It’s a cliché but from Brazil to the Philippines, from Costa Rica to Thailand, you really can see lonely old guys shuffling down the street with 20 year old girls on their arms. Having saved up enough money in some dreary job back home they’ve finally made it out to the warmth where their hard currency can get them all the young, nubile flesh they’ve been dreaming of for years.
With beer bellies and appalling dress sense, it’s evident that they’ve lacked a woman’s touch for many years. They follow their beers with a couple of pills of Viagra sold at the cigarette stand and the odds double that they’ll suffer heart seizures a few hours later. They seem such unattractive nerds that you might feel sorry for the girls by their sides – if they themselves weren’t hustlers who are taking their unsuspecting clients for all they’re worth.
But though the cliché can be seen, it doesn’t tell half the story.
Throw a condom through any cheap guest house in Bangkok and you’ll hit a backpacker who’s been for an erotic massage and almost everyone, female travelers included, will have gone to see one of the Patpong sex shows as part of the exotic Thai experience. What would seem seedy and dangerous back home takes on a Disneyland aspect abroad with the diminutive girls doing their thing, the garish neon lights and the knowledge that the tourist police are within shouting distance if anything were to go wrong.
Men of all ages travel around the world to partake of escort services, massage parlours and brothels and few of them think anything is wrong with it. It’s assumed that the girls just see it as another job, a highly-paid one at that. Some men join websites where they share their experiences of sex abroad with other members, give feedback on the girls they’ve been with and enjoy a sense of community with other sex tourists. Web 2.0 as no one had imagined.
And although there are many instances of women coerced into prostitution, this isn’t the usual story and certainly not in the freelance prostitution scene. It’s common for male travelers to hook up with a girl for the duration of their stay, almost like a hired girlfriend and often no prices will ever be mentioned, it simply being understood that he will pay for all meals and expenses and show his generosity at the end.
Neither is it only men who enjoy the tender loving care that their money buys them abroad. Head to the beaches of Jamaica, Goa or Tanzania and the dark-skinned gigalo can be seen prowling the sands, his well-toned body and shameless flattery designed to pick up a Western girlfriend with an array of credit cards. If his luck is in he might even find a wife who can give him the foreign passport that will be his key to riches abroad.
In short, cliches about sex tourism make good copy and give one a cozy sense of moral indignation but are often a hypocritical sight off the mark. In almost every culture around the world wealth has always been a crucial factor in matchmaking and while there must surely be a dividing line between marrying for financial security selling one’s body by the hour, it’s a little finer than one might at first think.