Sex on the Beach: Reimagining Traditional Notions of Sex Tourism in the Caribbean

In recent years, sex tourism in the Caribbean has become a growing concern and source of political, economic and social study for many health and social science researchers. The majority of such studies have focused on the role of male sex tourists and their interactions with female sex workers in such exotic locales as Cuba, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. Far less attention has been paid to the existence of female sex tourists operating in similar settings. Sex tourism is becoming an increasingly critical component of tourism industry in the Caribbean. While radical feminists have argued that this form of sex work is integral to hegemonic notions of masculinity and gender/economic dominance, this explanation is too limited to account for the involvement of women in this aspect of sex tourism. This paper seeks to explore the characteristics and theoretical explanations for traditionally defined male sex tourism and will examine how female sex tourists variously challenge and exist within these explanatory models.

A Guide to Sex Tourism

I found the idea of having sex with a local person to be appealing because I wanted ‘something different’ while on vacation”. – Female Sex Tourist in the Dominican Republic (from Herold, Garcia and DeMoya, 2001)

Traditionally, sex tourism has been defined narrowly to include travel or tourism with/for the purpose of engaging in commercial sexual encounters (Kempadoo, 1999). For instance, Enloe (1989:36) states sex tourism as being “travel specifically to purchase the sexual services of local women”. This definition fits neatly with the stereotype of the sex tourism as being the domain of white, Western males who travel to tropical and economically disadvantaged countries to engage in heterosexual commercial sexual encounters. However, this definition of sex tourism is troubling to many researchers and critics who argue that this definition excludes many aspects of Caribbean sex tourism experiences, including those of female and homosexual sex tourists, and those who engage in less formal sex-for-money arrangements (Kempadoo, 1999). Furthermore, this definition implies that the purpose of travel or primary activity of sex tourists is sexual activity, however Opperman (1999)  notes that many sex tourists report that sexual relations were only one aspect of their travel plans, and many, particularly female sex tourists, report not planning to engage in sexual relations with locals prior to arriving at their destination location. Finally, the limited definition of sex tourism excludes individuals who travel for the purpose of noncommercial sexual relations.

Critics, like Martin Opperman (1999) and Sheila Jeffreys (2003) suggest that sex tourism should be viewed less in black-and-white terms. A spectrum or continuum model has been proposed to include aspects of sex tourism that fall outside this narrow definition yet play an integral part in sex tourism (and tourism in general). In order to capture the full range of sex tourism activities and actors, this spectrum should include space for male and female sex tourists, as well as the formal and informal commercial exchanges that take place (Opperman, 1999).

What Do We Know About Sex Tourism?

Sex tourism is difficult to study due in part to challenges in defining sex tourism practices, but also due to the clandestine and stigmatized nature of sex tourism for all participants. Despite these challenges, some basic information has been learned about the industry. Sex tourism has long been documented in history, with some researchers pointing to actions of early Conquistadors and Western travelers as being early examples of the industry (Sanchez Taylor, 2000). Within the Caribbean, sex tourism has been documented to early colonial times when soldiers, sailors and merchants would engage in the commercial sex industry in ports from Jamaica, to Cuba, to Hispaniola (Sanchez Taylor, 2000). The sex tourism industry as is seen today emerged with the growth of the global commercial tourism industry starting in the 1960s.

Sex tourism occurs on every continent and has been reported in almost every country in the world. While it occurs everywhere, certain countries have become known sex tourism “hot spots” as a result of large numbers of participants, and/or the particularly open and visible aspects of the industry. These countries include Brazil, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Greece, Jamaica, The Netherlands, the Philippines and Thailand (Hannum, 2002). While different countries have become popular for male and female sex tourists, Caribbean countries are popular with both groups (Jeffreys, 2003).

