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Student Blog Series: The Devil Has a Suitcase: Global Travel and the Sexual Exploitation of Children

Posted: April 17, 2020

We are excited to share the final installment of our 2020 Student Blog Series!  The student blog series highlights original pieces authored by first-year law students at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. Read on for Maximillian Santiago’s contribution to the Student Blog Series

There’s a special evil in the abuse and exploitation of the most innocent and vulnerable. The victims of sex trade see little of life before they see the very worst of life — an underground of brutality and lonely fear. ~ President George W. Bush, 2003.

The political and technological revolutions marking the end of the twentieth century ushered in unprecedented changes in the patterns of global travel. Politically, the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the Eurozone made travel into and through Europe an almost seamless experience. Global shifts in manufacturing to China and the broader global south led to a groundswell in business and pleasure travel. And amidst this all, the internet revolution put the tools of a booking agent in the hands of anyone with a computer. Ongoing revolutions in machine translation software and handheld computing continue to fuel the exponential growth in international travel, making it easier by the day for visitors to plan for and navigate a foreign locale. Yet against the backdrop of modern international travel, a cruel flower blossomed: the growing sexual exploitation of children by tourists.

This evil goes by many names. In the news and in popular conversation, this abuse often goes by the broader term sex tourism.  This term is problematic to serious discussion of the issue, implicating a broader range of activities where tourists seek out adult sex workers in destinations where such matters are decriminalized. The United States Department of Justice prefers the nomenclature Extraterritorial Sexual Exploitation of Children. This term is also problematic for discussion; it frames an outbound crime, a crime Americans may perpetrate abroad, but not something perpetrated domestically. This terminology reflects a deprecated view of the crime. When law enforcement and advocates first engaged with child sex tourism on a significant scale in the 1990s, a map of exploitation could generally be split into countries of origin, transit, and destination. While third-world “destination” countries still face the highest rates victimization, a Dutch-sponsored 2016 report by NGO ECPAT International  shows that the lines are rapidly blurring between countries of origin and destination. While South American and Southeast Asian nations can still be broadly characterized as countries of destination for child sex tourism, Europe and North America are increasingly destination counties, as well as origin countries, for offenders. ECPAT prefers the term Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism, which is technically accurate but unwieldy. This author prefers the accurate, though painfully blunt terminology used by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to warn offenders: child sex tourism.

Scholarly examinations of child sex tourism often place its roots in poverty. Developing nations often lack the legal protections for children realized in western law, both in legal codes and in broader cultural expectations. Even in those developing nations with nominal protections for the rights of children, bribes and local governmental corruptionoften overcome the letter of the law. In recognition of inconsistent or absent laws regarding age of consent and prostitution, several nations have promulgated comprehensive legislation to enable prosecution of citizens who travel abroad to sexually abuse children.

The PROTECT Act of 2003 is representative of such legislation. The Congress of the United States, in one of its rare bipartisan measures, moved to criminalize the sexual abuse of children abroad. The PROTECT Act criminalized or enhanced legal penalties for a variety of heinous abuses against children, including abduction and child pornography. As it applied to child sex tourism, the Act set a firm standard for Americans traveling abroad. Commercial sexual transactions abroad with a minor (under the age of 18) could be punished with up to 30 years in a Federal prison.  After the enactment of the PROTECT Act, the U.S. Department of State encouraged foreign governments to introduce or enforce laws regarding the sexual exploitation of minors. Unfortunately, much of the world has not followed suit. As of 2016, only forty-four nations have criminalized the extraterritorial sexual abuse of children, and a significant portion of these laws require the crime be in violation of local prostitution or age-of-consent laws. And while the International Megan’s Law of 2017 requires the U.S. State Department to brand the passports of anyone convicted of a sex offense against a minor, many countries continue to freely admit such persons.

A variety of stereotypes and misconceptions plague the enforcement of laws against child sexual tourism. Domestically, the age of victims and jurisdictional limits on law enforcement have stymied many local police departments.  Abroad, the idea of a “typical” child sex tourist often distracts local authorities. Official efforts are often put towards tracking known or suspected pedophiles. Unfortunately, as a recent academic study reveals, these efforts are often misdirected. Popular outrage tends to focus on dedicated pedophiles who plan travel abroad to victimize children. However, dedicated pedophiles only represent a narrow cross-section of those who sexually abuse children abroad. While “core” sex tourists who travel exclusively to abuse children are the face of child sex tourism, the majority of perpetrators are “elective” offenders. Elective perpetrators, also known as situational offenders, do not travel abroad with the explicit intention of abusing minors. They may travel for business, research, or leisure. When they are presented with the opportunity to sexually abuse a minor, however, they seize the chance. Such elective perpetrators are difficult to spot, and even more so to prosecute. Assumed gender roles also play a role in perpetuating child sex tourism. While perpetrators are almost universally profiled as traveling men abusing young girls, there is a significant presence of female “romance travelers” from Western countries who sexually abuse underage local boys, especially in the Caribbean.

There is no legal panacea to end child sex tourism. Even the most stringent laws lose practical effect at an international border, and many developing countries prioritize foreign cash above the evils of child sex tourism. It is too easy to take solace in cases where abusers are sentenced to hundreds of years in prison. If Americans truly wish to slay the beast that is international child sex tourism, they must first take up the cause of legal reform in the most victimized regions while advocating for aggressive enforcement of domestic legislation protecting children.


Maximillian Antonio Santiago Jr. is currently a first-year student at Villanova Law. Maximillian was raised in Williamstown, New Jersey. While a student at Williamstown High School, Maximillian led the creation of the Military Hall of Honor as part of his Eagle Scout Service Project. During his undergraduate career, Maximillian was President of the Rowan Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies Student Association. He graduated from Rowan University summa cum laude in 2019, majoring in History and minoring in Asian Studies, with a certificate in Japanese. After graduation from law school, Maximillian intends to pursue medical malpractice.


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