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”.

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.
Relationships with Kenya’s beach boys are exploitative – on both sides. Photo: Sofie Amalie Klougart

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.