Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sex Trafficking in Peru: Tourism is Colonialism, Part 1

"Tourism is Colonisation": Graffiti on a wall in San Blas, Cusco. Artist unknown (photo credit: Jeff Encke)
Jeff and I are on a double-decker bus headed to Lima, feet propped on the front window, trying to ignore the semis crossing the double yellow line into our lane, their headlights suddenly shining directly into our faces. I'm distracting myself with research while two young Americans — 25 years old, a young woman with dark brown hair and a crumpled llama-print sweater pulled over her bulky torso, the young man in the ubiquitous Cusco-emblazoned winter hat and 8 different mismatched prints — are seated behind me, whispering (not quietly enough) about their recent exploits in Peru:
"I heard you got a hooker in Cusco."
"I'm not judging. I heard she looked like 15." My seat lurches forward a couple of times as she shifts in her seat behind me. "Not many guys like that in the clubs. And they were 'average' if you know what I mean."
"So you did some recon then?"
"Oh yeah. A lot. Peruvians have such smooth skin!" She makes a small grunting noise as I look at Jeff in dismay. He's sleeping. "And really good in the sack. And it's, like, so much better when you don't give a fuck about the other person!"
"Like when you don't know them you mean?"
"Hey, did you do any coke here?"
"Yeah, a few times. Mostly when we were drinking. You?"
"Yeah. My friends at home give me such shit about it but it's so fucking good for sex!"
"God, I love Peru."
How interesting (and by interesting, I also mean EW). And here I was writing about sex tourism and its role in climate change in Peru. I considered turning around and engaging them in a thoughtful discussion on the perpetuation of colonialism through sex trafficking and tourism, but considering how vapid the conversation remained for the duration of that 8 hour, stomach-lurching bus ride, I thought that my energies were best used elsewhere. Maybe some day they'll stumble on to this website and learn something. Unlike on the bus (please wash your sweater, if you're reading this, sex tourist seat-kicking bus woman), I will not hold my breath.

Back when I was still conceptualizing a global health capstone project, deciding on one idea felt like plucking a single snowflake out of a Michigan blizzard. I eventually found two vague parameters — Peru and working with women — and, like the beginnings of so many of my unformed plans, I began my search with Google, hoping to turn up some NGO's working on women's issues in the famous Incan capitol. I plugged in Cusco + Women and these were my top search results:
  1. Moving to Cuzco Peru in January - "There are no decent looking local women in Cusco ..."
  2. Anyone Dated Cuzco Women? - "According to Roosh, Cuzco is the easiest place in South America to pick up women, I think I know why."
  3. What are the women like in Cusco Peru? - "mmm in cuzco women are not "sexy" as in Lima, aya people are like Indians..."
  4. A Single Gringa In Cusco - "Men in Peru like women. Period. Short, tall, fat, skinny, white, black, yellow or brown. As a rule, they aren't that fussy."
  5. Cusco, Peru: Estonian women caught with cocaine - "Peru: Fate of Estonian women caught smuggling cocaine unsure."
  6. European women caught in Cusco with 6 kilos of cocaine - "Two young women were captured at Cusco's Velasco Astete Airport early this morning when they tried to board a flight to Lima..."
  7. Cuzco - "You won't leave Cuzco without seeing the famous ruins.... and a dozen or so women offering to give you a massage."
  8. ´Sexy women´ in and around cusco -
  9. Cusco: More than just Sexy Women - YouTube
  10. Peruvian Women in Cusco - TripAdvisor. "I will be travelling alone to Cusco in May and was wondering where i may pick up some women at night. Is prostitution legal? Are they accessible?"
Yep. Of the top 10 search results, 3 were about smuggling cocaine and the rest were about How to Have Sex with Locals in Cusco. Trippers has a whole page dedicated to sex tourism, with a link to hire prostitutes. Turns out my young companions on the bus weren't the only tourists stroking the seedy underbelly of Peruvian night life.

In recent years, Cusco has seen a huge rise in human trafficking, both for mining in the rural highlands and for sex tourism in the urban center, with women often being coerced, tricked, or forced into prostitution in both the cities and informal mining towns. Child prostitution is especially rampant in Peru, with more than 500,000 children victimized as of 2013, according to human rights group La Restinga. And while prostitution over the age of 18 is legal in Peru, that distinction does little to equalize power dynamics between Peruvians caught in the sex tourism industry and the Western population seeking them out. 

