Women and Sexual Tourism

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.

Zimbabwe after Mugabe

Above: Arthur Mutambara.

Two posts down I mentioned some of the good news regarding political trends in Africa. Obviously there are exceptions however, and among them, one country stands out: Zimbabwe. Its dictatorial leader Robert Mugabe has followed a policy of mass killings and arrests that has driven a quarter of the country’s population into exile. His economic policies, meanwhile, have resulted in an inflation rate that the International Monetary Fund predicts will soon reach 100,000 percent, a figure so vast it would be almost impossible to imagine if it were not actually happening.

Is there any hope at all for Zimbabwe? The Wall Street Journal thinks so. It has published a profile of opposition leader Arthur Mutambara, who has endured torture at the hands of the Mugabe regime. The Journal describes Mutambara as an inspiring figure, one who can bring an American audience to its feet by delivering the following words:

“We Africans are responsible for our problems, and we must take charge of our lives,” he said in a commanding, deep voice reminiscent of James Earl Jones. “We must move away from aid to genuine investment. We must ensure that after getting rid of a dictator we plant deep roots for the rule of law and actually improve the lot of the people. So when we who believe in democracy triumph, I ask you to judge us harshly if we fail to live up to our promises.”

In addition to his message of self-reliance, Mutambara also stands out for his accomplished personal background. As the Journal sums it up:

Mr. Mutambara led student demonstrations against Mr. Mugabe’s corrupt Zanu-PF party at the University of Zimbabwe until 1991, when he won twin Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships and departed to study science at Oxford. He received a doctorate in robotics in 1995 and went on to become an associate professor at MIT, a visiting scientist at NASA and a management consultant at McKinsey.

In Canada we recently saw two academic intellectuals, Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, compete for the Liberal leadership, both of whom could conceivably become prime minister. Here’s hoping that if one of them does so, something similar will have already happened in Zimbabwe, where Mugabe cannot be displaced soon enough.

Climate Change vs. Human Inertia – Part 2

penseur1.jpgIn late November my post on climate change and human inertia met with 16 responses. I’m happy that what I wrote generated so much discussion, including from some esteemed visitors to Sans Everything who have a lot to say on this issue (Ray Ladbury, Eric Steig, John McCormick). But I’m also concerned that some of my learned friends, including the inimitable David Sachs and the inestimable Greg MacIsaac, appear content to stand on the sidelines of this issue. Their response opens some new tributaries of the question I asked previously: of why some hyper-educated folk still pooh-pooh the issue, and what it means that they do.

My earlier post was presented as a problem of action. I suggested that most people who sit on the climate fence do so not because of genuine scientific perplexity, but rather because of distractions like inordinate media controversy. But some of the people who responded to me wanted to shift the discussion back to scientific first principles all the same. Fair enough, I suppose, although I suspect that some of those responses may have had to do simply with the medium: the blogosphere invites contest on all matters.

Blog discussions are fun, and don’t get me wrong: I’m happy to go a few rounds trading declamations and propositions as much as the next penseur. But I believe climate change is the sort of issue that demands we move past parlour games, so I am genuinely interested in the levers of persuasion here. Greg invited us to think of climate change as a problem of epistemology. Well, here is a riddle for knowledge: if a well-informed philosopher is still harrumphing against climate change, how does one expect to convince someone who is rooted, say, in the evidentiary standards of religious fundamentalism? Greg also appealed to the idea of first-hand empirical verification, opening another wrinkle. Climate change is already a big enough challenge of persuasion as it stands: it becomes positively googolplexian if we believe that everyone on the planet has to investigate the matter firsthand before their view has any validity.

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Africa gets its democratic groove on

The Boston Globe has an interesting piece on the spread of democracy and other postive developments in Africa. As the author points out, between 1990 and 2006, the number of countries that are “free” or “partly free” jumped from 19 to 34, according to Freedom House’s well-known democracy index. One cause of the continental spread of democracy was the end of the Cold War:

While the democratic movements themselves were homegrown, the West played a role in this transition, most analysts agree. During the Cold War, African leaders were able to play the United States and Soviet Union off each other, threatening to switch their allegiance if they were pushed too hard to reform. With the fall of the Soviet Union, this dynamic changed, and the US and other Western countries showed a new willingness to enforce the political conditions they attached to their aid. In Kenya, it was the suspension of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid that finally forced Moi to hold multi-party elections.