Sex tourism participants include individuals of all races and ethnicities, of all sexual orientations, age ranges and most socio-economic backgrounds (Herold, Garcia and deMoya, 2001). However, despite the wide range of sex tourism participants, evidence suggests that male sex tourism is more prevalent, with a majority of global sex tourists being white, Western males travelling to tropical, economically-disadvantaged countries (Herold, Garcia and deMoya, 2001). While this demographic is the most reported in sex tourism research, it is possible that this group is overrepresented as a result of limited definitions and traditional stereotypes relating to sex tourism. For instance, recent research on commercial sex work in Southeast Asia suggests that sex tourists from neighboring countries may make up a larger proportion of the sex tourism clientele than previously reported (Opperman, 1999).

Male Sex Tourism: Dominating the Industry

Male, heterosexual sex tourism has been the primary focus of sex tourism research to date. More research has been conducted on heterosexual, male sex tourists, both in the Caribbean and globally, than has been conducted on homosexual sex tourists and female sex tourists (of all sexual orientations) (Opperman, 1999). As the primary focus of sex tourism research, much attention has been paid to the nature and meaning of male sex tourism, particularly as it relates to white, Western males and feminist studies. Theoretical interpretations of sex tourism predominantly focus on male sex tourists and their interactions with largely poor, socio-economically disadvantaged women engaged either in the formal and informal commercial sex industries in the Caribbean.

Within this context, feminist interpretations dominate theoretical frameworks for understanding. For instance, Enloe (1989) and Jeffreys (2003) portray sex tourism and prostitution as an expression of male patriarchal power and female powerlessness. Male, heteronormative dominance, they argue, is coupled with cultural and racial notions of the exoticized Other (Enloe, 1989; Jeffreys, 2003). The demand by Western white men may be “explained in part by culturally produced racial fantasies regarding the sexuality of these women, and that fantasies may be explained in part by culturally produced racial fantasies may be related to socially formed perceptions regarding the sexual and moral purity of women” (Kempadoo, 1999). This theory is backed up by quantitative research in the Dominican Republic, where male sex tourists report a highly racialized notion of Caribbean women (Kempadoo, 2001). In this context, sex tourism relies on eroticization of the ethnic and cultural Other, which Kempadoo (2001) argues sustains post-colonial and post-Cold War relations of power and dominance.

Cultural and Racial Constructions and Dominance

Sex tourism research has highlighted the role of cultural and racial constructions of dominance by male sex tourists to explain the phenomena. Reports indicate that male sex tourists eroticize and exoticize Caribbean women in a way that allows them to entertain dominance and control within the client-sex worker relationship (Sanchez Taylor, 2001). Furthermore, researchers suggest that this erotization of the ethnic and cultural Other is a mode in which post-colonial and post-cold war relations of power and dominance are sustained (Kempadoo, 1999).

But how are Caribbean women eroticized? Male sex tourists that have been interviewed repeatedly relate their preference for Black and Latin women due to their “natural” physical appearance and sexual prowess (Johnson, 2009; Kempadoo, 1999). These male sex tourists suggest that Caribbean women engage in sexual acts because it is what “comes naturally” to them (Gregory, 2007). Compared to Western (and, often implied, “White”) women, sex workers in the Caribbean, and Caribbean women as a whole, are perceived to be in a more natural, simple and subservient state of the wild – allowing male sex tourists to believe that prostitution in these countries is not dirty or illicit, but rather part of Caribbean women’s natural desires and interests (Gregory, 2007; Jeffreys, 2003). Jeffreys (2003) argues that it is this construction of the Other that plays an important role in sex tourist behaviors, and allows them to justify their sense of dominance and control within the client-sex worker relationship. The racial prejudice and stereotypes of the naturally sexual and subservient Caribbean sex work as constructed by the male sex tourist to justify and exploit their desire for commercial sex. This theoretical notion may explain the prevalence of male sex tourists who practice prostitution abroad, but would never engage in such behavior in their own countries (Kempadoo, 2001).

