- Sexuality, Women, and Tourism: Cross-Border Desires through Contemporary Travel by Susan Frohlick
Since the advent of mass tourism in the 1960s, a number of niches have manifested as more and more people participate in travel, from historical tourism to cultural tourism, eco-tourism to adventure tourism, luxury tourism to “voluntourism.” Less often identified in the tourism market, but nonetheless present, is sex tourism, a form of travel that has as its objective (or, sometimes, unforeseen opportunity) the formation of intimate exchanges between tourist and local, for cash or other material or immaterial advantages. Most often, the sex tourists are men who are seeking local women for brief sexual encounters or longer “girlfriend experiences” during the course of their travel (Brennan 2004, Cabezas 2009, Gregory 2007, Babb 2011). Other times, gay male travelers seek local men with whom they initiate shorter or longer-term commitments (Padilla 2007, Allen 2011).
Less frequently do we read about the young to middle-age women travelers who seek the intimate company of local men, but this too is a growing phenomenon in various parts of the world—see articles on the so-called “rent-a-Rasta” and “beach boys” (Phillips 1999, Pruitt and LaFont 1995) and the well-known films (based on fiction) Heading South (Cantet 2007) and How Stella Got Her Groove Back (Sullivan 1998). All these works focus on the Caribbean, the quintessential destination for “sun, sand, and sex” tourism, though areas of Asia and Africa have also become well-known for attracting both male and female sex tourists.
In Susan Frohlick’s ground-breaking ethnography Sexuality, Women, and Tourism: Cross-Border Desires through Contemporary Travel, the term “sex tourism” is used to consider the mainly young adult women who find their way to Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast and the small seaside town [End Page 579] of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. These women, generally heterosexual and white, have often come to the Central American nation for a brief vacation or for a longer period of volunteer work or language study, and find that they are captivated by the town’s “vibe” and its abundant well-toned young men, many of whom are Afro-Costa Rican. The women may have imagined a holiday romance, but most are truly surprised by the sexual freedom and opportunity they discover in the town. Puerto Viejo has gradually garnered a reputation in the country for its lovely environment and welcoming local population, as well as its resident ex-pats from the North, who have opened alternative small businesses that offer yoga classes, massage therapy, and other products and services.
For a number of women, a brief sexual encounter after a night out at a reggae bar may lead to a temporary arrangement wherein the man stays with them for a few weeks, or they stay with the man’s family, and in some cases, longer-term relationships and children may follow. While this is not the sort of sexual commerce that we envision in most cases of sex tourism, and indeed Frohlick reports no instances of women providing cash in direct exchange for sex, there are nonetheless material benefits that accrue to the men in these relationships. It is understood that the women, regardless of their socioeconomic status back home, are in a better position to cover all expenses, and the gifts they offer to the men sometimes include financial support. After the initial sexual attraction and romance, differences over money, as well as infidelity, can often produce friction and the dissolution of relationships. But many of the women who are new to the town speak rapturously of the local men’s sexual passion and affection. Frohlick’s rich interview material and her innovative presentation of field notes in highlighted boxes convey the very different hopes and expectations that come together in these cross-border relationships.
For the most part, Frohlick focuses on the tourists’ perspectives, which she has greater access to as a consequence of her gender, her reliance on the use of English, and her nationality (she is Canadian and most tourists...