Reuters has published an interesting article about sexual tourism in Kenya that is generating some lively discussion online. It concerns older white women from England and Scandanavia who travel to Kenya in the hope of getting lucky with younger Kenyan men. The women tend to be in their fifties and sixties, and as one of them puts it, the appeal of Kenya is that it is “just full of big young boys who like us older girls.”
The story also quotes a young Kenyan man named Joseph, who describes his reasons for hooking up with older tourists:
Flashing a dazzling smile and built like an Olympic basketball star, the 22-year-old said he has slept with more than 100 white women, most of them 30 years his senior.
“When I go into the clubs, those are the only women I look for now,” he told Reuters. “I get to live like the rich mzungus (white people) who come here from rich countries, staying in the best hotels and just having my fun.”
The article notes that male tourists have always come to Kenya for similar reasons. However, there is an important difference between the female and male travellers, in that the women do not seek out underage companions. As one Kenyan bar manager says of the female tourists, “they never push the legal age limits, they seem happy just doing what is sneered at in their countries.”
Not everyone is so sanguine about the women’s itineraries, however. Some hotel managers and tourism officials find the practice “unwholesome,” and the article quotes a University of Nottingham academic who likens the trend to a “return to a colonial past, where white women are served, serviced, and pampered by black minions.”
The colonialist meme is also taken up by the Women’s Bioethics Project:
[I]n a country where nearly 7% of the population has AIDS, a situation where it’s common for a 22 year old young man to have slept with over 100 white women, and where the “exotic” fantasy shuns condoms, it’s simply not a safe arrangement . . . encouraging a return to a sexualized, colonialist, Orientalist attitude can’t be a good thing—heath or otherwise.
I am not sure this is the right reaction to the story. For starters, part of its significance would seem to be that it highlights an important demographic development: there are now older women with enough money to afford to do things—like engage in sex tourism—that well-off men have always done (which raises the possibility that some of the sexual habits we associate with men may turn out to be products of their wealth, rather than their gender). Thus even if we ultimately decide that what the women are doing is wrong, their trips to Kenya would still be a side-effect of a positive development, namely, women’s increasing economic independence.
But are their trips wrong in themselves? I would have to disagree with the Women’s Bioethics Project on this point. The argument that it is wrong to have sex with Kenyan men because of the AIDS risk for example, would rule out anyone, not just Western women, sleeping with them. As one commenter at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Footnoted blog (where I found out about the story) asks, “What about the Kenyan women who live in this reality on a daily basis? Is their ‘arrangement’ any safer? Or are they somehow less valuable than middle-aged white tourists?” The idea that abstinence (rather than safe sex) is the only possible stance to adopt toward a group with a significant AIDS rate would also seem to quickly lead to anti-gay conclusions. Anyone who would not make the abstinence argument in the case of Kenyan women or gays cannot consistently invoke it in regard to Western tourists.
There would also appear to be significant differences between the effect sex tourism has when it is undertaken by a woman rather than a man. Australian academic Sheila Jeffreys has pointed out some them in her paper “Sex tourism: do women do it too?” (which unfortunately requires access to an academic library account). One is that Third-World men who sleep with tourists are never in physical danger: they can thus exercise a degree of control that is not present when the roles are reversed. Moreover, in some developing countries, it is a mark of prestige to sleep with white women, and so the men gain social respect by bedding as many as possible.
But perhaps the most significant point Jeffreys makes is that the men involved speak positively of their encounters with Western women. As she notes, for a female prostitute in the developing world, sex with a Western man is usually a pleasureless affair, something to be endured. For men who slept with female tourists on the other hand, they often reported enjoying it. As one so-called “beach boy” in Barbados put it, “[Barbadan] women can’t f— and they doan even wanta s— you. You got to beg she to do it, and still she might not do it, and if she do it she acting like she doing you a favor. Now a white woman, you got to beg she to stop!”
Jeffereys uses the term “romantic entrepreneurs” to describe men in the developing world who sleep with female tourists. If they are never in danger, gain prestige and enjoy themselves—not to mention get paid into the bargain—it is hard to see how what the women are doing can be equated with the cruelties of colonialism.