Gendered Dominance

Heterosexual, male dominance is another noted motivator for male sex tourism in the Caribbean. This search for racially fantasized male power is contrasted in male sex tourists’ testimony as a response, in part, to the global women’s liberation movement. Sex tourists report that their docile, willing and naturally sexual Caribbean partners contrast dramatically to white, Western women who are deemed “spoiled, grasping and above all, unwilling or inferior sexual partners” and take excessive powers over Western men (Kempadoo, 1999). For instance, one male sex tourist in the Dominican Republic noted, “Women’s lib in America in the United States has killed marriage in America for any man who has brains… I wouldn’t even marry a rich woman… [In the Dominican Republic] they’re raised different. Women’s lib hasn’t hit here” (Male sex tourist interview in 1998, from Kempadoo, 1999). Male sex tourists note this lack of male dominance and power even in relation to Western, female prostitutes, describing these commercial sex encounters as being “like a taxi service, like they’ve got the meter running… and if you don’t pay her, you know what? They call it rape” (Canadian sex tourist in Cuba, from Kempadoo, 1999). These quotations indicate how male sex tourists equate their international commercial sexual exploitations within the context and framework of their rightful position of sexuality and authority over women.

As part of this notion of masculine domination, the sex tourists’ testimony describes the ways in which male sex tourists dehumanize female sex workers in the Caribbean (Kempadoo, 2001). Compared with domestic commercial and noncommercial sexual experiences (where women are viewed to be too socially, economically and politically dominant), within the context of tropical, and racialized environments of places like the Dominican Republic, these sex tourists can feel a sense that there traditional male authority is reasserted.

Some feminist interpretations suggest through the act of paying for commercial sex, male sex tourists are divested of the potential for intimacy, potential rejection, or “engulfment” by another human (Enloe, 1989).  At the same time, the act of dehumanizing the Other, feminist researchers argue, allows male sex tourists to treat prostitutes as “vehicle for the expression of sexual hostility and the attainment of control over” (Kempadoo, 1999). By contrast, the relative economic, social and judicial power male sex tourists imagine Western (white) women have prevents such dominant masculine within their domestic settings (Enloe, 1989). This feminist interpretation may explain part of the motivation sex tourists seek out foreign, exotic locales to fulfill commercial sex desires as opposed to using domestic alternatives (Kempadoo, 2001).

Economic Dominance

Interpretations of male sex tourism emphasize the economic dominance of male sex tourist over female sex workers in developing nations. This economic dominance is seen in the sex tourist’s economic ability to purchase airfare, hotels and other travel accoutrements necessary to engage in sex tourism, as well as their economic dominance in purchasing sex. This evidence is coupled with testimony and research that indicates that commercial sex workers in sex tourism destinations engage in the industry as a result of limited employment and income-generating opportunities. These theories have been elucidated clearly in writings and research conducted by Gregory (2007), Sanchez Taylor (2001), and Opperman (1999).

Female Sex Tourism: The Second Sex Tourist?

“I had heard from a friend that the local people were ‘fantastic’ lovers” (interview with female sex tourist, from Herold, Garcia and deMoya, 2001)

As mentioned above, female sex tourism has received far less interest and research than male sex tourism. Female sex tourism emerged as a topic of research and social interest beginning in the 1960s. Early reports of female sex tourism emerged mainly focusing on young British, German and Scandinavian women traveling to southern European countries, including Greece, Italy and Spain (deAlbuquerque, 1998). It was during the 1960s that the first slang name emerged to describe male sex workers targeting the female sex tourist trade: kamaki (deAlbuquerque, 1998). In the Caribbean, current slang terminology for males targeting female sex tourists include “sanky panky”, “rent-a-dred”, “beach boy”, “beach bum” and “hustler” (Kempadoo, 2001). The emergence of packaged travel deals and the Airline Deregulation Act (1978) reduced travel costs and expanded the global tourism industry. Between these two developments, the cost of travel to Caribbean locations declined in the 1970s and the number of sex tourists (both male and female) expanded (Smith and Cox, 2011). Since the 1970s, the number of female sex tourists has expanded, but also the countries-of-origin for such travelers. Today, sex tourists originate from North America and Europe, but also East Asia, Australia and South America (deAlbuquerque, 1998).

