The Colonial Sex Trade

Apparently middle-aged and older white women are traveling to Kenya in order to have sex with young local men.

“This is what is sold to tourists by tourism companies — a kind of return to a colonial past, where white women are served, serviced, and pampered by black minions,” said Nottinghan University’s Davidson.

And where black men are accessories for consumption, kind of like the beaded African necklaces the women take back home.

At one club, a group of about 25 dancing men — most of them Joseph look-alikes — edge closer and closer to a crowd of more than a dozen white women, all in their autumn years.

“It’s not love, obviously. I didn’t come here looking for a husband,” Bethan said over a pounding beat from the speakers.

“It’s a social arrangement. I buy him a nice shirt and we go out for dinner. For as long as he stays with me he doesn’t pay for anything, and I get what I want — a good time. How is that different from a man buying a young girl dinner?”

I’m not going to even touch that first paragraph, I just wanted to point it out and ask: Did he really say what I think he said?

As for the rest of it, does anyone really doubt that it’s an exploitative relationship when an older man in a position of extreme social power, by virtue of his wealth and his race, purchases sexual favors from a young girl who is relatively powerless? I certainly can’t fault the young women and men who accept the offers of food, money and a good time in exchange for sex; I’m certain that there are a number of them who make that choice consensually and uncoercedly.* But this just seems a little too much like a white person’s exotic jungle fantasy for me to shrug it off as acceptable, just so long as everyone consents.

When men pay women for sex, it violates our notions of female sexual propriety and a whole lot of people fly off the handle — not at the men, of course, because they’re men and they’re expected to want sex all the time, but at the wicked, tempting whores who enable and encourage them. When women pay for sex, it’s cute — even when they’re buying it in a context fraught with imbalanced power dynamics and an ugly racist history (not to mention an ugly racist present). It’s cute partly because it’s apparently only “old” women who pay for sex, and they’re paying dark-skinned men from far-away lands; in other words, it’s not particularly threatening to the dominant power structures.

People are not souvenir beads; they are not exotic pets to experiment with on vacation. I’m not against sex work, and I’m not suggesting that the men discussed in this article have no agency. But I am suggesting that it’s impossible to divorce this scenario from a history of racism, colonialism, and the use of black bodies for the pleasure and service of white people.

And then there’s this context:

These same beaches have long been notorious for attracting another type of sex tourists — those who abuse children.

As many as 15,000 girls in four coastal districts — about a third of all 12-18 year-olds girls there — are involved in casual sex for cash, a joint study by Kenya’s government and U.N. children’s charity UNICEF reported late last year.

Up to 3,000 more girls and boys are in full-time sex work, it said, some paid for the “most horrific and abnormal acts”.

Thanks to MissSarajevo for the link.

*I don’t think that’s a word, but I think it should be, so I’m using it.


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About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
This entry was posted in Crime, Gender, Race & Ethnicity, Racism, Sex, Work and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to The Colonial Sex Trade

  1. kate says:

    Women who have greater economic power are working within the only system they know; aping the actions of others who have parted the path long before them.

    I still find male pedophilia far more troubling with a far greater power imbalance and history of oppression than this.

    Even so, both ends of the spectrum reflect the extent of damage that worship of power and dominance causes; people willing to spend thousands to play out this construct to meet their most basic needs of human social bonding in the most fleeting, artificial and ultimately inhumane way possible. Pathetic really.

  2. Jill says:

    I still find male pedophilia far more troubling with a far greater power imbalance and history of oppression than this.

    Agreed, certainly. But I still find this extremely troubling, for some of the reasons you said.

  3. Lloyd Webber says:

    This isn’t really new. This kind of sexual tourism was pretty common when I lived in Ghana and Nigeria, not so much in my native country of Sierra Leone. What gets lost in the shuffle is the havoc it creates in the relationships between native people in the community.

  4. PhysioProf says:

    “Joseph look-alikes”

    Who’s Joseph?

  5. StevenAttewell says:

    Good book on similar practices in the Caribbean is “Sexing the Caribbean,” which looks at the sex tourism industry in the Caribbean in the case of both male and female sex workers.

  6. Bitter Scribe says:

    I sure hope these women make the guys use condoms.

  7. Cola Johnson says:

    “Joseph look-alikes”

    Who’s Joseph?

    My question exactly.

    I certainly find it less offensive than the more egregiously imbalanced relationships mentioned, but when I saw “young” I assumed 15-25 year old boys. In the photo, the man seemed much older than that. I guess he’s just tall, because I think they said he’s 23, but still, they all seem upwards of twenty. It’s not Baron Harkonnen bad.

    Of course, I question the character of anyone who would go out of their way to act out these kinds of sexual fantasies, for the reasons already mentioned.

  8. alsojill says:

    “Joseph look-alikes”

    Who’s Joseph?

