I Was Almost a Television Star for a Show About Sex Tourism

Celebrating my 40th birthday on a tropical island with a sexy stranger sounded great—until I realized I would almost certainly look like an idiot on national television.

by Dani Burlison
Jul 31 2015, 10:00pm

Image from the film Vers Sud

A month shy of my 40th birthday, I clicked on an email with the subject line: Female Sex Tourists. I usually mark messages like this as spam, but I'd written a piece about DIY sex tourism for McSweeney's a year earlier, so I figured the sender probably just wanted to know where she could find a Mexican Milk Massage like the one I'd described in my story.

Instead, she introduced herself as a producer for ABC's Nightline. And she wanted to talk to me about something a little different: "I am looking for American women who travel for sex and are planning a trip in December/January," she wrote. "From your article it seemed like you could be the perfect character for our piece!"

We later talked on the phone, and I explained that my story was meant to be humorous—although I had engaged in international romantic trysts once or twice, I never sought out local fee-based sex services while traveling. That was fine, the producer assured me. The network simply wanted to feature a smart, fun woman who would take her sex life into her own hands—or rather, the hands of a hot foreign sex worker—while vacationing in the Caribbean.

I was flattered, so I spoke to her co-producer. I sent them both photographs of myself. The conversations continued.

While male sex tourists are a well-documented breed, much less has been said about their female counterparts—often older, single, white women who just want to spend their vacations getting laid. An estimate from 2007 suggested that as many as 600,000 women visit the Caribbean Basin each year in search of sex. And not just sex: According to a study by researchers at the University of South Florida, relationships involving female sex tourists tend to be "pseudo-romantic" in nature—some sociologists have suggested the term "romance tourism" is more appropriate, since most of these lonely women are looking for more than just a quick lay.

Because my last relationship had been with a man who scored ridiculously high on the psychopath test, and because I live in a smallish, Bay Area-adjacent community with a drought-stricken dating pool, I had been celibate for nearly three years. Three years is a long time to live without sex. Needless to say, celebrating my 40th birthday on a tropical island, in a tropical bed (or hammock or restroom or whatever) with a sexy stranger sounded phenomenal.

The trip could also double as a way to empower other women, to get some sex-positive feminist representation on network television, to eradicate slut-shaming. A production starring me, an average-looking single mom getting her boots knocked, swimming with dolphins and shit, sure as hell sounded like a win-win situation.

So I agreed to be their star. I'd be visiting Jamaica for the show, for about a week during Valentine's Day.

Two producers came to meet me in California, where they gave me a diary cam to record my daily life of teaching, parenting my teen daughters, and changing the litter box for contrast against the fun I'd be having in Jamaica. They were smart, funny, and reassuring about my concerns of being portrayed as a trashy, ignorant tourist abandoning my children in order to get laid.

I began planning every detail of how I wanted to present myself on the show. Although the producers were insistent on getting footage of me chatting with the local "beach boys" or offensively-named "Rent-a-Dreads"(that's actually what they call the sex workers), I did not want to look like kind of person who exploited local islanders for sex. I wanted to be a different kind of female sex tourist—one who had read feminist theory, and who believed the male sex workers had agency.

I decided I'd appear smart and calm on the flight over, reading something by bell hooks or Rebecca Solnit. I'd wear fair trade, sweat shop-free sundresses and swimsuits by day, and my Margaret Cho t-shirt to bed at night. I'd get tipsy—not drunk—and have intelligent conversations about globalization and bird-watching (did you know Jamaica has more than 300 types of birds?). And eventually, sometime during my week-long stay, I'd meet a smart, handsome fellow traveler. We'd talk about climate change and the evolution of hip hop and stroll down the beach back to my eco-lodge while the camera panned out, away from my closing door and up to the full moon while waves crashed in the distance along the beach.

In my fantasy, even the most prudish critics would applaud my character. Through this small act of ending my three-year dry spell in a mindful and safe manner, I'd be proclaimed champion of strong women everywhere: Vacation Sex for Everyone!

I bought myself a flattering new swimsuit. I made an appointment to get one of my dumb tattoos covered up. I booked my flight and hotel. I was going to get my groove back in Jamaica.

But despite my admittedly naive daydreams, I was nervous. I began having horrible nightmares—fiery plane crashes, mosquito-borne viruses, unplanned pregnancies. I kept thinking about what a friend had said when trying to persuade me not to go: that the producers would edit the show however they wanted to, that, as he put it, "you could make a comment about a delicious avocado and they can edit it out of context and make it look like you are talking about a man's genitals, for Christsake!"

Instead of portraying me as calm and confident, the crew would probably just show footage of me popping Xanax and crying on the airplane. In this scenario, I'd lose my luggage filled with socially-conscious apparel and end up wearing rasta-colored tie-dyed sun dresses and plastic flip-flops from an airport kiosk. I'd start nervous drinking, pounding fruity cocktails with tiny umbrellas in them, and wind up in bed with some 24-year-old American tourist in a backwards sun visor. Back home, my youngest daughter would be making a video diary of herself crying while kids followed her down the halls of her middle school, calling me a whore.

These worst-case scenarios plagued me in the weeks leading up to the trip and as furiously as I worked to fight them off, I realized I couldn't go on this international sexual odyssey. I was just not cut out to be a sex tourist.

But before I mustered up the courage to call the producers, they beat me to the punch. I got an email saying that the executive producer wanted to call off the show—apparently, they were worried that I wouldn't get laid, that they'd come home empty handed, and that I'd come home with my born-again virginity still in tact.

In many ways, I was relieved. The thought of being an actual sex tourist—paying for faux romance and a few rolls in the hay—felt dirty and made my stomach hurt. Some scholars claim that female sex tourism is different from male sex tourism in that the men work more like "sugar babies" than actual prostitutes, I couldn't see the industry as anything but exploitative. Of course, there's nothing wrong with having a sexy rendezvous in a foreign destination—but for me, personally, shelling out cash is where I draw the line.

So instead of taking the trip to Jamaica, I found another way to get my groove back: I bought some Red Stripes and hiked up to a local lake with a reliably sane, runs-a-nonprofit type of ex-lover and watched the sun set on a cold January evening. I wasn't wearing my new swimsuit, but we did talk about the immigration reform and Bay Area hiphop—and my canceled trip to Jamaica, of course. There were no fruity cocktails, and no white sand beaches—but there weren't any cameras either, and what did or didn't happen after the doors closed that night weren't for anyone to watch but me.

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