“Galebovi”, gigolos of the Adriatic

What happened to the once widespread male prostitution on the Croatian coastline? Our editor Lily Lynch gets in touch with some of the boys still operating

Illustration by Blanka Boskov

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), Serbo-Croatian slang for “chicks”. The “sport” of pursuing said women is called “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 is undergoing some significant changes, many of which are linked to the broader social transformations taking place in Croatia on the eve of its accession to the EU.

Patterns of female sex tourism are notoriously difficult to study. It is believed that popular destinations for female sex tourists are Southern Europe (mostly Croatia), the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and Africa. As Dr. Melissa Ditmore of the Sex Workers Project noted, “Women clients seem to be prevalent in places where women have more earning power than the sellers. Consider the female clients of local men in the Caribbean and parts of Africa today.”

Despite the fact that the Croatian economy has grown significantly over the last two decades, unemployment still hovers at around 17.7%. And while the average monthly income has risen to 724 Euros, it is still far below the EU average of 2,177 Euros.

As one headline put it, “White female sex tourists seek dark, unemployed men”. Crass as the headline may be, there is some truth in it, and it’s a truth that upsets traditional gender dynamics. Many female sex tourists are middle-aged, and say that they find it difficult to meet interested single men of their own age in their home countries. As a result, they turn to younger, “exotic” men, who due to a lack of economic opportunities and/or cultural restrictions on premarital sex, may welcome their offers of money or gifts in exchange for companionship and sex.

While 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. As Ulrich Seidl, the director of a film about female sex tourism called Paradise Lost remarked, “people who are exploited at home travel abroad and become exploiters in turn.”

Galebovi, genuine Croatian meat / Photo: tillysan via Flickr

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. As one commenter remarked on a thread debating the relative merits of foreign and domestic gigolos, “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 to have sex with them. In a different forum, a male commenter snickered about the women’s “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 of these 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 that I was a journalist doing research for an article, several of the men were quite aggressive salesman. As 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 his female clients, Odan got straight 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).

If you got some spare Euros you may have your Galeb for an entire weekend

One 22-year-old who I’ll call Jadranko was more than willing to share his diverse experiences with me. Jadranko claims that his father and grandfather were both galebovi. As sailors, they spoke several languages and were pros at seducing foreign women who had come to Dalmatia to sun themselves on Yugoslavia’s beaches. Jadranko claims to have entered the family trade at age 15, and says he’s been with women from Belgium, France, Sweden, Canada, the United States, and Morroco. During the past seven years, the 22-year-old says he’s 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 having 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 guys in their early twenties. And instead of the rich middle-aged women from the UK or Canada, younger Czech girls have 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”.

And so 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 Yugoslav legend.