Romance travelers, seekers of tenderness in the tropics or even Canadian secretaries - euphemisms abound for what in plain terms are female sex tourists. Their activity dates to the 19th century and shows no sign of going away. Provided global economic turmoil leaves the world's lovelorn with spare cash for holidays, it might even get a lift from the latest artistic work to tackle the issue of women ready to employ prostitutes, the French film 'Cliente'.
Released in France in early October, it tells of two sisters, one of whom surfs the net to solicit sexual satisfaction. Originally considered too risque, the scenario only got backing to be made into a film after writer, director, actress Josiane Balasko wrote it up as a novel. The screen version builds on the novel's success and could well inspire some of the countless women locked in unhappy relationships or in no relationship at all to take very practical steps to change their situation.
One of the world's experts on sex tourism, US journalist and writer Jeannette Belliveau is among those to have argued that films tend to put ideas into viewers' heads. She previously predicted a rise in holiday romances following another French film 'Vers le Sud' (Heading South), released in 2005, which depicts three women enjoying the carnal delights of Haiti and which she said was "a tremendously accurate look at female sex tourism".
"This is a mass phenomenon and a response to dating wars and man shortages at home," said Belliveau, who partly on the basis of her own experiences wrote the pioneering work, 'Romance on the Road: Traveling Women Who Love Foreign Men'.
She estimates that each year around 24,000 women worldwide "engage in travel that results in a sexual encounter with a new companion". Of these, the best-represented nationalities are roughly 8,000 U.S. women, 3,700 Japanese and 2,400 Germans, followed by around 1,700 British women. Favored destinations include the Caribbean (where the Canadian secretaries have tended to go), Greece, Spain, Italy, as well as Kenya, Thailand and Indonesia. Less established hunting grounds are Nepal, Morocco and Mexico.
Quite apart from any health risks, critics argue that these women are exploiting the poor of developed countries and are no better than men who use prostitutes at home and abroad. Belliveau says the women sex tourists are "more innocent and less knowing" and payment is often in kind or an informal provision of money to help them get by. At the same time, she expresses sympathy for members of both sexes who cannot find love on home soil.
"One could argue that at least men and women who travel for love and affection are taking an initial step to avoid bitterness toward the opposite sex ... and this resolution to do something about their lonely state may allow them to have successful relationships with someone from their own or another culture," said Belliveau.
French writer Michel Houellebecq in his novelistic exploration of sex tourism, both male and female, 'Platform', also portrays the practice as a pragmatic solution, given the virtual breakdown in relations between the sexes in the West and the surplus of available talent, for want of a better word, in the developing world. "A lot of men are afraid of modern women because all they want is a nice little wife to look after the house and take care of the kids ... in the West it's become impossible to express such a desire," he writes.
For those in the developing world to whom they can express their longings, it is a fair exchange, not exploitation, his central character argues, admittedly fuelled by copious amounts of drink. "You have several hundred million Westerners who have everything they could want but no longer manage to obtain sexual satisfaction. ... On the other hand, you have several billion people who have nothing, who are starving, who die young ... and who have nothing left to sell except their bodies and their unspoiled sexuality."
Houellebecq's exploration is anything but euphemistic. Its frankness extends to bold exploration of female and male sexuality, as well as attitudes towards Islam that have proved highly controversial. It does, however, have some feminist credentials. Arguably, it treats the sexes equally as the novel's heroine - as well as the far-from-macho male protagonist - seeks out sexual adventure abroad.
As subject matter for creative works, which tend towards a sympathetic view, sex tourism has a history almost as long as the activity itself. According to Belliveau, female sex tourism probably began with Lady Jane Digby, an Englishwoman, who in 1849 entertained three suitors during a brief visit to Rome. Throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras, women from the UK and the US visited southern Europe and India for what were considered scandalous love affairs.
One of the first literary accounts is the diaries of Margaret Fountaine, who died in 1940. The daughter of a clergyman, she travelled around the globe to collect butterflies - and also netted quite a few men. She rejected most of them, but in 1901 she met a Syrian Christian, Khalil Neimy. She lived with him, travelled with him and named her array of 22,000 butterflies, which she willed to the Castle Museum in Norwich, eastern England, the Fountaine-Neimy collection.
One thing she did not do was marry him. At the time, the class gulf between them forbade it. Today's sex tourists are less constrained, but they have yet to overcome social censure.