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Published on 20 Nov 2015 | 11 months ago

An attractive woman sips a cocktail under a bamboo shade. The sand is dazzlingly white, the sea aquamarine. A handsome young man approaches her and showers her with compliments: she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen, he says. For the first time in years, she truly believes she is desirable.

But this holiday romance is not all it seems. The woman is white, in her late 50s; the man, black, 18 - and paid for his attentions. The scene - from the controversial new French film, Heading South, which opened this weekend, starring Charlotte Rampling, makes us confront uncomfortable truths about sexuality in a globalised world, and the legacy of colonialism.

In the film, an intelligent, provocative take on sex tourism in the late-1970s, Rampling plays Ellen, an American professor, who spends every summer at a private resort in Haiti, where beautiful, muscled black boys are available to the female clientele, mostly affluent single women in their forties, who despair of finding mates through more conventional means. "More than sex, they are seeking a tenderness that the world is refusing them," the film's director, Laurence Cantet, explains.

Fast-forward 30 years, and the reality of sex tourism is anything but tender. Today beach resorts in developing countries such as Kuta in Bali, Negril in Jamaica and Boca Chica and Sosua in the Dominican Republic have become Third World pick-up spots for women tourists. Tour companies even market package deals as sex holidays for single and unaccompanied women. Forget Shirley Valentine, these women - who range from grandmothers to teens - don't want a long-term relationship. And there's plenty of live flesh on sale.

Take Jamaica, where 17 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. Hustling on the beach is the only way that some young men can feed themselves and their families. No wonder they choose older women who pay better than younger ones. InNegril, the men can earn $100 (£60) for sex with a female tourist, £90 for oral sex, which Jamaican men usually regard as taboo. Many others are hired as a guide to the island and throw in sexual services, often just for as meal or a place to sleep.

The definition of a sex tourist is an adult who travels in order to have legal consensual sexual relations with another adult, often for the exchange of money or presents. We still assume that a sex tourist will be male - indeed many regard the relationship between beach boy and female tourist as harmless fun. The woman gets guilt-free sex while keeping a firm hold on the purse strings. Where's the harm?

Jane, 67, a divorcee, has spent the past 10 years holidaying in West Africa. She loves the climate and the people - and she especially loves the men. "They are so wonderfully flattering. They make you feel like a real women. I don't mind paying for their drinks and meals if they stay the night." Divorced, with two grown-up sons, she explains, "White men my own age are so set in their ways; they just want another wife."

For others, this is exploitation pure and simple. Even where no money is exchanged, this sort of behaviour destabilises local communities and families. Ignorance and lack of concern about the abject poverty and lack of choice that characterises the men's lives leads the women to romanticise their actions. It is true that women sex tourists are still outnumbered by the legions of men who travel to Thailand and the Philippines for sex with prostitutes. Charities such as Amnesty and Unicef have no official policy on female sex tourism, preferring to focus on protecting trafficked women and children. Chris Beddoe, director of Ecpat UK, the children's rights organisation that campaigns against child sex tourism, believes: "If both adult partners are open and honest about what they're getting out of it, that's one thing. But it's another thing to continue the fantasy when there's a denial of the power that money brings to that relationship that creates a culture of dependency and exploitation.
Nirpal Dhaliwal, author of the recent novel, Tourism (which satirises older white women turned on by young brown flesh), takes a tougher view. "Women enjoy casual sex and prostitution, too, but with far more hypocrisy. They help themselves to men in the developing world, kidding themselves that it's a 'holiday romance' that has nothing to do with the money they spend. Go to any Jamaican beach and you'll find handsome 'rent-a-dreads', who get by servicing Western women - lots from Britain. I've seen similar things in Goa."

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