Sugar Mummies by Tanika Gupta

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Female sex tourism is a subject that is widely debated in social studies, but hardly ever in arts and entertainment. But it is those that have a huge impact on how a subject is perceived by the general public. Tanika Gupta’s play Sugar Mummies is one of the most recent pieces of art to deal with the subject of female sex tourism, and it deals with a variety of issues that influence its conceptualisation. In the following paper it will be argued that in the play Sugar Mummies, a number of different issues, like gender, economic imbalance and race form a complex framework in which exploitation in female sex tourism is addressed. This is done by firstly introducing the playwright and a short outline of the structure of the play. Then there will be an overview about how female sex tourism has been conceptualised in social science and in arts and entertainment. This will be followed by an analysis of how the two groups of characters, the beach boys and the tourist women, are constructed and which issues are addressed via the character groups. In the end follows an analysis of the most shocking scenes that deal with exploitation in the play Sugar Mummies.

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In the academic literature about women who go to foreign places and then enter into intimate and sexual relationships with local man, there is quite some disagreement about how to call the phenomenon. Some researchers like Klaus De Albuquerque or Jaqueline Sánchez Taylor call it ‘sex tourism’, but others, like Deborah Pruitt and Susan LaFront think that this term would misrepresent the nature of the relationship between the involved parties and have therefore coined the term ‘romance tourism’. In this paper, the term ‘sex tourism’ will be used for all forms of the practice in order to maintain consistency.

Play and Playwright

Tanika Gupta

Tanika Gupta is a British playwright. Because of her Asian descent, she was once labelled “’the Asian woman Bengali writer’”, a title she does not really appreciate. Her reaction to this label was “why not just call me a writer?” (Barnett). She was raised in a very creative family; her mother was an Indian dancer and her father used to perform as a singer in Indian dance dramas. Because of this, stories were an important part of her upbringing. She also started writing very early, claiming that she wrote her first play when she was six years old (Billingham 204). Before and besides being a writer, Tanika Gupta was a social and community worker (Billingham 209) which together with her multicultural upbringing might have influenced and formed her talent for writing great characters and dialogue.

The Play

Sugar Mummies is a play written by Tanika Gupta in 2006. It was commissioned by the Royal Court Theatre, which also paid for Guptas expenses when she went to Negril, Jamaica to research the relationships between the tourist women and the local men (Griffin 234). It is a realist play, with comic and romantic as well as tragic elements. The play has two acts, the first being an introduction to the characters and the relationships they form. There are funny scenes in the first act, for example, when the seventeen-year-old Antonio hits on Maggie, a white divorcee in her fifties. Antonio is still inexperienced in the rules of how to chat up tourist women, while Maggie is an experienced sex tourist

The painful side of female sex tourism is partly hidden at first, even though there are hints to it in the dialogue, for example when Kitty, a 38-year-old teacher, and Maggie talk about the beach boys and employ a number of colonialist and racist stereotypes, or when the beach boys call the women milk bottles. The seeming harmony gets broken with the last scene of the first act, when Maggie gets furious that Antonio can’t physically perform for her, and she starts to whip him in a scene which reminds the audience that the relationship between the tourist women and the beach boys cannot be just seen as holiday entertainment or as a way for the men to earn money, but that they form part of a postcolonial inequality between the rich women and the poor men. The play also draws attention to what happens when the holidays are over, in the form of Naomi, Maggie’s young friend, who is the product of the relationship of her mother with a beach boy. After her mother’s death, she came to Jamaica to search for her father. She starts a friendship with Andre, the chef at the hotel. The characters are completed with Angel, Andre’s mother, and Yolanda, a married Afro-American woman in her fifties who has been coming to Jamaica for five years to pursue a relationship with beach boy Reefie.

In the second act, the relationships that were previously established, turn sour. The audience witnesses how Kitty, who entered a relationship with beachboy Sly, deludes herself and thinks the relationship is real. Yolanda realises that her relationship with Reefie is leading nowhere and decides not to come back. Naomi’s and Andre’s friendship gets tested when she offers to pay for him to go to a cooking college. Andre is torn between his wish to be a proper chef, his fear that Naomi wants to buy him as if he were a gigolo and his feelings for her. At the same time, Andre and Angel try to convince the young Antonio to stop trying to work as a beach boy, which offers insight into the living conditions in Jamaica. In the end, all relationships but the one of Naomi and Andre fall apart. That their relationship works out has been pointed out as a weakness of the play, as it were a too positive ending (Billingham 247). However, one has to take into consideration, that Naomi’s and Andre’s happy end is followed by Angel’s confession to Reefie, that her man has ultimately died from a sexually transmittable disease that he caught through his work as a beach boy.

