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Sign of the times or serious taboo? Female sex tourists sample the delights of Jordan's desert.
PETRA AND WADI RUM, Jordan — There are plenty of reasons for female tourists to visit the Middle East. Two of the new seven wonders of the world are here. Christians, Muslims and Jews alike can visit hundreds of holy sites. The Red Sea offers some of the best diving in the world.
And in the deserts of Jordan and Egypt, women looking for no strings attached sex can find a host of exotic sexual encounters with Bedouin men willing to offer their services.
Hidden in the heart of the Holy Land, desert vacation spots like Petra and Wadi Rum are acquiring a reputation among Western women as an idyllic spot for a casual romance with men who hail from the local Bedouin tribes.
While only a handful of women come to these places explicitly looking for sex, most guides and Western women who have indulged say that the charm of these desert locales takes many women by surprise, and even those who weren’t looking for a tryst may find one. This is far removed from the scene in more renowned destinations for "female sex tourists," like the Caribbean and coastal Africa, where women openly exchange cash and gifts for encounters with local boys and men.
The culture of casual sex and Western-style dating often creates internal conflicts for the Muslim Bedouin guides and can put Western women in uncomfortable situations. It’s also created a climate where both guides and female tourists uninterested in sex or a relationship find themselves burdened by unwanted advances.
What happens in Jordan is far from the extremes of women’s sex tourism found in places like Jamaica and Kenya and Senegal, where women reportedly “rent” men for a set period of time. However, the kingdom is developing a reputation as a destination for women looking for an exotic rendezvous. Jo Magazine, a prominent local magazine, ran a cover story last summer, online sites like Escape Artist Travel have listed Jordan as a female sex tourism destination, along with Southern Europe, the Caribbean Basin, Kenya in Africa, and to a lesser extent Central America, the South Pacific and Morocco. According to Escape Artist Travel, women's and men's sex tourism are two absolutely different phenomena, in that women do not go to bars and sex shows to find new partners.
A handful of academics have researched the topic. Jessica Jacobs, a research fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London has studied the issue and published several articles on the topic. More than being just about sex, Jacobs said the experience appeals to women on a number of levels.
“It’s about the moment, the connection to nature, exhibiting a sense of freedom and experimenting with gender identity, doing things that they’re not particularly judged for because no one from their own particular society is there to see them,” she said.
In Jordan, for the most part sex tourism for women takes the shape of something much more akin to a vacation fling. Most often, a Bedouin guide takes a woman out for an overnight camping trip in the desert. Then, as the locals say, the desert moon has a certain effect, and regardless of whether the woman has come to the desert looking for sex, relations are had.
Some women then get involved in long-term relationships with guides, some get married, or some pay a discounted rate for the trip and continue on with their tour.
It is extremely rare for a woman to offer money for sex, and there are only an extremely limited number of cases where women — usually over 40 — become involved with young Bedouin men and, as part of the unofficial bargain, buy them cars or perhaps pay their rent.
Though this might not sound much different than any other traveler’s tryst, according to SexTourism.net, a website offering advice for male and female sex tourists, this is generally how sex tourism plays out for women around the globe. While men usually just want sex, the site explains, “Female sex tourists on the other hand are more interested in having a holiday romance or fling — which may or may not result in sex. Women rarely pay for sexual or romantic encounters with men during sex tours — however there are a small number who seek the services of male prostitutes or ‘gigolos’ when abroad.”
Still, many Bedouins downplay the extent to which women are coming to the desert in search of sex or inadvertently happening upon it when they arrive. When asked if he’d heard of Western women on the prowl for Bedouin men in Petra, one local joked that if they were out there, please point them in his direction.
He says he is happily married and faithful to his Saudi wife. He sells jewelry in Petra and says he has visited more than 20 different countries. What he’s seen in Petra doesn’t strike him as all that different than anything that happens in exotic destinations all over the world.
“Pretty much anywhere you go it’s the same: People on holiday want to have fun,” he said.
When these romantic encounters happen in the Middle East though, this type of exchange can be especially problematic as sex outside of marriage remains a serious taboo — for Muslims and Christians alike. What happens on desert camping trips defies hundreds of years of tradition and often reinforces negative stereotypes about Western women’s tendency toward promiscuity.
Mary, an American who lived in Jordan for two years and who also asked that GlobalPost not use her real name, dated a Bedouin guide in Wadi Rum for a year and a half. While she had no regrets about her relationship, she advised other Western women not to have a fling while in Wadi Rum.