Bronzed, brawny and glistening with suntan oil, the gigolos of coastal Croatia have long roamed Dalmatian beaches in search of Western women willing to open both their legs and their wallets.
Croatia’s legendary male prostitutes are called galebovi (seagulls), presumably for their ability to catch ribe (fish) — Croatian slang for “chicks”. The “sport” of pursuing said women is known as galebarenje. Predominantly heterosexual, galebovi have historically catered to upper- and middle-class tourists from Western Europe and North America. While a little research reveals that the practice is still alive today, it’s also undergoing some significant changes, many of which are linked to some of the broader social transformations that have taken place in Croatia on its path to the EU.
Patterns of female sex tourism are notoriously difficult to study. (Note: for the purposes of this scientific study, I focused exclusively on women seeking sex with men). What little research exists indicates that popular destinations for female sex tourists are Southern Europe (mostly Croatia), the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Dr. Melissa Ditmore from the Sex Workers Project described the attraction of these apparent hot spots. “Women clients seem to be prevalent in places where women have more earning power than the sellers,” she said. “Consider the female clients of local men in the Caribbean and parts of Africa today.”
This means that women who engage in sex tourism seem to be drawn to certain destinations for the same reasons male sex tourists are.
Despite the fact that certain sectors of the Croatian economy have grown over the past two decades, the unemployment rate is 19.6 percent. Youth unemployment in the 15 – 24 year age range is the third highest in the EU. The average monthly wage in Croatia is about 700 euros, falling far short of the EU average, which is nearly triple that.
As one coarse headline on the subject put it, “White female sex tourists seek dark, unemployed men”. Crass as that may sound, there is also some truth in it, and it’s one that upsets traditional gender dynamics. Many female sex tourists are middle-aged, and say that they find it difficult to meet single men of their own age in their home countries. As a result, they turn to younger, “exotic” men, who may welcome their offers of money or gifts in exchange for companionship and sex, often owing to a lack of economic opportunities, or cultural restrictions on premarital sex.
Some feminists applaud middle-aged women for being so brazen as to pursue sex for pleasure; others object to what they say amounts to the exploitation of poor young men from developing countries. Ulrich Seidl, the director of a film about female sex tourism called Paradise Lost put it succinctly: “People who are exploited at home travel abroad and become exploiters in turn.”
And while some researchers claim that the practice should be called “romance tourism” because women’s expectations of the experience can include romantic activities like dinner and strolls on the beach, some women clearly just want sex, and are as capable of sexual objectification as any portly white guy on holiday in Phuket. One eloquent commenter on a thread debating the relative merits of foreign and domestic gigolos wrote, “When I decide to experience the thrill of tasting the genuine Nordic meat it will be from some exclusive Laufhaus in Hamburg, not from shores where lardy, threadbare oldies of the working-class pay the local beggars for cheap shagging. Nothing less than a genuine dog-collared racial ideal of Teutonic Forest will do to satisfy my taste for depravity.”
There is something vaguely colonialist about it all as well, evoking memories of a time when bourgeois white women were “serviced” by dark-skinned “natives”, women who now cruise local men as if on some kind of exotic sex safari.
But galebovi can also be demeaning in their assessments of the middle-aged women who come to Fantasy Island for sex. In a different forum, a male commenter snickered about the older female sex tourists’ “glowing false teeth on the dance floor and permed hair”. It can all get a bit confusing, figuring out exactly who is exploiting whom.
In an effort to form my own opinion, I placed an online ad so I could meet some galebovi myself. My ad was entitled “Attractive Male Model Needed For U.S. Female Researcher/Artist”, an intentionally ambiguous open call meant to absolve me of any illegalities (prostitution is still forbidden in Croatia). To my surprise, the e-mails began rolling in that afternoon. Despite the fact that I made it clear to each of the men I spoke with that I was a journalist doing research for an article, several of them proved to be pretty aggressive salesmen.
One man named Odan wrote: “I’ve been with several tourists. Usually older. They want company, dinner, but sometimes clean sex and special wishes:). It depends..I will give you my name if you give me yours:) are you interested?”
When pressed for specifics about what kinds of activities he engages in with female clients, Odan got right to the point: “different sex games and BDSM.”
Another guy calling himself Justin Justinovic claimed to be an experienced escort and offered me a “free sample” in a Zagreb hotel room in order to make this article “more authentic”. I declined (sorry).
One 21-year-old who I’ll call Jadranko was more than willing to share his diverse experiences with me. Jadranko claimed that his father and grandfather had both been galebovi. As sailors, they spoke several languages and were pros at seducing foreign women who came to Dalmatia to sun themselves on Yugoslavia’s beaches. Jadranko told me he entered the family trade at age 15, and has been with women from Belgium, France, Sweden, Canada, the United States, and Morroco. In the past eight years, the 21-year-old said he’d slept with a number of foreign women in their mid-30s.
While Jadranko claims he never accepts money from tourists for sex, others certainly do. Several Croatian men on a male escorting site advertise their services for between 50 and 150 euros per hour. Most only cater to women and married couples looking for some “steamy new adventures”. If you have 1000 euros to spare, you can purchase the pleasure of your very own galeb for an entire weekend.
But as Croatia has integrated into the European cultural space, fewer and fewer men are asking for payment. Nowadays, galebarenje barely resembles transactional sex tourism. If the lively discussions on the message board Galebovi United are to be believed, the practice is now more about hooking up with as many foreign chicks as possible and then bragging to friends about it — pretty standard stuff for 20-year-old guys. And instead of the rich middle-aged women from the UK or Canada, younger Czech girls have apparently become the most desirable “targets”.
More importantly, Croatian society has grown more sexually permissive. As Jadranko wrote in an e-mail, “Galebarenje used to be a lot more popular in the past, but in the last years Croatian girls have become a lot more liberal and actually it’s become a lot easier to sleep with domestic girls than with the foreign ones”.
It seems that “women going on sex tours looking for big bamboos and Marlboro men” (as Russian tabloid Pravda put it) will soon have to set their sights on other shores, and leave Croatia’s galebovi and their unparalleled prowess to legend.
The original version of this article first appeared on Bturn, an online magazine dedicated to the music, culture and style of the new Balkans.