Women who travel for sex: Sun, sea and gigolos

The men are young, gorgeous and up for it. No wonder Western women see a Third World holiday as the gateway to casual sex - sometimes in exchange for cash. But as a new film highlights female sex tourism, Liz Hoggard asks who really pays the price

An attractive woman sips a cocktail under a bamboo shade. The sand is dazzlingly white, the sea aquamarine. A handsome young man approaches her and showers her with compliments: she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen, he says. For the first time in years, she truly believes she is desirable.

But this holiday romance is not all it seems. The woman is white, in her late 50s; the man, black, 18 - and paid for his attentions. The scene - from the controversial new French film, Heading South, which opened this weekend, starring Charlotte Rampling, makes us confront uncomfortable truths about sexuality in a globalised world, and the legacy of colonialism.

In the film, an intelligent, provocative take on sex tourism in the late-1970s, Rampling plays Ellen, an American professor, who spends every summer at a private resort in Haiti, where beautiful, muscled black boys are available to the female clientele, mostly affluent single women in their forties, who despair of finding mates through more conventional means. "More than sex, they are seeking a tenderness that the world is refusing them," the film's director, Laurence Cantet, explains.

Fast-forward 30 years, and the reality of sex tourism is anything but tender. Today beach resorts in developing countries such as Kuta in Bali, Negril in Jamaica and Boca Chica and Sosua in the Dominican Republic have become Third World pick-up spots for women tourists. Tour companies even market package deals as sex holidays for single and unaccompanied women. Forget Shirley Valentine, these women - who range from grandmothers to teens - don't want a long-term relationship. And there's plenty of live flesh on sale.

Take Jamaica, where 17 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. Hustling on the beach is the only way that some young men can feed themselves and their families. No wonder they choose older women who pay better than younger ones. InNegril, the men can earn $100 (£60) for sex with a female tourist, £90 for oral sex, which Jamaican men usually regard as taboo. Many others are hired as a guide to the island and throw in sexual services, often just for as meal or a place to sleep.

The definition of a sex tourist is an adult who travels in order to have legal consensual sexual relations with another adult, often for the exchange of money or presents. We still assume that a sex tourist will be male - indeed many regard the relationship between beach boy and female tourist as harmless fun. The woman gets guilt-free sex while keeping a firm hold on the purse strings. Where's the harm?

Jane, 67, a divorcee, has spent the past 10 years holidaying in West Africa. She loves the climate and the people - and she especially loves the men. "They are so wonderfully flattering. They make you feel like a real women. I don't mind paying for their drinks and meals if they stay the night." Divorced, with two grown-up sons, she explains, "White men my own age are so set in their ways; they just want another wife."

For others, this is exploitation pure and simple. Even where no money is exchanged, this sort of behaviour destabilises local communities and families. Ignorance and lack of concern about the abject poverty and lack of choice that characterises the men's lives leads the women to romanticise their actions. It is true that women sex tourists are still outnumbered by the legions of men who travel to Thailand and the Philippines for sex with prostitutes. Charities such as Amnesty and Unicef have no official policy on female sex tourism, preferring to focus on protecting trafficked women and children. Chris Beddoe, director of Ecpat UK, the children's rights organisation that campaigns against child sex tourism, believes: "If both adult partners are open and honest about what they're getting out of it, that's one thing. But it's another thing to continue the fantasy when there's a denial of the power that money brings to that relationship that creates a culture of dependency and exploitation.'

Nirpal Dhaliwal, author of the recent novel, Tourism (which satirises older white women turned on by young brown flesh), takes a tougher view. "Women enjoy casual sex and prostitution, too, but with far more hypocrisy. They help themselves to men in the developing world, kidding themselves that it's a 'holiday romance' that has nothing to do with the money they spend. Go to any Jamaican beach and you'll find handsome 'rent-a-dreads', who get by servicing Western women - lots from Britain. I've seen similar things in Goa."

Next month a new play, Sugar Mummies, about the pleasures and perils of sex tourism opens at London's Royal Court Theatre. Set in the Jamaican beach resort of Negril, it centres on a group of British and American women, seeking sun sea, sand ... and uninhibited sex with a handsome stranger. Sexually frank and often very funny, the play doesn't pull its punches. The playwright, Tanika Gupta, travelled to Jamaica to research the subject first-hand, and says she was shocked to find how female tourists objectify the black male body. "A lot of women talk about how 'big' black men are and how they can go all night. It becomes such a myth that even the men now use it. There is this terrible mutual delusion going on. And you do find yourself thinking, 'We're not a million miles from slavery.'" The older female tourists even confided to Gupta that although Jamaica was lovely and laid-back, the Dominican Republic and Cuba were "dirt cheap". "You can go as young as you want in Cuba," one woman boasted.

For all the talk of romance, the language of sex tourism is pretty basic. In Jamaica the men are called "beach boys" or "Rastatutes". The women are called milk bottles by the men - partly because of their ultra-white skin, partly because they are seen as vessels waiting to be filled.

Another myth the play explodes is that sex tourism is only perpetrated by white women. In Jamaica, Gupta met many black American women hiring beach boys. "They might be going back to their roots, or feeling more powerful because they had money, but they were still buying the same services."

In Bali, South-east Asia, Beddoes encountered wealthy Japanese women paying local boys for sex. The boys themselves claimed they found it less degrading because they saw the Japanese women as smaller and more childlike.

Gupta was inspired to write Sugar Mummies after reading the research by UK sociologists, Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor and Julia O'Connell into female sex tourism in the Caribbean. They decided to carry out their own research when they found that the usual analysis of sex tourism does not consider women as buyers of sexual services, because prostitute-users is seen as, by definition, male.

