This post was originally published at the Huffington Post.
Many Europeans come to Senegal for sex. They do it because West Africa is poor, anonymous and convenient. Fancy resorts, with their attendant communities of tourists, are few and far between here. The country’s grittiness keeps away the judgmental gaze of Western visitors.
In coastal cities like Mbour and Ziguinchor, male prostitution is common. I have observed as older white European women embrace young, athletic Senegalese men for company, and I presume, for sex. In Mbour, I’ve seen the men exercise on the beach, flexing muscles: auditioning. They later approach female tourists, who take their pick. Some men, after their workouts, have traipsed up to me as I’m reclining on the sand, hoping I might be interested. Perhaps it’s clear after I respond to them in a local language that I’m not a tourist with money to spend.
Inland, where I live, female sex work is more common. The main hotel in Kolda, a leafy oasis with a pool, a sports bar, a restaurant, and wireless internet, is the hang-out for European men and their Senegalese “girlfriends.”
These men spend their days in the bush outside Kolda somewhere, being driven around in 4WDs, walking through the forest in their camouflage-print outfits, shooting at game. On days when I use the internet at the hotel, I see them arrive in the evening with their Senegalese guides trailing them in matching camo gear dragging their furry catch. If these men wanted to hunt, they would have headed to East or Southern Africa. Here they settle for warthogs, squirrels and pigeons.
By night, the Europeans sit at long dinner tables by the pool, each of their arms slung around young Senegalese women. It’s like they are all on a singles retreat or at a swingers’ party. Everyone canoodles with everyone else.
There seems to be a lot of pretending going on. The Senegalese women pretend to be girlfriends, spending time with the men, talking, laughing and sleeping with them. While I’ve never seen money change hands, the monetized nature of these relationships is something everyone talks about. A woman my age who I teach English to after her shifts as the hotel hostess says she’s embarrassed to sometimes be confused with the other young women who hang out there as prostitutes.
Perhaps there are deeper romantic connections I’m unaware of between the European men and their Senegalese paramours, but given the attractiveness of these women, I doubt that overweight, middle-aged men from the South of France would be their ideal mates if it weren’t for the monetary and immigration issues at play.
Some say that this is a harmless win-win for everyone. Senegal’s HIV/AIDS rate, at 1%, is one of the lowest in Africa. Locals I talk to about it seem ambivalent: they seem quietly disgusted by sex tourism, but then shrug it off, unable to come up with a more viable financial alternative.
There is also the argument, propounded by some economists, that African women who choose to engage in sex work are making an extremely rational economic decision, one that could improve their lives in real ways.
All that aside, I still can’t help but be sickened by the obvious power differential between an affluent Westerner making a kept woman or a kept man out of a Senegalese local. I have a visceral reaction to this form of inequality. Sex tourism, with its explicit racial components, seems like colonialism of the most intimate and worst kind.