Only a few medium- and large-scale studies have been conducted in an attempt to understand the motivations and beliefs of female sex tourists and their male sexual partners. No major study has been published since 2000.  The most widely cited study, conducted by Sanchez Taylor (1999), interviewed 104 single, female tourists in the Dominican Republic. The results provide some insight into the nature of female sex tourism in the Caribbean. Approximately forty percent of respondents admitted to entering into some form of sexual relationship with local men while on their vacation. Those reporting sexual contact represented a diverse demographic profile of young and old women. Women aged 30 to 40 years were most likely to have reported having sex with local men on their trip. Overwhelmingly, the women reporting sexual contact with locals identified themselves as White, which reflects similar study results involving male sex tourists (Sanchez Taylor, 1999). However, unlike comparative studies with male sex tourists, most female respondents who had sex with local men reported only one sexual partner during their vacation (Herold, Garcia and deMoya, 2001).

Interestingly, none of the women who engaged in sexual relations with local men defined the relationship as being a client-sex worker relationship. Twenty five percent of females in the study reported being approached by local males with the offer of a commercial sexual relationship. None of these women reported a positive response to these offers (Sanchez Taylor, 1999). Women who reported having a sexual relationship with local men variously termed their relationships as being a “holiday romance” (42%), “true love” (13%), or “long-term” (6%). Only four percent of respondents described their relationship as “purely physical”. Despite the various definitions offered by women to describe their relationships, more than sixty percent of those reporting sexual relations with locals reported a commercial element to their relationship, either by paying for restaurant and bar bills, buy providing gifts, or “helping” their partners with cash. This suggests a relatively strong economic relationship present in female sexual encounters with local men while on vacation (Sanchez Taylor, 1999).

Since other studies have suggested that most commercial transactions occur at the end of a female sex tourists holiday (and this study was conducted among women who were typically in the middle of their vacation), these statistics could underestimate the number of women providing commercial incentive to their local commercial partners (Jeffreys, 2003). For instance, Jeffreys (2003) reports that “beach boys often did not receive any financial reward until after the women had returned home, but this later reward could be considerable such as money to allow the beach boy to set up his own business”.

Another interesting note from the study was the high proportion of female sex tourists reporting multiple trips to the country. Of the respondents who reported sex with locals, only nine percent (a significant minority) reported this to be there first trip to the island (Sanchez Taylor, 1999). This indicates that most female sex tourists make repeat visits to the same location. For those who reported multiple visits to the country with sexual encounters with locals, most reported that sexual experiences “were integral to their holiday experience” (Sanchez Taylor, 1999).

Shared Characteristics: Similarities between Female and Male Sex Tourism

Many similarities exist between male and female sex tourists in the Caribbean. Evidence provided by Sanchez Taylor (1999), deAlbuquerque (1998) and Jeffreys (2003) demonstrates that both males and females seek to travel to Caribbean locations and engage in sexual acts with local individuals. The motivation to travel to Caribbean Islands for sexual relations may indicate a similar motivation based on massively unequal economic, racial and political relations, regardless of whether these motivations are consciously known (Sanchez Taylor, 2001).

Once they arrive in their Caribbean locales, both male and female sex tourists engage in a diverse range of commercial and noncommercial sexual behaviors that can be considered part of sex tourism activities. While the stereotypical male sex tourist engages in short-term sex-for-money exchanges, this stereotype appears to be an oversimplification. Male sex tourists in the Caribbean (and around the world) report relationships similar to those reported by female sex tourists – relationships that reflect tenderness, personal affection and that reflect more of an intimate partnership than simply a sex-for-cash exchange (Jeffreys, 2003). Additionally, both men and women report noncommercial sexual encounters, as well as informal economic relationships (where money is not clearly negotiated) which fall outside traditional notions of commercial sexual exchanges (Jeffreys, 2003). While female sex tourists are more inclined to report informal commercial relationships, the prevalence of range of sexual behaviors for both male and female sex tourists is a striking similarity.

