Child Sex Tourism: "Us" and "Them" in a Globalized World

By Arielle K. Eirienne
2009, Vol. 1 No. 11 | pg. 1/1

“In London, Hamburg or San Francisco … we rarely see ordinary, middle-aged men and women flirting with homeless teenagers who sit on the pavements begging for spare change, or inviting them out to dinner and then back home to bed.” (O’Connell Davidson, 2004:40)

Globalization has undoubtedly spurred the development of the child sex tourism industry. International travel has become so affordable that even the North’s working classes are able to travel abroad (Seabrook, 2000:104), and this mobility has allowed individuals from the global North – mainly men – to fly to developing countries where youth desperate for survival have resorted to selling sex (Seabrook, 2000:xi). 

Another factor in explaining the flourishing of the industry, however, is what globalization has not brought, for despite having allowed people from distant locales to communicate and trade, globalization has not necessarily fostered greater understanding among diverse peoples.  As such, many Northern sex tourists have attempted to justify their exploitation of foreign children with assertions that these children are fundamentally ‘different,’ irrevocably ‘other,’ and thus not subject to the moral schemas of the tourists’ home societies (e.g., O’Connell Davidson, 2004).1  Though by no means the sole determinant, this ‘otherization’ of children in developing countries remains a key variable driving Northern tourists’ demand for their sex.

Drawing on the works of Pred (1997), Pettman (1996), Razack (1998), and Bauman (Franklin, 2003), this paper begins with an examination of ‘otherness.’  An introduction to the child sex tourism industry follows, with analysis of child sex tourism’s definitional parameters and a brief exploration of the factors compelling children to enter the trade, as well as the hazards child prostitutes confront. 

The core of the analysis is split into two sections, reflecting the dichotomy between ‘circumstantial’ and ‘preferential’ child sex tourists (Seabrook, 2000:x), so that the relationship between otherization and each group’s demand for Southern child sex may be explored.  Finally, because much of this examination’s significance lies in its policy implications, this paper concludes with a discussion thereof. 

The Concept of ‘Other’

Racism, among the most commonly analyzed forms of otherization, appears as the a priori debasement and/or vilification of the ‘other’ on the basis of group characteristics.  While these characteristics have often been geno- or phenotypical (e.g., ancestry, skin colour), Pred (1997:385) describes modern-day racism as exhibiting a strong cultural flavour.  To Pred, racism has reached beyond the notion that certain ‘others’ are biologically inferior to posit that these ‘others’ display “irreducible cultural differentness.”  Pettman (1996:46) adds that “difference is hierarchised,” i.e., that the ‘other’ remains not only distinct from but also lesser than those in the dominant group.  The dominant group’s universe of moral obligation excludes those in the out-group, such that in-group members can excuse any crimes against ‘others’ – or not even acknowledge violence against ‘others’ as abusive in the first place (Pettman, 1996:47). 

Razack (1998) contends that the notion of the reviled other is a crucial factor in a dominant group’s demand for paid sex.  Prostitution, in her words, is “as vital to white supremacy and capitalism [in terms of class stratification] as it is to patriarchy” (p. 339).  Of particular relevance are her arguments regarding prostitution as relates to racialized ‘space’; Razack contends that women in certain (poor) spaces are often assumed to be prostitutes, as are ‘racialized’ women in more affluent areas (p. 356).  The spaces in which prostitution flourishes become ‘anomalous zones,’ where visitors flout the norms and mores that bind them within their day-to-day lives.  In so doing, they construct the anomalous zones’ inhabitants (prostitutes) as permanently debased, while the customers, rooted in zones of “respectability,” remind themselves of their alleged superiority – in terms of gender, class, and race (p. 357). Furthermore, visitors feel little obligation to care about the well-being of the anomalous zones’ “degenerate” inhabitants: “There are simply designated bodies and spaces where so[-]called contractual violence can happen with impunity” (p. 358).  Particularly as relates to international sex tourism, the hiring of prostitutes constitutes a ‘sexual imperialism’ (p. 372, citing the Asian Women’s Association).

