You never really visit the same place twice. The last time I travelled in Morocco was 20 years ago and much has changed. Returning there this week, I found the country as beautiful as ever and markedly more prosperous. The natural hospitality of Moroccans has gracefully embraced tourism and there is a new openness in guest-host relations.
Lovers stroll, as lovers will, on the wide windswept beaches, and it dawns only gradually that a significant proportion of the entwined couples are constituted of young Moroccan men and much older European women.
As a middle-aged woman it is impossible to be unaware of a new vibe when travelling in developing countries. I can just about remember what it feels like to be the object of uncomplicated male attention abroad – I remember, too, how easily chafed were my feminist sympathies at the time – but this is different; these days there is a speculative edge to some courtesies that cannot be counted as flattering.
The internal dynamics of every couple glimpsed on the promenade cannot be guessed at, and maybe it's not such a big deal if a woman with expendable income chooses to expend some of that income on the company of an obliging young man. It is certainly true that old men have, for generations, travelled in search of young, female flesh. Is the reverse trend merely redressing the balance of power/sex relations between men and women? I'm not convinced.
The difference between male sex tourism and female "romance travelling", as it is coyly termed, seems to me largely semantic. Both are big business in emergent economies; in the most popular package destinations for romance travelling – broadly speaking, anywhere with golden sands and high male unemployment – it is estimated that up to one in five female visitors will enter into a sexual arrangement with a local man during her stay. Negotiations are adapted to womanly sensibilities – whereas male sex tourists are not chary of slapping down their money in a brothel, the female of the species prefers to talk of "gifts" and "treats" for her companion. In terms of personal safety and social standing, such companions are arguably less compromised than traditional (ie female) prostitutes, but it is essentially the same old transaction.
What really puzzles me is the ferocious defence in some quarters – and there are acres of cyberspace devoted to the argument – that female sex tourism is in some way striking a blow for sexual equality. I'm willing to bet that the forty and fifty-something frontierswomen now pushing back the sexual boundaries on the beaches of Gambia and Jamaica have, at some stage in their feminist ideology, held strong views on everything from prostitution through traditional bride prices to conventional marriage as sexual exploitation, yet paying economically disadvantaged men for sex is represented as a fair exchange between consenting adults. Nor, I imagine – and this is where it gets really morally murky – would they be best pleased if their sons back home were to exercise their personal freedom by charging for sexual favours.
As is so often the case, the argument comes down to "female empowerment", the treacherous notion applied to everything from glamour models and porn stars ("see how we exploit the exploiters!") to teenage girls claiming the right to match the boys pint for pint. Female sex tourism is placed on a slippery continuum with the triumph of the "cougar" – the predatory older woman now celebrated in every magazine as the very model of modern feminism.
God knows I'm all for older women having their fun, though I think it may be a mistake to think that what works for Demi Moore, Joan Collins or any other expensively preserved millionairess will pave the way for the rest of us. It is gratifying to hear the charms of the more experienced woman celebrated in every magazine, but I'm conscious that for every Demi Moore there is an Iris Robinson (who, I hazard, will not be launching her own cosmetics range any time soon) and I can never quite shake off the chilling endorsement of Benjamin Franklin, whose treatise "In Praise of Older Women" lists the usual attributes of the mature mistress (intelligent/good listener/skilful lover) and ends with the clincher "They are so grateful!! [his italics]"
It's not fair, I agree, that "cougars" should be celebrated/slated while their male counterparts – let's call them "goats" – pass without notice. It's not right that men sexually and economically exploit women in foreign countries. But turning the tables is not in itself constructive. It would be cruelly cynical – as well as plain wrong – to suggest love cannot transcend your date of birth, or indeed the place of your birth. For the most part, however, it's neither romance nor "empowerment!" that bridges the gap between May and December. It's money and power. The day I sit on a beach and watch a lovely young thing, of either sex, hanging on the arm of a penniless old person, I'll send up the flare for progress. I won't, however, be holding my breath.Reuse content