This article originally appeared on VICE US.
“If you'd told me back in 2017 that I'd spend the next two years visiting a host of different clothing-optional, adult-centric resorts, I probably wouldn't have believed you,” said Simone Paget, a writer for the Toronto Sun in her 30s. “I'm the kind of person that doesn't even like changing in public at the gym."
But Paget is finding her planned sex travel experiences "liberating," she said, after feeling out of place seeking queer sex at home. In her community, she said, "Biphobia is very real—people assume I'm ‘experimenting.’" About six months after coming out, she took her first solo trip to Temptation Cancun Resort, an adults-only hotel with topless-optional areas. Paget’s travel experiences allowed her to experiment with her sexuality on her terms. “I met other women like me who don't necessarily feel the need to define their desires one way or another," she said. “I could make out with a man one day and a woman the next, and literally no one cared. This was revelatory to me.”
Traveling for sex has traditionally been a pursuit reserved for wealthy, white, morally ambiguous men in search of sexual adventure with “exotic” foreigners, or in other cases, freshly divorced middle-aged white women. In recent years, growing numbers of women are traveling abroad, and many are traveling specifically for sex. Sex travelers are younger and queerer than ever before, they’re not all white, and many prefer to travel alone.
In finding their own avenues toward sexual liberation, these sex tourists are grappling with a practice that is traditionally colonialist, racist, and classist—and finding more ethical ways to travel while horny than soliciting sex workers in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, where sex tourism fuels local economies. Raquel Rosario Sanchez, a feminist writer and Ph.D. candidate with the Center for Gender and Violence Research at the University of Bristol explained that traditional sex tourism is often fueled by racial fetishism and imperialism. “You're singling out a particular destination with the intention of paying locals for sex to satisfy a fetish," she said. "That throws into the mix a whole set of dynamics which problematize an already unequal relationship.”
International tourism for any purpose, sexual or otherwise, can also be ethically dubious when it comes at such a high environmental and infrastructural cost to many areas of the Global South. While adult-oriented travel is no exception, navigating sex itself abroad with care and respect isn’t impossible. According to Sanchez, "The ethical way for a white tourist to navigate this issue is to have sex only with people who are sexually attracted to them, not with people who have to be coerced with money." More ethical sex tourism also extends to thinking critically about fetishization. Before hooking up with anyone in a foreign country, Sanchez advised that sex tourists question any preconceived ideas they may have brought with them and examine their motivations for seeking sex abroad: “What is a Dominican woman supposed to do sexually that you cannot get from a consenting partner in Finland?”
Some resorts enforce strict boundaries regarding sexual consent and interactions between guests and staff with the goal of reducing any potential coercion or mistreatment from guests. “Creating a safe environment is crucial,” said Patric Loeser, General Manager of Temptation Cancun Resort, and that extends to guests' treatment of employees. Loeser said all staff are thoroughly trained to reject any sexual advances from guests—and that some staff members are specifically employed to keep an eye out for any potential misconduct toward their colleagues. “Our ‘referees’ are always on the lookout ready to intercept guests behaving inappropriately, either towards other guests or staff members, by issuing time-outs,” she said.
Many adult destinations welcome guests of all sexual orientations, creating safer places for queer women to travel for sex. Twenty-seven-year-old NYC-based writer and Bi Girls Club founder Gabrielle Noelle, visited a Jamaican resort, Hedonism II, which regularly hosts LBGTQ travel groups, swingers’ parties, and festivals, last summer. “Everyone was so friendly and comfortable, it almost felt like another world," Noelle said. "I felt a lot less feelings of shame or second-guessing came up.” Noelle also spent time in the resort’s “play room,” a designated area for couples, single women, and invited men to have sex—an experience she didn’t feel free to seek out at home.
Sometimes, though, Noelle felt tokenized as a bisexual woman among the many horny straight couples also visiting. “Whenever someone's girlfriend tried to coerce me into a threesome, I got extra annoyed,” said Noelle. “A lot of bisexual women were present, but there was definitely a 'unicorn' culture.” Though lesbian-only resorts in the U.S. are practically extinct, those looking to avoid unicorn hunters may turn to membership organizations like Skirt Club, which hosts both casual meetups and sex parties for bisexual women in the U.S. and abroad.
Patrice J. Williams, a 30-year-old Black writer in New York, enjoys clothing-optional travel because she feels freer to wear—or take off—whatever she wants. “When I'm back home, I can be walking from the gym in sweats, but men still harass me. It was extremely comfortable knowing I could be totally naked and men wouldn't assume I was providing an invitation for sex,” Williams told VICE about her visit to Hedonism II. Williams also spent time in the playroom, though she preferred to sit back and observe. That informed her encounters in general, she said: “My experience certainly made me more willing to openly express my curiosities and hear about other people’s lifestyles.”
Williams noted that some adult-oriented resorts can be overwhelmingly white. Even among other naked tourists, Williams worried about attracting unwanted attention as one of the few women of color at one of the resorts she visited. “Though my overall experience was great, at times I was hyper-aware of the white gaze, and that I was nude in front of people who had probably never seen a naked Black body before,” she said.
“As a Black woman, I have come to expect it,” said Bianca Lambert, a 33-year-old writer and actress in Los Angeles who also visited Hedonism II. “I have had white men say, ‘I've never dated a Black woman before,’ as if it's some kind of compliment that they're giving me a try," she said. “Sometimes, words don’t even need to be said. You can feel it just in how people stare at you, especially my butt and hair,” Lambert said. “I give them a glance that says, I see you. Don't say anything stupid, and keep it moving. If I took the time to address every person, I'd be exhausted, and as a Black woman, I am already tired.” Lambert pointed out that the specific experiences of Black women, LGBTQ people, and people of color more generally may still be industry-wide blind spots.
“Destinations can accommodate queer folks better by creating more specifically LGBTQ programming, teaching staff to use gender-inclusive language, and not specifically housing programming within a gender binary,” Noelle added. “They often referred to folks who ‘went both ways’ or suggested people liked men or women. Simply shifting their language to acknowledge many genders would be cool.”
Noelle recommended that other young travelers, especially those who aren’t straight or white, check resort schedules for queer- and POC-friendly events on offer at destinations. “Overall, I had a great time. I can only imagine how much more fun I would've had during a week that was populated with more young folks, folks of color, and bi+ folks,” Noelle said.
Regardless of where and with whom a person engages in sex travel, Sanchez said it’s imperative to approach potential partners with respect, not as novelties or commodities. “It’s tempting to visit a place with ideas branded in your mind about the people there and then look for evidence to confirm those ideas,” said Sanchez. “Women and men alike can be ethical sex tourists and ethical tourists in general by being willing to challenge their ideas, [and] to always recognize the humanity in the other person."
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