    What she said.

    I don’t get it.

  9. Yuri K. says:

    Although condom use can only be guessed at, Julia Davidson, an academic at Nottingham University who writes on sex tourism, said that in the course of her research she had met women who shunned condoms — finding them too “businesslike” for their exotic fantasies.

    No idea what to make at that. Do they assume they’re invincible just because they’re white?

    As many as 15,000 girls in four coastal districts — about a third of all 12-18 year-olds girls there — are involved in casual sex for cash

    Um, are they really just lumping casual sex in with prostitution? Isn’t casual sort of the opposite of “in exchange for money or any otherpossible strings.

  10. Linnaeus says:

    “Joseph look-alikes”

    Who’s Joseph?

    Joseph is one of the Kenyan men involved in the sex trade. It’s in the article Jill linked to just prior to the second quote she used:

    Many of the visitors are on the lookout for men like Joseph.

    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.”

  11. RKMK says:

    I’ve always thought that a willingness to participate in any kind of sex trade is a big flashing neon sign that you’re at least mildly sociopathic, if not psychopathic. This colonial/racial element adds another level to that theory.

    Sometimes, I just get really, really ashamed of being a white person; we can be so fucking disgusting.

  12. evil fizz says:

    “Joseph look-alikes”

    Who’s Joseph?

    He’s a guy described in the article. Many of the visitors are on the lookout for men like Joseph. 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.

  13. kate says:

    What gets lost in the shuffle is the havoc it creates in the relationships between native people in the community.

    Very good point Lloyd and unfortunately something that I imagine hasn’t gotten much attention. Interesting, this reflects again the power imbalance even in that the research on the topic is limited to viewing the victims/service providers in a very one dimensional, paradigm constructed through white eyes.

    I guess I’m going to have look this up, afterall, who needs to do book keeping tonight anyway?

  14. evil fizz says:

    I think that there’s a gap in the language we use to talk about prostitution and relationships that are deeply premised on goods for sex. For most of us, I suspect that prostitution implies the exchange of a specific dollar amount for a specific sexual favor. The kinds of relationships these women seem to me to be very transactional, but they don’t fit that kind of prostitution rubric.

    There’s a whole class of behaviors related to transactional sex that seem to get labled as dodgy or unethical but don’t get labeled as prostitution and I find that curious. (It’s late and my thoughts on the subject aren’t well formed, but I’ll come back to it.)

  15. exholt says:

    What gets lost in the shuffle is the havoc it creates in the relationships between native people in the community.

    Agreed. One can observe this dynamic in play with how young Japanese and Korean women working as prostitutes near post-war American military bases were disdained and ostracized to the fringes by their respective societies not only for being involved in prostitution, but also for serving American soldiers and thus, being stuck with the “colonialist collaborator” tag.

    Chungmoo Choi makes some references to the dynamics involved in the contradictory reactions to unequal colonial/power relationships when she writes in “Nationalism and Construction of Gender in Korea”:

    “….This ambivalence may be attributed to a postcolonial denial of the status of the materially deprived recipient.

    The chocolate candy bar that the American soldier handed out to the Koreans was of course not ambrosia but a sensuous signifier of colonialism.” Can we imagine a Korean’s refusal to take that signifier as an act to avoid the historical contagion, and the danger of swallowing and embodying the history of conquest that would have a contagious effect on layers of colonialism on Korean bodies?” (Choi 11).

    By accepting material benefits of “collaboration”, one may incur high social costs such as social censure and/or possible ostracism from fellow compatriots who may not look to kindly upon it.

    Chung-moo Choi, “Nationalism and the Construction of Gender in Korea.” Elaine Kim & Chung-moo Choi eds. Dangerous Women: Gender and Korean Nationalism. (Routledge, 1998)

  16. zuzu says:

    You did a post last year about that movie with Charlotte Rampling that dealt with the same kind of themes, the name of which escapes me.

  17. foxfire says:

    Are you thinking the movie the Night Porter, zuzu? I vaguely remember a post like that somewhere. The movie is so harrowing but I think it is a really worthwhile and provactive film.

  18. Mandolin says:

    It is disturbing, but the power doesn’t flow unidirectionally… I’ve read anthropological analyses of the phenomenon.

  19. janie says:

    I think the Charlotte Rampling movie is called Heading South. It was just on TV last month I think. It takes place in Haiti and does deal with the same issues. It goes into the effect of the sexual tourism to an extent. The main guy and his girlfriend (i think it was his girlfriend but i missed the beginning) are both involved with people sexually for monetary/material benefits but i think she’s involved with a government official…

  20. Tony says:

    I was wondering how soon this story was going to pop up on this site. Pretty quick catch.

