Photo by Ice Arrojado-Basit
It was not my usual Sunday afternoon. I’m in a huddle with five members of the Philippine Sex Workers Collective in the living room of an upscale BGC condo. We had just finished recording a video interview for PAMPUBLIKO about their lives and experiences. I posed a question: “So what do you prefer to call yourselves?”
Having listened to their stories in the hour prior, I think I understand why. Sex work describes, in about as literal a manner as possible, what they do. In an ideal world we’d leave it at that but the world we live in has significantly more, shall we say, colorful ways to describe them.
Here in the Philippines, there’s the almost poetic kalapating mababa ang lipad, roughly translated in English as a ‘low-flying dove.’ Often, news reports in the vernacular resort to similarly figurative language to describe what sex workers do—pagbebenta ng laman (selling of the flesh), pagbebenta ng aliw (selling of comfort), and its offshoot pagbebenta ng panandaliang aliw (selling of temporary comfort).
And then there is pokpok, an immediately arresting two-syllable sound that is as idiomatic as it is physically painful to hear. Say it—it sounds, viscerally, as if intended to hurt—and it does, according to the SWC members I talked to.
To talk about sex work in the Philippines we first need to acknowledge that it is not easy to talk about, and for several reasons. For one, the act and its participants are subjects that convey a constellation of discourses of particular social and civic importance. There are socio-economic issues, there is the legal dimension, intersections of political and moral discourses, the feminist and LGBTQ perspectives, and in the Philippines, there is of course the religious view. Where do we even begin?
Sex work Is…
In a policy paper released in May 2016, Amnesty International defines sex work as the “exchange of sexual services (involving sexual acts) between consenting adults for some form of remuneration, with the terms agreed between the seller and the buyer.”1 A sex worker is defined by the United Nations Development Programme as any “consenting female, male, and transgender” person who sells or exchanges sex “even if they do not identify as sex workers, or consider the activity to be ‘work.’”2
Here lies the essential point of confusion in discussions of sex work—it is often conflated with activities and conditions that do not involve consent, such as sexual assault and human trafficking.
Note the insistence of these definitions on the word consent. Here lies the essential point of confusion in discussions of sex work—that it is often conflated with activities and conditions that do not involve consent, such as sexual assault and human trafficking. If these definitions sound belabored and stilted, it is largely due to the need to differentiate sex work from situations that remove consent from the equation.
To further the point, sex work is understood to be, functionally, no different from other types of employment—domestic work, fishing, farming, to cite a few occupations—in that people may choose to do it. Those who choose to exchange sex for money or any other form of payment are sex workers; those whose power to consent to do such work is removed are not sex workers. This separates the problems of human trafficking from the problems of sex work, and we need to make that distinction clear before moving forward.
Another central point is that sex work, in the best of circumstances, is not exploitative. While the possibility of exploitation exists, the degree to which exploitation can occur is contingent on multiple factors that in one way or another also exist in other occupations. Issues of power structures in professional and contractual arrangements, of pay, of workplace safety, and perhaps most importantly, of health and safety, are key concerns for a sex worker just as they would be for a construction worker, for example.
What do we know about sex work?
To talk about sex work in any meaningful way, we need data. But because the Philippines, along with most countries in Asia and the Pacific, criminalizes sex work3 data is hard to come by. Given their criminalized status, the exact number of sex workers in the Philippines is difficult to pin down. Sharmila Parmanand, one of the country’s leading researchers on sex work, has admitted as much, only saying that all we have are estimates.4 A 2014 study by Raymond Macapagal and Danielle Ochoa, psychology professors at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, echoes Parmanand’s point. While looking into the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and sexually transmitted infections (STI) prevention program for sex workers in Quezon City, they cite estimates from the National Epidemiology Center (NEC) but notes that “the numbers could be much larger, as many [freelance sex workers] do not openly admit to their identity.”5 The nature of sex work as intermittent or as something that sex workers may choose to engage in only if the need arises further complicates the task of identifying a baseline number.