Romance Tourism? The Conceptualisation of Female Sex Tourism

Conceptualisation in social science

According to Julia O’Connell Davidson, the number of women participating in sex tourism is much smaller than the number of men who do so (181). Different from the female form of prostitution, there is also no comparable industry behind male prostitution. This means there exist hardly any brothels with male prostitutes, while the opposite is an establishment that can be found in most bigger cities, also in Jamaica (Jeffreys 228). This might be a reason why the phenomenon of women travelling to exotic places in order to engage in intimate relationships with local men is not as well-known as male sex tourism. However, female sex tourism is also conceptualised widely different from the male counterpart. Not even the terms in which to refer to this phenomenon are undisputed. Scholars like Deborah Pruitt and Susan LaFront coined the term ‘romance tourism’ instead of sex tourism. They argue that the nature of the relationships developed in these encounters is constructed more in terms of courtships and long-term relationships than like an exchange of sexual services for money (Pruitt and LaFront 423). The men servicing the tourist women are not called prostitutes but rather beach boys or simply boyfriends (Gardner).

Feminist scholars who have commented on the practice even think that the female tourists sexual relationships with local men cannot be labelled sex tourism or even prostitution because the economic privilege that the women possess and which allows them to command the men is repealed as soon as the women enter into serious relationships with the local men, for example by moving in with the men or inviting the men to live with them at their home country. Then the male privilege trumps the economic privilege and the women often become victims of abuse by their formerly very obliging partners (Jeffrey 230). Sheila Jeffreys further argues that it is not possible to compare female sex tourism and male sex tourism because the gender differences in this field are so significant (233).

Pruitt and LaFront’s perspective is different form Jeffreys in the sense that they describe the relationships between the beach boys and the tourist women as spaces where both parties can try out different gender identities. They state that classical gender roles are contested on a daily basis, so it makes sense that women who have the means to travel the world use this opportunity to negotiate their gender identity free from their own societies restrain (Pruitt and LaFront 423). Similarly, beach boys “enter into a new tourism culture and distance themselves from their society’s normative authority.” (Ibid. 423) Pruitt and LaFront argue that “It is significant that neither actor considers their interaction to be prostitution, even while others may label it so. The actors place an emphasis on courtship rather than the exchange of sex for money.” (423) The aspect of romance is foregrounded and the aspect of sex only a natural consequence from a perceived romantic attachment. Pruitt and LaFront have also found that many of the tourist women who were interviewed did not just want to holiday in an exclusive resort but used the local men as a gateway to local culture and society (426). Cultural exchange is a feature that is part of the goal a woman has when she starts a relationship with a local man (Frolick 152f), but it is hardly ever featured in male sex tourism as Herold confirms (982).

While female sex workers in the Caribbean tend to have a direct approach about offering sexual services for a specific fee, the beach boys normally don’t approach women mentioning a fee for their services (Herold 986f). Further, beach boys tend to spend more time with their tourist women than female sex workers generally spend with their clients. Because of this, the relationships between the tourist women and local men are structured like long-term relationships in the sense that there is a variety of activities which are done together, from sightseeing to sharing meals (Herold 984, 987). Women who seek companionship from local men might even tend to come back for several years to be with the same beach boy (Pruitt and La Front 426). The tourist women still tend to pay the beach boys, but in much more subtle ways than a direct financial transaction, by paying for meals, letting the men stay in their rooms and buying them gifts. The women who enter into long-term relationships with beach boys tend to continue to support them financially even when they are not together (Herold 992). However, even women who have admitted that there is an economic element in their relationship with a beach boy did not think that they were participating in prostitution (Sánchez Taylor 754). Of course, there are always exceptions to every generalisation, but on a large scale, this difference in behaviour implies that women tend to focus more on companionship while men tend to focus more on the sexual aspects of the relationships (Herold 995).

Other scientists, like Klaus de Albuquerque and Jaqueline Taylor Sánchez, argue, that even though there are differences between the male and the female variety of sex tourism, that is still what it is: sex tourism. De Albuquerque argues, that the reason why sex tourism in Barbados and Jamaica sometimes differs from conventional sex tourism is that of the lack of an organized system and not because the clients are female (92). He believes that both female and male sex tourism is mainly born out of a racialized sexual fantasy (107). Sánchez even argues that these fictions of romance, which are understood to differentiate the harmless romance tourism from the evil sex tourism, can be a mechanism that make it difficult for the men to take control of the relationships with the tourist women, because they have to behave according to the romance pattern which “and hinders attempts to turn such relationship into work.” (51). Sánchez further highlights, that even though both, the local men and the tourist women, have an interest in downplaying the economical part of their relationship, and highlighting the supposed empowering aspects, for the men it can also be an economic necessity (56). The problem in female sex tourism is, that the boundaries are very fuzzy. Very often it is unclear where a mutually beneficial relationship ends and exploitation starts.

