When speaking about prostitution, women are usually perceived as the victims and men as the buyers. However, the relations between European women and local men in West Africa are challenging this common assumption. Sofie Ejrup Larsen translates from Copenhagen’s Uniavisen for Pandeia
‘True’, ‘real love’ and ‘magic’: often those were the words European women used when describing their intimate relations to local men in Gambia. As a part of a research on women’s use of ‘sex tourism’ in the developing countries, as Marie Bruvik Heinskou describes in her account of the interviews she conducted for Copenhagen student newspaper Uniavisen.
The Gambian men, on the other hand, used less romantic words. Instead they expressed their wishes to leave Gambia, get rich, and immigrate to Europe by marrying a European woman. According to the men, it was far more easy and pleasant to have sex and romance with a European woman than buying an expensive ticket to one of the already packed boats departing from the capital,Banjul, and facing an uncertain future as an illegal immigrant in Europe.While the men emphasized the instrumental reasons for creating sexual and romantic relations to the European women, the women emphasized the authentic feelings of love.
Love letters via Western Union
This type of intimate relation between women from the global North and men from the global South in Gambia are not unique. Sex tourism is a studied phenomenon that goes on in many other developing countries as well. These intimate relationships open up for new transnational marriages and migration. At the same time, large money-transaction companies such as Western Union are keeping the romantic pot boiling by assisting the monthly money transfers from one part to the other when the couples are apart. The global inequality creates new markets for sexual meetings, migrations and money streams.
These transactions are significant sources of income for poor countries such as Gambia. However, current research tends to primarily focus on women as sex workers and sex migrants. The fact that men use intimacy as an access card to a new world is even more underexposed, as is the perception of women as ‘prostitution customers’.
Traditionally in sociological theory it is often assumed that the economic superior become the powerful part in transactional sexual relationships.
However an increasing number of sociologists are challenging this assumption. Still the question about ‘prostitution’ and ‘sex work’ is more complicated. The terms limit the understanding of what is really going on; this is both normatively and also in relation to the gendered narratives which men and women respectively use when trying to explain what is happening. In response to this, the international research on the topic has developed the notion ‘transactional sexual relation’ during the recent years. The notion of ‘transactionality’ is used as a more empiric, accurate term and a less theoretical, predetermined term than ‘prostitution’ and ‘sex work’, since the emphasis is on the fact that both parts of the relationship have the ability to act, though in a shifting relationship of dominance.
‘Our love is not like everybody else’s’
Desire, gender and economy is interlinked in unclear ways and it is not constructive to force a one-sided perspective that only focuses on hierarch and dichotomy; where one part is suppressed. Furthermore, the relations are emotional. A Swedish woman explained:
“Our love is not like everybody else’s. Our love is real love. A lot of men here [in Gambia] get money from their women. My boyfriend has never asked me of anything. All that I give him comes from my heart.”
And as a Gambian man explained:
“Feelings are feelings, there is no difference. If I touch your body, you will get a feeling and it is the same feeling, if you touched my body.”
The statements above indicate that the relations between the European women and Gambian men demand emotional involvement from both sides. Also, the money is part of a bodily practice. It comes, so to say, from ‘the heart’. In any case, ‘the heart’ becomes a metaphor for that part of the relationship which indicates the material and economic exchange – it becomes a sort of ‘charity’.
This way, the economy is transformed from being merely a ‘transaction’ to being a significant factor in a romantic process. The money, the things, the food are indicators of ‘the real’. This turns around the assumption commonly used when interpreting intimacy mixed with money. In spite of the men’s more goal-oriented economic intentions with the relationship and the women’s more direct sexual desire for the men, none of the parties can deny feelings of care and loyalty. This bond would normally be defined as ‘sex tourism’. This is often overlooked when men from the North travel as ‘sex tourists’ to the South. Perhaps this is because the narratives, the stories we expect of the sexes, of men and women, is embedded in the way we research the field of gender and sexuality.
However, the gender as a meta-principle for an analysis of the phenomenon seems to have less validity than other ‘principles’. For both Nordic men and women as customers, the ‘paid-for romance’ is characterized the same way: short sexual/intimate relationships, sustained by material goods (e.g. shoes, mobile phones, food or similar) or money. Also, the prize is often not decided beforehand and in some cases the relationship continues long distance with regular economic transactions.
Hence the question of whether the relationships are authentic or instrumental is not spot on. This is in spite of the Western understanding that legitimate intimate relationships are based on ‘authenticity’. The way the European women are so politically correct in speaking about their relationship is challenged in the encounter with different cultural understandings.
Towards a constructive debate
Combining love and money is considered legitimate in large parts of Africa. For instance, a common marriage tradition involves dowry. However, the exploitation aspect and global inequality is not irrelevant. But the scope of focus must be on the exploitation of migrants: migrants doing a wide range of work and not just ‘sex work’. This would benefit the debate. If we absolutely have to use the term ‘trafficking’, it must be understood in a broader way in relation to both men and women and many ways of working. This would help illustrate the links between migration, work, power, and exchange. This way, neither sexuality nor intimacy is demonised. Thus we can focus on the actual challenges in the global market economy. Economic crisis and poverty, social commitment and solidarity, environment and Human Rights – these are just a few of the pressuring issues that make people want to travel transnationally.
Original article written by Marie Bruvik Heinskou