Re-Visiting Child Sex Tourism, Re-Thinking Business Responses

This project considers barriers to achieving SDG 8.7 in the context of developing world tourism.
Project status

The project had three main objectives. Firstly, it sought to re-visit a 1990s study of tourism and sex commerce in Jamaica and ask whether patterns of sex tourism have changed; whether tourists today have different attitudes towards and greater awareness of the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC); whether CSEC education and training initiatives have reached front-line tourism workers in Jamaica; and whether tourists and tourism workers share legal and policy understandings of CSEC. The project aimed to also investigate whether the legal and policy understandings of the boundaries of tourism, sex tourism and child sex tourism that currently inform initiatives to counter child sexual exploitation map onto the sociological realities of the tourism economy. It furthermore explored the unintended consequences that NGO and industry-led efforts to combat CSEC can have for already marginalised groups.

The research team's findings indicate that framing the problems facing poor adolescents and other vulnerable communities in Jamaica as 'child sex tourism' and 'child trafficking' does not help to generate policy solutions that are likely to have a positive impact on lives. Currently, anti-trafficking and anti-CSEC initiatives assume that children are trafficked into the sex trade to meet specific demand for sexual access to children, especially from tourists. However, the interviews conducted as part of this project revealed that adults who started to sell sex as minors did so independently to meet immediate and pressing material and financial needs. The rights violations they experienced in childhood were associated with poverty, neglectful or abusive adult carers, non-commercial sexual abuse or rape and/or prejudice on the basis of sexual orientation. None of these problems is addressed by the kind of measures that current concerns about 'trafficking and modern slavery' prompt. US Trafficking in Persons reports urge the Jamaican government to concentrate on the prosecution of 'traffickers'. Yet, from the sex workers’ viewpoint, the main threat they face in the daily course of their work does not come from 'traffickers', but rather from the police, customers and members of the general public. Much of the violence experienced by sex workers is perpetrated against them because they are sex workers, rather than to compel them to take up or remain in the work.

This research suggests that the 'trafficking and modern slavery' frame generates a questionable view of how the tourism industry is, and is not, implicated in the forms of violence and exploitation experienced by sex workers in Jamaica. The emphasis on criminality means that problems described as 'child sex tourism' and 'sex trafficking' are imagined as bracketed off from ordinary, lawful business practices. It is assumed that once made aware of these hidden scourges, tourism business actors and ‘ordinary’ tourists will become allies in the struggle to eliminate them. Hence, ECPAT, supported by UNICEF and the WTO, established a Code of Conduct in 2004, which sets out business principles that travel and tour companies can voluntarily sign up to implement, with a view to preventing ‘child sex tourism and trafficking of children’. As with mainstream corporate social responsibility thinking on how businesses should respond to ‘trafficking and modern slavery’ more generally, the idea is that tourism businesses have nothing to lose and plenty to gain by supporting efforts to combat child sex tourism, and that taking a stand against child sex tourism will attract consumers who are looking for ethical travel operators. However, as this research project has indicated, such an approach does not question the social or political conditions that underpin the entry of persons under 18 into the sex trade, and how these conditions link to the economic systems that support tourism businesses in Jamaica, especially large and international firms. 

Principal Investigator: Professor Julia O'Connell Davidson, University of Bristol

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