Romance on the road: what women want

Female sex tourism: for love or money? In a series of stories, GlobalPost looks at the women of means who find "romance" on vacation from Jamaica to Jordan to West Africa.

GlobalPost: How widespread is female sex tourism?

Jeannette Belliveau: The overview that I have found in my research, this is pretty much global. You can pick out the Bedouin, or Jamaica, or Italy, or Kenya … going on anywhere there’s a resort that women go to in the entire developing world. Even places you wouldn’t call resorts — places like Nepal. If a woman is going there to hike a mountain, then there’s some opportunity for her and the guys, or surdars, to get involved.

This is going on everywhere from Fiji to Peru, well outside of the Caribbean and Africa and southern Europe. It’s very global, it’s very longstanding — the first women who traveled for romance were English and American women in the 1840s who went to Italy. It sort of skyrocketed after jet travel occurred — I guess the jet engine was invented in 1958 and then we had resort travel.

The minute jets hit places like the Gambia, Uganda ... there was sex tourism there. Bam, someone built a hotel and then the men and women get together.

GP: Is this practice any different from the prostitution trade, which overwhelmingly targets largely men.

JB: I very firmly don’t look at this as prostitution because so many of the countries even within the Caribbean, the more affluent men would be very insulted if you gave them money and the poor men won’t accept it.

The same thing is going on either case — the woman is away from home and she’s free to do what she wants, and she’ll get involved with a local guy, and he could be a university professor or he could be a fisherman. Depending on what he is … she might give him a gift.

I guess you do have overt cases probably more with the European women than with the Americans. They bring cash and they pay for what they get, but there’s many hundreds of thousands of women who engage in it and for the most part, they don’t pay for it.

In about one out of 30 cases it leads to a permanent relationship.

Which means, within all these various activities there’s some very, very sincere dating going on — a long-distance version of what does happen in Boston.

It’s just that you met a guy on your trip to the Bahamas versus at work.

The woman, her pluses … they’re not just money, often it’s very good health compared to the local women — she’s very healthy especially for her age and she also represents opportunity to whole continents of men.

Literally outside my door in Baltimore is the $25 blow job prostitution that drug addicts engage in to buy their next hit. Then there’s a big continuum up to and including the $2,000 call girls in Hollywood who don’t walk the streets. 

The Italian women who pay for sex, and the women who pay for sex in Jamaica, they’re really outliers for a phenomenon that isn’t that different … .

But I went to Greece and I had affairs with local guys. I didn’t dream of paying them. I think that that is just far more likely. There’s some women out there paying for this, yes, but I would wager a guess that 98 percent of the women are just doing … the Shirley Valentine type of thing — just a holiday in the sun with a little fling and there’s no money, not even a meal purchased for the guy.

GP: So what's in it for the men, if not money?

JB: Africa isn’t doing very well.

Paul Theroux in his latest book “Dark Star Safari” — he finds that anyone with any gumption kind of wants to get out. They don’t want to stay and contribute.

When you get in parts of the world that are that bleak, a foreign woman really is an avenue to a new life more than cash or prostitution. So it really isn’t analogous at all to the Red Light District in Amsterdam. There’s a bit more desperation in it.

There’s plenty of historical precedent for people marrying to relocate. I look in my book “Romance on the Road” at how conquering soldiers through time have taken local women as part of the spoils of that clash of encounters. Today, the conquering hero is the Western woman who has a good job as a nurse or professional or writer or whatever. And she can have her pick of men.

The transaction isn’t just simple money for sex at all. The guy — he’s got more attractiveness, he’s got more availability than the men in the woman’s home city … More time for her.

The guys in her office are probably very, very busy, trying to get a better car or a better job, and they’re getting beaten down by their boss. They’re not as manly as they maybe could be. They’re wealthy, but they’re in prison in certain respects.

If you go on vacation, if the guy has all the time in the world to borrow a boat and show you the starfish in the lagoon, and talk to you afterwards and have a meal, and rub your back, he’s a more attractive mate. And if you buy him a meal for that, well you’re getting into — it is an exchange, but I wouldn’t call it a prostitution one. He’s got time and good looks, and she’s got money and a lack of affection, and those can sort of be traded.

