International Women's Issues

Defining Exploitation: New Trends in Sex Tourism

Ida, a German woman in her mid-fifties, strolls down Diani beach on the coast of Kenya. Her hair is dyed blonde, her bikini is blue and she’s eagerly waiting for her new boyfriend to join her for drinks. “He just has a way about him,” she says, and her smile brightens as Faridi, a tall dark man in his mid-twenties strolls up. They embrace and take a seat in front of the Indian Ocean’s white sand and rolling waves.

This scene, which plays out down the African coast daily, is part of an ever-increasing phenomenon. Older women, often from Europe, single and married alike, flock to the beaches of East Africa in search of their very own beach boy. A holiday fling that they can brag back home about. The men certainly aren’t difficult to find. Wander onto any beach and you’ll find groups of men congregating, calling out to Western women who wander into their path. While most catcalls go ignored and most women find it harassing, it only takes one relatively wealthy woman to show their behavior pays off in the end.

It would be easy to blame beach boy sex tourism on the machismo culture of East Africa. Yet here in Kenya those who live near the beaches have a much different idea on their origins. “It’s the kids who are given money, just grown up and bartering with their looks in a different way,” one local woman told me. “If you see a child on the beach during mid day, that child is not in school, and if he is not in school, he is asking and begging and using the ocean for his means in life. It’s easy to do here, it provides everything. Those kids grow up entrenched in beach culture, and so the beach boys are born. They are a touristic invention. They only exist because they’ve learned rich white people will pay them either out of guilt or desperation.”

On a hot Saturday afternoon, the beach is lined with men in a variety of costume. The Maasai people, perhaps the most marketed ethnic group in all of Africa, are used to the point of nauseum. Young men, mostly of Samburu origin, dress in traditional Maasai swaths of fabric and intricate beaded jewelry. They walk hand in hand with women twice their age who honestly believe that they are in a relationship with a member of an ancient tribal tradition. These relationships are often extended even after the women leave, with the “warriors” keeping in touch through text and email. It is never long before something comes up. Before some aunt or sister ends up in the hospital and money must be sent immediately to reconcile the situation. Some Western women fall for such ploys, although most drift off after they return from their holidays.

The disparity in age and attractiveness is the most common vein in these Western women/beach boy relationships. Taking full advantage of this is often excused away by those caught up in the trade. However, assuming beach boys are sex-starved Don Juans lucky to bed middle-aged white women would be a mistake. While some do engage in long term courtships, they always risk being ostracized from their own community. The idea of a first born son going and joining a beach boy gang instead of getting married and raising a family can be devastating, especially in a culture that puts so much emphasis on origin and tribe. These same men commonly abuse drugs and face harassment by the Kenyan mafia, which keeps tight control on just how much money can be made at the beach.

Common opinion dismisses the lifestyle of a beach boy as an easy one, but this hardly seems to be the case. The practice is unsustainable, and there is very little prospect for the men after they’ve grown past their expiration date. What perhaps starts as a life of being a cute kid making change on the beach in exchange for smiles, often turns into one of cocaine addiction and eventual poverty. Without family or social support for these men, the idea of turning to a life of crime is not only attractive, but likely.

Later that evening, at 40 Thieves, a landmark club in Diani, Kenya, the bass pumps through speakers and booze soaks through the crowd. Easily identified cases of exploitation through poverty seem cut-and-dried as you watch young, beautiful Kenyan women dance for men with graying chest hair, tufting out of their half buttoned up shirts. Their red, wrinkled faces smile as they take their purchases by the hand and lead them out into the night.

Most of these Western women laugh when considering their own “vacation fun” and fail to draw the parallels or feel the same levels of disgust. After all, they reason, it’s hard to “force” a man into sex. “You can’t fake an erection,” one tells me. When I mention that Viagra is actually in common trade amongst beach boys she waves me off. I later see her pin her own beach boy down and kiss him hard on the mouth. After the interaction the man excuses himself politely and makes his way to the bathroom. The woman looks nonplussed as she considers herself the pioneer of her own sexual prowess.

Occasionally you hear of long-term relationships between Western women and their Kenyan lovers. Some have even gone so far as to get their own apartments and spend months together either in Africa or in Europe. Still, the idea that a sex worker stops their trade just because of a few gifts is a common misconception that leads to more than a few genuinely confounded women and broken hearts. Despite the relationship being exploitative at its root, and drugs often being a large factor in the beach boy lifestyle, it still comes as a shock when these issues crop up.

Invariably these women, who frequent the East African sex trade and bestow cash and gifts on their prostitutes, always have a ticket out. They will enjoy their purchases and then board their flights back to Europe and North America. Without hassle or social condemnation they will return to their posts at work and continue on with whatever trajectory their life was on before. What they will leave behind, however, will almost always end in further harassment of women on the beach, the guaranteed continuation of sex tourism, and an almost inevitable end in a level of poverty that the women frequenting these men will likely never consider, let alone comprehend.



By Olivia Marudan

Cad. Boondoggler. Swindler. Ass. Plagiarist. Hutcher. A movable feast in the subtle culinary art of shit talking.

