deviants or victims: sex tourism and prostitution, the voluntary/forced debate
If upon hearing the words ‘sex tourism’, you conjure up images of white, privileged, Western men embarking on journeys to developing countries with the pursuit of engaging in paid sexual activity, you would not be mistaken.
Yes, sex tourism is actually a thing happening all around the globe. And in most cases, this conception that associates sex workers as the losers within this typically exploitative industry is essentially accurate. However, there is one extremely harmful consequence of such ideas, and that is the misguided assumptions regarding women’s agency within the sex tourism industry.
Prostitution has been and continues to be an extremely topical issue in our society. Throughout history, feminist standpoints and responses to prostitution have varied enormously. Dominant discourses surrounding prostitution in the past have tended to focus on either regulationist or abolitionist viewpoints. While regulationist conceptions saw prostitutes as sexual deviants who needed to be legally and medically ‘regulated’, the abolitionist response adopted the victim approach to prostitution, arguing that sex workers needed rescuing. Both of these frameworks perpetuate prostitution being viewed as a morally condemned profession, by positioning prostitutes either as deviants or as victims and consequentially denying any sense of agency for those involved in the sex trade.
More recently, international policies regarding prostitution and sex work have adopted an approach to these issues that centres upon the voluntary/forced dichotomy. Ultimately, this means that the majority of international agreements denounce forced prostitution and trafficking, rather than prostitution itself, as violence against women. Whilst this is a step in the right direction, it is somewhat misguided. Alongside a focus on the condemnation of forced prostitution has been the tendency for those sex workers deemed to be in ‘voluntary’ positions to be overlooked. This distinction has created what Doezema (1998) defines as false divisions between sex workers, as it has created a number of binary oppositions. These tend to position the voluntary, commonly Western sex worker as a guilty whore, whilst the forced, assumed Third World prostitute is considered as an innocent, passive Madonna.
These divisions are ultimately false, unnecessary and harmful to those within the sex tourism industry. While international agreements and policies aim to eliminate the dangers that typically come hand in hand with sex work, the reality is that the majority of workers who endure slavery-like, exploitative and abusive experiences were actually already working in the industry. Thus in ignoring those classed as voluntary sex workers, a huge human rights issue emerges, as their basic rights are overlooked as being less important than those of the forced prostitute. To combat this, there is a desperate need for the basic human rights and protection to be recognised and enforced for all sex workers, not just those who were forced into the industry.
So where does sex tourism come into this debate? Typically, those working within this industry are considered to fall under the forced binary, along with all the connotations that come with it. Whilst this may be an accurate depiction in some circumstances, we need to be careful not to generalise the complexities that are at play within this type of work. The real, lived experience of those individuals involved must be considered, appreciated and understood. It is harmful to imagine those involved as having no agency in their life decisions, and to limit their identity to falling neatly into the voluntary/forced dichotomy. Women often seek from their relationships with foreign men the potential for upward mobility, and economic stability. For some, this results in successful long-term relationships that have lead to marriage and migration. There are so many forces at play within the intricacies of the sex tourism industry, and thus the voluntary/forced dichotomy is too general a binary with which to begin exploring the complexities of sex tourism. To move forward, we need to ensure that lived experiences are not overlooked, and that human rights are ensured to all those within the industry, with no exceptions.