Sex tourism is thriving in the Gambia, but is it wrong if it is consensual?
West Africa has sex tourism situation. I would ordinarily call it a ‘problem’ but I believe the situation requires more nuance than that. In Nigeria, sex tourism manifests as white homosexual men choosing long connecting flights that have a long term detour through Lagos to engage the country’s queer community. In Ghana and Gambia, the situation is similar, but with one crucial difference A significant number of the customers in these countries are older white straight women who buy sex from young Gambian and Ghanaian men. it is such a prominent that even international press like Deutsche Welle have commission special projects to explore the true nature of this trade.
Gambia has the highest percentage of sex workers, with a skewed proportion of ‘bumsters’ or male prostitutes who sleep with. These workers are hired for long stretches of time, offering companionship and sex to their clients. These agreements have the sex worker at the mercy of the customer for the duration of their union, and the workers unable to share their situation with their family or friends for fear of being ostracized in the majority Muslim country. On the surface sex in this situation is controversial, if you can overlook the other power imbalances that influence these agreements.
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The average Gambian is significantly poorer than the average white tourist, who might be considered poor in their own countries. This imbalance of wealth means that while on paper, the Gambian has financial authority, widespread poverty means that freedom to choose hindered by survival. Tourists who come to the Gambia and other countries, do so to exploit this class imbalance. This raises questions about the autonomy of the sex worker and how much is consensual and how much inspired by desperation.
There are few laws in the Gambia that legally protect the rights of sex workers. Unlike in Senegal where sex workers are registered with the government and treated as working citizens, Gambia’s sex worker demographic is left to their own devices are open to exploitation. This exploitation, and the lack of consequences for misconduct leaves their citizens impoverished and at the mercy of others. It also increases the risk of transmissions of sexual transmitted illnesses, because Western tourists are in a position of power and not required by the government to provide a clean bill of health before visiting the country.
Consent is vital to any sexual encounter, even one where money is exchanged. West African leaders cannot keep pretending the situation is anything else.