I took econ in college and there’s a trade going on but, if that trade leads exactly as it does in the West to marriage and children, then it’s no different than any relationship.

Mate selection is always a market — what can I get for what I have? Can I get Donald Trump or can I get a cab driver?

How is this different to the guy going to Thailand to hire a local go-go girl? It’s a mock companionship. The woman might be checked out of the bar, but it’s not really for a night, it’s for a two-week vacation where she’s kind of the girlfriend, and she showers this lonely guy with affection. Is really that creepy because he can’t find love in his home country? Possibly yes, possibly no. I mean there are so many obstacles to partnership in the West. I think we ought to be a little bit forgiving as long as it’s for the less crass forms of these encounters. For both the Western men who travel to Asia and the Western women who go to Africa and the Caribbean.

There’s a trajectory into very sincere relationships. As it always has in history, the physical can lead into the real bond.

GP: But do you recognize the problems that sex tourism — like prostitution — presents in society?

JB: It’s created a lot of disclocation around the world. The whole issue of community impact. Again you could condemn the women coming in and stealing the young men, but there’s a deeper level.

If you look at the case of the southern coast of Spain when the Scandinavian women came in in the early '60s … .

Robert Graves who wrote "I Claudius" lived on Malta. His daughter wrote a memoir of the arrival of these sex tourists on the southern Spain coast. She said the Spanish boys were going crazy with the Swedish tourists, and the Spanish girls who had to save themselves for marriage were extremely sexually frustrated and extremely tired of the double standard that their elders were imposing on them, and eventually they kind of just got as sophisticated as the women coming and said I’m going to engage in premarital sex with my beautiful, very hot Latin men here.

So the sexual revolution came and in some respects it was a good thing for Spain. It threw off the patriarchy. Similarly in the Gambia, where you have grandmothers from Scotland carrying on with teenage boys, that’s very disruptive to a Muslim society. The government tried to clamp down on it and who protested the government attempts to patrol the beaches and stop this? It was the mothers of the beach boys who became reliant on their sons’ income.

At a certain point, a lot of this carrying on looks very disruptive, especially the age difference , but in a way it’s a challenge to the local elders having a death grip on what young men and women can do with themselves and their bodies.

I do see both sides of it. I don’t want to come across as blindly advocating sex travel because there are cases of suicides. A young woman will come into Nepal and break somebody’s heart and the young man kills himself because he did his fiancee wrong. There’s plenty of very blundering callous Western women who wreak their havoc here and there. There’s horror stories coming out of Peru and Nepal about women who use the men and throw them away. That to me is exploitation.

GP: What are the differences (if any) between women of different cultures and how they approach sex tourism?

JB: I think there’s very great cultural differences — those with the best reputation in the Caribbean are the French Canadian women because they just come down there with a ton of spirit. To them it really is, “I’m having some very un-hung-up fun on my vacation.’’

The men in the Caribbean consider them very sportif — sporty — and in contrast I think American women, they have no awareness even with “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” of the whole phenomenon of going on vacation and having a new boyfriend just for the duration of the vacation. Whereas in Europe that’s exceptionally well-known.

Much is [rooted] in the 19th century, Victorian era — Americans are still the innocents abroad, and they engage in this thing but really they’re just shocked that, my god, all these men are hitting on me on the beach. European women know that that’s the game.

The northern European women possibly are the ones that really know this is a whole game, and I’m sick of my boyfriend at home, and if I go on a holiday I will definitely find this person.

It’s kind of a more sophisticated approach.

The great famous sex travelers in history of women have been English — like Anne Cumming — she would just go and compare the guy from Baghdad to the guy from Egypt to the guy from Morocco. There’s that level of knowingness there.

I’m 1,000 percent sure none of the women I talked to [for her book, "Romance on the Road"] paid for anything.

Their story was: “I made love with a Fijian guy in the surf in Maui."

[Laughs] It was always in water. Another was in a bathtub with a Maori in New Zealand. A third one was in the Red Sea in Egypt, and it was all very much heat of the moment.

It wasn’t, "I’m going to the Dominican Republic to pay Pablo the going rate."

Jeannette Belliveau is a former editor at The Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun, is a full-time author and travel adviser.

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