Sex tourism is a form of travel in which people visit foreign countries with the primary purpose of engaging in sexual activities, often in exchange for money or other material benefits. These activities may take place in legal or illegal contexts, depending on the country or region. The World Tourism Organization of the United Nations has acknowledged that the industry is both organized within and outside of the legal structures and networks created by them.
Sex tourism is widely viewed as a major transnational issue due to its targeting of vulnerable populations in developing countries, including Southeast Asia and Brazil. Ethical issues associated with this practice include the economic disparity between tourists and locals, the trafficking of minors and women for sexual purposes, and the exploitation of minors for sexual activities. These activities are often illegal and non-consensual under the laws of the destination country, leading to increased abuse and exploitation.
Sex tourism is a multi-billion-dollar industry with an estimated workforce in the millions. It supports service industries such as airlines, taxis, restaurants, and hotels, and popular destinations for sex tourism include Brazil, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, the Netherlands, Kenya, Colombia, Thailand, Cambodia, Cuba, and Indonesia (especially Bali). Female sex tourists are commonly found in Southern Europe (Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Spain, and Portugal); the Caribbean (Jamaica, Barbados, and the Dominican Republic); Brazil, Egypt, Turkey, Sri Lanka, India (particularly Goa and Phuket in Thailand); and Gambia, Senegal, and Kenya in Africa. Other destinations include Bulgaria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan, Peru, Fiji, Colombia, and Costa Rica.
This particular industry of sex work is a major motivator for world travel, yet it is often highly exploitative and subject to unethical abuse. The untraceable nature of the market and the lack of law enforcement control make it easy for tourists to engage in sexual conduct, including the exploitation of minors.
Ethical issues arise due to the power imbalances between the participating parties; sex workers are often from low-income backgrounds, living in underdeveloped societies where their only means of providing basic needs is to engage in sexual services. Although some sex workers engage in the industry voluntarily, there is a stark contrast between the coercion seen in international sex trafficking and sex tourism, which exploits the limited work opportunities available to people with low socioeconomic backgrounds.
The government and law enforcement of Cambodia have historically not placed a priority on policing prostitution and sex trafficking, resulting in tourists engaging in sexual activity with Cambodian adolescents. This oversight has had devastating consequences for many of the victims.
Individuals engaging in sex tourism may be subject to prosecution for violating laws prohibiting human trafficking, sexual encounters with minors, and child pornography, as these are almost universally criminalized. Moreover, citizens of any foreign country are expected to abide by the laws of their home country, as well as those of the country they are visiting, including those pertaining to consent. Failure to do so can lead to prosecution.
Demographics of sex tourism include:
– Women seeking men
– Men seeking men
– Adults seeking children
– Men seeking women
Sex tourists typically come from developed countries in the Western world such as the United States and Europe, but not exclusively. Commonly visited destinations for sex tourism include less developed nations in Asia, such as Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal, as well as countries in Central and South America such as Mexico and Brazil.
A non-profit public charity, ProCon, conducted a study of the percentage of men who had paid for sex at least once in their lives between 1994 and 2010. The study revealed that Cambodia had the highest rate, with an estimated 59–80% of men having paid for sex. Thailand came in close second with 75%, followed by Italy at 16.7–45%, Spain at 27–39%, Japan at 37%, the Netherlands at 13.5–21.6%, and the United States at 15.0–20.0%.
Sex tourism is a global phenomenon, with an estimated 250,000 people travelling annually to engage in sexual exploitation of children and youth. This industry generates over $20 billion in revenue each year. However, due to the difficulty of collecting data, it is hard to determine the exact number of people involved in sex tourism. According to estimates, 24.9 million people are trapped in modern-day slavery, with 4.8 million (19%) suffering from sexual exploitation. Of these victims, 21% are children, with the US Department of State estimating that over one million children are trafficked for sex annually. Often, those in the sex tourism industry target the most vulnerable, making children and women especially susceptible to being forced into the industry.
Cultures around the world have vastly different attitudes towards sex tourism. In less-developed countries, human trafficking of children is a tragic reality. Families living in poverty in rural areas may be forced to sell their children into the sex industry in larger cities. In Thailand, some women may turn to sex work to support their husbands financially. In impoverished areas, the sex industry can be seen as a viable source of income for families who have few other options.
In highly developed countries such as Australia, where sex trafficking is illegal and heavily policed, cultural attitudes towards sex tourism differ from those of more vulnerable backgrounds. Despite this, brothels remain active in states such as Tasmania and New South Wales, where people can pay for sex. Recent studies suggest that sex slavery is still occurring in Australia, exploiting individuals and families from impoverished backgrounds.
Male tourists, sometimes referred to as sexpats (expatriate + sex tourist), join online communities to share advice on destinations, and in rarer cases, pursue a “girlfriend experience” which may occasionally develop into an emotional relationship.
Attitudes towards sex work vary greatly across cultures and countries. In some places, it is viewed as a legitimate profession, while in others, it is considered a criminal activity. In many places, including many tourist destinations, sex work is tolerated or even accepted, but it is not always respected. On the other hand, those who come from countries where it is illegal may find it difficult to access sexual services, as they are breaking the law. Furthermore, the stigma surrounding sex work can make it difficult for those who engage in it to be open about their profession, leading to feelings of shame and isolation. Ultimately, it is important to recognize and respect the different attitudes people may have towards sex work as a profession.
The University of Leicester’s sociologists conducted a research study for the Economic and Social Research Council and End Child Prostitution and Trafficking campaign, which involved interviews with over 250 Caribbean sex tourists. The findings revealed that preconceptions about race and gender had an impact on the tourists’ opinions. Furthermore, Western tourists viewed underdeveloped countries as culturally distinct and thus saw the exploitation or male domination of women in these countries as being without the same consequence or stigma as in their home countries.
Economic and policy implications
Sex tourism has far-reaching economic implications for both the destination countries and the people involved. Tourist sectors in destination countries benefit from the influx of wealthy visitors seeking cheap, unstigmatized sexual activities. This line of sex work provides a reliable source of income to developing countries’ economies. Additionally, individuals engaging in sex tourism are able to benefit financially, as well as gain access to experiences that would otherwise be inaccessible. However, sex tourism also has the potential to be exploitative, and can result in serious health and safety risks for those involved.
Gay sex tourism
The sex tourism industry provides a platform for gay, bisexual, and bi-curious tourists to explore their sexuality. Research has indicated that gay sex tourism is driven by the same motivations as non-gay sex tourism. Studies have concluded that leisure activities and holidays are especially meaningful for gay men, as they can be used to construct, affirm, or alter their sexual identity.
Gay sex tourism is a thriving market in places such as Gran Canaria, Ibiza, Sardinia, Sicily and Fire Island. Depending on the location, arrangements may be monetary or non-monetary in nature. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is an example of a destination that has developed its own unique culture around gay sex tourism. The participants there are called “Michês” and can be identified by their bright blue towels. They often ply their trade in saunas.
Recent years have seen a surge in popularity of adult-only sex resorts, as travelers seek out a consensual and ethical way to enjoy sexual activity abroad. These resorts are safe and consensual spaces, where all genders, orientations, and relationships are accepted without pressure. Mexico and the Caribbean are common destinations for such resorts, some of which provide clothing-optional settings with designated “playrooms”.