Thus, even in today’s interconnected world, foreign, especially Southern, spaces remain ‘anomalous zones.’  In racist frameworks, these foreign zones may appear home to the “inferior,” or the “dirty,” yet even when Northern tourists refrain from reviling their Southern hosts, the foreign may remain crystallized as ‘other’ within tourists’ minds.  Tourists may, as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has remarked, view foreign culture as a product, something to dabble with, to taste, but not to analyze, empathize with, or internalize:

Or you watch the natives as a spectacle – selling their ‘otherness’ to tourists, making their living by selling their culture as spectacle.  Hardly a ‘contact between civilizations’, let alone an exchange between cultures.  You may go hundreds of thousands of miles, in order to find yourself in cosily familiar surroundings [i.e., a Western hotel chain], comfortably secure because familiar, with a few ‘local touches’ sprinkled over it to justify the expenditure. (quoted in Franklin, 2003:213)

Abuse of the ‘other’ therefore occurs in two ways.  Tourists venturing to anomalous zones may conceptualize locals as unworthy and thus beyond their universes of moral obligation, eligible for exploitation, or they may accept locals as “interesting” and “exotic” but nonetheless view them as irreconcilably disjointed from their own cultural realms.  When locals appear extranormal, tourists may assume that their hosts do not fall under their home moral codes.

The Child Sex Tourism Industry

This otherization contributes to Northern tourists’ demand for Southern child sex, but before analysis of that demand itself, an examination of what the tourists are demanding is in order.  What is child sex tourism, and who are the children that sell sex?

‘Sex tourism,’ in O’Connell Davidson’s view (2004:32-33), is an ambiguous term, with some observers applying it strictly to “organised tour[s]” in which sex with prostitutes is the main attraction, while others extend the concept to those who travel for other reasons but hire prostitutes while away.  The United Nations specifies child sex tourism as “tourism organized with the primary purpose of facilitating the effecting of a commercial sexual relationship with a child” (1995), yet the words ‘child’ and ‘children’ likewise spark debate.  Under Article I of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, children include “every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier” (1989:1).  Indeed, some countries do allow youths to consent to sexual activity at earlier ages (Andrews, 2004:421; Rao, 1999:97), and eighteen may appear a somewhat arbitrary threshold, such that someone is considered more exploited a month before his/her eighteenth birthday than a month after. 

Because this paper examines various literature addressing the general topic of ‘child sex tourism,’ both definitions here remain broad.  ‘Sex tourism’ implies that travellers hire locals2 for sexual activities, though sex may not have been the “primary purpose” of their travels.  Much of the literature under review does not strictly limit a ‘child’s’ age, so ‘child’ will generally refer to those under eighteen, per the United Nations framework.

What, however, would compel a ‘child’ to enter prostitution?  Poverty is often a major factor (Giron, 2005; Roby, 2005:137-138; Andrews, 2004:421).  This economic devastation may be compounded by cultural expectations that daughters will “take significant responsibility for their [families’] economic wellbeing,” as Giron reports for Guatemala (p. 61), or that children must stoop to whatever means necessary to repay their parents for having conceived and raised them, as Bales finds in Thailand (2004:39).  Licit jobs may be unavailable.  Giron, for example, notes that as a result of international pressures, factories in Bangladesh at one point released their child labourers – many of whom, thereafter living “in the streets,” turned to prostitution (p. 63).  Alternatively, parents may sell their children for cash (Roby, 2005:138); Andrews claims that even one daughter’s profits from prostitution can allow a whole family, otherwise struggling, to survive (p. 421, citing Vickie F. Li).  Abuse at home is another factor (Roby, 2005:139; Andrews, 2004:421), for as Andrews notes, this abuse may push children to the streets, where prostitution becomes one of few viable means of procuring income. 

