In his thought provoking piece Handsome Men. Invisible Women, (Citylife: November Vol. 20. No 11) James Austin Farrell describes “prostitution” as a “nebulous word” and posed the question: “What actually defines prostitution?” Here I pose the question: “What actually defines sex tourism?” “What indeed is a sex tourist?” We all have opinions on it, usually prejudiced. It’s a question worthy of investigation.
Being called, or considered, a sex tourist has to be one of the worst labels a man could possibly acquire. It’s fine to be a health tourist, a dental tourist, a medical tourist, an archaeological tourist or even a suicidal extreme danger tourist yearning to be air dropped over war zones. But not a sex tourist. I believe that this is because aided and abetted by the puritans who rule over us, the world’s media, to their eternal disgrace, have created a stereotype figure: a ludicrous, physically unattractive character, who, unable to find and develop relationships with females in his homeland, travels to foreign countries, usually in South East Asia, to engage in sex with disadvantaged women. A variant of this creature is the pedophile that pursues sex with prepubescent girls or boys.
A few years ago, Stickman, (stickmanbangkok.com) that shrewd observer of things in Bangkok’s farang entertainment scene, wrote:
“I would like to dispel a couple of myths. First of all, let me assure you that very few of the folks that come to Bangkok fill the stereotype of the middle-aged, overweight, bald European sex tourist who is unable to forge a relationship at home either due to the aforementioned traits or perhaps due to a lack of, or, inadequate social skills. Many folks that go to Thailand to partake in the commercial sex industry are actually young, good looking, educated and indeed, some are very successful in their profession back home. Nonsense rumors that these folks “can not get a girl back home” are just that, nonsense. The simple fact of the matter is that for many of the guys coming to Thailand, they don’t want Western women. It is not the Western guys who are getting rejected, but rather the Western women. In addition to the “common man” who comes to Thailand, there are many stories of famous people coming to Thailand to enjoy the nightlife including some famous sportsmen, news readers and authors, amongst others. The commercial sex industry in Thailand is not a lonely hearts club at all. The VAST majority of girls within the scene that caters to foreigners are there of their own free will. They are not slaves that have been sold into the flesh trade and finally, the vast majority of the girls are of a legal age.”
Having spent many years living in Thailand, I could not agree more. But however phony the stereotype is, it has stuck. And consequently, any single Western male returning home from Thailand is viewed suspiciously and may be the target of some serious attention and scrutiny by customs officers. He may be subjected to searching questions delivered in an authoritive and supercilious manner designed to humiliate him, his bags thoroughly searched and intimate belongings strewn over the examination table. Any male over forty, traveling alone to South East Asia in general and Thailand in particular, is liable to be labeled and handled in this manner. Even university academics, businessmen and professionals returning from field work, business trips, or symposiums in Asia are not exempt from this treatment and will attest to it. I have myself gone through it, but only once. Returning home to Canada from a Thailand vacation, I was shunted into the examination room and given the works. In those days I traveled light going out and heavy coming home so the going over took almost ninety minutes and was not pleasant. I vowed never again to endure it. The next time I came home I carried a light shoulder bag containing my toilet kit and a novel: and a smirk on my face.
Of course, as sex tourism is not illegal, what they are looking for is evidence of pedophilia, child abuse, which is a very different thing. Though not illegal, traveling for sexual experience has become socially unacceptable. Here we are seeing the heavy hand of the puritan at work. For the puritan, sex is about reproduction: sex for pleasure is taboo. Indeed, for true puritans, anything that gives physical or cerebral pleasure is viewed with distaste. So, a little humiliation dealt out by customs officers or police, however unfairly, is deserved, just what the doctor ordered.
I, like most people, applaud the international pursuit, capture, prosecution and punishment of pedophiles and child abusers. But to assume that every male traveling to and from South East Asia is a pederast is not acceptable. And why are women not subjected to this? Why are men singled out? The female of the human species has also produced its pedophiles: the infamous Canadian child molester and killer, Karla Homulka immediately springs to mind.
Putting up any defense of sex tourism and sex tourists has to be a lonely and thankless task. As far as I know, no one has ever attempted it. But, like a lot of difficult jobs, someone has to do it; someone has to play the Devil’s advocate, so here I am. Though no expert, my qualifications are passable.
