Ninety-nine per cent of people who buy sex are men, in every era and in every part of the world. But 99 per cent is not the same as 100 per cent. Females who buy sex do exist, even if they are rare, and they are just as contemptible as their male counterparts.
The journalist Julie Bindel was the first feminist to write about female sex tourism in the Jamaican resort town of Negril, and she described the prevailing attitude towards the phenomenon in these pages in 2013:
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’.”
This is prostitution, but of a different model to that of typical male sex tourism. A paper published in 2001 by the academics Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor and Julia O’Connell Davidson featured interviews with women who travelled to the Caribbean as sex tourists. Almost none of the women recognised their behaviour in these terms, describing their relationships with the “beach boys” as romantic rather than transactional. They understood themselves to be in (admittedly brief) relationships with these men, and the money and goods that changed hands were therefore considered gifts. This is why some refer to this practice as “romance tourism” rather than “sex tourism”.
Some researchers and journalists accept this benign framing, and may even represent these women as vulnerable and lonely figures, seduced by local hustlers in search of a quick buck. But that interpretation misses what’s really going on in these relationships. Not only are the women included in the paper much richer than the “beach boys” they employ, they’re also overwhelmingly white, and open about the creepy and fetishistic attitude they have towards black men. This isn’t just a fun fantasy, let alone a truly romantic affair – at heart, it’s a power game.
Knowing about this grubby phenomenon made me even less well disposed towards Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, a new film that stars Emma Thompson as a middle-aged widow called Nancy who hires a young “rent boy” – Leo, played by Daryl McCormack – in the hope of remedying a lifetime of disappointing sex with her late husband. Unlike her real-life counterparts who travel to places such as Negril, Nancy is clear on what she’s doing when she books Leo, and she doesn’t (at least initially) kid herself that what they’re engaged in is romantic. But as the film goes on, Leo sensitively encourages Nancy towards her long-delayed sexual awakening, and in doing so the pair build a touching relationship. The film is supposed to be heartwarming.
The i newspaper was thrilled that “finally an older woman gets to be sexual on screen” and Thompson has been widely praised not only for her performance, but also for her bravery in taking the role.
Thompson has confusingly expressed some contradictory opinions during the film’s publicity campaign. Speaking to Times Radio on 15 June, she described “sex work” as “one of the caring professions”, while also suggesting that the sexual revolution might have encouraged something “a little bit predatory” since women should not be trying to act “just like men”.
But hang on, which is it? Should we be interpreting Nancy and Leo’s transactional relationship as “caring” or “predatory”? Given that the woman in this instance is acting very much “just like men” – the men who buy sex, that is. Thompson doesn’t seem to be sure, even if so many of her fans are delighted to see traditional gender roles shaken up in a film that puts a national treasure at the helm.
Of course, it’s the confrontation of gender roles within the story that has won the picture its plaudits, since there’s no way that a film with the sexes reversed would have had such a positive reception. Nigel the awkward middle-aged man experiencing his sexual awakening courtesy of Leah the young escort would have smelled… off. There would have been no celebration of the actors’ bravery, and none of the critics would have relished the opportunity to see a male punter be “sexual on screen”.
The film supposedly bypasses the ickiness of a conventional prostitution story by putting female pleasure at the centre of the action. But it’s still a kind of pleasure that depends on cash changing hands. What happens between Nancy and Leo is the same as what happens between the female sex tourists of Negril and the local beach boys: a richer white woman buys sexual access to a black man young enough to be her son, then dresses up the transaction as romance.
The result is a depressing story, not a heartwarming one. We’re supposed to think that Nancy is taking charge of her sexuality by paying an otherwise reluctant partner, rather than enjoying the company of someone who actually desires her and so needs no compensation. “I’ve never done anything interesting in my life,” says this mother and professional, “you’re the only adventure I’ve ever had.” What a miserable assessment of what a middle-aged woman’s life is apparently worth.
[See also: Why the gender wars become so extreme]
This article appears in the 22 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn’t working