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The Exploitation of Sex Workers in Travel Industry

Written by: Olizarowicz, Michal

University: Lincoln


Sex workers in the travel industry, especially the ones in the developing world are some of the most vulnerable groups in the industry. Faced with economic realities of poverty, they have to risk abuse, exploitation and high risk of contracting STI/HIV just to make ends meet. This essay discusses the social and political perspectives of sex work in tourism, as well as evolutionary background for the phenomena, and how travel industry should tackle these challenges moving forward.


psychology, biology, criminology, sexual behaviour, sex tourism, sex work

The topic of sex work has been of much discussion in the academia for over two centuries (Phoenix, 2009, 1). However, the taboo nature of the subject has made it difficult to address the issues of exploitation and abuse in real life. While the developed world has been making great strides in destigmatising sex work as immoral and shameful, much of the social and political pressures that have made acknowledgment of these issues so arduous continue to persist. Globalisation seems to have only exacerbated the problem in the Third World, where lack of opportunities, or outright coercion, has led many to engage in sex work through what one cannot call a free choice. The religious dogmas and political doctrines of these regions staunchly oppose against developing sustainable policies that will legitimise sex work and provide workers with protection and sanitary work environment (Phoenix, 2009). Many tourists purchase these services with little consideration for the Other, in what has been called ‘sex tourism’ and has been getting increasing attention from the media and academia alike.

The essay provides a scholarly background on the topic within the context of tourism and discusses the perspectives of both male and female sex workers, acknowledging their very different predicaments and potential abuse in this line of work. The phenomenology of sex work is discussed from a biological and criminologic perspective (Pinker, 2012), providing a necessary backdrop for full discussion of the topic. These findings are then contrasted with research in psychology to explain why so little progress has been made in addressing cases of exploitation, despite increasing awareness of the problem in mainstream media and general consciousness of the society. Finally, the background section provides a broader tourism context for the phenomena, pointing out how these factors, coupled with ubiquity of travel, have made sex work an integral part of tourism industry, further facilitating the exploitation. (Phoenix, 2009; Pinker, 2012)

There is a seeming reluctance of addressing social consequences of male sex workers in the Caribbean and Africa, where much of the research is focused on the economic realities that have led to this development and health issues, such as STI/HIV, but little work has been done from the perspective of these workers themselves. In contrast, the studies of female sex workers have been more rigorous in acknowledging the suffering of women and the necessity of in-depth approach when researching the subject. Many of the sociological aspects of female struggle in this line of work have been thoroughly investigated, highlighting not only the abuse, but emotional and aesthetic labour that is inherent to the profession. (Sanders et al., 2009)

Much of the suffering the victims of abuse in sex work industry face can be attributed to the dehumanisation workers face. Religious and politically conservative dogmas about purity have made mere discussions of the topic outside of the academia seem indecent (Pinker, 2012) and many governments find it easier to refuse acknowledging this part of tourism industry, rather than addressing very real issues of exploitation. Legitimising sex work would provide victims of abuse with support networks and government protection from much of the injustice they are likely to face in their current work environments. It would also provide both the governments and NGOs with additional tools to fight the spread of STI/HIV epidemics that are rife in certain parts of the world, as a direct result of both unregulated sex industry and unsanitary working conditions. (Phoenix, 2009; Pinker, 2012)

The research in this area is clearly of vital importance and has potential to provide future solutions for developments that have led to suffering of thousands of women worldwide. However, some of the studies have been less than adequate in their approach to this topic. The lack of sufficient care on discussing the subject of female sex workers shows that, in some cases, a more ethical approach should be employed in studies of what are clearly sensitive issues. This is especially the case when researchers go beyond the descriptive and choose to suggest normative solutions to tackle these issues. (Sanders et al., 2009; Pinker, 2012)

Phoenix, J. (2009). Regulating Sex for Sale. Bristol: University of Bristol.
Pinker, S. (2012). The better angels of our nature. New York: Penguin.
Sanders, T., O'Neill, M. and Pitcher, J. (2009). Prostitution: sex work, policy & politics. SAGE Publications Ltd.