Child Sex Tourism: "Us" and "Them" in a Globalized World

By Arielle K. Eirienne
2009, Vol. 1 No. 11 | pg. 1/4 |

“In London, Hamburg or San Francisco … we rarely see ordinary, middle-aged men and women flirting with homeless teenagers who sit on the pavements begging for spare change, or inviting them out to dinner and then back home to bed.” (O’Connell Davidson, 2004:40)

has undoubtedly spurred the of the child sex tourism industry. International travel has become so affordable that even the North’s working classes are able to travel abroad (Seabrook, 2000:104), and this mobility has allowed individuals from the global North – mainly men – to fly to developing countries where youth desperate for survival have resorted to selling sex (Seabrook, 2000:xi). 

Another factor in explaining the flourishing of the industry, however, is what globalization has not brought, for despite having allowed people from distant locales to communicate and trade, globalization has not necessarily fostered greater understanding among diverse peoples.  As such, many Northern sex tourists have attempted to justify their exploitation of foreign children with assertions that these children are fundamentally ‘different,’ irrevocably ‘other,’ and thus not subject to the moral schemas of the tourists’ home societies (e.g., O’Connell Davidson, 2004).1  Though by no means the sole determinant, this ‘otherization’ of children in developing countries remains a key variable driving Northern tourists’ demand for their sex.

Drawing on the works of Pred (1997), Pettman (1996), Razack (1998), and Bauman (Franklin, 2003), this paper begins with an examination of ‘otherness.’  An introduction to the child sex tourism industry follows, with analysis of child sex tourism’s definitional parameters and a brief exploration of the factors compelling children to enter the trade, as well as the hazards child prostitutes confront. 

The core of the analysis is split into two sections, reflecting the dichotomy between ‘circumstantial’ and ‘preferential’ child sex tourists (Seabrook, 2000:x), so that the relationship between otherization and each group’s demand for Southern child sex may be explored.  Finally, because much of this examination’s significance lies in its policy implications, this paper concludes with a discussion thereof. 

The Concept of ‘Other’

Racism, among the most commonly analyzed forms of otherization, appears as the a priori debasement and/or vilification of the ‘other’ on the basis of group characteristics.  While these characteristics have often been geno- or phenotypical (e.g., ancestry, skin colour), Pred (1997:385) describes modern-day racism as exhibiting a strong cultural flavour.  To Pred, racism has reached beyond the notion that certain ‘others’ are biologically inferior to posit that these ‘others’ display “irreducible cultural differentness.”  Pettman (1996:46) adds that “difference is hierarchised,” i.e., that the ‘other’ remains not only distinct from but also lesser than those in the dominant group.  The dominant group’s universe of moral obligation excludes those in the out-group, such that in-group members can excuse any crimes against ‘others’ – or not even acknowledge against ‘others’ as abusive in the first place (Pettman, 1996:47). 

Razack (1998) contends that the notion of the reviled other is a crucial factor in a dominant group’s demand for paid sex.  Prostitution, in her words, is “as vital to white supremacy and capitalism [in terms of class stratification] as it is to patriarchy” (p. 339).  Of particular relevance are her arguments regarding prostitution as relates to racialized ‘space’; Razack contends that women in certain (poor) spaces are often assumed to be prostitutes, as are ‘racialized’ women in more affluent areas (p. 356).  The spaces in which prostitution flourishes become ‘anomalous zones,’ where visitors flout the norms and mores that bind them within their day-to-day lives.  In so doing, they construct the anomalous zones’ inhabitants (prostitutes) as permanently debased, while the customers, rooted in zones of “respectability,” remind themselves of their alleged superiority – in terms of gender, class, and race (p. 357). Furthermore, visitors feel little obligation to care about the well-being of the anomalous zones’ “degenerate” inhabitants: “There are simply designated bodies and spaces where so[-]called contractual violence can happen with impunity” (p. 358).  Particularly as relates to international sex tourism, the hiring of prostitutes constitutes a ‘sexual imperialism’ (p. 372, citing the Asian Women’s Association).

Thus, even in today’s interconnected world, foreign, especially Southern, spaces remain ‘anomalous zones.’  In racist frameworks, these foreign zones may appear home to the “inferior,” or the “dirty,” yet even when Northern tourists refrain from reviling their Southern hosts, the foreign may remain crystallized as ‘other’ within tourists’ minds.  Tourists may, as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has remarked, view foreign as a product, something to dabble with, to taste, but not to analyze, empathize with, or internalize:

Or you watch the natives as a spectacle – selling their ‘otherness’ to tourists, making their living by selling their culture as spectacle.  Hardly a ‘contact between civilizations’, let alone an exchange between cultures.  You may go hundreds of thousands of miles, in order to find yourself in cosily familiar surroundings [i.e., a Western hotel chain], comfortably secure because familiar, with a few ‘local touches’ sprinkled over it to justify the expenditure. (quoted in Franklin, 2003:213)

Abuse of the ‘other’ therefore occurs in two ways.  Tourists venturing to anomalous zones may conceptualize locals as unworthy and thus beyond their universes of moral obligation, eligible for exploitation, or they may accept locals as “interesting” and “exotic” but nonetheless view them as irreconcilably disjointed from their own cultural realms.  When locals appear extranormal, tourists may assume that their hosts do not fall under their home moral codes.

The Child Sex Tourism Industry

This otherization contributes to Northern tourists’ demand for Southern child sex, but before analysis of that demand itself, an examination of what the tourists are demanding is in order.  What is child sex tourism, and who are the children that sell sex?

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