They interviewed 240 women holidaying in Negril, and two similar resorts in the Dominican Republic. Almost a third said they had engaged in sexual relationships with local men. Though 60 per cent admitted to certain "economic elements" to their liaisons, they did not perceive their sexual encounters as a prostitute-client transaction. Instead they insisted they were helping the men, and the local economy, by giving them money and gifts. When asked to describe "boyfriends", most emphasised how for them black Jamaican men possessed bodies of great sexual value. One 42 year-old English woman who travelled at least three times a year to Boca Chica in the Dominican Republic said: "I'm not naïve. I've been around the block. I come for sex - of course the sun, but mostly the sex. I'm not coming to live and set up house with a guy. I just want some fun and good sex."

"Female sex tourism is much more informal," says Sanchez Taylor, a lecturer in sociology at Leeds University. "It takes place in bars. There's no way for women to go into a brothel and say, 'I want a blow job.'

"Women who feel rejected by men in the West for being fatter and older -you know, 35, but they look 40 - find that in Jamaica all this is reversed," says Sanchez Taylor.

"There's a poetic lyricism to the gigolo's chat-up lines," agrees Gupta. "You very quickly understand why the women are buying this. On the first day, this baby aged 18 came to chat me up. At first I thought, this will be good for my play. But then he got a bit fast, so I suggested he move on to some younger women, And he said, 'Me no want the kitten, me want the cat.'"

The problem comes, she says, when the women start believing the men they have hooked up with are in love with them. "They confuse what is actually a financial transaction with real love. If you have low self-esteem, if you've not had much luck, if you're older ... you are likely to be more susceptible," says Gupta.

Some women even marry their boyfriends and take them home to the UK, although few relationships survive the cultural difference. Jamica's most famous holiday romance has recently come crashing down. Female tourism boomed after Terry McMillan's hit novel, How Stella Got Her Groove Back was made into a Hollywood film. The novel, in which Stella, a divorced black woman in her forties, takes a holiday to Jamaica, where she meets and falls in love with Winston, a local man half her age - was a fictionalised account of McMillan's own marriage to Jeremy Plummer, 23 years her junior. This year, McMillan, 53, filed for divorce, claiming that the marriage was based on a "fraud'' because Plummer lied about his sexual orientation and married her only to gain US citizenship. He denies it.

It is a nasty twist that the countries where this sort of tourism is most rife are ex-slave colonies. Many are still dealing with the fallout of colonialism. All the hotels, restaurants, cars and glass-bottomed boats in Negril are owned by Americans. The urban economy doesn't even belong to the local people.

Yet the women who sleep with the beach boys insist they are helping race relations. They flatter themselves they have gone native. "In my play there's a scene where a white woman is taking about how she loves R&B and reggae and what she calls hip and hop," says Gupta.

It is the female tourist who books the flights and determines the length of time she will spend with their boyfriend, as well as making day-to-day decisions when they are together, such as when and where they eat. One 21-year-old migrant from Haiti who had been working in Sosua, told Sanchez Taylor that he even had to "snog" his tourist client despite a bad toothache and a swollen face. If he did not, he would not be able to afford the antibiotics to cure it.

In Sugar Mummies, Gupta deliberately allows herself one relationship that might just work. "I'm not saying anything about mixed race relationships, I'm talking about these specific kinds of sex-tourist relationships where women go out there specifically to have sex. It will probably backfire and a whole load more women will go off to Jamaica."

'Sugar Mummies' opens at the Royal Court, London SW1 on 5 August (020-7565 5000)

No strings: 'I wanted to do sex like a man'

Lucy, a 23-year-old events organiser from London, visited St Lucia this year with a friend

The words "sex tourism" make me think of City boys who go to Thailand with their mates for seedy conquests to boast about. It's different for women. When they go abroad for sex, it's about wanting to feel special and escaping the boundaries at home.

My friend and I decided to treat ourselves to a stay in a luxury hotel in St Lucia for 10 days of pure pampering - and ideally a sexual encounter. This was the first time I'd gone on holiday explicitly with this intention. I was keen to find a St Lucian man as I'd heard they were very well endowed. I had my eye on Sandi from my first day. He was a local working in the cocktail bar, in his early thirties, and was very handsome, muscular and toned with the perfect six-pack. We spent several evenings drinking, chatting and flirting in the bar.

There are very strict rules at the hotel about staff and guests so I knew I had to make the first move. I told him I was going for a walk on the beach - and we spent our first night together. It was very romantic.

This was totally different from how I'd behave at home. In London, taking a man home with you, there's always the fear that friends might see you, not to mention potential dangers or the hassle of waking up in your flat with a stranger. But on holiday the boundaries shift and you can behave totally differently. You have a tan, you feel gorgeous, you're treated like royalty - and everything is available and easy.

Sandi and I had a great time. On his day off, he took us to a local street party. I paid for taxis, drinks and food. We needed his protection because St Lucian men had certain misconceptions about white women - although I probably wasn't helping.

When it came to leaving, I surprised myself by feeling quite gutted. I'd wanted to do sex without feelings, just like the men, but there was a definite trembling of the lips - for both of us. But as we flew home, my friend and I were very pleased with everything that had happened. I'm in a relationship at the moment but if I was single again I'd definitely go on that kind of holiday. Why not?

Around one in five British holidaymakers under the age of 25 is failing to practise safe sex while abroad, according to a study published this month by Trojan Condoms

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