A caveat is in order, however.  Many youngsters do become prostitutes so that they or their families will be able to survive, yet prostitution sometimes emerges as a result of socially constructed, relative poverty.  Bales explains that modern luxuries (televisions, refrigerators, rice cookers, air conditioners, et cetera) have proven so alluring to the northern Thai that many believe their lives will prove unsatisfactory without these technological wonders.  Though statistics remain unclear, some families have sold their daughters simply to boost their purchasing power (2004:40). 

 Whatever the impetus, once children have become prostitutes, they may work “independently” (perhaps under their parents’ direction) or for brothels, hotels, and other venues that may staff adult prostitutes as well (O’Connell Davidson, 2004:37).  Abuse or enslavement may occur (Bales, 2004), and hazards can be severe.  Children, for example, are particularly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.  As a United Nations Special Rapporteur has noted, “children are physically weaker, less experienced and therefore less empowered to negotiate the terms of the abuse, such as an insistence on the use of a condom or refusal to be subjected to particularly violent and physically damaging sexual activity” (quoted in Giron, 2005:63).  Girls also are at greater risk because their vaginal mucous membranes may not be fully developed (Bales, 2004:60).  Flowers (2001:153) adds that pelvic inflammatory disease may emerge, and the Declaration and Agenda for Action of the World Congress against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children lists additional dangers: pregnancy, maternal mortality, other sexually transmitted diseases, et cetera (Roby, 2005:140). 

Perhaps more crippling, however, is the long-term psychological devastation that many child prostitutes confront.  The Declaration and Agenda for Action notes that these youths might experience low self-esteem – perhaps even “self-hate” (Roby, 2005:140), while Flowers speaks of suicide attempts (2001:153).  Yet naming these hazards scarcely does them justice; it fails to convey the depth of the trauma that prostituted children may undergo.  Bales attempts to rectify this situation by sharing the tale of ‘Siri,’ a fifteen-year-old girl held in debt bondage in a Thai brothel and often forced to have sex with fifteen or so men per night:3

Her first client hurt her and at the first opportunity she ran away.  On the street with no money she was quickly caught, dragged back, beaten, and raped.  That night she was forced to take on a chain of clients until the early morning. The beatings and the work continued night after night until her will was broken. Now she is sure that she is a bad person, very bad to have deserved what has happened to her.  When I commented on how pretty she looked in a photograph, how like a pop star, she replied, “I’m no star; I’m just a whore, that’s all.” (2004:36-37, emphasis added)

Jeffreys echoes Bales’s concerns when she speaks of prostitutes, even grown women not explicitly enslaved, who blame themselves for any “damage” their clients wreak upon them (1999:183, citing Evelina Giobbe).  She allows one woman in particular to unveil the inner turmoil ignited by repeated experiences with selling sex: “You’re a piece of shit, and you make yourself sick … I’ve thrown up during sex, just started throwing up without thinking that it’s been awful.  It’s just happened” (p. 184, quote originally found in Hoigard and Finstad).  For many, then, selling sex is not a dispassionate endeavour; trauma may cut deep, and because sense of self may be shattered, damage may prove long-term.

Sex Tourists

If the potential for harm is so grave, what blinds consumers to it?  Razack’s words deserve repetition: “There are simply designated bodies and spaces where so[-]called contractual violence can happen with impunity” (1998:358).  When Northern tourists venture into the ‘anomalous zones’ of the global South, they may excuse, even refuse to acknowledge, abuses against locals because a) they view locals, as ‘others,’ as worthless and subhuman or b) they conceptualize locals, though “interesting,” “exciting,” or “exotic,” as humans so different that even the most basic moral standards from home lose their relevance.

