Sex Tourism

Sex tourism the is of traveling with the primary motivation to engage in commercial sexual relations.1 Every year, millions of sightseers visit the sex tourism hubs of underdeveloped or developing nations in search for sex, intimacy, exoticism, adventure, and freedom from social constraints. Many sex tourists seek an experience beyond the realm of their everyday lives without the usual consequences or cost that accompanies inappropriate sexual behaviors. These motivations have become the main reason behind the commercial sexual exploitation of women and young children around the world.


Commercial Sex Around the World

While sex tourism has become a popular recreation for Americans and other affluent Western travellers, the industry itself is linked to the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world. Prostitution and sex trafficking generates nearly $99 million dollars each year while forcing 20.9 million women and children into sexual bondage.2 These industries make up a significant percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) in some of the most popular countries for sex tourism. Sex workers in these destinations are denied the basic human rights to dignity, health, and security prescribed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.3 Many victims are assaulted, tortured, or imprisoned while working in the sex industry. Several international law enforcement agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been working on extraterritorial legislation to prosecute sex offenders in foreign countries:

  • End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Exploitation (ECPAT) introduced The Bill of Rights for Child Victims of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse.4

  • Amnesty International published The Research Summary on Human Rights Abuses Against Sex Workers in 2016.

  • Criminal codes in Australia, Norway, Sweden, Canada, and several other nations prosecute citizens who commit sexual offenses against minors even outside of their national territory.5

The criminalization of sex work within countries where sex tourism is common discourages victims of the sex trade from seeking help from law enforcement. This has made it more difficult for NGOs to find and prosecute pimps, madams, abusive clients, and corrupt law enforcement.


On the other hand, the Netherlands is one of the first nations to legalize prostitution in order to document and provide sex workers with basic labor rights and social security.1 This transition may be the first step to regulating the commercial sex industry and sex trafficking.


Destinations for Sex Tourists

Sex work and sex tourism can be almost found anywhere in the world. However, the most attractive locations for sex tourists are often countries in tropical regions where the cost of sex is much lower than in most Western nations.5 The Caribbeans, Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Jamaica,  and the Dominican Republic are just a few countries that are well-known destinations for such tourists.

Economic disparages between Western nations and global peripheries might explain why certain nations transform into hotspots for sex tourism. Poor women in underdeveloped areas are more likely to enter the sex industry voluntarily if they have financial commitments (debts, dependents, family) and no other means of income. In one qualitative study of Sosùa (a tourist town in the Dominican Republic), sex workers are shown to have more economic mobility than most working men in same social bracket.6 Prostitution has become a vital survival strategy for women in developing nations who lack other avenues of gaining sufficient income.

Developing countries are often under extreme economic pressure to develop general tourism as a source of income, which positively correlates with the growth of sex trafficking. A study done by a Thai university estimated that the sex sector is nearly 12 percent of Thailand’s gross domestic product and is projected to increase in the coming years.7 The governments of countries that profit off of sex labor, like Thailand, are unlikely to pay attention to the devastating effects of sex tourism on the community.


Who Are Sex Tourists?

The demographic of sex tourists has changed in the recent years as the sex tourism industry grows. As certain parts of Asia become wealthier, sex tourists are increasingly coming from Asia itself, particularly from Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and more recently China into poorer Southeast Asian countries. Middle-aged, heterosexual Western women as well as homosexual men are also adding to the consumer pool of sex tourism. Some sex tourists seek novel sexual experiences abroad that might otherwise be criticized in their home countries, while others are entranced by the possibilities of meeting “passionate” and “exotic” tropical lovers.


Impacts on the Community

Sex tourism is a gendered and racialized issue. The commercialization of sex has created harmful ideological constructs about female bodies in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa. These sexual and racial stereotypes contribute to the hypersexualization of the public domain. Travelers may view the sex workers in developing nations as overtly sexual beings or justify unacceptable behaviors by convincing themselves that there are no social repercussions regarding harassing, assaulting, or even raping the workers in the country they are visiting.

Treatment of Sex Workers
Sex workers are trapped and brought into the sex industry using numerous methods. Some are lured away from broken homes by "recruiters" who promise jobs to poor women and children in the city. After being separated from their families, the sex workers are forced into a life of prostitution. Others are forced into prostitution by their own parents in a desperate attempt to earn extra money. Intense poverty sometimes pressures parents into selling their female children to the sex industry in exchange for food, shelter, and other necessities.

Health Risks for Sex Workers
There are many risks associated with sex work. Many sex workers do not have access to barrier methods of contraception and are exposed to sexually transmitted infections (STI). Moreover, sex workers are likely to be physically and mentally abused by their clients. Non-consenting prostitution can lead to depression and have detrimental effects on mental health. Some of the health risks for sex workers include:

Sex tourists may also harbor the misconception that children are less likely to contract sexually transmitted infections such as HIV. There also exists a distorted belief in some developing countries that having sex with a virgin will cure HIV (these notions are unfounded and false.) In fact, the average rate for HIV infected children rescued from brothels is 50 percent, and some rates are as high as 90 percent.

The Internet and Sex Tourism
The rapid growth of the Internet has become a highly effective tool in promoting the sex industry. Websites on the Internet dedicated to the selling of commercial sex provide international forums where individuals can promote and sell sex tours, sometimes advertising packages for travelers complete with airfare, hotel, and directions to local brothels. More than 100 websites promote teenage commercial sex in Asia alone. The website owners may charge an average of $100-$150 in membership fees and offer extensive information about the sex industry in specific locations. The Internet has made finding and selling sex worldwide much more accessible.

Concluding Remarks

The sex tourism industry is a complicated, wide-reaching, and multifaceted obstacle to overcome. A heightened awareness of this extreme violation of human rights may help to curb the growing problem. There also needs to be a effort between nations with consumers of sex tourism and host countries to dispel and dissuade travelers from searching for commercial sex. This is in the hopes that extraterritorial prosecutions and legal repercussions will be considered more seriously by international laws in the future. If efforts were made to increase educational, employment, and financial opportunities, fewer poverty stricken women and children would be forced into dangerous and undesirable sex work.


  1. Clift, Stephen, and Simon Carter. Tourism and Sex: Culture, Commerce and Coercion. CENGAGE Learning, 2010.
  2. “Sex Trafficking Fact Sheet.” Equality Now, 14 Aug. 2017.
  3. Commission of Human Rights. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations, United Nations, 10 Dec. 1948.
  4. “Bill of Rights.” ECPAT International, Swedish International Development Corporation Agency.
  5. Curley, Melissa. “Combating Child Sex Tourism in South?East Asia: Law Enforcement Cooperation and Civil Society Partnerships.” Freshwater Biology, Wiley/Blackwell (10.1111), 14 May 2014,
  6. Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Arlie Russell Hochschild. Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Co., 2004. Selling Sex for Visas: Sex Tourism as a Stepping-stone to International Migration
  7. “GDP: the Sex Sector.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 6 June 2013.

Last Updated: 17 May 2018.