by Anneke Koning and Johan van Wilsem
Why does transnational child sexual exploitation happen in certain countries and not in others? It is frequently assumed that corrupt governments, poverty, and insufficient protection of children’s rights are at the root of the problem. But new research shows that the relationship between these factors is different from what is expected.
Across the world, children have been and continue to be sexually exploited in violation of their human rights. Some of their abusers travel great distances, across country borders, to find them. While this transnational child sexual abuse is more popularly known as ‘child sex tourism’, we will here use the terminology ‘sexual exploitation of children in the context of travel and tourism’ (or SECTT in short) following international guidelines.
Some countries are more infamous for being a destination for these offenders than others. Images come to mind of media reports and documentaries which tend to focus on Southeast Asia. Using reports from the US State Department, our study identified 65 countries across the world where child sexual exploitation by foreigners occurs; that is about one in three countries worldwide. Most, but not all, of these are located in East Asia, Latin America, and Africa.
Why are some countries in the world destinations for SECTT, while others are not? We combined our own document analysis with data from international organizations such as the World Bank to better understand why some countries are destinations for SECTT, while others are not, A logistic regression analysis enabled us to see which factors could predict whether a country was a destination or not. When examining the patterns in our data, we found three surprising lessons about where in the world SECTT occurs.
1 Economic development explains it all
First, the factors that best explain where SECTT happens are economic development and geographical location in the world. As one would expect, poor countries are more likely to be a destination for SECTT than rich countries. In line with macroeconomic studies which have found that economic development and distance from the equator are linked, with tropical countries lagging behind compared to temperate zones, we also find that countries that are closer to the equator are more at risk of SECTT than countries closer to the poles. Considering that these (geo-)economic factors remain quite constant over time, this first finding supports the notion that structural global inequalities lie at the root of the problem.
2 Corruption matters less than expected
Second, contrary to what has previously been assumed, government corruption does not predict where in the world SECTT occurs when we take economic factors into account. While, overall, destination countries for SECTT have weaker governments than non-destination countries, this effect decreases when economic factors are taken into account. This finding shows how much economic development and quality of government are intertwined. If police in developing countries are not receiving adequate resources, their ability to effectively protect their citizens weakens. Hence, fighting corruption matters, but it is economic development that matters most evidently.
3 Transnational child sex offenders travel to poor countries with better – not worse – living conditions for children
Our findings about protection of children’s rights are even more surprising. Overall, and as we expected, children live in worse conditions in the countries that transnational child sex offenders travel to. But when countries’ economic circumstances are taken into account, this effect reverses: when we compare countries with similar (poor) economic conditions, SECTT is more likely to occur in countries where children’s rights, for instance the right to life and education, are better protected. In other words, poor countries become more attractive destinations for transnational child sex offenders as children’s living conditions improve.
These findings do not mean that promoting children’s rights causes SECTT. Instead, we believe it shows that transnational child sex offenders travel to those countries where economic circumstances are dire, but children are nonetheless available as a ‘commodity’ for sexual exploitation. Poor countries where offenders can still expect to meet healthy youth who speak their language are more attractive destinations than parts of the world where the suffering of children is more visible or outspoken. As such, when we compare poor countries, SECTT happens there where children have a higher life expectancy and even attend (some) school, rather than in countries where children are, for example, dying young, underweight, uneducated, forced into other forms of child labor, or enlisted as child soldiers.
What does this mean for the fight to combat transnational child sex offending?
Our research shows that, more than other commonly assumed risk factors, stable economic factors explain where in the world children are exploited by transnational child sex offenders. Sexual exploitation of children by travelers happens against a backdrop of global economic inequality. At the least, then, transnational child sex offending needs to be addressed within a development framework, with attention to reducing economic inequality between and within countries. In the long run, poverty alleviation could be the most effective measure to combat sexual exploitation of children by travelers.
Solutions to combat this problem which fail to acknowledge this, will be dealing with the symptoms rather than its root causes. In the countries which offenders travel to, combatting corruption remains important, as well as stimulating responsible and sustainable tourism practices, and obviously improving the living conditions of children. But when we take a closer look, we realize that the main reason that children are not already protected, that education opportunities are lacking, that law enforcement is ineffective, that a country’s natural assets and children are sold off to foreigners; comes down to a lack of economic development in certain countries, and an abundance of wealth in others. An obviously simple answer, yet infuriatingly difficult to solve.
Anneke Koning is a criminologist and social scientist. Her doctoral research project, conducted at Leiden University, focuses on sexual exploitation of children in the context of travel and tourism, and is funded by a Research Talent Award from the Dutch Research Council (NWO). Her broader research interests include sexual violence against children, trafficking in human beings, transnational crime, and safety policy. [ORCiD | LinkedIn]
Johan van Wilsem is a strategist-researcher at the Netherlands Court of Audit. He is interested in applying insights from the social sciences to determine the effectiveness of government policies. His main areas of expertise in the field of security and justice are crime victimization, cybercrime, and environmental crime. [ORCiD]