By Anna Schaeffer
Prostitution often exploits the vulnerable in a society, and Morocco is no exception; Assabah estimates there are 5,000 houses and villas dedicated to sex tourism in Casablanca alone. Most often, the concept of sex tourism brings to mind abused women and children; this manifestation of sex tourism is undoubtedly a crucial issue demanding response.
The significantly understudied practice of female sex tourism, though, can be just as exploitative, abusive, and critical. But far too often, it goes unaddressed.
What is female sex tourism?
Wealthy, predominantly white Western women travel—primarily to once-colonized nations in the Caribbean, Central America, and Africa—to visit male prostitutes, often much younger in age. Women “pay” their companion with clothes, food, and gifts, if not cash. Popular destinations, marked by beaches and a critical mass of underemployed men, include Costa Rica, Nepal, Thailand, and Egypt—and Morocco.
With the overwhelming majority of scholarly attention focused on male sex tourism, female sex tourism remains both under-reported and understudied. UNICEF and Amnesty International do not even offer official policy on the topic. But the practice dates back to at least 1900, and more than half a million women engaged in sex-based travel between 1980 and 2005.
A report published by the International Coalition for Responsible and Respectful Tourism indicates the resurgence of Morocco’s sex tourism industry. Goodwill Ambassador Khalid Semmouni pointed to globalization, border accessibility, and sex tourism as interconnected elements. People are attracted to what they perceive as exotic, he added.
Angelo A. Camillo devoted a whole chapter of his “Handbook of Research on Global Hospitality and Tourism Management” to female sex tourism and its “privileges and problems.”
He defines the practice as usually involving consumers from wealthier nations and prostitutes from poorer, less-developed counterparts. The “First World” exploits the “Third World.” Sex tourism thrives in poverty.
Who are these women?
Jane is 67. For the past decade, she has spent vacations in West Africa, where the men “make you feel like a real woman.”
“I don’t mind paying for their drinks and meals if they stay the night.”
One member of online penpal forum Interpals wrote: “I know of the trend of women going to other countries looking basically for a younger man to have sex with, the female version of sex tourism. They often go to countries like Morocco… because some of the younger men there, for whatever reason, make them feel young and attractive again.”
In response, another member wrote, “They sure aren’t picky, most of those women are well past their prime, late 30’s, 40’s, 50’s… all what they want is to have a man notice them and make them feel ‘feminine’ and desirable, the much younger Moroccan men are eager to oblige and shower them with attention and honeyed words.”
So who is exploiting whom? Even without direct cash exchange, varying forms of “payment”—clothing, meals, shelter, gifts—reveal the relationship is a glorified business transaction.
In 2006, 38-year-old Jackie lived in London but vacationed abroad, and sex tourism proved a major element of those international trips. She told The Observer she sees nothing wrong with what she does.
“He tells me what all the things I want to hear, and I guess in return I pay for everything—meals, accommodation, transport, tours—and buy him gifts. But that is because I have much more money than he does. It is mutually beneficial.”
Chris Beddoe, UK director of End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking (ECPAT), acknowledged that two consenting adult partners can have an ethical relationship, but female sex tourism is a whole separate issue.
“If both adult partners are open and honest about what they’re getting out of it, that’s one thing. But it’s another thing to continue the fantasy when there’s a denial of the power that money brings to that relationship that creates a culture of dependency and exploitation.”
“A dime a dozen”
The 2005 film Heading South depicts three older white American and Canadian women traveling to Haiti for sex with local young men. Ellen, a Boston professor, tells one of her friends, “Stop pretending you just came here to get a nice tan.”
“I mean, think of those cute boys. They are a dime a dozen. Take your pick… If you are too shy to pay them, just give them gifts.”
The three women continue sexual relationships with multiple Haitian boys, many of whom are still teenagers.
“I always told myself that when I’m old I’d pay young men to love me,” says Ellen.
Ulrich Seidl’s 2012 film “Paradise: Love” follows a similar storyline: 50-year-old white Teresa from Austria on a birthday trip to Kenya, where a group of European “sugar mamas” introduce her to the world of female sex tourism. Teresa solicits sex from younger men, paying not directly for sex but instead dishing out cash for “medical needs” or other necessities required by her partner.
She feels at the beginning like prey but quickly assumes the role of predator.
Lead actress Margarethe Tiesel said of her “Paradise: Love” role, “The exploited begin to exploit in a place where they have power.”