When it comes to Western economic involvement the article is more critical, suggesting institutions such as the World Bank have not have always attached helpful conditions to their loans to African countries (a point Joseph Stiglitz forcefully makes in his book Globalization and its Discontents). It is amazing really, how counterproductive Western economic policy toward Africa can be. Arguably the best thing Western states could do for Africa would be to stop subsidizing their own agricultural producers so much that African farmers can’t compete on the international market. Until that happens, there will always be a faint wiff of hypocricy surrounding the way Western governments portray themselves as Africa’s rescuers.

n+1 on Gawker

Over at n+1, there is a thoughtful essay on the gossip site Gawker, that also captures something about the fate of privacy in a celebrity-mad world:

Taking the form but lacking the content of tabloid magazines and websites, [Gawker editor Jessica] Coen and a succession of guest and co-editors besieged essentially private people, who for the most part did not have the audience or influence of Gawker. Part of this must have been a misunderstanding. Coen had read and written about Nicole Richie, a celebutante who had become known for posing with her father Lionel outside Hollywood clubs. At Gawker, Coen and the other editors delivered the Richie treatment not only to Richie herself but also to Tim Russert’s son, who was a student at Boston College and kept a Facebook.com profile, on which he posted a photograph of himself in a hot tub surrounded by girls in bikinis. Gawker ran the photo and summarized Russert’s profile by saying that he “enjoys Golden Tee, Xbox, and someday hopes to share a plate of buffalo wings with a hot bitch.” Perhaps he deserved this; but it seemed incongruous and cruel, to thousands of adults in New York.

The essay has no permalink of its own and is instead temporaily available on the n+1 home page (from where it should eventually move to the archive).

Gothic Lolitas and Goldfish Earings

Chris Butcher, general manager of the world’s greatest comic book store, went on a honeymoon in Japan and brought back a series of remarkable photos. Most camara-armed tourists are tempted to go the National Geographic route, becoming amateur ethnographers recording strange folkways. Chris has a different approach: his brings to Japan a retailer’s eye, zooming in on what might be called mass culture quirkiness: fashion trends, storefronts, unexpected packages and odd toys.

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Tainted Sources

When Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve was first published in 1994, Charles Lane wrote a very sharp critique in the New York Review of Books focusing on the “tainted sources” of the book. Lane noted that The Bell Curve relied heavily on a cohort of scholars who wrote for the Mankind Quarterly. Lane could have added that these scholars in turn tended to cite each other’s work, rather than more mainstream research in psychology and anthropology. In effect they created a feedback loop to promote their own way of looking at the world.

What, you may ask, is wrong with the Mankind Quarterly? Why is it tainted?

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John Updike on Comics: a dream anthology

John Updike, as seen by David Levine in 1978.

Years ago while doing some research at Boston University on the papers of the cartoonist Harold Gray, the creator of the Little Orphan Annie, I came across a fan letter that was unusually eloquent. When I looked at the name of the bottom right hand corner of the type-written page it all became clear: it was a missive sent in 1948 by John Updike, then an aspiring cartoonist, when he was 15 years old.  As I got to know Updike’s writing I started to realize that the letter was a simply one thread in a large and comfy biographical quilt. Like almost all American kids of his generation, Updike consumed comics even before he could read, so they were intertwined with his earliest experiences of art. Cartooning appealed to him as a potential vocation and he composed his first fledgling fan letters around 1942, when he was ten. After Updike settled on a literary career, he often returned to comics as a way of giving visual and mnemonic potency to his prose. His most recent writing on cartooning was his review earlier this year in The New Yorker of a much-disputed Charles Schulz biography. (For more on Updike and comics, see the articles I’ve written for the Boston Globe and the Guardian).  

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Updike and the bobos

As a writer, John Updike is a spendthrift. He’s free and easy with his words because they come so easily to him. Like a trust-fund kid he can afford to be magnanimous and spread the wealth. Most of us, when we come up with a clever metaphor or a happy phrase, like to hold on to it, show it around a bit, recycle and reuse it as much as we can. Our coinages are like rare coins, not to be spent but rather hoarded and exhibited.

Look at what David Brooks did when he came up with the nice alliterative catchphrase “bourgeois bohemians” (soon shortened to “bobos”). Brooks was so pleased with himself when he came up with that one that he turned it into an entire book, Bobos in Paradise.

Has anyone noticed that Brooks’s brainchild had an Updikian ancestor? In a 1964 essay on Nabokov, Updike executed a beautiful little sketch of Lolita’s mother, Charlotte Haze, “with her blatant bourgeois Bohemianism, her cigarettes, her Mexican doodads, her touchingly clumsy sexuality, her utterly savage and believable war with her daughter.” Embedded in a much longer sentence, this encapsulation is thrillingly exact. Not only did Updike come up with “bourgeois Bohemianism” he also had sense enough not to stretch a clever bit of wordplay into a sociological tome.