Think of a sex tourist and who do you picture? My guess would be a balding older man with a soft middle and a leery expression, drooling over girls young enough to be his granddaughter in Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia etc.
People have very mixed views on sex tourists, with many viewing sex tourism as an inherently exploitative practice that takes advantage of vulnerable and impoverished communities, and others seeing it as a fair exchange, a transactional relationship where both parties know what they are signing up for and no harm is done.
However, whatever your personal stance on the matter, you probably aren’t picturing your friendly neighbourhood grandma when you think about the typical sex tourist.
Unless you’ve been to The Gambia that is.
Female Sex Tourism in The Gambia
The Gambia, located on the West coast of Africa between Senegal and Guinea-Bissau, is a tiny nation that has soared in popularity in recent years due to its white sandy beaches, wildlife, and cheap package holidays.
However, rather than attracting hordes of young partiers, fresh out of college and looking for some fun in the sun, The Gambia has found itself catering to a somewhat older market, resulting in it being awarded the dubious title of ‘West Africa’s sex paradise for retired women,’ and garnering a rather unsavoury reputation as a sex tourism hotspot.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Before we delve any further into the topic of sex tourism in The Gambia, I want to outline what sex tourism actually is.
What is sex tourism?
Sex tourism is the practice of travelling somewhere for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity. This could involve (but is not limited to) massage parlours, full service sex work (prostitution), strip clubs, go-go bars, brothels, ping pong shows and foreign dating sites that cater specifically to tourists looking for a good time.
The top countries for sex tourism are: Thailand, The Netherlands, Brazil, The Gambia, The Philippines, Spain, Cambodia and parts of the Caribbean.
While traditionally, sex tourists have always been men (there’s a reason Pattaya is full of retired old farts), in recent years there has been an increasing number of women from Europe, Canada and the United States travelling to developing countries for the purpose of sex with local men.
While the demographics of female sex tourism differ from place to place, in general female sex tourists are usually older white women from developed countries who might struggle to find love or a sexual connection in their home countries and travel elsewhere for the promise of excitement and romance.
A 2009 survey conducted by Wanjohi Kibicho in his book about sex tourism in Kenya found that ‘women who feel rejected by men in the developed countries for being overweight and older find that in Kenya, this is suddenly reversed. There, they are romanced, appreciated and loved by men. This appeal can result from the ethnic differences between the sex worker and the sex tourist or the foreign lifestyle that the local men live. Women who have sexual encounters with such men are typically middle-aged and of European ethnicities.’
One of the key differences between male sex tourism and female sex tourism then, is that men, for the most part, are aware of their status as sex tourists.
Many female sex tourists on the other hand, do not see themselves in this way, instead identifying more with the term ‘romance tourism,’ since their relationships with local men often involve more ‘romance’ and intimacy than the more typical transactional relationship that we see between male sex tourists and female sex workers.
To these female sex tourists, the term ‘sex tourism’ oversimplifies the reasons why they are engaging in relationships with these men (or perhaps, they just don’t want to see what other people see).
However, this notion of ‘romance tourism’ creates an uncomfortable grey area, where female sex tourists leave themselves open to being hurt by men who are really just trying to make a living for themselves.
Because female sex tourists often do not view themselves as such, and thus may not want to embark on an explicitly transactional relationship, the male sex worker has to be a little sneakier about how he goes about his work. He will usually observe holidaymakers and profile them in the hopes of selecting a worthy target.
Typically, he will look for older women who may be overweight or considered unattractive back home. He considers such women vulnerable, or ‘easy prey,’ and he will play on this woman’s vulnerability in order to get her to obtain feelings for him. When feelings are involved, the male sex worker finds it easier to convince the woman to spend her money on him, and so the exchange begins.
Female sex tourism in The Gambia
Despite the Gambian government trying to promote their country as a destination for nature tourism and sustainable tourism, The Gambia continues to be known for its sex tourism.
One of the most well-known areas for sex tourism in The Gambia is the ‘Senegambia strip,’ the coastal area around Kololi, where holidaymakers and local men (known as ‘Bumsters’) come together in the kind of relationship that The Gambia is infamous for.
Wait…did you just say ‘Bumsters’?!
I sure did.
Taken from the English slang word ‘bum,’ which means a beggar or a tramp, Gambian bumsters are young, unemployed Gambian men who hustle tourists into giving them money, usually by sweet talking them and showing a romantic interest in them.
Many bumsters are school dropouts who have found that ‘bumsterism’ (yes really) pays far more than a regular job, and so even though they may say that they want to work, the facts are that their Gambian bumster lifestyle is their full time job, and the relationships they ensue in are transactional, with the women being seen as ‘clients’ rather than girlfriends or lovers.
What does female sex tourism in The Gambia look like?
The Bumsters – young, attractive and charming – will walk up and down Kololi beach day and night and hang out in the local bars and nightclubs, sweet talking tourists and sticking with whichever one takes the bait.
The women, often middle-aged and above and hailing from the UK, are flattered by the attention and can’t resist the temptation of a young Black body that they deem to be theirs for the taking.
A female sex tourist named Jackie, who is in her sixties and has been to The Gambia 15 times in 8 years, tells Eammon Holmes and Ruth Langsford on This Morning, ‘you can get your choice, from Tinie Tempah, Snoop Dogg, will.i.am…it’s a Pick ’n’ Mix there.’
Describing The Gambia as a ‘real women’s holiday,’ (whatever that means), Jackie defends the claim that The Gambia is a ‘Tinder dream for geriatric sex tourists,’ asking ‘why shouldn’t we enjoy ourselves?’ and acknowledging the power imbalance at play by referring to the fact that the men are ‘really poor,’ so ‘a nice meal and a few drinks is good for them.’ (You can watch the full interview here.)
