Meet the middle-aged women who are Britain's female sex tourists
When we picture a sex tourist, we usually think of a middle-aged man. But growing numbers of women are paying for a “holiday romance”.
Relationships with Kenya’s beach boys are exploitative – on both sides. Photo: Sofie Amalie Klougart
They are called “bumsters” in Gambia, “Rastitutes” or “beach boys” in the Caribbean and “sanky pankies” in the Dominican Republic. These are the men providing sex in return for money or goods to women who want a holiday “romance”. The men are invariably from impoverished families, have little or no education and are sometimes illiterate.
Over the past decade, I have been researching the increase in female sex tourism in underdeveloped and poorer countries. Most of the women involved are looking for attention and excitement but end up, often without realising it, being one half of a prostitution deal. Although a small number of African-American women travel to the Caribbean for sex with beach boys, most of the women are white, middle-aged or older and come from Europe and North America. They travel alone or with female friends and often have a history of unhappy relationships with men at home.
Barbara is one such woman. In her late fifties and divorced, she travelled to Jamaica for her first holiday alone last winter. She had fantasies about sunbathing on white sand and swimming in a clear blue sea, but no plans for a holiday romance. Her destination was an all-inclusive resort in Negril, on the western tip of Jamaica, one of the biggest destinations for female sex tourism. “I got off the plane at Montego Bay and – boom! – there he was,” she tells me over the phone from her home town of Sheffield. “I have never seen a man as fit as Chris. His locks were down his back and his legs were like a footballer’s. I thought, ‘Why is he looking at me like he fancies me? I’m not his type.’”
Soon Barbara threw aside her inhibitions and realised she could behave in a way she would never dare to at home. “It was like total freedom. Chris was all over me and I couldn’t get enough of that beautiful body. He showered me with compliments about my legs, my hair, how I smelled, everything. He even said he liked my accent.” Barbara’s previous marriage had been abusive and damaging, leaving her feeling “worthless and like no man would ever look at me again. Chris made me feel gorgeous and special straight away.”
Yet this was the beginning of not a holiday romance but a commercial exchange between a relatively rich westerner and an impoverished “beach boy”. It isprostitution but often only the seller, and not the buyer, is aware of that. Barbara only realised Chris viewed her as a sex tourist when one day he told her, “No money, no sex,” after she refused to give him cash for a drug deal. Barbara, like many women who find “romance” in Negril, says she is shunned by men of her own age in the UK, “because they want thinner, younger women and for some reason can get them”.
I made contact with her through a social networking site where I had discovered women exchanging views and details about longdistance romances with men in Jamaica. Not one of the women used the phrase “sex tourism” but most of them discussed how they had sent money to their “boyfriends” to pay an urgent debt or to rent accommodation in time for their next visit. None would give me her full name, because their friends and family members are not aware that they have been going abroad for intergenerational sex.
“[Chris] moved into my hotel room with me and we had wild sex every night,” Barbara says. “At first he insisted on paying for everything, but after a couple of days he said he was owed money by a business contact and I had to bankroll him until it came through.”
Barbara is on an administrator’s salary in the UK but one night in her $200 hotel would cost a porter four weeks’ wages. “Chris never got that money he was owed,” she says. “I ended up paying for everything and once, when I refused, he told me he could pick up any white woman he wanted who would be happy to give him money.” Despite this, she remained under the illusion until the end of her holiday that Chris was her boyfriend. She says now: “If he pretended to fancy me when we were together and just slept with me for money, does that make him a prostitute – or just a lying bastard?”
The markets for prostitution have expanded rapidly since poorer regions in the Caribbean, Asia and Africa have become popular with well-off tourists from the west in recent decades. Expressions such as “sexual paradise” and “fantasy Island” are bandied about and these places turn into notorious hot spots for sex tourism. In the Caribbean and Africa, a racist mythology prevails, with jokes about black male sexual prowess and penis size, perpetuated by the beach boys themselves because it’s good business.
The stereotypical image of the sex tourist is a western man who travels to Thailand or the Philippines to pay for sex with young women and children. But in the past three decades the numbers of women travelling primarily for sex with local men is thought to have increased significantly, according to an investigation by Reuters. The practice has become less stigmatised and tour operators even add thinly veiled references to sex tourism for women as a marketing strategy.
It is not just sex the women are seeking, though. Academic researchers often class women such as Barbara as “romance tourists”, as they usually believe the men they meet on holiday are in love with them. Middle-aged and older women with low self-esteem and a history of failed relationships are more likely to fall for the delusion. The most popular depiction of romance tourism is the 1989 film Shirley Valentine, in which the central character travels to a Greek island craving love and attention. Shirley was not a sex tourist; she wanted an emotional attachment.
