Activists unleash campaign to shut down 'sex tours'

Human-rights groups demand tougher laws to drive out tour operatorswho offer 'romantic' holidays overseas

Norman Barabash readily acknowledges his company, Big Apple Oriental Tours, arranges trips for men in the United States to go to Angeles City in the Philippines. While the area is well known for prostitution, Mr. Barabash insists his tours are not about sex. They're about romance. In fact, he claims that one-quarter of his clientele end up marrying what his advertising calls one of the "approximately 400 lovely, marriage-minded Oriental ladies" at their disposal during their stay. But to critics, Barabash's business is nothing more than a thinly veiled front to promote prostitution overseas. The women are not consenting adults, they argue, but are forced by economic deprIvation into Asia's dark, sleazy bar scene where they can be bought for as little as $24 a night. "This isn't about romance. This is about getting as much sex as you can as cheaply as possible," says Ken Franzblau, a lawyer with the international women's rights group, Equality Now, which is based in New York. In a new strategy designed to attack the demand side of the international sex trade, women's and children's rights groups are targeting some 25 companies in the US that organize "sex tours" overseas and the people who go on them. Some activists are pressuring local prosecutors to go after tour operators. They're also working to get laws passed that would make sex tourism illegal nationally. Others are trying to educate airlines, travel agents, and the public about the brutal nature of the trade. Sex-industry culture "This is about a cultivated taste in a culture, and the perception that women and children are there to be used and discarded," says Swanee Hunt, director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. "I see it as extremely dangerous," she adds. While no one knows exactly how many women and children are caught up in the shadowy $5.5 billion business, estimates range as high as 30 million worldwide. Many are forced or tricked into the trade. For others, it's their only economic option. Poor families have been known to sell sons and daughters into the trade for a one-time payment and the promise of future earnings."Things seem to be getting worse because of the economic dislocation in Eastern and Central Europe, and the economic crisis in Asia," says Mr. Franzblau. "We're also seeing more of it in Latin America." Franzblau is a key figure in the effort to put "sex tour" operators out of business, and he's found how difficult that can be. As a result of the 1994 crime bill, it is illegal in the US for anyone to go overseas with the "intent" of having sex with a minor. But intent is hard to prove, and no one has ever been prosecuted under that law. There is also no federal law that explicitly prohibits the promotion of overseas sex tourism when only adults are involved. The operators are careful to state that the young women offered as "companions" are over 18 years old. Although he concedes it's impossible to guarantee the women are of age, he says the Philippine authorities who license them to work in the bars have become stricter about demanding proof of adulthood. Barabash also acknowledges his clients must pay a "bar fine" to take the women out of the bars. But he says the payment is to compensate the owner for the girls' absence during work hours, not for sex. "After [they leave], it's strictly a matter of between consenting adults," he says. "If they want to [have sex] they will, and if they don't, they won't. Nobody is standing behind them with a gun." But Franzblau, who posed as a potential client of several tour operations, contends the money is clearly for sexual services. He says he was told by at least one operator that if he was dissatisfied sexually with a woman he took out of a bar on a tour, he'd get his money back. "There is obviously the expectation on the part of the man, and a requirement of the bar, that if a woman is 'bar fined' she's going to submit to whatever sexual activity the sex tourist wants to have," says Franzblau. Other tour operators are far more explicit and graphic on their Web sites and in their brochures. One openly promises "very affordable excitement and satisfaction." A push to prosecute "The reality is that they can set up these 'sex tours' here because prosecutors haven't done enough to use local laws to combat it," says Franzblau. For two years, Equality Now has pressured the district attorney in the borough of Queens, where Big Apple Oriental Tours is located, to prosecute Barabash using a New York law that prohibits the promotion of prostitution. The DA's office refuses to say whether an investigation is under way. Children's rights groups are also trying to attack the demand side of the sex-trafficking equation, but with different tactics - raising awareness. "In the US, there's an audience that knows you can get children for sale in other countries, and they think it's OK," says Carol Smolenski. coordinator of the nonprofit End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT) in New York. "The other audience doesn't know this is a problem and can't believe Americans would be a part of it," adds Ms. Smolenski. ECPAT was started in Thailand in 1991 after research showed a huge increase in the number of children forced into the sex trade in Asia. For the first time, ECPAT has begun working in the US to alert people to the large number of American sex tourists who go abroad. Just 'regular guys' "People think sex tourists are perverted pedophiles with greasy hair, when in fact they're regular working guys," says Smolenski. "They may be married or single, but they think it's OK, that the people are somehow different overseas." In Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Asia, ECPAT has succeeded in getting airlines and travel agents to post signs in airports warning people that engaging in sex with minors is illegal and distribute fliers about the brutal nature of the trade. This summer, Smolenski tried to recruit US-based airlines to do the same. But so far, she's received either politely worded rejections, or heard nothing from the 10 major carriers she's contacted. Joe Hopkins of United Airlines calls ECPAT's efforts a "worthy and legitimate cause." But he says the company declined to work with ECPAT because of its "relatively small budget to support various causes." Smolenski is also hoping to persuade the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the three major New York airports, to post warning signs. "It's estimated there are a million children in Asia, and a million in the rest of the world being forced into the sex trade each year," says Smolenski. "We simply have to do more to stop this."

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