This brings us to the next section.
Poverty and sex tourism
Poverty and sex tourism – two phenomenon that are problematically yet inextricably linked, and which muddy the waters when it comes to deciding whether or not somebody is being exploited.
You see, while these young Gambian men are not being controlled by violent pimps or traffickers, it is difficult to ascertain true freedom of choice when somebody is living in abject poverty.
The Gambia is an incredibly poor country, where over a third of its population (1.7 million people) survive on less than $1.25 a day.
Rampant poverty, mass unemployment and lack of opportunities for education make it difficult for young Gambians to survive, and for many Gambian men, their bodies are their main source of capital.
We have to ask ourselves, do men like this have free choice when it comes to selling their bodies, or are they selling sex for survival?
We can easily talk about the ‘happy hooker’ trope, where young and attractive women in developed nations turn to sex work in order to live lavish lifestyles and afford luxuries that an office job would not provide, but when a young and uneducated man from The Gambia is expected to put food on the table for his entire family, can we really say that he is making a free choice to sell his body?
Whatever your opinion on sex work, I think most people would agree that any ‘relationship’ born out of need rather than want is exploitative, regardless of whether it is a man or woman paying for sex.
The race issue
I am not one to make everything about race, but, given the history of the matter, I believe that race plays an important part when it comes to understanding female sex tourism in The Gambia.
The Gambia was once a major slave-trading port and The British Empire used this region for its people. At this time, Black people could be bought, sold, shipped abroad, raped and forced to work, and none of this was illegal.
Although slavery was outlawed in the UK at the time, it was still alive and thriving in The Gambia, and it isn’t much of a stretch to see some of these women’s fantasies about young Black men as neo-colonial in nature.
There are hundreds of thousands of young, single, Black men in the United Kingdom, but yet these women are flying thousands of miles away to a poverty-stricken country to engage in sexual activity with Black men, because in The Gambia, a British woman’s money and the power that comes with it buy her things that she could never dream of having at home.
I am not saying that these women are consciously racist. However, it is impossible not to notice the unsavoury implications of a (comparatively) rich woman falling into bed with a man young enough to be her grandson and buying him a bag of crisps and a Coke as a thank you.
But don’t Gambian bumsters exploit women too?
While many see the female sex tourists as the exploiters, many of the women involved hold the opposite view.
Blogs and web forums abound with comments about Gambian ‘love rats,’ visa scams and horror stories that leave women humiliated, hurt and angry.
While the women who appeared on This Morning were under no illusions about their lover’s motives, saying ‘they probably want to get to England,’ thousands more are not so savvy.
These women visit The Gambia for romance, and to them, the sex is not transactional. They are under the impression that they are in a relationship with their Gambian lover, and often, Gambian men actively encourage this belief, professing their undying love for the woman, keeping in touch for months after they have left The Gambia, and even proposing marriage (when they may be happily married to a Gambian woman!).
When these women, who are convinced that they are in a monogamous and committed relationship, discover that they are one of many, or that the men may have an ulterior motive, they feel blindsided and scorned, unwilling to take a step back from their emotions and view the situation from an outsider’s perspective.
It is difficult to listen to a woman who is clearly heartbroken and ignorant to the reality of her ‘relationship,’ but we do have to remember that these women are adults who have no problem travelling to undeveloped nations and taking advantage of economically disadvantaged men who would not look twice at them if their circumstances were different.
It may be harsh, but it’s true.
As one Gambian bumster says – ‘We’re not exploiting the women. It’s transactional. They are getting treated like a Queen and having good sex and we get money to survive and hopefully a visa. What’s wrong with that?’
What’s wrong, as far as the women are concerned, is the deceit involved – nobody likes to feel as though they have been hoodwinked – but we cannot blame these men for doing what is necessary in order to provide a better life for themselves and their families.
These so-called ‘Gambian love rats’ are not the same as the infamous ‘Nigerian credit card scammers,’ whose sole purpose is to extract a person’s entire life savings from them by way of catfishing and deception.
Gambian bumsters, just like any other kind of sex workers, are providing a service, and they view themselves as self-employed freelancers who work hard for what they get.
Female Sex Tourism in The Gambia | Final Thoughts
Sex tourism in The Gambia is a complex topic, and when cobbling this article together, I found myself going back and forth numerous times as to whether I find the practice morally wrong or not.
The liberal in me, who is pro-sex work and all for freedom of choice when it comes to what you want to do with your own body, wants to believe that sex tourism in The Gambia is great, that it’s not harming anyone, and that if young, hot Gambian men want to sell their bodies to geriatric tourists then more power to them.
However, as much as I might want to, I just can’t view it that way. When a lack of opportunity and abject poverty are a daily reality, the lines between what is free choice and survival sex become too blurred, and I can’t shake the notion that none of these men would be doing what they’re doing if they had any other option.
It makes me sick to my stomach that rich Westerners continue to travel to poor countries to take advantage of the economic situation there and enjoy the kind of carnal pleasures that are not on the table for them back home. I judge Western men who go to Thailand to do this, and I don’t believe that female sex tourists in The Gambia should be exempt, even if they are clinging onto the notion that what they are experiencing is love.
But now I want to know what YOU think. I am aware that this is a hugely controversial topic, and I know full well that a lot of you reading this may be women who have taken what I have said personally – I am completely open to discussing this more in the comments section; all I ask is that you remain respectful and civil 🙂
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