  21. egypt4 says:

    This is also pretty common in Upper Egypt, in Luxor, apparently. Common enough that it’s mentioned in guidebooks. Apparently many European women travel to southern Egypt over winter holidays to meet up with an Egyptian “boyfriend,” though I’ve also heard some women are surprised at the end of it all to find out that they have been involved in prostitution. Some genuinely seemed to think these young men liked them, not (just) their money.

    I’m not suggesting that’s the case in Kenya, though.

    I’m also not convinced this is about race, but more about poverty.

    Middle aged and older rich white men don’t need to travel abroad to have casual sex, but maybe middle aged and rich white women do?

  22. Holly says:

    Is it just me or does the “all Joseph look-alikes” sound pretty much exactly like someone saying “I don’t know, all these Africans look alike to me?”

    I mean, I’m positive they were not all look-alikes, as in you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart in a lineup. Maybe the reporter meant to say they were all around the same age, good-looking and dressed similarly and from a similar economic background. But eww, the way it comes off.

  23. harlemjd says:

    Egypt14 – no, some of the women who go to Kenya are wilfully blind too. I remember when I worked there reading articles about women who had come for vacation and gotten involved with a local man, then gone home and packed up their lives to return and be with their “love.” They arrive to find themselves laughingstocks for thinking he was interested in anything but their money, or they get back together until her savings runs out.

  24. Chrissy says:

    I’m sure it is also a way for the young men to access regular health screening, if not actual health care.

  25. Crawford says:

    Joseph seems pretty pleased with himself, and seems to be having a good time.

    I doubt he has bothered to familiarize himself in any great detail with the colonial history of Africa, nor does it seem likely that he views that history as having any implications on or connection to his lifestyle.

    It’s the women who are playing Russian roullete with the African AIDS epidemic.

    Anyway, sexual desirability is a form of power. Joseph probably views himself as being very potent for his ability to seduce these white tourists, and it is likely that he would be more offended by any patronizing worries over his powerlessness in these relationships than by any suggestions of neocolonialism.

  26. Charlotte says:

    Middle aged and older rich white men don’t need to travel abroad to have casual sex, but maybe middle aged and rich white women do?

    Very cogent question, which raises a number of questions for me: Does ethnicity intersected with economic power and ageism cancel out western patriarchal power chasms? Or does it shift the power chasms from gender to economics and age? Do (assumedly) post-menopausal white women buy casual sex in the U.S., at all? Or is “the black continent” the only place where they can be visible, propelled by economic superiority?

  27. napthia9 says:

    Joseph seems pretty pleased with himself, and seems to be having a good time.

    I doubt he has bothered to familiarize himself in any great detail with the colonial history of Africa, nor does it seem likely that he views that history as having any implications on or connection to his lifestyle.

    It’s the women who are playing Russian roullete with the African AIDS epidemic.

    Anyway, sexual desirability is a form of power. Joseph probably views himself as being very potent for his ability to seduce these white tourists, and it is likely that he would be more offended by any patronizing worries over his powerlessness in these relationships than by any suggestions of neocolonialism.

    I don’t understand. Does this mean that the exploitative behavior of these sex tourists isn’t problematic? Because the way it’s been phrased here, it sounds as if the women are being exploited by men with AIDS, and I really don’t think that’s what you meant to say.
    I don’t really understand where the insight into Joseph’s mind comes from, as he didn’t actually say much during the course of the article, but I think that the existence of people who engage in sex for material benefit with full agency doesn’t change the fact that, on the whole, the practice of wealthy men and women exchanging material goods for sexual favors from less well-off people is objectionable. It’s unfortunate that these women find it difficult to express their sexuality outside of this context and that some are engaging in risky sexual behavior, but that doesn’t justify their actions.

  28. Micky says:

    The men aren’t complaining, the women aren’t complaining. They are both adults as well. So why are some sex starved academics getting their panties in a notch over it? Or maybe we are all puritans at heart?

  29. Falyne says:

    Finding things problematic != puritanical.

    Without going into too much detail, if you knew all the things I did this past weekend, “puritan” would be the last descriptor you’d think of.

    And yet, I still find sexual relations based on power imbalance and the vestiges of colonialism to be, to turn a phrase, sketchy as all fuck.

  30. EG says:

    “sex-starved academics”?

    Tell me, the academics you know, they don’t get any? Because the academics I know don’t really have that problem.

  31. mythago says:

    Sometimes, I just get really, really ashamed of being a white person; we can be so fucking disgusting.

    Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the sex trade is all driven by Whitey. Until recently, it was pretty openly considered a job benefit for Japanese corporate guys.

    Shorter Micky: Man, I wish it was me going overseas and getting some! How dare you criticize those living out my fantasy!

  32. Micky says:

    Havig trouble with other people finding joy on their own terms = puritanical. While you may not be sex starved, I think its mildly pathological when people can’t leave others in their bedrooms alone.

