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Studies explore sexual risk-taking among women travelers

LIza Berdychevsky
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L. Brian Stauffer

New research by Liza Berdychevsky and colleagues explores the motivations and consequences – both beneficial and detrimental - of women’s sexual risk-taking during tourist travel. Berdychevsky is a professor in the department of recreation, sport and tourism in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois.

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8/18/2014 | Sharita Forrest, Social Sciences Editor | 217-244-1072; slforres@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — What happens in Vegas – or on a beach in Cancun, a mountainside in Thailand or almost anywhere – doesn’t always stay there, especially in a Web-connected world.

For some women, sexual adventures during tourist travel can be life-changing – sparking sexual fulfillment and personal growth, or potentially causing devastating health or social problems, two new studies suggest.

Researchers Liza Berdychevsky, Heather Gibson and Yaniv Poria interviewed 34 women – 21 in Israel and 13 in the U.S. – about their sexual behavior as tourists, including beach vacations, backpacking trips and study-abroad programs. Their experiences included sexual experimentation with marital or steady partners and casual encounters with acquaintances or strangers, as well as traumatic incidents such as being coerced into sex, beaten or raped.

Tourist destinations promote an altered sense of reality and social atmosphere that encourages sexual risk-taking while minimizing perceptions of risk and long-term consequences. Berdychevsky and Gibson, who are faculty members at the University of Illinois and the University of Florida, respectively, explored some of those misperceptions and consequences in a paper to be published in Journal of Tourism Management.

“Tourism spaces – not only geographically but perceptually as well – are often different in many respects from the everyday routine,” said Berdychevsky, who is a professor in the department of recreation, sport and tourism. “Sometimes it is that sense of anonymity and that sense of detachment that enables women to leave behind some of their social baggage, statuses, roles, worries and caring responsibilities. Even not having your phone or laptop computer on you often results in a different state of mind.”

Some women perceive leisure travel as “transgressional space,” where sexual double standards get subdued, sexual roles can be inverted and women feel free to “behave like men” with risk-taking expected, Berdychevsky, Gibson and Yaniv Poria found in a study to be published in the journal Leisure Studies.

Poria is a faculty member at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel.

Young women often described beach vacations, backpacking trips and spring break outings as the ultimate opportunities for sexual risk-taking because higher degrees of sexual freedom are condoned in these environments, offering possibilities for sexual exploration and self-discovery that may be unavailable at home. Women may feel more comfortable breaching personal taboos and experimenting with new behaviors and practices, both with steady and casual sexual partners.

“The changes in women’s sexual behavior and risk-taking patterns during travel are very multifaceted and complex, depending on the type of tourist experience and the life stage a woman is in,” Berdychevsky said. “Nevertheless, many women in both studies suggested that for them the anonymity of being a tourist is more important than for men because of sexual double standards and the many sanctions attached to women’s sexual behavior in everyday life. Those Puritan and Victorian sentiments have not vanished yet, and it is actually in sexual behavior where we can see them the most vividly.”

However, sexual adventures during leisure travel can expose women to a variety of physical, sexual health, social-emotional-mental health and cultural risks. Young women’s perceptions of immortality and invulnerability may be shattered by unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, physical injuries and/or emotional trauma. And these problems may be compounded by the complexities and frustrations of obtaining medical services, legal assistance or help from police in foreign countries.

Moreover, women’s perceptions of safety and anonymity may be violated if photos of their activities unexpectedly appear on the Web or sexual partners use social media to locate and contact the women after they return home.

“There is a social expectation that if you are going on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, you are supposed to have fun, and for many women, sex is an integral part of it, which often leads to sexual risk-taking,” Berdychevsky said. “Frequently, however, when women talked about how various sexual escapades made them feel, that’s when the complexity was fleshed out. They discussed a kaleidoscope of both beneficial and detrimental sexual experiences. Sometimes, there was a trajectory – that in the beginning it was a painful experience of self-realization and introspection, but eventually they learned new things about themselves or realized how easily things happened that put them at risk. And those realizations were sometimes perceived as salutary, contributing to transformational psychological processes.”

Literature on sexual risk-taking in tourism is scarce and focuses mainly on preventing sexually transmitted diseases. Berdychevsky said health programs/prevention-intervention awareness campaigns might be more effective if holistic approaches were adopted that addressed the array of behaviors, motivations and perceptions that put women at risk.

Berdychevsky and her colleagues currently are working on identifying various types of sexual risk-takers so that targeted awareness campaigns can be developed.

“How do we address that ethos of feeling ‘out of mind, out of time and out of space’ in tourist environments without ruining people’s experiences?” Berdychevsky said. “Understanding people’s perceptions of and motivations for sexual risk-taking in tourism might be the key. Let them have the fun they seek but try to find those subjectively relevant and context-specific triggers that prompt people to play more responsibly. At least, we should address that sense of immortality and invincibility that young people tend to have and make them understand that not everything that happens on vacation will stay there.”

Editor's note: To reach Liza Berdychevsky, email lizabk@illinois.edu.

The study, “Phenomenology of young women’s sexual risk-taking in tourism,” co-written by Berdychevsky and Gibson, will appear in an upcoming edition of Journal of Tourism Management and is available online from Science Direct.

Berdychevsky, Gibson and Poria’s study, “Inversions of sexual roles in women’s tourist experiences: mind, body and language in sexual behavior,” is in press with the journal Leisure Studies. The paper is available online from Taylor and Francis.

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