Voyeurism and exploitation

I am sure we are all familiar with the concept of sex tourism. It’s a broad term which is split into adult sex tourism and child sex tourism and refers to mainly European and US adults travelling to the Caribbean, Africa and Asia for the sole purpose of having sex with local men and women or children. Morality aside, there are serious questions of human rights violations and exploitation taking place under the guise of ‘consenting adult sex’. There is a fine line between consenting adults engaged in sex tourism in the Caribbean and the often young adults in countries such as The Gambia, Vietnam and Thailand. The industry – and it is a business – is also highly racialized.   For example, organized sex tourism holidays start out from Europe to destinations in the Global South. In this way, sex becomes a racialized, gendered consumer item purchased by rich Northern holiday makers. Racial stereotypes play a large role in Western desire for Black and Asian sex, and in most cases the racial hierarchies of the West are embedded in these relationships, irrespective of the tourists’ gender.  Last but not least, there are serious health issues, with the spread of HIV and other STDs.  

One of the most popular destinations for sex tourism is The Gambia. In 2000 I was in Banjul for a four-day conference which was attended by a number of Niger Delta women’s groups. Each time we left the hotel we were harassed by young men, which naturally irritated us all so much that some of the women refused to go out. However, I wanted to know how the whole sex tourism thing worked, so I started a series of conversations with some of the young men working in the ‘tourist shops’. I discovered that the sex tourists were both men and women, but it was the men (mostly from Northern European countries such as Germany, Sweden and Norway) who ‘went’ for the young girls and boys. I was told that many of the tourists came every year and stayed for up to three months, living with a chosen boy or girl. In some cases they would even take the young person back to their home country. I was told that everyone – the police, government officials, embassies – all knew what was happening but did nothing. One of the ways in which the Europeans persuaded the young men and women to go back to their home countries with them was by promising to give them an education and support their families back home. It was only when they arrived in Germany or Norway that they discovered they were to be sexual slaves. One young man told me he knew of someone who was kept prisoner for over a year in Germany before he was able to escape and seek help. He eventually  returned to Gambia.

The more dangerous and insidious side of sex tourism involves children. In November 2006, a Norwegian man was tried in Oslo for sexually abusing a 12-year-old Gambian boy. In the same year a British man was sentenced to 5 years in prison for sexually abusing young children in Ghana. But these two arrests do not speak to the real problem, whereby tens of thousands of children are sexually abused by Western tourists visiting countries in Africa and Asia.

Child sex tourism is a lot more complex, and more difficult to pin down. Some of the victims are child prostitutes, some are essentially slaves and others are ‘groomed’ by rich Westerners posing as Good Samaritans.

According to ECPAT, many offenders will spend time ingratiating themselves with the child and family, leading them to believe they are trying to help them out of poverty. ECPAT also believes the use of the internet has had a significant impact in recent years, both in terms of spreading child pornography and the exchange of information.

For the children involved, the impact is clearly devastating. The risk of sexually transmitted diseases is high, and the emotional and mental damage of abuse is well-documented. Victims can end up being socially ostracized, addicted to drugs and pregnant by their abusers.

Child sex tourism and child sex trafficking are global problems which take place both within and between Western countries as well as within and between countries in the Global South. For example, there are an estimated 5,000 child sex slaves in Britain alone. It is believed that thousands of children were put at risk of human traffickers following the Asian tsunami in 2005.  

After sex tourism, the latest ‘tourism venture’ for Northern Europeans is ‘poverty tourism’. A Dutch company has organized ‘slum’ tours of Kiberia informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya. White people can now not only freely consume Black bodies as sex tourists, they can also extend their voyeuristic gaze on the homes of the poorest of the poor. And they can get a feel-good factor at the same time by witnessing African ‘resilience and friendliness’.
Called Kiberia Tours, the online site advertises trips to the ‘friendliest slum in the world’: 

‘Our Kibera-based Dutch-Kenyan organization Kibera Tours would like to welcome you to a tour in Kibera, the biggest slum of East-Africa. Our guides Martin and Freddy, born and living in Kibera, would like to show you the daily life in their “city of hope”. See the ways the people of Kibera improve their lives. Become inspired by their resilience and friendliness. You’ll experience that the people of Kibera will certainly make you feel welcome. A security guard, well-known in Kibera, will come on the tour to make you feel even more safe.’ 

Kiberia has now become a human zoo for those not satisfied with staring at African and Asian animals behind bars or, worse, hunting them in the wilds of Kenya’s game parks.