Seabrook (2000:x) distinguishes between ‘circumstantial’ and ‘preferential’ sex tourists.  The latter corresponds to paedophiles and hebephiles, those who prefer sex with minors and who are commonly assumed to constitute the bulk of child sex tourists (O’Connell Davidson, 2004:33; Giron, 2005:60; Andrews, 2004:422).   O’Connell Davidson, however, indicates that the former, those who would just as quickly have sex with adults as children (and who may, in fact, not recognize their partners as ‘children’), are actually more prevalent (2004:33-34, 42; see also Giron, 2005:60 and Andrews, 2004:422).  When attracted to particular prostitutes, these circumstantial sex tourists may not stop to consider whether or not the young-looking locals by their sides have yet crossed the age of majority (O’Connell Davidson, 2004:42), and if they do realize that their partners are children, they simply excuse the transgressions, for reasons laid out below.

Circumstantial Sex Tourists

The United States Department of Justice offers four such reasons for child sex tourism in general (Nair 2007):

  1. Tourists may believe that buying sex from poor children helps these children “escape economic hardship”;
  2. Travellers may indulge in the belief that in their destination countries, youngsters “are less ‘sexually inhibited’”;
  3.  Journeying away from home lends tourists a sense of “anonymity” and “freedom from the moral restraints” of their home cultures;
  4. Racist tourists construct Southern children as subhuman and their welfare as “unimportant.”

Most puzzling in its relationship to otherization, perhaps, is the first, tourists’ claim that their paying local children for sex is essential to the children’s survival (see also Andrews, 2004:423; Pettman, 1997:97).  The Department of Justice appears to dismiss this rationale as a mere excuse to “avoid guilt,” but it deserves deeper analysis.  On the surface, tourists paint themselves as actually caring about local children’s welfare, economic if not psychological.  Nevertheless, tourists would not be able to make this claim if they truly included Southern child prostitutes within their universes of moral obligation, for then they could provide the children with funds without insisting upon sex.  It is because these children remain ‘other’ that Northern tourists believe they can demand of them what they would never see as beneficial to Northern children.  O’Connell Davidson makes the point well: “In London, Hamburg or San Francisco … we rarely see ordinary, middle-aged men and women flirting with homeless teenagers who sit on the pavements begging for spare change, or inviting them out to dinner and then back home to bed” (2004:40). 

Interestingly, tourists may so convince themselves that they exert beneficial impact upon their local sex partners’ lives that they refuse to recognize that they have paid for sex.  When Kliebe and Wilke surveyed German men that had consorted with Thai females during their travels, merely 22 percent of the 661 men labelled themselves ‘sex tourists’ (O’Connell Davidson, 2004:40).  When Sánchez Taylor surveyed women travelling in the Caribbean, those who claimed to have had intercourse with local men and “helped” them with money or other goods likewise denied having ever hired male prostitutes (O’Connell Davidson, 2004:40).  In all fairness, such tourists have often had sex far away from brothels crammed with “visibly brutalised” women and children (O’Connell Davidson, 2004:42), yet they may still have offered compensation for sex.  That these tourists can claim not to have indulged in prostitution or sex tourism reflects their having entered the ‘anomalous zones’ of which Razack writes; codes of propriety differ. 

An important distinction, however, is that in Razack’s anomalous zones, clients want to stimulate behaviour they would consider improper elsewhere so that they can, by contrasting their day-to-day lives with those of the zones’ “degenerate” prostitutes, remind themselves of how allegedly civilized their ordinary worlds are (1998:357-358).  Sex tourists may have such motives, but they may also, once in ‘anomalous zones,’ simply adopt different definitional frameworks; they may implicitly assume that activity that would automatically trigger the label of ‘prostitution’ at home requires an entirely new meaning system (O’Connell Davidson, 2004:40) while away.4  Following such logic, O’Connell Davidson attributes some tourists’ denial in part to the belief, reflected in explanation (2) above, that locals constitute “the hypersexual Other” (p. 40).