Unequal economic relations seem to be another mutually found characteristic for male and female sex tourists. Both groups travel to places in the Caribbean like the Dominican Republic, where the economic status of individuals they interact with is considerably unequal. For instance, an estimated forty-four percent of Dominicans and around one third of Jamaicans live below the poverty line (Sanchez Taylor, 2001). Once in Caribbean countries on vacation, both male and female sex tourists are likely to interact with economically marginalized individuals. Male sex tourists are likely to interact with women working within the formal and informal commercial sex industry as a result of limited employment and economic alternatives (Gregory, 2007). Similarly, the local men women meet on vacation are typically economically marginalized through work in hotels, bars, and as beach vendors and “hustlers” (deAlbuquerque, 1998).

While female sex tourists are less inclined than their male counterparts to describe their sexual interactions with locals within commercial sex terms, both male and female sex workers catering to tourists describe similar material economic motivations for their actions. In interviews with sex workers  in the Dominican Republic, (Opperman, 1999) reports that while direct monetary exchange is less prominent, and may in fact be purposely disguised, “economic gain is the primary motive of both male and female sex providers in such settings” (Opperman, 1999). This conclusion is supported by similar work conducted by Herold, Garcia and deMoya (2001) with beach boys also in the Dominican Republic. While some younger beach boys expressed the desire for sexual conquest as a motivating factor for their involvement with female tourists, the majority indicated that economic or material gains were the primary motivations for their actions (Herold, Garcia and deMoya, 2001). Furthermore, the economic motivations of both male and female sex workers is supported by mutually shared claims that suggest that involvement in the commercial sex trade is easier and more lucrative than alternatives available in the resort-oriented Caribbean, including activities such as domestic work, hotel/bar employment, street or beach vending, and manufacturing work in Free Trade Zones (Kempadoo, 2001).

An additional similarity between male and female sex tourists can be seen in the mutual desire for both groups to use the Caribbean as a location to experiment and explore their own hegemonic notions of masculine/feminine sexuality within the context of an erotic, racialized Other (Jeffreys, 2003). Jeffreys (2003) found that female sex tourists create similar exotic and erotic stereotypes of Caribbean men in order to facilitate sexual interactions as their male counterparts. These women, for example, report seeking out “black men with good bodies- firm and muscle-clad sex machines that they can control” (Jeffreys, 2003). This similar desire for a sexualized “body” that can be controlled highlights a pattern apparent in both male and female sex tourists that can be seen in the mutual construction of the Other as being naturally sexual as well as being an object that can be controlled or dominated.

Kempadoo (2001) suggests that women tourists use sex tourism opportunities in the Caribbean as a way to experiment with being able to control men, while at the same time, retaining cultural notions of femininity and sexuality. This is similar to findings produced from male sex tourist, who use sex tourism opportunities to satisfy their own culturally motivated desires to obtain male authority and sexual dominance. Both female and male sex tourists use similar patterns of sexualizing, eroticizing and exoticizing Caribbean men and women in a manner that allows these fantasies, experiments and acts to take place. Kempadoo (2001) further suggests that culturally produced notions of sexualized Caribbean masculinity and femininity can be seen as a “stage upon which a reshaping and retooling of western identity occurs”.

Defining Differences: How Female and Male Sex Tourism Contrast

Despite the numerous similarities between male and female sex tourism interactions, there are some critical differences that should be noted. These differences make a unified theory to explain male and female sex tourism difficult to discern. For example, researchers and feminist critics of sex tourism point to the dramatic size differences in the number of male and female sex tourists. While the limited scope of female sex tourism operations in the Caribbean can be explained by the limited amount of research conducted on this group, evidence still suggests that there are far fewer female sex tourists compared to male sex tourists (Sanchez Taylor, 2001). Female sex tourism, apparently, operates on a much smaller scale than male sex tourism, indicating that there is a much smaller demand (and/or supply) for such services (Sanchez Taylor, 2001). It may be that female sex tourists represent more of an anomaly in Western societies than male sex tourists.

