Whenever I travel, I usually bring a Lonely Planet along. Now, Lonely Planet is not the be-all and end-all of travel guides. (The best guide for Istanbul, by the way, is Strolling Through Istanbul by Hilary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely.) But LP guides are sturdily made, the writing is crisp and opinionated, the maps and layout make sense, and Lonely Planet knows its audience -- the educated Western bourgeoisie -- very well.
Plus, it's interesting to see how the Lonely Planeteers negotiate cultural differences. They denounce faux-folk performances put on for the kinds of tourists who travel in buses, but tread very gingerly when addressing the, shall we say, problematic aspects of the nation being visited. You have to know Lonely Planet's code -- they will never tell you that a certain native delicacy will ruin your digestion for days, or that a popular theater is infested with rats. Not in so many words, at least. But they will drop carefully-worded hints, often couched in adorable Aussie slang like '"skerrick" and "snaffle". Decoding them belongs to the fun of reading LP guides.
There's also the matter of the double-standard that I've found in many LP guides: the difference in treatment between gays who might want to indulge in anonymous and/or paid sex when they travel and straights who do so.
First, some background. I came of age in the late 1980s, and early 1990s, the heyday of the quaint movement among the college-educated classes of certain Western nations known as "political correctness." One aspect of political correctness was that members of privileged classes were encouraged to turn a blind eye toward certain unsavory conduct engaged in by members of the less-privileged orders. Gays had a special license to speak openly about various aspects of their intimate lives without encountering disapproval or scorn. Loose talk of cruising, scoring, hanky codes, felching, going bareback, etc. was considered de rigueur among certain out gays. You had to confront The Man with your full being and demand that he respect you.
Gay pride parades were cavalcades of the most bizarre perversion, but, as a polite progressive, you certainly weren't allowed to wrinkle your nose at the topless biker lesbians, novelty cock rings, or gyrating leather bears without being denounced as "intolerant". (On a similar note, you were required to chalk up the crass materialism of lots of rap music solely to self-conscious parody, or to rap artists' sublimated yearning to enjoy the privileges of prosperity that had so long been denied their ancestors.) Thus, if you saw a parade float in which hairy bears led skinny young twinks around on all fours in studded dog collars, you were required to bite your tongue, or half-heartedly proclaim it a bold step forward for proud out living. A parade float featuring middle-aged men leading young women around naked would, of course, have you dialing '911' on the nearest payphone (remember, this was the 90s).
Those days are long past. Eventually, gingerly, Western societies began to say: "Hey, we're tolerant and open and all that, but really, we don't want to know about the weird stuff you do in the bedroom." And gays themselves also got the message that quite literally parading around the more bizarre aspects of one of their sexual subcultures might not be very helpful. Especially with the rise of the gay-marriage movement, it's now become the done thing to treat being gay as rather ho-hum. Turns out most of 'em actually want to get mortgages and have nice office jobs just like the breeders! Gingerly, you can even begin to see even open-minded straights criticizing certain perhaps somewhat morally questionable activities that gays (also) engage in, such as anonymous darkroom sex and rent boys. Previously, this was something only gays or conservatives could do.
That all seems to have passed Lonely Planet by: its sexual mores are still so 1993. Take the Lonely Planet Guide to Istanbul. If you were a straight man looking to find paid sex in Istanbul (and no, although straight, I'm not here for sex tourism, unless you count the statues of Kybele - grrr!), you will find not a single sentence about it whatsoever, except for one brief, passing mention in the 'Dangers & Annoyances' (!) section, which advises you that the 'red light district' in Aksaray/Laleli is known for pickpocketing. The tone is so ginger that I can imagine the contentious editorial meeting about whether they should even mention where the red light district is located, lest some greasy-mouthed male tourist decide to stray over there and prey on some unsuspecting, doe-eyed Turkish female prostitutes.
But if you're gay and coming to Istanbul, Lonely Planet rolls out the pink carpet! They feature a long interview with a gay activist, and detailed recommendations for gay clubs and bathhouses. The book notes that you have to be careful: homosexuality is only tolerated in Turkey, it's not legal. Alas, darkrooms and 'naughty nooks' are unknown in Istanbul gay clubs, so that if your "cruising" is successful (yes, they use that word), you'll have to consummate any action in private. With regret, the gay activist informs us, the only "public sex" available is in a seedy cinema or "furtive flings in dark alleys." The recommendations for gay baths go even further. About one, LP raves: "An added attraction is the stable of 14 hunky, delicious masseurs who take you into the private cubicles for a massage -- be sure to negotiate the price and service parameters clearly. Note: what goes on here should remain here."
Hey Lonely Planet: I don't want to burst your bubble, but that activity you were describing in the Istanbul bathhouse is paying for sex, and that's prostitution! What you're doing is telling gay men where to go to engage in illegal prostitution! So if you're telling gay men where to go for some paid sex, then why not tell straight men, too? After all, there might be some really funky, cool establishments that offer an authentic 'Turkish bordello' experience that might be of interest to straight male travelers. You could even do what Lonely Planet is renowned for, which is steering well-funded Western travelers away from the most grotty and exploitative sides of tourism, to the more (relatively) sustainable and authentic.
Yet there's not a single word about any heterosexual paid-sex establishments, whether nasty or decent. This is also true of every Lonely Planet guide I've read for European cities -- or for any place on the planet. Heterosexual prostitution is regarded as seedy and grim, and is either never mentioned at all, or only with a lot of finger-wagging about human trafficking, diseases, economic power imbalances and organized crime. Visiting a bordello in Cologne, Vienna, or Budapest (each of which features large, professionally-run whorehouses like this) is never treated as a fun diversion after a hard day wandering the historical sites. These places aren't even mentioned. The only time you'll ever learn of the existence of a bordello from a LP guide is if it's been converted -- into a trendy new gay bar!
Now, Lonely Planet might respond: We don't think prostitution is an appropriate tourist activity. It encourages young people to sell their bodies for money. It exploits power imbalances. It can spread disease. And anyway, if someone really wants information about it, he can always go to the Internet.
I think that about covers the bases. Those are all pretty good reasons to not mention prostitution at all in your tour guides, and if that were your decision, I would respect it. Yet don't all those rationales also apply to homosexual prostitution? Doesn't that also potentially involve disease, economic imbalances, etc? Then why are there studiously nonjudgmental tips about Turkish bathhouse catamites furnished in Lonely Planet guides?
I say, Lonely Planet, that what's good for the goose is good for the philanderer. Either all paid sex is always wrong, in which case you shouldn't help wealthy Australian businessmen locate "delicious" young Turkish masseurs, or you recognize buying sex as a travel activity for everyone who might be interested in that sort of thing -- including straight men and desperate housewives. This is, of course, not to say that you have to endorse anything sleazy -- be your respectable bourgeois self, and highlight only those establishments that conduct their business in a (relatively) responsible fashion. And that feature some of the local color as well!
How about it, LP? Are you ready to update your sexual mores to a post-PC era? Or will it be 1993 forever, down under?