research written on sexual tourism embodies a negative, one-sided argument. There are no benefits and nothing good can come of it. Child exploitation and human trafficking are used to prove the damage sexual tourism can bring to a country. Articles such as Graburn’s (1993) Tourism and Prostitution suggests the forced of a third world country by that of a first world country. Reinhardt’s (1989) German article compares sexual tourism to a new brand of . Overall’s (1992) article What’s Wrong with Prostitution? Evaluating Sex Work claims sex work is “defined by an intersection of and patriarchy.” (724)

I found little research relating directly to Brazil. Articles on Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, Cuba, and the Caribbean were more prominent. Anthropologist Adriana Piscitelli (2002, 2005) and her exhaustive 20+ years of research following Brazilian and Argentinean prostitutes, who have married their European clients and moved to Europe, was the most in depth. The Brazilian reporter Eliane Trindade’s (2005) book, The Girls on the Corner: Diaries of dreams, hurts and adventures of six Brazilian adolescents, details six daily diaries of prostitutes caught up in sexual tourism. Opperman’s (1998) book Sex Tourism and Prostitution: Aspects of Leisure, Recreation and Work and his various academic articles such as Sex tourism printed in Annals of Tourism Research give clear explanations as to why the word sexual tourism is considered a grey term and not necessarily a synonym for prostitution. Taylor’s (2001) article Dollars are a Girl’s Best Friend? Female Tourists’ Sexual Behaviour in the Caribbean explains sexual tourism from the perspective of women as the sexual predator. The common theme of the articles portrays sexual tourism as harmful and villainous.

Again I do not tackle this normative question, but rather I try to understand why it continues to flourish if it is such a bad thing. Thus I offer an alternative view of sexual tourism, suggesting that government officials actually support it because it helps to bring prosperity and economic wealth into an otherwise poor country. Other articles with similar ideas are Lie’s (1995) article The Transformation of Sexual Work in 20th –Century Korea. He explores international political economies involved in prostitution from sexual services provided during war to special districts set aside in border towns. El-Gawhary’s (1995) article Sex Tourism in Cairo says sexual tourism takes place in Cairo due to economic and diplomatic reasons. Truong’s (1990) book Sex, Money and Morality: Prostitution and Tourism in Southeast Asia looks at sexual labor as a way of producing surplus with the growth of capitalism. Examples are the services used by U.S. soldiers during the War and the growth of tourism after the war. His book agrees with a point in Pettman’s (1997) article Body Politics: international sex tourism which emphasizes the complex issues buried beneath the sex tourism industry, such as economic policies, , business , racial , and corruption. (101)

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