Other scholars have also substantiated this second of the Department of Justice explanations.  Andrews asserts, for example, that tourists may believe that ‘other’ children are “more highly sexualized than those in the West” and thus that having sex with them is “natural” (2004:423).  O’Connell Davidson and Sánchez Taylor note that some visitors to Venezuela, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic have interpreted the apparent frequency of teenage pregnancies in their host countries as evidence “that childhood ends much earlier in these societies than it does in the west and that young girls are sexually experienced and so ‘fair game’” (1995:24).  Tourists may also believe that local prostitutes particularly “enjoy sex” or “go crazy for white men” (tourists quoted in O’Connell Davidson and Sánchez Taylor, 1995:24).  These last beliefs may convince tourists that locals, instead of struggling to scrape together any cash they can, truly like the tourists and want to sleep with them (O’Connell Davidson, 2004:40).  Bauman’s claim that tourists purchase “culture as spectacle” (quoted in Franklin, 2003:213) is also useful here, for tourists may merely consider themselves to be partaking of perceived local sex practices, throwing money at these experiences just as they splurge on luxury hotel rooms and gourmet meals (see also Rao, 1999:98).

O’Connell Davidson and Sánchez Taylor (1995:26) highlight another factor, closely linked to factor (2) above, that allows tourists to believe that sexually, their hosts countries are entirely ‘other’ worlds: if locals hire child prostitutes with impunity, as these authors documented in Venezuela, tourists see their host countries as “tolerating child sexual exploitation.”  O’Connell Davidson and Sánchez Taylor imply that this belief convinces foreigners that they can consort with local prostitutes unpunished, and lax law enforcement may indeed provide an incentive to exploit.  Nevertheless, foreigners might also find themselves persuaded that because their host societies fail to condemn locals’ prostitute use, prostitution is acceptable there – acceptable not only in a legal, what-can-I-get-away-with sense but also in a cultural, moral sense (Giron, 2005:61).  Some locals do consider the purchase of underage sex morally acceptable (hence their own indulgence), yet this cultural condoning does nothing to alleviate the pain child prostitutes may experience.  In fact, host societies may forgive men for hiring child prostitutes but condemn and stigmatize the prostitutes themselves, as evidenced by cultural expectations that proper young women will abstain from sex until marriage (Giron, 2005:61) and the numerous cases in which the prostitutes have been apprehended and punished (e.g., O’Connell Davidson and Sánchez Taylor, 1995; Bales, 2004).

Explanation (3) above (that journeying away from home lends tourists a sense of “anonymity” and “freedom from the moral restraints” of their home cultures) fits neatly into the framework of ‘anomalous zones’ that Razack lays out (1998).  O’Connell Davidson captures the phenomenon well with a Japanese saying: “shameless behaviour during a trip is to be scraped off one’s mind” (2004:42, citing Allison), when, as in Razack, tourists return to their home zones of “respectability.”

Explanation (4), that tourists construct Southern children as subhuman and their welfare as “unimportant,” is the most obvious manifestation of otherization, specifically of racism.  Some tourists do not seek out foreign youth because they believe them to be especially loving, erotic, or “magical”; instead, they crave objectified, “dirty” children – “paid ‘fucking machines’” (O’Connell Davidson, 2004:41).  Pettman’s assertions that the ‘other’ remains not only distinct from but also lesser than those in the dominant group, and that the dominant therefore deem violence against others to be not really violence, or at least not really wrong (1996:46-47), deserve repetition here.

These various forms of ideological otherization, particularly the last (racism) are compounded by the power differentials between citizens of the North and South (Truong, in Pettman, 1997:96).  Pettman (1997:97) recollects that historically, “part of the privilege of power” for colonizing or slaveholding men has been to have sex with their alleged inferiors, for feelings of superiority lend the dominant group license to exploit.  Today, the relatively immense freedom and funds of North-South tourists, wealthy enough to afford international airfare, grants them power over their hosts: “In the ‘Third World’, even the ‘third rate’ American/European tourist is king or queen …” (O’Connell Davidson, 2004:39; see also Andrews, 2004:419).  Objective financial and power differentials could easily contribute to the otherization of Southern locals, as well as reinforce tourists’ pre-conceived notions of fundamental distinctions. 

