I began noticing the stickers on the windows of businesses along Vía Primavera and Vía Provenza last year.
They said No al Turista Sexual, the meaning of which should be apparent to most foreigners, whether they speak a lick of Spanish or not.
The stickers, along with the businesses agreeing to display them, send a clear message that sex tourists are not welcome in those places. And there’s strength in numbers.
The more businesses that display them, the harder it becomes to ignore the sentiment of a community that has seen an increase in sex tourists on par with the city’s impressive growth in tourism.
The “No to the Sex Tourist” campaign was launched by Pazamanos, a local NGO, in response to what it saw as a sense of apathy among Colombians concerning the rise in sex tourists around Parque Lleras.
In order to learn more about the problem and the campaign, I visited the offices of Pazamanos earlier this month, where I had the chance to speak with the staff there.
My first question was what is their definition of a “sex tourist” as that itself is up for debate.
They said if the visitor’s primary intention for going to a country was to have sex, then he/she is a sex tourist.
When it comes to determining who is or isn’t a sex tourist in my mind, I think of the “I know it when I see it” attitude taken by U.S. Justice Potter Stewart when trying to define what is obscenity, and therefore, what is covered by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which guarantees a right to free speech.
For example, I recall a conversation last year with a friend in Medellín who was clearly disturbed by the fact that one of the rooms being rented in the apartment where he was staying was occupied by an older foreign man.
This man had two girls a day coming over for sex, every day, for at least a week. When I asked my friend how he met them, he said Facebook. He was also concerned some might have been under 18.
I hope we can all agree this kind of behavior is predatory (and abusive and basic exploitation of women), increases the odds of passing STDs, increases the chances of unwanted pregnancies in teenagers, and ultimately, takes much more than it gives to the local society.
As U.S. readers were reminded in this 2012 story by Colombia Reports:
The age of consent in Colombia is 14, however, it is illegal to engage in prostitution under 18.
The United States’ Protect Act allows U.S. prosecutors to prosecute American citizens for engaging in illicit sexual conduct with a person under the age of 18.
I also asked about what motivated Pazamanos to take up this cause.
The campaign started from seeing this problem develop in front of our eyes like these activities were totally normal. This is a cultural campaign. A campaign that seeks to show rejection of sex tourists, but also seeks to raise awareness among normal tourists and locals.
This campaign that Pazamanos initiated has been promoted by local institutions, hostels, hotels, bars, restaurants, etc. because we, together, want to promote a healthy and sustainable tourism.
In response to whether they’ve noticed a change around Parque Lleras since the campaign launched:
The campaign did not start in Parque Lleras but in Vía Primavera and Provenza, however there are some establishments there that have already adopted the campaign.
The campaign is based in something called “tactic urbanism.”
It started in Vía Primavera and Provenza by the shops and coffee shops and now has already spread to other places in Medellín, like restaurants on Calle 10, hotels in Laureles or Parque Arví.
The shops and coffee shops in Provenza have informed that these activities have decreased in the area. However, the activities of sex tourists are really difficult to measure. Other important data is that day by day, more and more people is conscious about this problem and people conscious will bring change.
And I also wanted to know what our readers could do to help if they are concerned with the exploitation of women and children in Medellín.
Everyone can get involved, first learning about this problem, raising awareness with family and friends, joining the campaign using the logo on their phones, computers, cars, etc, and in the last place showing their pacific rejection to these sex tourists.
Colombian people has suffered and have carried a stigma internationally for too long. We don’t want this to happen again with the sex tourist.
We want to protect our social capital. We want a healthy and sustainable tourism. And through cultural change, we can start doing that.
Earlier this week, a mutual friend put me in touch with Samantha Eyler, a feminist writer living in Santa Elena.
She has written extensively on women’s issues, so I took the opportunity to ask her a few questions as well.
What can be done in Medellín, and Colombia as a whole, to clamp down on the exploitation of girls and boys under the age of 18?
An overwhelming amount of data indicates that any form of social, legal, or economic stigmatization and repression drives markets underground and empowers the worst kinds of opportunists to take advantage of desperate or marginalized people.
So at the macro level, one of the most important things that needs to be done is to break down the huge stigmas that make all sex workers afraid to use their voices, speak out about the exploitation that happens to them, and seek the legal redress and protections to which they are entitled.
Those wishing to help children stuck in the sex trade should understand that the number-one push factor driving them and keeping them in the sex trade is severe socioeconomic vulnerability and lack of social security.
Fixing this vulnerability at the roots involves strengthening the social safety net and improving the opportunities of the most vulnerable citizens to develop their human capital, so you should support all political and economic initiatives with those aims.
Is there anything readers concerned with the exploitation of women and children in Medellín can do to help?
At the micro level, individuals can start, obviously, by ensuring they never, EVER buy sex from an underage sex worker.
If there is any doubt whatsoever about the sex worker’s age, remove yourself from the interaction. And I am also an advocate of publicly calling out any person you know who is criminal enough to pay for sex with minors.
You could do this on sex trade forum sites like International Sex Guide, or even on the local Facebook groups for expats. Calling people out is the most forceful way that concerned individuals can directly impact the norms of their own communities.
I’d also note from my own experiences in the expat community here in Medellin, the people who we need to speak out and publicly shame their peers who are involved in exploitative transactions are men to other men.
Conversations about the local sex trade happen in frat-boy-type bubbles where guys are way more interested in showing off their sexual prowess than in probing each other’s sexual ethics.
But if you know your mate is paying for sex with a 17-year-old or employing underage cam girls and you don’t call him out on it, you are part of the problem.
Show your support for the No al Turista Sexual campaign by visiting and liking the Facebook page and sharing it with friends.
Learn more about Pazamanos, including their other social projects like Héroes Comuna 13, at their website.
Corrections: On May 2, 2015, the title was changed from “No to Sex Tourism” to “No to the Sex Tourist” and three quotes from Pazamanos’ staff were added.