16 replies on “Defining Exploitation: New Trends in Sex Tourism”

This is a classic example to show how the patriarchy hurts men as well. The ideas that an erection = desire and that a man cannot be exploited in the same way as a woman are direct results of the patriarchy.  Of course you can’t forget the elements of classism and racism that exist in this exchange, but it seems to me if you removed the sexism from the equation it would be a lot easier to see the other problems in the “relationship”.

I have so many mixed feelings on the subject of sex workers, regardless of gender or even location. Are they being forced or pressured into it, or is this a choice they’ve made on their own? I’m all for empowerment and sexual freedom but I think a majority aren’t in it for those reasons.

But the comment about not being able to fake an erection is only partially true. An erection is just a physical response to stimulation. That’s not the same as being sexually aroused. Blood flow to the penis can be caused by other things, including Viagra. So, no, you can’t “fake” an erection. It’s either there or it isn’t and you can’t pretend that it’s there if it’s not, but you can “fake” the reason behind it.

Bizarrely, one of the first things to come to mind when reading this was Bridget Jones’s Diary, in which Bridget’s mother appears to do what you’ve detailed. It’s also something that does come up in the papers from time to time. Not entirely sure what to make of it, sex tourism is a difficult one and I think Susan made interesting points about differentiating between tourism, trafficking and slavery. I don’t know, need to think some more on it.

Fantastic article. I especially found your drawing of parallels between Johns and female prostitutes to really put into relief the beach boy’s situation. What a terribly difficult situation. I mean what would these men be doing if they weren’t rent boys?

I wonder if women feel like they aren’t “Johns” (Would they be “Janes”?) because there is an emotional aspect (at least to them) to the relationship. I mean they aren’t just screwing, but there are dates and romantic walks on beaches etc.. They fool themselves into believing that the beach boys cares for them and is not simply desperate for their money.

I would be also interested in learning about whether there is a large queer industry as well. I’m thinking to the fact that most rent boys tend to service men and women buying rent boys is a relatively new phenomenon, at least to my knowledge. Correct me if I am wrong here. Is this too taboo in Kenya for white men to buy beach boys as well? Or is it just less obvious because of the social taboo?

Even if the “Janes” aren’t sincerely believing the relationship to be a legitimate emotional one, there’s still the fact that the scenario flips the usual power imbalance. It’s true that the women here are white and wealthy, but as the author points out, the revulsion is reserved for men engaging in the same behavior. That’s what most of us think of when we think sexual exploitation. If you can convince yourself you don’t fit the “picture” of an exploitive/abusive “John,” it’s easier to brush off your guilt, even if you do recognize what you’re doing isn’t totally “right.”

Great angle Olivia.  We don’t often consider post-pubescent male victims of international sex tourism, or how that exploitation contributes to the cycle of exploitation of women as well as you showed here. 

The idea that it is impossible to rape a man is also a commonly accepted falsity which doesn’t help either men’s or women’s rights.  Men are sexually abused in degrading and humiliating ways every day.  All abuse leads to cycles of abuse, so we should not discount injustices toward any group as being unrelated or unimportant.  Thank you for illuminating these issues here.

I might be alone in this, but I don’t have a problem with sex tourism.

Wait, that’s not entirely true.  I think sex tourism is problematic, because of the power differentials, and the commodification of bodies.  BUT, I think there is another side of this, which is that young people may be attracted to the lifestyle and do it because they want to.  Just like prostitution – there are those who get into it and have a really, really rough time, but there are those that actually do it as a career.

The biggest problem, to me, is when it gets tied up with sex trafficking and sex slavery.  I would be willing to be that that is happening on these Kenyan beaches, as well, and that some of these men are being sold and held captive.  THAT is – I don’t even have words for how awful that is.

And I don’t mean to sound like “oh come ON, they LIKE it,” but I’ve known women involved in the sex tourism industry who were in it because the money was good, they enjoyed the work, and they didn’t have a problem with it.  I guess I think assuming that everybody is a victim because they are a part of this is tricky.

I wouldn’t assume on an individual level; people get to define their own lived experience. What I have absolutely no problem saying is that these folks are probably in the minority. So, rebuttable presumption: I tend to think it most likely that a sex worker is being exploited and did not choose this line of work, but is they personally state otherwise, there’s no call for me to insist that my theory of sex work trumps what they’ve actually lived.

It is indeed tricky.  Let’s expand the genre to pornography and other media which rely upon physical attraction (i.e. Maxim Magazine).  To say that all models, actors, and such are directly victimized is silly.  But I do not think it a stretch to suggest that others are victimized as a result of the industry, regardless of the willingness of it’s workers to do that work.  It’s complicated and really tests our allegiances to elements of individualism, socialism, and etc.

Well and I think in this case it’s problematic to draw parallels to first world sex work. When your decision is between making about 5-10 USD per day vs. gifts, money and nice hotel rooms, the idea of ‘choice’ becomes considerably more complicated.

Then of course there is the Kenyan mafia involvement taking a cut, and the heavy drug use/mugging of tourists within the beach boy community. No doubt there are beach boys that want to do it. I even met a couple who are married and both prostitute themselves out for a living. There are always exceptions. But in almost every case, when it comes to a culture where poverty plays such an extraordinary role, I find it difficult to compare it to more Western institutions. Which is why I tend to see it less as a ‘choice’ and therefore much more exploitative (and hence find it particularly detestable).

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