If tourists a priori believe that Southerners are “desperate beggars,” for example, witnessing Southern children on the streets, pleading for a few dollars’ or euros’ worth (perhaps in exchange for sex), may serve not to evoke empathy but rather to entrench the tourists’ previous stereotypes more firmly in their minds.  In this scenario, tourists abuse because they feel superior and more powerful, yet as in Razack’s framework (1998), the process may also operate in reverse; tourists may abuse in order to enhance their alleged superiority.  Key here is O’Connell Davidson’s mention of the ‘third rate’ Northern tourist.  Northerners in the minority at home, even those exploited at home, could conceivably scrape together enough funds to journey to Southern countries.  While there, as in Razack’s ‘anomalous zones,’ they may endeavour to smear their host societies as ugly, dirty, and immoral so that they can at least demonstrate that there exists some life allegedly “lower” than theirs (see Razack, 1998 and Rao, 1999:98).  This, in the words of the Asian Women’s Association (cited in Razack, 1998:372), is ‘sexual imperialism’ – subordinating others through sex.

Preferential Sex Tourists

In the case of paedophiles and hebephiles, the question is not what leads them to seek sex with minors but what prompts them to travel abroad and select children within the global South.  O’Connell Davidson notes that the factors affecting ‘circumstantial’ child sex tourists also influence ‘preferential’ ones (2004:41), and preferential offenders may also believe that arrest is less likely abroad (p. 34).  One variable is particularly significant, however.  Cossins explains that those who deliberately exploit children for sex, in general, crave power and hunt for children “more easily manipulated and over whom power is more easily established” (2000:200).  As above, Northern sex tourists appear especially powerful within developing countries because of the tourists’ relative wealth (e.g., Andrews, 2004:419; O’Connell Davidson, 2004).  The aforementioned beliefs that Southern children are either subhuman or particularly dependent upon outsiders for financial support also grant perpetrators greater power over their prey.

Policy Implications

To date, many efforts to curb child sex tourism have focused on legal frameworks that forbid the practice and on legal punishments for offenders.  The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child specifies that all signatory states must combat both the “inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity” and the “exploitative use of children in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices,” (p. 10) with ‘children’ being under eighteen – or younger, if “under the law applicable to the child, majority is attainted earlier” (p. 2).  Every country but Somalia and the United States has ratified (UNICEF, n.d.).  While providing a strong basis for international condemnation of child sex tourism, the Convention cannot in and of itself halt the practice, both because it allows for the loophole of an earlier ‘age of consent’ on a country-by-country basis5 and because the Convention is not enforceable.

What are enforceable, however, are the extraterritorial legislation policies that many Northern countries have enacted.  Under these laws, even if purchasing child sex is legal in tourists’ destination countries, tourists’ home countries may prosecute (Hughes, 2004:30).  The United States PROTECT Act, for example, which took effect in 2003, enhanced existing legislation banning sexual activity with minors overseas and allowed for a maximum thirty-year prison sentence for offenders; the act also specified penalties for organizing sex tours (Andrews, 2004; Hughes, 2004:30; Svensson, 2006:652).  Australia’s Crimes (Child Sex Tourism) Amendment Act of 1994 allows for the prosecution of Australian citizens and residents who, while abroad, participate in sexual activities with those under sixteen; those convicted must serve twelve to seventeen years in prison (Andrews, 2004:439; Svensson, 2006:652). 