  33. durga_is_my_homey says:

    Havig trouble with other people finding joy on their own terms = puritanical.

    You can reframe the issue and create strawman arguments all you want. You can also pretend it doesn’t exist in a context and backdrop and fail to address those points. That doesn’t change the fact that this has nothing to do with people “finding joy on their own terms” but rather that’s your being disengenuous or not wanting to look at the situation for what it is.

    While you may not be sex starved, I think its mildly pathological when people can’t leave others in their bedrooms alone.

    Do you see the hypocrasy in this statement and the one you made previously?

    At any rate, pointing out classism and colonialism – not to mention direct or indirect racism – in priviledged white women flying to poor countries for sexual encounters in exchange for money isn’t about the issue of *sex*, its about the power imbalace and history of political/racial/class subjecation and you know it. Afterall if these elements didn’t exist then this wouldn’t be happening, as Joseph makes quite clear. Yet there would still be sex in the world.

  34. Micky says:

    I am pointing out that both the people involved in the encounter seem to be happy. I am trying to see why leaving the old white women sexually frustrated, and the poor black man poor and also, possibly frustrated, is considered an improvement in this world. In one stroke, two people are getting their jollies off, there is wealth transfer from rich to poor, making the world more egalitarian, and everybody is going nyah, nyah. Would you actually prefer a world in which people only interact with other approved people and races for proper socially approved reasons? Its been over 2 generations since colonialism was defeated, both the participants were likely born after the Britishers left the place, so I don’t see much out of that. Being Indian, if I ever date someone British, and someone tries to find colonial overtones into it, I’d likely tell them to rightly fuck off.

  35. kate says:

    Do (assumedly) post-menopausal white women buy casual sex in the U.S., at all? Or is “the black continent” the only place where they can be visible, propelled by economic superiority?

    Of course wealthy women buy sex in this country! Ever heard the term ‘boy-toy’? Are there many or is the image of older women having sex at all in western society welcome enough for older women or even more, their younger counterparts to be able to score points for public exposure? No, I don’t think so. So we’ll probably never know how many men portend affection or exchange their virility to entertain for favors or direct payments from older, wealthy women.

    Also, as someone who’s lived most of my adult life extremely poor, I’d make the guess that economics plays the larger part in the choices that indigenous men make when choosing to cavort with older white western female tourists.

    Of course a power imbalance exists, but I’m sure that those men or women who are able to secure someone who is relatively harmless to them and easily controlled/manipulated in exchange for an easy flow of cash, feel that they in fact, hold more power than working in a factory or as a servant/waiter/porter or whatever low level, low paying position is open to them.

    The real story is that like so much of the western intrusions into other social systems, cash rules over all and subsequently, like a slow dry rot under the shingles, eats away unseen at the social fabric of the local people leaving a gaping hole of ruin to the most important relationships; that of the family unit.

  36. exholt says:

    Its been over 2 generations since colonialism was defeated,

    Funny you say that as several Indian classmates and a cousin of mine who worked for years in management organizational consulting with multinational corporations in India have noticed and told me about the neo-colonial dynamics whenever the multinationals held business functions or parties. Several of them have noted it was as if they were living the life of elite British colonials during the British Raj…complete with waiters costumed in period servant costumes…and walls to keep out the rest of the local population.

  37. mythago says:

    Micky, honest: it’s not all about you.

  38. Orville says:

    A lot of racist hypocrites here. So because the African men are black, male, and poor, they are not being exploited? Give me a break! So why the need for the white women to travel thousands of miles to Africa? Couldn’t they have acquired sex with young white males in Europe?

    No the reason the white women travel to Africa is because in Africa whiteness is viewed as a social currency of social, economic, and political power. The white women want to feel sexy and in control. I cannot believe people are defending the racism of the European women here? So what if the African men aren’t complaining they are poor, they are the ones with less options.

    I am surprised nobody pointed out the “other” reason the rich white women are travelling to Africa for sex. There are racist stereotypes about black male sexuality we all know about. Some white European women are in search for the big black penis. Let’s just be real and honest here. Society has a love/hate relationship with black men. Meanwhile I bet some of these rich white Western women some of them probably think this is female empowerment and feminism. I see it as misandrist, racist, and sexist as well. Why is the sexism and racism of white women socially acceptable? Just because the young African men are male does not mean they are not being exploited. I also take offense to the racist assumption of the article that “only” the black men could have sexually transmitted diseases. The European women are not victims here and they are not wallflowers. The European women can also have sexually transmitted diseases and they could be INFECTING the African men. Yet the Reuters article never “framed” it that way. Once again, the white female victim stereotype exist. No the white women here may be old but they are no victims they are simply taking advantage of young black men and exploiting them because they are poor.

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