Sun, Safaris and Sex Tourism in Kenya

Kenya is becoming a hub of sex tourism but at what cost to the Kenyan people?

NAIROBI, Kenya, October 7, 2008 -- It's Saturday night at one of Nairobi's trendiest expat clubs. The drinks are flowing, the house music is blaring and couples are either grinding on the dance floor or chatting at the bar. Some are hugged up together on the couchlike seating outside.

But these aren't your typical young party-goers having fun -- a vast majority of the couples on this Saturday night, actually every Saturday night, are made up of old white men, mostly tourists and businessmen, and hot, young Kenyan women.

The scene looks like something out of a comedy movie. Some of the men are bald, others have Donald Trump haircuts, dancing like grandfathers struggling to find the beat. Lots of Bill Gates glasses and brown and black sport coats with T-shirts underneath.

And the girls? Tall, slender, dark with skimpy clothing and come-hither smiles.

One man looks to be about 60, with a bald head, potbelly and his black T-shirt tucked into high-waisted pants. He approaches a Kenyan girl who looks about 25. She's tall, in a tiny form-fitting black dress and heels that make her legs look like they go for miles.

"Can I buy you a drink?" he asks with a heavy German accent. She says demurely, "Yes. Where are you from?"

Before long they are chatting at the bar and his hand slides from her back to her backside, her arm around his waist. He taps her behind to the beat of Britney Spears' "Give Me More," whispers in her ear and just a few minutes later they exit the club, together.

A Kenyan woman standing next to them shakes her head and says to her friend, "Langa," a slang term for "whore" in Swahili, Kenya's national language.

The young woman in the dress may not have been a prostitute, but chances are she was. One of the "perks" of coming to Kenya as a tourist from the West is the easy availability of prostitutes.

A Reputation for 'Easy Sex'

Prostitution is technically illegal in Kenya, but authorities and club and resort owners look the other way. It's often considered a part of the tourist experience -- and the hundreds of millions of dollars Kenya brings in because of tourism.

But it isn't just the country's wildlife and beaches that draw millions of people every year.

"Kenya has a reputation for easy sex," said Caroline Naruk, 29, an account manager at a Kenyan ad agency.

Prostitutes are not always your typical "streetwalkers." Many can be found at what are considered upscale establishments.

"Some of these woman are working, middle-class women," said Naruk. "They say 'In the evening I'll get dressed up, hook up with a tourist, have sex, get the money and press on with life.'"

Kenyan Prostitution Perverse to Locals

The problem, say most Kenyans, is that these "arrangements" start to perverse the entire society. Naruk is a tall, slim, stunning young woman -- and says she is constantly harassed by Western tourists and businessmen.

"I feel so insulted," she said. "It's gotten to the point that when I go out, I stress over how I can dress so that I will look different."

She has just stopped going to certain establishments. But she's been harassed at her job as well. One Westerner in town for business, who she says was nearly 50 years old, got her number from her supervisor and began continuously calling, trying to lure her to his room.

"It really became an issue," she said. "Most tourists and businessmen that come here have a lot of money, and when they come here they think 'I can be whatever I want to be,' and that's how they behave."

Prostitution Turns Child Exploitation

Sex for payment is so common in Nairobi, on the coast of Kenya, particularly in the vacation towns of Mombasa and Malindi, that the thirst for prostitution has led to the widespread exploitation of children. Kenya is now considered one of the worldwide hubs for child sex tourism.

In 2006, UNICEF released a report on child trafficking in Kenya revealing that up to 30 percent of teenage girls ages as young as 12 living on the coast were involved in casual sex for cash.

And it's the Western tourists who are driving the trade, according to the report. Men from Europe make up more than half of the clients.

"Tourists that exploit children are at the center of a ring of corruption that involves many from the local community," the report states. "It is vital that the adult perpetrators and not the victims themselves are prosecuted for these crimes."

In Mombasa, young Kenyan men, known as "beach boys," are known to couple up with older white women, often Western tourists who have flown down specifically for sexual encounters. Just like their female counterparts, these young men are supplied with money and some prestige of being the "boyfriend" of a rich Western tourist.

Kenyan Prostitutes Hope for Rescue

But the reality of what these arrangements mean for young Kenyan women and men are usually much different than the fantasy they are selling. Some are not actual professional prostitutes, but poor young men and women who believe a rich "white knight" will come and rescue them and give them a life of Western luxury.

While there is the occasional story of a couple who end up in a loving, long-term relationship, for the most part, it's the Kenyan who ends up eventually suffering. Kenya is still a relatively conservative, religious society, and men and women who get involved in "relationships" with tourists are often ostracized.

"For the tourist, they really don't care," said Naruk. "The attitude is: 'I can have sex with you, I can make you pregnant, I can even infect you with HIV and move on with my life. As long as I give you money, it's fine.'"

She tells the story of an acquaintance of hers who at 23 years old became involved with a 45-year-old British man in Kenya on business. He wined and dined her, and when his business was over he went back to the United Kingdom, leaving her pregnant. Naruk says her friend has not seen the man in years. The encounter ruined the woman's life.

"She had to quit college, her job and move back home with her mother," said Naruk. "She has never recovered, and her child will never know his father."

And while most Kenyans admit that no one forces these young women and men to get involved with Western tourists, they are unhappy about the reputation for easy sex the country has -- and they place the blame squarely on the "immoral" behavior of the tourists coming here.

"It's like, because you're white and you have money you can get away with all of this, and it's OK," said Naruk. "But it's not."