Further differences between the male and female sex tourism can be seen in the differing ways in which these industries operate. Female sex tourists do not have similar opportunities for commercial sexual encounters within Western societies as their male counterparts do (Jeffreys, 2003). While commercial sexual relations is part of the Western, (White) male culture where a majority of Caribbean sex tourists come from, there is no similar circumstances or “script” for female sex tourists travelling from these areas (Jeffreys, 2003). Even within countries that are sex tourism destinations, systems of prostitution exist to service men which do not exist for women – there is no ‘formally organized female prostitution sector’ in the Caribbean (Sanchez Taylor, 1999). Moreover, there is no street or brothel prostitution of men and boys for women to access in any sex tourist destinations (Jeffreys, 2003). While this may currently be true, this area of the female sex tourism industry may be changing. Evidence from Southeast Asia shows that at least some women are venturing into the areas mainly thought to be the domain of male sex tourists – like brothels, go-go bars and massage parlors (Opperman, 1999).

An additional and unavoidable difference between the male and female sex tourism industry can be seen in the differing relations to power exhibited among male and female sex workers. Male sex workers have greater control and power within the sex tourism experience than their female counterparts. These different relations to power and control can be seen in a number of ways, including the modes in which clients and sex workers interact, and the stigma and harassment they face domestically within Caribbean countries. For instance, while male sex tourists remain in high control of their activities with female sex workers, deAlbuquerque (1998) notes that “beach boys and rent-a-dreads can exercise a husband’s authority over their temporary girlfriends. The  men  determine  when and  how  to  have  sex,  what  restaurants and  bars  and nightclubs to patronize, what sights are worth taking in.  First- time visitors generally acquiesce. But for sexually sophisticated women already familiar with the Caribbean, the perquisites of masculine control wear thin” (deAlbuquerque, 1998). The control exhibited within female sex tourist and beach boy relations arguably reflects how these relations exist within a “highly gendered understanding of both courtship and prostitution within which women cannot be sexually predatory but only preyed upon” (Sanchez Taylor, 2001). Hegemonic notions of gender roles within origin and destination sex tourism countries shape the way in which female sex tourists and their male partners conceive and interact their relationships. Researchers argue that male sex workers engaging with female tourists may in fact gain a “superior masculine status in Caribbean societies amongst their peers according to the number of their sexual conquests,” (Kempadoo, 1999). Kempadoo argues that men can gain status through these sexual arrangements because the type of sexual interaction that takes place between male sex workers and their female clientele reflects “the traditional sex of male supremacy, i.e., the men do the penetrating and are not having to dissociate to survive whilst their bodies are used as objects” (Jeffreys, 2003).

Further differences in power and gender relations can be seen in the differing perceptions of female and male sex workers engaging in the tourist sex industry. Hegemonic definitions of gender within Caribbean countries place female sex workers at a higher risk of facing stigmatization and persecution (Herold, Garcia and deMoya, 2001). For example, deAlbuquerque (1998) and Herold, Garcia and deMoya (2001) have noted that male sex workers targeting female clients are less inclined to self-identify as being sex workers than their female counterparts and are less likely to report stigma within their own communities. Male sex workers engaged with female tourists also report lower levels of abuse.

Additionally, female sex workers are far more likely to experience violence and abuse compared to male sex workers servicing female clients. This is because male sex workers, despite unequal political, economic and racial power, retain the physical power to dominate their female clients compared to female sex workers working with male tourists (deAlbuquerque, 1998). In the case of female sex tourism, there is just little to no evidence that male sex workers experience the same levels of trauma and sexual violation that female sex workers report (Jeffreys, 2003).

Theory for Female Sex Tourism

Similarities and differences between male and female sex workers highlight challenges to determining a unified theoretical understanding of Caribbean sex tourism. Some researchers have argued that, in fact, no unified theory can be found. These researchers suggest that an alternative term should be used for female sex tourism, calling in “romance tourism” (Pruitt and LaFont, 1995). “Romance Tourism”, these researchers argue, is more appropriate to the actions of female tourists since “these liaisons are constructed through a discourse of romance  and  long-term  relationship,  an  emotional  involvement  usually  not present in sex tourism” (Pruitt and LaFont, 1995). These researchers argue that the higher prevalence of relationships construed by as based on emotions (through terms like “holiday romances” and “true love” reported in studies with female sex tourists) suggest that there is a striking difference in the nature of these relationships compared to male sex tourists .