In Japan, the 1999 Law for Punishing Acts Related to Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, and for Protecting Children, permits the imprisonment of Japanese nationals that hire child prostitutes overseas (Svensson, 2006:651).  Unfortunately, Northern countries have prosecuted proportionally few child sex tourists under these laws; they are enforceable but too rarely enforced (Andrews, 2004:438; see also Svensson, 2006:651).  This poor prosecution record has led many to call for increased attention to law enforcement, in both home and destination countries (e.g., Andrews, 2004:448; Svensson, 2006). 

Anti-child sex tourism advocates have also emphasized campaigns to inform travellers that child sex tourism is illegal.  As O’Connell Davidson and Sánchez Taylor write, at least in Venezuela’s case, demand would decrease if consumers knew that hiring child prostitutes would lead to arrest and prosecution (1995:27).  Thus, working with World Vision, the United States has established the Child Sex Tourism Prevention Project, with anti-child sex tourism announcements distributed on-line, at airports, through “in-flight videos,” in hotels, on billboards, et cetera, in both the United States and select destination countries (Hughes, 2004:47).  Posters warn: “Cost of child sex tourism: 30 years in prison”; “Abuse a child in this country, [sic] go to jail in yours”; and beneath a captivating photo of a youngster’s eyes, “I’m not a tourist attraction” (reprinted in Hughes, 2004:48).  Similarly, the Brazilian government provides tourists with brochures threatening punishment for those who purchase underage sex, and in 2004, Czech border guards began providing male visitors with fliers, warning of laws against adult-child sex (Hughes, 2004:48, 50).6

Enhanced law enforcement is an essential component of the fight against child sexual exploitation.  Tourists who recognize their prospective pursuits as acts of child sex tourism are unlikely to commit them if arrest and punishment are almost guaranteed, except for those tourists that love risk or are sadistic enough that the grim pleasure they derive from exploitation today outweighs the drudgery of punishment in the future.  Nevertheless, the struggle for strengthened law enforcement faces many challenges.  Law enforcement is currently lax in many destination countries, in some cases because brothel owners (or other sex traders) bribe police into ignoring the problem (Bales, 2004); home countries invoking extra-territorial legislation might struggle to procure evidence in the absence of destination-country support. 

Even if police capacity – and will to arrest – were to improve so greatly in a few destination countries that abusers there would almost certainly face punishment, other countries with weaker enforcement would still exist, and determined child sex tourists would flock to them (Andrews, 2004:448).  Moreover, as O’Connell Davidson has pointed out, tourists may not realize that teenage prostitutes, who seem to have aged more quickly in their ‘other’ cultures, are technically underage; though tourists may fear prosecution for sex with five- or six-year-olds, they might not hesitate to have intercourse with “older”-looking fourteen-year-olds (2004:42-43).

Furthermore, while the threat of punishment may serve as a deterrent to some would-be offenders, repeating that a practice is illegal will not necessarily convince the touring public that it is exploitative or harmful.  A United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography has remarked that the “behavior change of persons who actively or potentially engage in child sexual exploitation” requires “a transformative process involving not only the perpetrators but the whole of society with respect to the way women and men relate to each other” (quoted in Svensson, 2006:663, emphasis added).  In the long-term, fighting misogyny may indeed lessen men’s acceptance of abuse against foreign girls, but given the preceding discussion, there remains another cultural phenomenon to fight: otherization.7

Preventing child sex tourism may thus require broader initiatives, perhaps led by non-governmental agents, to increase understanding between the peoples of the global North and South.  In particular, such initiatives must stress the humanity of the children abroad, so often viewed as merely “animated object[s]” (Rao, 1999:96), either Bauman’s peddlers of “culture as spectacle” (quoted in Franklin, 2003:213) or Razack’s allegedly “degenerate” inhabitants of the scorned ‘anomalous zones’ (1998:357-358). 

