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Revisiting Child Sex Tourism, Rethinking Business Responses

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

Co-Investigators: Dr Katie Cruz, University of Bristol; Dr Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor, University of Leicester

Research Fellow: Cecily Jones, University of Bristol

The phenomenon of ‘child sex tourism’ (often now discussed as a form of ‘modern slavery’) has been a focus of concern and action for over two decades. Child rights NGOs have lobbied very successfully for more robust legislation against the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) and greater international cooperation amongst law enforcers to target perpetrators. They have invested heavily in awareness raising campaigns to change the attitudes and practices of tourists, as well as in training and guidance for tourist industry officials and workers. Anti-child-sex-tourism campaigning has spurred industry-driven, corporate social responsibility responses, such as The Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism, with a mission to provide awareness, tools and support to the tourism industry in order to prevent CSEC. Yet a recent global study by ECPAT (2016) concludes that despite these efforts, the sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism ‘has expanded across the globe and out-paced every attempt to respond at the international and national level’.

This project revisits 1990s ESRC funded research on sex tourism in Jamaica to ask, first of all, whether patterns of sex tourism have changed over the past 20 years. Have NGO-led efforts to raise-awareness of child sex tourism altered the attitudes and practices of tourists? Have industry-led CSEC education and training initiatives actually reached front-line tourism workers in Jamaica? A known barrier to rolling such initiatives out to tourism workers is the fact that many are in transient, temporary and poorly paid jobs. Moreover, in Global South contexts, many local people are unable to secure even precarious employment in the formal tourism sector. Instead, they are left to ‘hustle’ a living in the informal tourism economy by providing a range of services. For a small number, this includes sexual services. A second research objective is to explore the problems and paradoxes this presents for current, industry-led approaches to combatting CSEC. Informal sector workers provide services tourists want and enjoy, and so add value to the ‘product’ or ‘experience’ sold by formal tourism companies. Does this make them part of the tourism supply chain? And what is their take on ethical questions about tourism, ‘business practice’, economic and sexual life, and childhood?

The 1990s’ study found that NGO and industry-led efforts to combat CSEC could be associated with other, unintended consequences for already marginalized young women, especially sex workers. Tourist industry actors and police on the ground often translated pressure to create a climate hostile to ‘child sex tourism’ as an injunction to suppress female prostitution per se. Mass arrests of local women and teenage girls who happened to be in the streets in tourist areas at night were not an uncommon response, for instance. A third set of questions addressed by this British Academy funded research therefore asks whether these negative side effects persist, and how they can be avoided. More than this, the research questions the widespread if often implicit assumption that adult sex workers are part of the problem, rather than the cure, and explores possibilities for including sex workers as participants in the struggle to protect children’s rights.

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