A film released in Britain earlier this summer shows something closer to the reality of female sex tourism. Paradise: Love is part of a trilogy by the Austrian writer and director Ulrich Seidl. It depicts the apartheid-like conditions at a resort in Kenya, where the beach boys stand in line outside a hotel waiting for a white woman to “romance”, while a security guard ensures they do not cross the physical and symbolic line that divides their turf from the plush grounds.
That echoes what I saw when I visited Negril back in 2003. The resort town’s biggest attraction for tourists is its four miles of stunning white sand. It has a population of almost 6,000 and is host to travellers from all over the world. US spring break students arrive between March and April, and Europeans and North Americans during the winter months. In 2008, an estimated 351,404 tourists came, making up approximately 20 per cent of Jamaica’s total. Since then, the numbers have continued to rise, according to the Jamaica Tourist Board.
But Negril suffers from high rates of unemployment and poverty, partly because of the uneven and exclusionary way in which the tourism sector is structured. Opportunities to work legally are usually limited and most of the jobs in the industry are seasonal, menial and low-paid.
I was the first British-based journalist to write about female sex tourism to Jamaica from a feminist and human rights perspective. I found that westerners increasingly view it as a harmless holiday experience, and most of the articles I read before the trip reflected that. They concentrated on salacious detail of interracial, intergenerational sex and failed to explore issues of race, class and colonialism. As the headline in one British tabloid put it: “It’s not just the sun that’s hot when these women go looking for ‘Sex on the Beach’.”
The beach boys I met in Negril were all desperately poor and vulnerable, yet outwardly confident and hypermasculine at the same time. One of them, Clinton, with whom I spent several days – during which he never stopped trying to get me to have sex with him – told me, when I asked why he “dated” older women only, that “if I take a tourist out and she wants to help me out as a friend, give me money and let me stay with her in the hotel, what’s wrong with that? Of course I have sex with them but that’s because I’m not gay – I like women.” I asked Clinton what he looked for in a woman and he told me: “I look for the milk bottles [white women who have obviously just arrived on the island]. Milk bottles that need filling . . .”
Most of the beach bars advertise cocktails with names that are well-used euphemisms for a large penis, such as “Big Bamboo”, “Dirty Banana” and “Jamaican Steel”. I was on the island during spring break and Negril was thronged with young, conventionally attractive, bikini-clad female students – but the beach boys paid no attention to them at all.
At night, in bars playing loud reggae, young men would pull older white women to their feet and show them how to do “dirty dancing”, by way of “introducing [them] to my body”, as one man told me. It was an unusual sight –women, some of them in their seventies, bumping and grinding with men young enough to be their grandsons and sucking Red Stripe beer out of cans.
“I was sick of the men on offer back home,” says Linda, when I speak to her on Skype, having made contact with her through the same social network on which I found Barbara. Linda is a Londoner who runs a pub with her daughter. She has a “string of failed relationships” behind her. “They were all the bloody same. Expect you to treat them like God’s gift, treat you like you don’t matter and never consider what it is youwant. The men I have been with [in Turkey] are a damn sight more handsome than they are and yet treat me like they’re grateful to be with me – the bloody opposite of what I’m used to.”
Barbara and Linda are in good company. Each year, as many as 600,000 women from western countries engage in sex tourism, according to Escape Artist Travel magazine. (The statistics in this area are little better than guesswork, given that few would confess to engaging in the practice in a selfreporting survey, but the figures for men are thought to be many times greater.)
There is, however, a growing body of academic study on the phenomenon. In 2001, the UK-based academics Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor and Julia O’Connell Davidson published research based on 240 interviews they carried out with women on the beaches of Negril and two similar resorts in the Dominican Republic. Almost a third had engaged in sexual relationships with local men in the course of their holiday, and of those 80 women, nearly 60 per cent admitted there were “economic elements” to their relationships but they did not think of themselves as sex tourists, or their sexual partners as prostitutes. Only 3 per cent said their relations were “purely physical” and more than half considered them to be about “romance”.
According to the beach boys, there is little shame or stigma in selling sex to older white female tourists and some will claim that earning money this way affirms their masculinity. Female prostitutes, on the other hand, often speak of being viewed as dirty and having no value. The beach boys will usually control the sex act and will refuse to perform oral sex on the women, as it is deemed “unclean” in Jamaican culture, whereas their female counterparts do what they are told.