Although the unpleasant character created by the media does exist and I have observed him, he’s in a minority: the majority of sex tourists just don’t fit the template. For example, on vacation in Phuket a few years ago I sat down with my wife, Su, one evening at Scruffy Murphy’s bar on the Bangla Road in Patong to enjoy a meal and a few beers. It’s a great bar, always lively and a favorite of mine over the years. Within an hour, a gang of young Australian and New Zealand men intent on a party poured in and packed the place. There must have been at least thirty guys, all young and good looking and sex tourists all. Some had Thai girls in tow while others connected with the resident bar girls. The mamasan seeing a shortage of girls on the horizon reached for her phone and called in reinforcements to handle the rush and, of course, cash in. The star of the party was Andy, a twenty two year old Kiwi from Christchurch who’d just gotten married to a beautiful bar vixen, named Pak. A pocket Venus, Pak wore hair way past her butt. But what went on between her ears is anybody’s guess since she was well tattooed in such highly visible places as her shoulders, arms and upper breasts. Andy, a well built blond guy, also sported an array of new tattoos on both arms from shoulder to wrist. Su wondered what his mother’s reaction would be to the tattoos when he got home. I wondered about her reaction to Pak if he ever got her home. I bought the newly weds drinks, wished them well and we joined the party.
For me a sex tourist is a healthy red bloodied heterosexual who travels to far away places to enjoy lovemaking with foreign ladies. He is not a predator. He loves women, and in the case of Asian tourists, Oriental women, a trait I wholeheartedly share. So, bored and frustrated with life in Birmingham, Brisbane or Berlin, feeling sex starved and needing to get his ashes hauled, his tubes blown, he decides to do something about it and heads for some sultry climate East of Suez to meet the dark, almond eyed, ladies of his dreams and, it is to be hoped, indulge in the fulfillment of his fantasies.
The sexual motive that drives foreign travel is almost completely ignored by the modern, major travel guides. They cover almost everything else, from booking tickets and acquiring visas, the best times to go, what to bring, where to stay, where to eat, where to shop, and they expand at length on the sites of historical and religious significance. They direct you to the beaches, kayaking and scuba diving areas and outfitters, the hiking trails and the wonderful features of the National Parks. And I have to say these guides are invaluable. I would not venture anywhere without a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide tucked away in my pack. But, if mentioned at all, sexual matters are merely touched upon with references to areas where vice is prevalent or the seedier aspects of a particular place and, of course, the ubiquitous dangers of HIV and AIDS. Yet, in my opinion, based upon extensive reading, empirical observation and experience, it is the desire for sexual encounters that is the spur, behind much, if not most, foreign travel. And it is not confined to men.
Sexual desire and curiosity for someone of another race or ethnic and cultural origin is also felt by women, but was for so long denied them by male imposed strictures. But now, with the expanding liberation of women, they are free to indulge in the experience. This has led to the growing phenomenon of female sex tourism. Consider the group tours and Club Med package deals that ferry hordes of French Canadian girls from Quebec to the Caribbean, ostensibly to escape the rigors of a hostile winter and seek out the sun, sea and sand, but in reality to seek out adventures with the big bamboo and make out with the local boys. And then there are the groups of Japanese women who flock to Pattaya, Thailand to seek out men, specifically, Nigerian males.
Many of the female sex tourists that I have observed are plain Jane’s who rarely get dates at home. They work all year in dull jobs, saving hard in order to cut loose for a few weeks in some exotic island paradise where they control things. Those local boys work hard, believe me, they really earn their rewards. But I did meet one beauty in Chiang Mai. Mai, a blonde, Dutch born physiotherapist, owned a Toronto sports injury clinic, and came to Thailand every year to score young Thai males. She was forty four, very fit and looked thirty. Her criteria were simple. Her lovers had to be thirty or less good looking and at least five feet eight.
Many observers believe that female sex tourism is larger than male. I can’t see that, but it is big. Yet female sex tourists are not under a spotlight as are males. For in the stereotype model, the sex tourist is always male.
Another feature of the stereotype is the implied assumption that were it not for Western tourists and the bright neon lighted venues such as Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza that cater to them, there would be no prostitution in Thailand. The bar hookers are simple uneducated village girls, trapped in the economic vice of poverty are lured (or sold) into a life of sordid sexual service. This is pre-fabricated bunkum. Prostitution has existed in Thailand far longer than modern tourism. It’s well known that centuries ago, European seamen brought home tales of their experiences with Thai ladies of the night and their beauty. Even today with its high tourist levels, over 90% of Thai prostitutes are in the service of Thai men. If tourists avoided Thailand prostitution would continue as normal.
