Advertising Phuket's Nightlife on the Internet: A Case Study of Double Binds and Hegemonic Masculinity in Sex Tourism

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Forget the swine flu--we need a cure for farang (white foreigners) with "Rice Fever" (Johansen 2009, p. 6)

International tourism generates more than US$500 billion annually and tourism represents a significant part of the economic and social development efforts of many parts of the world. One aspect of worldwide tourism is the phenomenon of "sex tourism" or travel for the purpose of sexual activity with workers in the sex trade. Accordingly, Ryan and Hall (2001, p. x) observe that:

   Representations of sex and sexualities are therefore integral to
   contemporary tourism, as are the social and economic structures
   within which those representations and transactions take place. The
   actualities of sexuality--the manners in which bodies are used by
   the tourist--are becoming a more widely acknowledged issue within
   the public sphere.

One negative impact of tourism on the human rights of women in Southeast Asia is the sexual exploitation brought about by sex tourism. Hemingway (2004, p. 279) notes that "the overwhelming majority of sex workers are female, illustrating a striking sex dimension to sex tourism that is representative of a culmination of discriminatory practice experienced throughout women's lives". Regrettably, sex tourism is on the rise. This is partially due to "increased awareness of its prevalence in certain destinations" (Hemingway 2004, p. 279). According to Franklin (2003, p. 256), "red light districts are routinely listed as attractions in most tourist cities". One avenue of this increased awareness (or listing) is the Internet (Bishop 2008, p. 353) and one of these destinations is Thailand. Thailand has an international reputation as a sex tourist destination (Johnson 2007, p. 164). This phenomenon has been noted in the popular press. Robert Jan Nuis, a counselor working in Bangkok, is quoted in the Bangkok Post Brunch Magazine as saying, "Unfortunately, Thailand has a reputation as a paradise for sex tourists, so many farang men think that it is okay to approach Thai-looking women here. They would never do it in another country, even in Asia, but because it's Thailand, it's apparently okay" (Johansen 2009, pp. 6-7). In Phuket alone, there are over 7,000 sex workers (Fein 2009).

Johnson (2007, p. 154) argues that men travel to Thailand to rediscover their masculinity by participating in sex tourism. These men seek an authentic self-image, but this "authentic" image is coloured by preconceived ideas about masculinity and the tourist destination--it is an imagined authenticity (Johnson 2007, p. 158). Even the Tourist Authority of Thailand gears many of its advertisements toward selling "a sexualized image" of Thailand (Johnson 2007, p. 163).

Engaging in prostitution in Thailand is against the law. However, the law is under-enforced for a number of reasons--including the involvement of some law enforcement officials themselves in the running of the sex industry (Hemmingway 2004, p. 279). Additionally, Buddhism in Thailand has not taken a clear stance against the sex industry, perhaps, as some have suggested, because "monks receive substantial monetary donations from commercial sex workers" (Tomalin 2006, pp. 390-91). Thailand has been described as having "an internal culture of male-chauvinism and prostitution" ("Developing Columbia's") with the majority of prostitutes in Thailand working for Thai clients (Thiro 2004, p. 112).

Regrettably, it is not surprising that sexual exploitation through tourism occurs in Thailand because deep structural institutions (both church and state) are complacent towards the problem, and society possesses social norms accepting of the practice. Is there anything that can be done to protect women in this situation? Hemingway (2004) suggests that one possible solution is to be found in the alternative concept of promoting responsible tourism. She writes:

   Responsible tourism places emphasis on the education of the
   tourist, encouraging research into the place of destination and the
   observance of human rights in interactions between the tourists and
   those affected by the industry. …