I have never heard of a beach boy experiencing sexual violence or being afraid of the woman and having to escape. It is also rare that boys under the age of 18 are targeted or that women broker deals for men through pimps and other third-party agents. Unlike their female counterparts, the beach boys do not find it difficult to become involved in relationships outside their work; indeed, many of those I have met are married and have children, and are not stigmatised by their peers for the way they earn a living.
Yet there is still a power relationship at play: it is the female tourist who books the flights and determines the length of time she will spend with her “boyfriend”, as well as making day-to-day decisions when they are together, such as when and where they eat.
All forms of prostitution require the seller to flatter the buyer and to display enthusiasm for the transaction. Nowhere is the exchange so theatrical as the one between the beach boy and the female sex tourist. At the same time, the comments I heard in Jamaica about the women seen with younger men were often misogynistic and cruel – there is far more acceptance of older, obese men hooking up with conventionally attractive younger women than the reverse. One young man told me the white women he had sex with made him feel sick. “They stink, have rough skin and look like old dogs. No wonder they have to pay for a man.”
A hotelier told me the women were “all ugly and fat. Men won’t touch them where they come from. I would be ashamed to be seen with any of them.”
Female sex tourists can also discover that white privilege and economic power are often less durable than the privilege of being male. Some women who move to live permanently with Jamaican men are beaten or abused. “The relationship ends up sour and we have to intervene. I’ve seen some nasty domestic violence towards the white women who move in with their boyfriends,” Andrea Johnson, a corporal with the Negril police, told me when I visited.
“They often talk about white women as if we are old slappers and have a laugh about how we are willing to give blow jobs when their own women won’t,” says Dawn, a regular visitor to Negril. “I used to think Derrick was respectful of me and really loved me, until I heard him laughing with the other boys one night. It turned my blood cold.”
Dawn met Derrick on her first trip to Negril in 2006 and has since returned twice a year to spend time with him. Derrick is now 27 and Dawn is 30 years older. “I fell head over heels with him when we first met and he couldn’t get enough of me, but I’m not daft,” she says. “I knew he was as keen on my money as he was on me but they have nothing here and live like paupers.”
Once a month Dawn sends Derrick £20 for food and when she visits the island she pays for everything, from meals, drinks and taxis to clothes and spending money. “What do I get out of it? A lot of fun, and a beautiful body and massive cock to have my wicked way with whenever I want.”
Racial difference plays a significant role in the female sex tourist experience. White women who would never consider being openly involved with a young black man back home feel free to do so while travelling and often use this as an example of their anti-racism. However, the same women will perpetuate racist stereotypes of black men and often treat their “boyfriend” as little more than a servant.
The countries where sex tourism operates have fractured or unstable economies and often have histories of slavery and colonialism. In Negril, most of the hotels, restaurants and glass-bottomed boats are owned by Americans and the economy does not really belong to the local people. When I’ve mentioned this to the women I have encountered, they have invariably told me that they are helping the men financially as well as promoting anti-racist relationships.
I have witnessed a clear denial of the power that money brings to the tourist in the tourist/beach boy relationship and how this creates a culture of dependency and exploitation. There is still a tendency to focus on the men as agents who exploit tourist women economically, emotionally or sexually, rather than being exploited by them. Yet there is certainly exploitation.
And the problem is not confined to the Caribbean. In Bali, south-east Asia, there is evidence that wealthy Japanese women pay local boys for sex. Residents of Mtwapa, a holiday resort just north of Mombasa in Kenya which is popular with tourists from Britain and other parts of Europe, have reported instances of young boys being sought out, mainly by visiting western men but also by a small number of older white women, according to New Internationalist magazine.
The sex tourism problem has become so great in some countries that there have been half-hearted efforts to reduce it. During the 2002-2003 tourist season, the Gambian lawenforcement agencies, in collaboration with the national tourism association, launched an “anti-bumster” campaign. Uniformed security personnel rounded up obvious-looking bumsters, shaved off their dreadlocks and began routinely patrolling the tourist areas along the coast. A similar initiative has since been tried in Negril.
But the women travelling for sex and love are not being deterred and nor are the impoverished young men who have only their own bodies to sell. Our hesitation in describing women such as Barbara as “sex tourists”, and the acceptance of the illusion that it’s about romance and love, further allow us to justify a racist and colonialist view of black male sexuality. For the women, it perpetuates a view of themselves as worthless, because most of these faux romances have no longevity or honesty. For the men, it confirms that the legacy of slavery, under which the black body was commodified and dehumanised, is not far behind them.