Rhonda and Ketut as the faces of female sex tourism

The Rhonda and Ketut ads tap into the Western fantasy of a paid fling with an exotic foreigner, writes Nigel Bowen. Would we feel the same about the campaign if it featured a bloke called Ron with a younger Thai girl?

Staying in an inexpensive hotel in Kuta a decade ago, I would sometimes walk past a number of middle-aged Australians drinking and smoking on their balcony in the evening while being attended to by a collection of young, beautiful and, so it appeared, eager to please locals.

Frankly, I was shocked. Not at the sight of the ancient sex for money transaction playing itself out but by the genders of the respective parties: the Australians were female, the Balinese male. An Indonesia-based friend later explained the men in question were Kuta Cowboys, gigolos who made a living providing a holiday romance to Australian and Japanese tourists.

This inversion of the traditional female-supply-male demand equation the sexual economy is built on struck me as noteworthy enough to write an article about. In the course of my research, I discovered that a perfect storm created by the near simultaneous rise of mass tourism and second-wave feminism had, since the 1970s, deposited increasingly large numbers of unmarried or divorced first-world women in developing regions throughout Africa, Indonesia, South America, the Caribbean and the Middle East, causing some of the more enterprising local men to take up the world’s oldest profession.

I hadn’t thought much about what’s euphemistically referred to as ‘romance tourism’ since then. Until, that is, the Rhonda and Ketut AAMI ad campaign went viral and female friends started gigglingly introducing its catchphrases, such as “Hot like a sunrise”, into their conversation.

Now, as AAMI would no doubt be eager to point out, there’s no suggestion that Rhonda and Ketut are anything other than a love match, and it’s not unheard of for Balinese men and Australian women to form committed relationships unsullied by mercenary calculations.

But only the most wide-eyed romantic is capable of observing an average-looking Western tourist with a younger, much more attractive local and not wondering about the latter’s motives. So I’ll accept the Rhonda and Ketut campaign isn’t coyly toying with meretricious imagery just as soon as AAMI launches a follow-up campaign featuring a knockabout, thirty-something Aussie bloke called Ron receiving an erotically charged foot massage in a Phuket resort from Keerati, a honey-skinned, doe-eyed, 20-year-old Thai goddess.

Until that occurs, I’ll be inclined to believe that a clever copywriter has struck gold with Rhonda and Ketut by tapping into the first-world woman’s fantasy of the perfect relationship: one in which she calls the shots and her partner magically combines primal alpha male sexiness with unflaggingly cheerful solicitousness.

Of course, only a small number of women currently attempt to live out the fantasy of a revivifying affair with a exotic foreigner through romance tourism, but a much larger group vicariously enjoy it through books, plays and films such as Shirley Valentine, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Under the Tuscan Sun and Eat, Pray, Love. And now, curiously enough, ads for car insurance.

During an interview for my article, a 54-year-old businesswoman from Sydney’s North Shore explained the appeal of Kuta Cowboys thus:

They treat you like a queen. They make you feel like a woman, someone young and beautiful, not an old-age pensioner. It’s all about sex and fun – they’re handsome, attentive young men who are full of life. When I get bored I can send them away. I’m the one in control and they accept the rules I make.

I never ended up speaking to the romance tourists staying at my hotel, and the one time I made eye contact, I was met with a half-defensive, half-defiant glare from one of them that seemed to suggest I had no right to judge. As it happens, I wasn’t. If an older, overweight or disabled woman (the core market of the lover boys for hire in destinations such as Bali, Jamaica, Jordan, Gambia and Senegal) wants to pay to be treated like a queen for a week when she’s treated as anything but back in her home country for the rest of the year, I don’t presume that it’s my place to sit in judgment.

But here’s the thing – either comparatively wealthy Westerners jetting into developing nations and offering cash or gifts to the locals in return for a few days of ego-boosting sex and romance is reprehensibly exploitative or it isn’t.

It can’t be the subject of feel-good rom-coms and corporate advertising when it’s women doing it but an occasion for sickened outrage when it’s men. After all, there’s no shortage of older, overweight and disabled men ignored by the opposite sex who want a lively, attentive young woman to treat them like a king.

So how much longer are we going to continue excoriating all those Rons for the kind of behaviour we condone and even celebrate when Rhondas engage in it?