A lingering effect of colonization
The legacy of colonization continues to affect Morocco in myriad ways; the stereotypes perpetuated by colonial ideas of Arab men as either dangerous or exotic, or both, likely play a role in Morocco’s allure as a sex tourist destination.
Macquarie University Professor Hsu-Ming Teo explained the romanticized, and often sexualized, image of the Arab man and “the Orient.” Although this idea waned with the end of colonialism, she said, it gained traction again in the 1960s and 1970s.
Camillo, the author of the aforementioned chapter on Privileges and Problems of Female Sex Tourism, concludes that the practice “[relies] upon and [reinforces] historically entrenched national and cultural demarcations that tend to marginalize the people (partners, families, communities) of targeted destinations in the developing world.”
Shirley-Anne Tate, Carnegie School of Education professor and cultural sociologist, calls female sex tourism “deeply colonial [and] heteronormative.”
“Thus, ‘conventional romance formulas’ [are inappropriate] because neither the sexual violence of slavery nor ideology of imperialism can be written out of understanding romance.”
Playwright Tanika Gupta wrote her theatrical production “Sugar Mummies” about this very concept, specifically the industry in Jamaica. To research the phenomenon she traveled to Jamaica, where older women bragged about their local lovers. The female sex tourists even shared the advice that men in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, in comparison to men in Jamaica, are “dirt cheap.”
One tourist quipped, “You can go as young as you want in Cuba.”
Gupta said the “terrible mutual delusion” she witnessed during the research period shocked her. “And you do find yourself thinking, ‘We’re not a million miles from slavery.’”
What about the men?
Some female students spending the summer in Morocco, whether from the US, Australia, or Europe, express hopes of finding a “Moroccan boyfriend:” an “exotic” or “foreign” love for their semester abroad.
Author Claire Harris interviewed an Australian tourist named Sharee, whose relationship with her Moroccan boyfriend encourages her to continue visiting Essaouira. Harris said other Western women she spoke with used “mildly patronizing terms,” such as “exotic” or “cute,” to describe their Moroccan partners.
For men on the other side of the equation, though, emotional hurt can be a real element of catering the sex tourist.
Heidi Postlewait, co-author of “Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures,” challenged the popular idea of a male sex worker.
“Our idea of a male prostitute is like Richard Gere and that wasn’t what this was at all. This was really a poor African man who lived in a shack and had a miserable life and had to [expletive] women to make a living.”
Joe Hayns contributed a chapter to “Masculinities Under Neoliberalism,” in which he discusses contemporary masculinity concepts for Moroccan men, including those engaging with female sex tourists.
“Some men I knew suffered a degree of emotional hurt from being acted upon (and acting) as embodiments of European fantasies. One friend, for example, occasionally needed me to explain the amorous messages of white Europeans. He was one woman’s ‘Berber nomad,’ and another’s ‘Aladdin.’ A third woman wished he would fly to Europe ‘on his magic carpet.’”
“My friend, like other men I knew, sometimes performed these stereotypes—he ‘cooned’—with wide smiles, and other times with gritted teeth. Certainly, he was not unusual amongst such men in suffering acute periods of grief.”
Tom A. Peter, a GlobalPost correspondent in the Middle East, analyzed the unwanted consequences of sex tourism for both tourists and men in Jordan and Egypt. Women seeking “exotic sexual encounters” can find a handful of Bedouin guides offering such services, but not without developing a sexually-stereotyped desert tour culture in the process.
“It’s also created a climate where both guides and female tourists uninterested in sex or a relationship find themselves burdened by unwanted advances.”
Twenty-three-year-old Lucy from London told the Independent about her luxury stay in St Lucia “for 10 days of pure pampering—and ideally a sexual encounter.” She said she was “keen to find a St Lucian man… I’d heard they were very well endowed.” She found Sandi.
“Sandi and I had a great time. On his day off, he took us to a local street party. I paid for taxis, drinks and food.”
“We needed his protection because St Lucian men had certain misconceptions about white women—although I probably wasn’t helping.”
Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal authored “Tourism,” a novel ironically narrating relationships between older white women and younger men of color. He pulls no punches defining female sex tourism in the book.
“Women enjoy casual sex and prostitution, too, but with far more hypocrisy. They help themselves to men in the developing world, kidding themselves that it’s a ‘holiday romance’ that has nothing to do with the money they spend.”