My own adventures in sex tourism began in my youth. As a wild Northern England teenager of seventeen, I traveled by ferry boat with six other young men to the Isle of Man, the island in the Irish Sea for two weeks of wild boozing and girl chasing, endeavoring to lose my virginity and what fun it all was. And there followed many other such bawdy vacations around the British Isles and on down to the Mediterranean coast of Spain. After university, work and deeper pockets afforded me more extensive travel, taking me to places I would never have otherwise visited, and meeting with people I would never have otherwise encountered. And age did not dull the main objective that was to seek out the ladies and sample their wares. Eventually, I drifted into South East Asia, a landfall that changed my life completely.
I do believe I was bitten by the Oriental bug as a boy, probably around the time I was forever captured by the sweeping, haunting beauty of Rudyard Kipling’s poem Mandalay.
By the old Moulmein pagoda
Lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin,
And I know she thinks o’me.
I developed a love for Oriental cultures, the climate, the smells and the languid moods. I also developed a taste for its cuisine. But mostly I loved the women. And, over the years, I enjoyed countless encounters with Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian and Filipino ladies. I find Oriental women totally irresistible. There is something about them that is simply fascinating, yet I’m not sure what it is. Is it the soft molding of their features, moist and almond shaped eyes? Is it their diminutive figures and graceful feminine carriage? The way they smile? Perhaps it’s all of that and more. But I developed a special love for the women of Thailand. And it was to be in Thailand that I eventually built a home and established a base area. Once, after falling in love with a Thai beauty, I composed the lines:
My heart is in Thailand; my heart is not here
With its sweet Siamese girls and its cold Singha beer.
My love she’s in Thailand she waits for me there
With soft lips, brown eyes and long dark hair.
I met her in Thailand some time ago
She begged me to stay, but I had to say no.
But I’m going back to Thailand I tell you I am
To that land of the Buddha once known as Siam.
My heart is in Thailand, my heart is not here
With my sweet Siamese girl and a cold Singha beer.
So, if you travel to enjoy sex with women (or men) in foreign climes you are a sex tourist, pure and simple. But be not ashamed, accept it and welcome aboard. You’re in great company.
In essence, sex tourism is around three centuries old. The Romantic poets, Byron and Shelley were sex tourists, Italy and Greece being their target venues. Robert Burns, that bawdy bard of Scotland would certainly have been had he not been so dirt poor. Great writers such as R. L. Stevenson, painters such as Gauguin, noted anthropologists, ethnographers and adventurers have traveled ostensibly to seek knowledge, for artistic, cultural and other reasons. But their diaries and private correspondence often reveal a darker, more lustful purpose behind their adventures. And could the great Richard Francis Burton have performed his masterly translations of such works as The Arabian Nights and The Perfumed Garden had he not indulged his appetites? Similarly with the great poet-libertine, Byron, who claimed he could never have accomplished his magnum opus Don Juan had he not given free rein to his sexual passions. So, without going into a lengthy diatribe on the history of sex and travel, suffice to say that the literature is considerable and available to all who seek to know more about it.
It is my contention that the normal sex tourist does little harm. And when sex tourists spend their money, they are serious contributors to the host countries economy. If he or she exploits it is done in the heat of normal, sexual desire, whereas western corporations such as Nike or Reebok, who exploit cheap labor in their Bangkok and Manila sweatshops, do so in cold blood, but who complains about that?
Of course, older men, and women, do come to Thailand to meet and enjoy sex with women and men younger than themselves, but what’s wrong with that? Men especially like to party with young women, mainly because, apart from the obvious physical attraction, young ladies are a lot more fun. And perhaps the same goes for women with young men. And I have to say that spending time with a Thai bar-girl or go-go dancer never feels like your going with a prostitute as it does in the West; it’s more like having a little fun with an old girlfriend. In my view, the whole Thai farang sex scene has always had more of a party atmosphere than an exploitative one. And the majority of the girls who are in it are there because they want to be, because they like it. It is my contention, that despite the puritan’s efforts to crush it, sex tourism, like prostitution, is here to stay.