Conceptualisation in arts and entertainment

Even though female sex tourism has attracted scientific interest since the 1990’s, it has not yet attracted quite as much interest in arts and entertainment. A reason for this is probably the fact that it is not quite as a well-known phenomenon as male sex tourism and also a lingering believe, that women can’t be sexual predators and that relationships between tourist women and local men are mutually beneficial. As shown in the previous chapter, even social scientists are reluctant to label tourist women, who enter intimate relationships with local men and give them some sorts of payment for their attention, sex tourist.

One of the first plays which alluded to a woman having a sexual relationship with a local man was 1986 Willy Russel’s, Shirley Valentine. The play was made into a successful film starring the actress Pauline Collins and directed by Lewis Gilbert. It deals with a dissatisfied housewife, Shirley Valentine, who goes on a vacation to Greece, where she finds everything she lacked at home, also a local lover. In the end, Shirley decides to stay in Greece and not to return home, even though her affair with the local man ends. Neither play nor film directly deal with female sex tourism, as the economic side between Shirley and her local affair isn’t discussed, but nevertheless, the discussion about female sex tourism refers to the story of Shirley Valentine quite often (Aston, Bauer, Hoggard).

Ten years later, a dissatisfied woman finding love and happiness while on holiday was also the subject of Terry McMillan’s autobiographically inspired novel How Stella Got Her Groove Back. This novel was also adapted as a film, directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan and starring Angela Bassett as Stella. Stella, a successful workaholic single mother goes to Jamaica, where she meets a much younger man called Winston Shakespeare, and by falling in love with him realises how much she missed out on life before. She invites him to America and the two marry. McMillan’s real-life love story took a bad turn when her husband Jonathan Plummer, the man who was her inspiration for Winston, came out as gay. While he maintained that he had really loved her, she didn’t believe him anymore, claiming that his attention to her was just a way for him to go to America (Younge). How Stella Got Her Groove Back surely wasn’t supposed to be a book about female sex tourism, as it deals with McMillan’s own love story, and there is no evidence, that her former husband just used her to get to America. But both, Shirley Valentine and How Stella Got Her Groove Back are highly popular stories, who deal with dissatisfied women who find everything they laced in the arms of a local man while on holiday. They romanticise the idea of having relationships with local men while on holiday, without really considering the perspective, aims or motivations of the men. These apparently harmless and romantic stories might well be inspirations for women to look for love while on holiday and take part in romance tourism. Journalist Nigel Bowen would even add best sellers like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love or Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun to this category.

The subject of female sex tourism was brought to public attention 2006, by the film Heading South, directed by Laurent Cantet. It is based on a short story from Dany Laferrière’s novel of the same name. The film deals with the story of three women who come to Haiti in order to pursue sexual relationships with young men there. The situation turns sour when one of the young men turns up dead at the beach. The movie does not give the young men much of a voice, but establishes the women characters as the protagonists, with the male characters as extras or as props. One exception is Albert, the bartender, who has been observing the relationships between the young boys and the women for a long time. He is allowed to express his disdain for white people, even though his job is to serve them. This film does not romanticise the relationships between the women and the young men, but similar to Sugar Mummies shows the differences between the women. The interaction between the local men and the tourist women is shown to be minimal. The film had mixed reviews, with some of the critics praising that the women are not demonized (Holden) and other criticise that it doesn’t fulfil its political potential (Bradshaw).

Sugar Mummies wasn’t the only play about women’s relationships abroad since Shirley Valentine. 2004 the play Trade by the British playwright debbie tucker green (sic) premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s New Work Festival. It also deals with female sex tourism, but in a rather different way than Sugar Mummies. Her play is written for three black actresses, who play all of the roles, including the local women and man, hotel staff and white tourist women. Through the double castings the tensions between race, class and gender are explored (Aston 184). Further, this focus on the female characters means that the feminist and gender aspects of sex tourism are highlighted (Goddard 138). Different from Sugar Mummies’ female Jamaican character Angel, Local, the local women in Trade, has a sexual relationship with the beach boy the tourists are sleeping with. She, therefore, adds a perspective which in Sugar Mummies lacked, because Angel’s man, who worked as a beach boy too, is quietly dying from a sexually transmittable disease in the off and is only mentioned three times. Trade was critically acclaimed, and those critics who compared it to Sugar Mummies seemed to like Trade better (Bennet, Macaulay, Marlowe). The reason for this might be, that Trade is a more artistic play, with the double and triple casting, whereas Sugar Mummies was more conventional. It might be that after seeing Trade (which was staged before Sugar Mummies), the critics had a certain expectation on how a play about female sex tourism should be, and therefore didn’t like Gupta’s approach.

After this overview it can be said, that female sex tourism is a topic that for a long time has only been dealt with in a trivializing and romanticising way. However, since the 2000 years, there has been a tendency to include more perspectives, especially those of the local population in sex tourism destinations.

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