What, however, can governments, inter-governmental organizations, and non-governmental actors actually do to effect these conceptual, relational changes?  Convincing diverse peoples to respect one another is scarcely easier than convincing governments to enforce protective laws consistently.  One option is to promote ‘political tourism,’ in which tourists learn about poverty, inequality, and other struggles that challenge the masses in the global South; tours both elicit empathy and engage travellers in aiding Southern communities (Estrada-Claudio, 1992:408).  The problem with this proposal, however, is that the Northerners likely to take advantage of it probably have greater respect for Southern peoples in the first place.  Another option would be for destination-country hotels to offer programs that provide travellers with genuine insight into their host societies, rather than complement largely Western-style overseas experiences with the “few ‘local touches’” of which Bauman warns (in Franklin, 2003:213).  Of course, carefree tourists might well opt not to partake of such learning opportunities.

Thus, conceptual, relational changes will likely require many years’ evolution.  Efforts to educate those in the North about the humanity of those in the South are crucial.  Schoolchildren must learn about their Southern counterparts from an early age, perhaps aided by educational visits from those that have migrated from the South to the North (see Estrada-Claudio, 1992:409 for discussion of the educational potential of South-North migrants).  The news media could also prove helpful if they were to portray Southern peoples not as helpless, victimized, and/or beholden to “barbaric” norms but rather as active, worthy human beings.8  As for Razack’s (1998) claim that sex tourists seek domination, aim to crush their Southern sex partners in their quests for superiority, Northern societies must cultivate the norm that those in the South are not fundamentally inferior – indeed, that the inferior ones are those who seek self-aggrandizement through exploitation.  In short, Northerners must come to view those in the South as spatially removed, yes, culturally distinct, perhaps, but still entitled to basic rights protections.


North-South tourists may have a variety of motives for seeking child sex overseas.  Paedophiles might seek poorly policed locales or merely decide to continue their frequent abuses of children while on vacation.  Misogyny may also play a role, particularly in male abuse of girls.  Nevertheless, otherization – the desire to debase foreigners or simply to consume what appears to be their ‘culture’ – remains a significant factor.

Combating child sex tourism undoubtedly requires better law enforcement.  Nonetheless, the possibility of punishment can only persuade potential perpetrators that if the likelihood of discovery is high, the costs of abuse outweigh the benefits; it will not convince them that hiring child prostitutes for sex constitutes harm.  Recognition of Southern children’s (and adults’) humanity is thus imperative, and educational efforts, both through formal schooling and informal discursive shifts and media programs, can help effect this recognition.  Results may be long-term, but in the fight against child sex tourism, attempts to overcome otherization are essential.


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1.) This paper focuses solely on North-South child sex tourism.  This is not to deny the existence of South-South or domestic child sex tourism, for as Giron (2005:60) and Andrews (2004:419) point out, a sizable proportion of buyers hail from the countries in which the tourism takes place.  Different variables, however, may drive domestic or South-South demand for child sex.

2.) For simplicity, the term “locals” implies natives of the global South that tourists meet in their destination countries.  These may in fact be native to the destination countries themselves, or, possibly victims of trafficking, they may hail from nearby Southern countries (Rao, 1999:96-97).

3.) Bales indicates that customers hiring ‘Siri,’ as well as other young women in the low-quality brothels that clearly enslave their prostitutes, tend to be low-income local men, rather than foreign sex tourists (2004:44).  Nonetheless, his words provide one of the most compelling descriptions of a child prostitute’s emotional trauma and thus serve as an example of what horrors a child prostitute may experience, albeit toward the worst-case-scenario end of the spectrum.

4.) See also Razack’s description of ‘anomalous zones’ in legal scholarship (p. 357).

5.) Rao notes that this age has reached as low as twelve years (1999:97).

6.) As of 2004, guards only provided these fliers on the Czech-German border and on Friday and Saturday nights (Hughes, 2004:50).

7.) O’Connell Davidson likewise calls for the deconstruction of “myths” about travel, culture, et cetera (2004:43-44).

8.) Literature on peace journalism might prove insightful here.

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