In the guidebooks to Jordan, it says that a visit to Jordan is not complete without a visit to Petra, the historic rose-colored ancient Nabetean city half built and half carved into the majestically sculpted towering rocks of the Wadi Musa valley in the Jordanian Desert.
In Petra, in addition to riding your choice of a camel or a donkey through the ancient sand and wind chiseled city to the breath-taking views at the monastery at the top of the highest rocky hill, it is also recommended that tourists have a tea and a chat with the local Bedouin who live in the area. However, above all else in visiting Petra is the constant reminder to be respectful. For women and girls, this means no bare shoulders, arms or legs. In most predominantly Muslim countries, showing anything besides the hands, face and in some cases, hair is strictly haram, or, forbidden. Jordan is no exception.
So, I was reasonably surprised when a friendly tea with a Bedouin shopkeeper turned into a slightly more than friendly proposition to take a donkey ride off the beaten track and "come see his cave."
I was even more surprised to learn that despite Jordan’s strict laws against pre- or extra-marital, (breaking them is punishable by up to three years in prison), sex tourism with Petra’s local Bedouin population is popular, and even expected. However, unlike traditional sex tourism, where Western businessmen travel to East Asia on business and enjoy the purely sexual services of a sex worker in Thailand or Hong Kong, for example, in Jordan, the clientèle is mostly female.
Often, they do not come to Petra expecting to be sex tourists, but once they are far from home, the charm of a dark, exotic Bedouin guide may change their minds.
In some cases, they're even willing to pay for the pleasure, although unlike traditional sex tourism where one pays for the exchange, this payment is often in the form of helping with rent or showing sympathy for an ailing family member.
"I gave my boyfriend £9,000 to start his own shop in Petra," says one woman who identifies herself as Mary, but prefers not to give a last name stated. "However, when I came back to Petra he hadn’t started a shop, but had a similar arrangement with several other Western women."
In other cases the exchange is purely sexual.
"So many times, girls come back from Petra saying, 'Oh, it was so romantic, we had sex in the sand,'" says Ava Ahmed, my friend and host in Amman who also works for a study-abroad organization in Jordan and is well-versed in the tourism scene. "Sex tourism is very common."
Call me a prude, but for me this raises several red flags. To begin with, what kind of protection is available? If you aren’t using a condom - and going without is apparently a fairly routine practice in Petra - what is your risk of sexually transmitted infection (STIs)?
What about personal safety? I was flattered by the Bedouin's invitation, but thrown off by the idea of spending any time alone with him when I saw that he had a knife. When I asked about it, he told me that it was fashioned from the horn of a gazelle for killing animals, his main source of food. This is culturally fascinating. But seriously, did I really want to be in a cave in the middle of the desert with a man with a knife that he uses to stab animals with his bare hands?
And what about rape? The combination of a young woman on vacation seeking adventure, a handsome stranger and several remote locations seems like a breeding ground for a potentially unwelcome sexual encounter. In fact, there are some claims about women being drugged and gang raped in Petra, although they can't be verified.
What about me? I didn’t go to Jordan looking for sex. If that's what I was after, I probably would have chosen a vacation destination where the penalty for pre-marital sex was not three years in prison. I wanted to see Petra, take photographs and write in my journal, all normal activities for an anti-social writer from Brooklyn who finds herself on the other side of the world. However, my presence as a woman by herself in a foreign place was interpreted as a desire for a sexual encounter, even though my shoulders, arms and legs were completely covered.
When you are an adventure-seeking young woman traveling by yourself, it can be difficult to know where to draw the line between being paranoid and being prudent. It can be hard to determine when a friendly invitation becomes an unwanted, creepy come-on. It's even hard to figure out whether you're facing a legitimate danger or just cultural discomfort.
To be honest, sometimes - especially when you're a long way from home - it can be hard to know where to draw the line.
“It’s about the moment, the connection to nature, exhibiting a sense of freedom and experimenting with gender identity, doing things that they’re not particularly judged for because no one from their own particular society is there to see them,” Jessica Jacobs, a research fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London said in a GlobalPost story about sex tourism that ran in 2010.
Clearly, some women are making a different choice than I did. Where would you draw the line?