Amsterdam, Bangkok, Rio de Janeiro – do a word association test on anyone who can actually find the cities on a map and the third answer will be ‘sex’. Red light scenes can be found all over the world but the hype usually features around a certain number of sex capitals as magazines, TV channels – even websites – shamelessly exploit the dominant appetite of humanity to drive up their circulation or viewing figures.
It’s odd but while a traveler might never consider paying for sex in his home country, set him in a foreign culture with kitsch disco music, a strange language and gene pool, and his inhibitions quickly fall away. There’s a sense that it’s all so unreal that the usual values don’t apply, that it’s all part of the traveling experience, another adventure to be told over a few beers on one’s return and besides… it’s so much cheaper than back home.
The guidebooks have played a part in turning the red light districts on the backpacker route into another item on the sight-seeing circuit. The Lonely Planet sends hundreds of voyeuristic travelers to the Help! Disco in Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro and we imagine the girls working inside must be thoroughly bored of tourists trying to take a sneaky photo.
Guided tours take blushing groups of Europeans and Americans through Amsterdam’s red light district and they emerge rather breathless, having been bold enough to throw a couple of furtive glances at the women parading their wares in the long narrow windows. At least these sex workers are working for themselves though and they understand that enduring a certain amount of window shopping is just part of the job.
The go-go bars and sex shows of Bangkok take the voyeurism to another level though as the red light district mutates into a circus too bizarre to be sexy. Girls on stage go through any number of vulgar cabaret tricks, acrobatic contortions and eye-popping routines under the kind of garish lighting that allows the visitor to suspend his or her sense of disbelief – or good taste.
Sex is for sale all over the world – indeed, if it weren’t for the prices the bewildering variety of Japan’s prostitution culture would make Tokyo the sex capital of the world – but when a sub-culture emerges merely to satisfy the lurid fantasies of foreigners armed with hard currency, we’re left tapping our heads and quoting Obelix.
These travelers are crazy.