Sex Tourism and Legal Change

Christopher Ewing is an Assistant Professor in the History Department at Virginia Commonwealth University and in summer 2019 was a visiting scholar at the Dahlem Humanities Center, working with Ulrike Schaper on a project examining overlapping discourses of (male) homo- and heterosexual sex tourism. His past work examines race and male homosexuality in the Federal Republic of Germany since 1945 more broadly and has been published in Sexuality & Culture, The Bulletin of the German Historical Institute, and Sexualities.

Through much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European colonies served as places of refuge for same-sex desiring German men fleeing legal persecution under Paragraph 175 and, after 1935, Paragraph 175a. At the same time, they also allowed German men to pursue their desires for exoticized men and boys – a trend dating back decades and often based on contradictory conceptions of racial difference.

Although West Germany decriminalized sexual acts between men over the age of 21, many same-sex desiring men continued to seek sex abroad, often traveling to places which they thought offered greater sexual freedom than the Federal Republic. In the context of shifting laws de/criminalizing homosexuality, sex work, and tourism, often in the wake of decolonization, many West German men determined their travel on the basis of the enforcement of laws (or second-hand reports thereof). This information could sometimes stand in opposition to racialized desires; however, it nevertheless helped shore up understandings of West Germany as politically and sexually progressive over the course of the 1970s and early 1980s.

In Search of (sexual) Freedom

The search for sexual liberality often had less to do with legal progressivism than with assumptions about the cultural acceptance of sexuality, which was sometimes intertwined with conceptions of civilizational backwardness.[i] In March 1970, newly founded gay magazine Du & Ich published a travel report on Morocco, writing that it was an appealing destination because, “for the Arabs love of a friend is no big deal.”[ii] Advertising its organized trip to Lebanon in 1973, Du & Ich wrote that in the “5000 year old cultural capital of the Phoenicians” travelers would “get to know interesting people, for whom there are no prejudices against homosexuality.”[iii] In 1974, Du & Ich drew on stereotypes of sub-Saharan African primitiveness to describe Togo as a place where people are “extremely primitive” but happy, while Germans are “all slaves of civilization,” an assumption extended to black Haitians in 1978.[iv]

Publications like Du & Ich and Spartacus Gay Guide – one of the most popular gay guides of the era – also paid close attention to shifting laws abroad, particularly as they impacted tourism. In August 1973, Du & Ich advised readers to always make sure a country tolerates gay tourism and to always check the age of consent, and published information about both in subsequent issues.[v] In May 1977, a reader who had been following Du & Ich’s reportage on Thailand wrote in to warn readers that the military dictatorship had destroyed the scene in Bangkok, shutting down brothels and arresting foreign homosexuals.[vi] In that same issue, a report  was published from Gay News about a British man who had been imprisoned in Tunisia on suspicion of homosexuality, asking the question, “is Tunisia dangerous as a vacation spot?”[vii] Since its founding, Spartacus consistently published what it understood of international laws regarding tourism, homosexuality, and sex work. In 1981, the guide directly linked tourist awareness to international solidarity, writing that “if gays in once place are oppressed, gays everywhere can be informed and make their protest within a very short time. If the gay scene is especially good in one area (…) the rest of us soon know it and go there to join the fun.”[viii]

Legal Uncertainty

Despite the comprehensiveness of Spartacus, however, same-sex desiring travelers in the 1970s would depend on an assortment of sources including gay travel guides, international news agencies, and first-hand accounts in order to stay informed, often leading to confusion. In March 1970, Du & Ich wrote that love of boys was forbidden in Morocco, “but only on paper” – information based on the reports of “colleagues and correspondents” who otherwise heartily recommended the country.[ix] However, in December 1973, the magazineadvised readers that Morocco could be inhospitable to homosexual tourists.[x] It was not until 1981 that Spartacus clarified for readers that in 1972 police started cracking down on homosexual tourists, whereas previously the country had been an attractive destination.[xi] However, a report from the Swiss magazine Der Kreis in 1966 declared that “adventures in Morocco have ended” because of police persecution, suggesting that already in the 1960s homosexual tourists were experiencing the ramifications of postcolonial law.[xii]

During the second half of the 1970s, the Philippines emerged as a popular destination, particularly for magazines like Du & Ich and Spartacus. However, in the early 1980s, both Spartacus and Du & Ich began to express ambivalence, in large part because of a 1980 law that criminalized the promotion of prostitution. Nevertheless, confusion still reigned. In December 1981, K. Haunder of Karlsruhe wrote in to Du & Ich to warn readers that the new law meant that the Philippines were no longer a “homo-paradise.”[xiii] In in the following issue of Du & Ich, reader Erik Bok directly refuted Haunder’s claims, writing that Manila was a “paradise for pedos.”[xiv] However, in October 1984, Du & Ich published a letter from a “Group of Gay’s [sic]” made up of “tourists, businessmen, and foreigners of many nations,” describing how police had been cracking down on foreign homosexuals, reflecting the inability of first-hand accounts to generate a unified picture for readers in the Federal Republic.[xv]