Some researchers even go far as to suggest that the phenomenon of sex tourism reflects a positive turn of events in sex work relations, since it challenges traditional gender roles and gender relations (deAlbuquerque, 1998). In this light, female sex tourism undermines feminist arguments that sex work is primarily an expression of masculine hegemony and masculine dominance of the female form (Kempadoo, 2001). In essence, the argument states that this notion cannot be true since “women do it too” (Jeffreys, 2003). The existence of female clients engaging with male sex workers challenges the traditional notions of client and sex worker that are evident in most discourses on this trade. If we view female sex tourism on the same plane as male sex tourism, then the entire concept of prostitution and sex work based on male dominance and female exploitation can be challenged.

This terminology based simply on gender difference alone is troubling. This propensity on the part of researchers to distill sexual relations between female sex tourists and male sex workers may in fact reflect a gender essentialist model of sexuality, where the “sexual behavior of women is interpreted and judged differently from that of men simply because they are women” (deAlbuquerque, 1998). This explanation oversimplifies the diversity of interactions and power relations that are witnessed in male and female sex tourist relations. As demonstrated above, the experiences and relations demonstrated by sex tourists (both male and female) are diverse and complicated, with both male and female tourists reporting both “purely physical” and emotionally connected arrangements with local sex workers. By terming female sex tourism as “romance tourism”, researchers risk ignoring the similar economic motives of male and female sex workers who engage with sex tourists. The term “romance tourism” undermines the economic motivations of beach boys and male sex workers who do not, in fact, seek romance and affection. Furthermore, the terminology of “romance” vs. sex tourism ignores the similarities in economic, political and racial power that exist in relations with both male and female sex workers. Some critics, like Sanchez Taylor (2001), underscore the problematic nature of this definition, arguing that “the idea that tourist women who have sex with local men are not really sex tourists reflects a theoretical privileging of gendered power over questions of  racism and racialized power, as well as downplaying the significance of economic power” (Sanchez Taylor, 2001).


As of yet, no unified theoretical framework can be discerned to explain the similarities and differences apparent in female and male sex tourism. In some ways, female sex tourism reflects hegemonic experiences of gender, economic and political power. However, in a number of critical ways, female sex tourism defies such trends.

While the 1990s saw a dramatic increase in academic attention paid to the topics of female and male sex tourism, the interest in these topics appears to have declined in the years since 2001. Despite the lack of more current research on this topic, evidence suggests that male and female sex tourism continues to rise in the area (US Government, 2011). The interactions and relations between male and female sex tourists and their local sex partners will continue to pose challenges for local and tourist development in the region, and may contribute to future issues in the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, as well as the exploitation of local workers as a result of the global tourism industry (US Government, 2011).

Within the context of globalization, future studies should also consider who travels where and under what circumstances in the course of sex tourism. What, for instance, happens when sex workers engaging with sex tourists travel to sex tourists’ home countries as a result of their relations? How does sex tourism effect and interact with global human trafficking trends? What are the long term consequences of sex tourism for both destination and origin countries? Given the currently limited scope of sex tourism research, answers to these questions remain unknown.

Finally, it is important to note that whether in the media, in literature, and even in science, prostitution becomes a colorful and dramatic metaphor for greater social, political and economic acts. Without denying that sex work inevitably leads to exploitation and abuse, sex work becomes a means for researchers to explore the greater processes of exploitation, hegemony and power relations on a larger scale. Understanding how these various levels of exploitation and dominance interact will be critical to creating beneficial development in the future,  



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Gregory, Steven (2007) The Devil Behind the Mirror: Globalization and Politics in the Dominican Republic. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hannum, Ann Berger (2002) Sex Tourism in Latin America. Tourism in the Americas. Harvard Review of Latin America. Accessed at

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About Madison Leigh Rose

I recently graduated from the Yale School of Public Health with a Masters Degree (MPH).

One comment

  1. Pingback: SEX or ROMANCE: the problematic use of binary gender theory in the sex tourism industry | UM-D Gender & Globalization

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