Sex tourism generally refers to tourism for commercial sex, though this doesn't always fit into a stereotype of pay-by-the-hour fee-for-service prostitution. At times, the tourist and local play out rigidly gendered romantic roles for the duration of the relationship, whether that be for an hour or a month. It's a dance seen around the world in low/middle income countries (LMIC), particularly those where visiting men (and women) can live out their racially-charged fantasies on the bodies of the economically disadvantaged. As J.S. Taylor wrote in Tourism and Inequality: Problems and Prospects (2010, eds. Cole & Morgan):
In the case of hardcore male heterosexual sex tourists, (sexualized racism) is starkly visible — they often refer to the local women they have sex with as 'LBFMs' or 'Little Brown Fucking Machines', a term coined by American GI's stationed in Southeast Asia and employed as a catch-all category encompassing any female 'other' not deemed to be either white or 'African' [O'Connell Davidson and Sánchez Taylor, 1999]. But sexualized racism also plays an important role in allowing ordinary tourists to frame 'sex tourism' as 'not-really-prostitution'. 
(J.S. Taylor, "Tourism and Inequality: Problems and Prospects," eds. S. Cole and N. Morgan, 2010)
Though the moves may look different, the dance is still the same: a gratification of differing need — economic on one hand, and a host of sexual, patriarchal, colonial or white supremacist on the other. Many men and women enter into the sex trade not as their profession, but as income supplementation, or possibly as a road to another life (hint: connection to climate change!). In Perú, they're called Bricheras or Bricheros. And it's not solely a South American phenomenon:
The men used by tourist women are termed kamakia (“fishing harpoons,” Greece), galebovi (“seagulls,” Croatia), гларуси (glarusi) (“seagulls,” Bulgaria), sharks (Costa Rica), rent-a-dreads, rent-a-rastas, rent-a-gents and the Foreign Service (Caribbean), Kuta Cowboys or pemburu-bule (“whitey hunters”, Bali), Marlboro men (Jordan), bomsas or "bumsters" (the Gambia), "sanky pankies" (Dominican Republic), jinetero in Cuba, "gringa hunter" o caza-gringas in Ecuador and brichero in Peru. "Beach boys" is a more generic term. 
(Trippers, "Peru Female Sex Tourism," n.d.)
The very existence of this informal sex economy, sprung up in parallel with the growing tourist industry, highlights the vast economic (and power) disparity among those engaging in sex tourism. And locals engaging in sex tourism in the hopes of improving their economic standing often wind up with even less than when they started. As Denise Brennan, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Georgetown University, wrote in her ethnographic study of sex tourism in the Dominican Republic:
I had set out to write a feminist ethnography of the sex trade to raise questions about poor women's power, control and opportunities in a globalized economy. Yet the waters are murky when considering women's agency in the sex trade, no matter how determined and creative their efforts to get ahead. 
(Brennan, "What's Love Got to Do with It? Transnational Desires and Sex Tourism in the Dominican Republic," 2004)
Like a magnifying glass on the process of globalization itself, in the end, the commercialization of bodies yields little gain for those with the least power to change their position.

This isn't to say that any time you get it on in another country that you are participating in, perpetuating, or supporting sex tourism and human trafficking. One small, qualitative study conducted interviews in Cusco on local/tourist sexual relationships, and as anywhere in the world, the reasons for locals seeking out these sexual relationships were as varied as the people: increasing self-esteem, social standing, seeking out long-term commitments. To recognize sex tourism is not to dismiss the sexual agency of its participants, nor lump together locals into one homogenous and powerless group. What is needed is a recognition of potential differences in motivation and mobility, economic disparity, and the very complicated histories of colonialism, racial constructions and hierarchies, that continue to shape our perceptions and skew our relationships today.


  1. Really a great post, thank you for the insights.

  2. Thanks, Jim! I felt like I posted it a little hastily and always want to go back and revise revise revise, so I'm glad to hear you like it! Sounds like I may have tarnished some holiday memories, given some of the other comments it's gotten elsewhere.