 Racial Knowledge

The apparent contradiction between sexual liberality and legal repression allowed readers to shore up racialized ideas of West Germany and western Europe as both civilized and politically progressive in contradistinction to other parts of the world that could be both sexually primitive and legally backwards. At the same time, the tenuousness of information about the legal situation in other countries helped foster the perpetuation of racial stereotypes as seemingly plausible explanations.

In 1975, contributor Hartmut Ahrens wrote into the April/May issue of the informational bulletin of the Allgemeine Homosexuelle Arbeitsgemeinschaft (AHA) West Berlin complaining that “in Tunisia you are more exposed to discrimination than in the FRG” in part because of the “mentality of Tunisians” which glorifies masculinity, as well as the “sexual practice of Arabs” which prioritizes active anal sex without regard to the “wishes or needs of their partner.”[xvi] In the wake of the 1979 Iranian revolution, the magazine him applaus reported in its January 1980 issue that in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, “the oppression of homosexuals belongs to the everyday picture of an environment that is marked by the teachings of Mohammed,” although bisexuality was common.[xvii] Throughout the 1980s, Spartacus echoed this claim about Muslim majority countries, which wrote about Tunisia in 1981 that “homosexuality is illegal, but the majority of male Tunisians take little trouble to disguise their basic bisexuality.”[xviii]

Postcolonial legal changes therefore entered into a feedback loop by which colonial-era assumptions of western European superiority were reinforced. West Germany had a vastly different relationship to decolonization from countries like France or the UK, and many tourist destinations were never strictly colonial spaces. Nevertheless, same-sex desiring travelers were able to bring racialist assumptions to bear on international legal frameworks and draw on first-hand tourist accounts to shore up a growing, though incomplete, understanding of West Germany as sexually progressive.


Diesen Artikel zitieren: Christopher Ewing, “Sex Tourism and Legal Change”, in: History | Sexuality | Law, 13/10/2019, https://hsl.hypotheses.org/964, (abgerufen am: Datum).


[i] Ulrike Schaper has shown that this process was by no means limited to homosexual sex tourism, as heterosexual men would often travel abroad in search of an eroticized past. Ulrike Schaper, “Reisen in eine vorfeministische Vergangenheit: Bundesdeutscher Sex Tourism und das Verhältnis zur ‘dritten Welt,’” GWU 68 3/4 (2018), 170-184.
[ii] Here the word “friend” (Freund) carries the connotation of male homosexuality. “Wenn es Nacht wird in Marokko,” Du & Ich, March 1970, 18.  [iii] “Arabische Nächte,” Du & Ich, May 1973, 7.
[iv] Eduard Müller, “Black is Beautiful,” Du & Ich, August 1974, 13; “HAITI INTIM,” Du & Ich,March 1978, 3-4.
[v] “Urlaub tips,” Du & Ich August 1973, 14.
[vi] Aime Sp., “Vorsicht in Bangkok,” Du & Ich, May 1977, 9.
[vii] “Ist Tunesien als Urlaubsort gefährlich?” Du & Ich,May 1977, 61.
[viii] John D. Stamford, Spartacus International Gay Guide 11th ed.(Amsterdam, 1981), 10.
[ix] “Wenn es Nacht wird in Marokko,” Du & Ich, March 1970, 19.
[x] “Reiseberatung,” Du & Ich December, 1970, 42.
[xi] Stamford, 364.
[xii] “Marokkanische Gesetzgebung,” Der Kreis, February 1966, 7.
[xiii] K. Haunder, “Warnung vor den Philippinen,” Du & Ich, September 1981, 7.
[xiv] Erik Bock, “Lob an die Philippinen,” Du & Ich, January 1982, 9.
[xv] “Ihr Report über die Philippinen: ‘Ein Paradies – wie lange noch?,” Du & Ich, October 1984, 7.
[xvi] Hartmut Ahrens, “Tunesien – Ein Urlaubsparadies für Schwule?” Allgemeine Homosexuelle Arbeitsgemeinschaft West-Berlin, April/May 1975, 47-8.
[xvii] “Islam Nordafrika,” him applaus, January 1980, 54.
[xviii] Stamford, 554.


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