Sex tourism is an unavoidable fact on the Gambian coast. While it might be more comfortable to ignore it, the conscientious traveller should try to understand it.
05.07.2016 - 11.07.2016 30 °C
This blog contains no pictures as I'm not really willing to photographer people participating in sex tourism.
When most people think of sex tourism, they think of elderly white men (typically Germans, for some reason) who go to Southeast Asia to spend their time with younger women or even children. This is however not the typical picture on the West African coast. The Senegambia Coast – and in particularly the Gambia’s Coast – is home to middle-aged and older Western women, who are out looking for beach boys or bumsters, as they are known down here.
The sight is not particularly pleasant, but along the resort strip, it’s impossible not to notice the dozens of couples lounging on the beach chairs. And mind you, I’m here in the off-season when business is slow. Rasta-looking and very fit local men in their twenties lying underneath a notably less fit European woman 30 to 40 years his senior. While I might find it troubling to look at (at the same time the socio-economic experiment this is, is highly fascinating), the fact that I find this icky, shouldn’t, in itself, be enough for me to condemn this. To be honest, I don’t really know how I feel about.
Sure, media back home would see this in black and white. Rich Europeans are exploiting poor Africans for sex. Horrendous! However, there are counter notions to this view. This should not be seen as a full-out defence of sex tourism, but I’m not expecting to make any new friends based on this blog either. It’s easy to take a position against sex tourism, but I would like to offer some nuances to the debate.
Firstly, this is not solely a matter of wealthy Europeans exploiting poor Africans. The bumsters are exploiting the European women immensely. They are the ones initiating the contact, often sweet-talking the women into the relationships. Most of these women are middle-aged, middle-class, and have a past of troubled relationships back home. Not being able to find healthy relationships in Europe, they are swept away by handsome Africans. Many of these women do not recognise the trade aspect but see the encounters as romances. Thus, the bumsters live off these women. Not only during their visits, which are often repeated once or twice every year, but stories about bumsters who receive money due to made up stories about medical costs, family financial troubles, etc. are not unheard off.
So it’s a matter of mutual exploitation. Rich European, unable to secure successful relationships at home, seek comfort with poor Africans, who will put in sexual labour for improving their livelihoods as an alternative to backbreaking work in the fields or pulling carts by hand in the markets. This is a basic trade. Even though it’s sexual. And I’ve never been one to tell people that something isn’t good for them. The guiding principle here has to be consent. If there is consent, who am I to say these people differently? Some of the bumsters even claim that their jobs (as they call it) reaffirm their masculinity.
Second, the notion that romance and love should be the guiding principles behind relationships (and sex) is more or less absent in large parts of the developing world. Marriage is still a matter of securing the family’s survival. Both in the long and the short term. In the long run as a means of the family name's survival and the short run because children are often necessary for the elderlies’ survival. Simply because there are few social services. Marriage is thus still a traditional matter outside the major cities. Many are arranged by the families, though things are changing for the better. Many I’ve spoken with in the villages say that marriages are now a negotiation between the couple on the one side and their families on the other. That is, if the family accept the couple, they can get married. If not, they have to find someone else. However, even within this arrangement, marriage is still more of a practical matter than a romantic one. Just as the bumsters, who survive on the money of wealthy Westerners, see the sex trade as a practice of survival.
It’s not only the bumsters, who are looking for Westerners to “escape Africa” for the promised land of Europe and North America. I’ve met a Moroccan barber in Mauritania who – despite being happily married with children – was roaming dating sites, looking for lonely women in the US and Canada, who could be his ticket out of Africa. Likewise, I have lost count of how many people (many that I’ve had less than half a conversation with), who asks me if I can take them with me back to Denmark. While most bumsters in the sex industry only find additional income through the trade, a lucky few find a ticket to the north. For many, that lottery ticket is worth everything.
As mentioned, if this trade is at all defensible, consent is everything. The age of consent in Europe is between 14 and 16 years old. In the Gambia, it’s 18 and in Senegal 16. Where ever there is a “legal” – if undesirable trade – the illegal trade follows. This is probably the biggest argument against the sex industry here – and a better argument than that I find it icky. A recent UNICEF reports show huge a number of cases with under-age children participating, or are being forced to participate, in the sex industry. If this forced industry can be quelled by shutting down the legal one, it should, of course, be done.
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