Much of the data available about sex workers exists through efforts by government and non-government agencies and researchers looking into their status as an at-risk population for HIV and other STIs. Foremost among these efforts is the NEC’s Integrated HIV Behavioral and Serologic Surveillance (IHBSS) which is conducted every two years. The IHBSS is a compilation of data on populations “at elevated risk” of HIV and other STIs, which includes female sex workers (FSW), males who have sex with males (MSM) and persons who inject drugs (PWID).6
The IHBSS differentiates female sex workers into two categories: registered female sex workers (RFSW) who are “based in an entertainment establishment registered at the local social hygiene clinic (SHC)” and freelance female sex workers (FFSW) who are “based in cruising sites such as streets or entertainment establishments not registered at the local SHC.”7
While the distinction seems simple enough on paper, the reality on the ground reveals a much more complicated picture. Macapagal and Ochoa’s study notes that there are sex workers who “transition from establishment to freelance work” and vice versa.8 There is also the practice of placing male sex workers under the MSM category in many local government registration efforts, which confuses the issue further.
Making sense of the narratives
If we don’t know them enough by hard numbers, perhaps we can know them better through their experiences. Enter the media.
The media’s impulse to automatically situate sex workers in positions of victimhood “fails to take into account the unhealthy attitudes that govern conventional thought when it comes to all matters about sex.”
Representations of sex workers’ experiences in popular media often revolve around the dominant image of sex workers as victims, says film critic Noy Lauzon.9 For Lauzon, local cinema, in particular, has always portrayed sex work in the context of poverty. And while poverty is an oft-cited reason for sex workers to enter the field, the media’s impulse to automatically situate sex workers in positions of victimhood “fails to take into account the unhealthy attitudes that govern conventional thought when it comes to all matters about sex.”10
To follow Lauzon’s argument for a bit, it can be said that to talk about sex work is to also recognize our views about sex, which for Lauzon, are invariably shaped by being in a country that is predominantly Catholic. The typical vehicle of sex workers’ representations in Philippine popular media is the melodrama, a genre defined by stylized exaggeration and distinct moralism, sacrificing nuance.
There is the trope of the female sex worker as a provincial girl coming into the city with big dreams only to fall into disrepute by working in the sex industry. It is not exactly a fabrication, but Parmanand argues that “this loss of complete agency and autonomy exists for many other vulnerable employment situations”11 and not just sex work.
So why then does this narrative continue to prevail? Lauzon offers an answer: “The status quo that media may have an interest to maintain is served well by projecting a narrative of sex workers as just fodder for melodrama instead of an occasion to interrogate the culpability of the larger social order that compels individuals to sell their bodies.”12
To be sure, there are pieces of culture that buck this trend. Lauzon cites the Celso Ad Castillo films Paradise Inn and Burlesk Queen, Ishmael Bernal’s Aliw and Manila by Night, Mel Chionglo’s Macho Dancer series, and more modern titles such as Carlitos Siguion-Reyna’s Ligaya ang Itawag mo sa Akin and Brillante Mendoza’s Masahista as noteworthy depictions of sex work and of sex workers.
Victim or Criminal?
For Parmanand, much of the conversation that happens—by and among the media, policymakers, government and law enforcement authorities, and nongovernment organizations—is characterized by what she calls a “doublespeak” where the sex worker is either a victim that needs to be rescued or a criminal that needs to be persecuted. And yet, “sometimes it’s the same people making the same set of clashing arguments” adding, “how can [sex workers] be dirty women without dignity, who are lazy and unwilling to engage in genuine hard work but also, at the same time, be super exploited and abused? You can’t have it both ways.”13
As a matter of policy, the Philippines recognizes that sex work occurs and has instituted legislation that demonstrates this victim-criminal dichotomy. Republic Act 10158 amended Article 202 of the Revised Penal Code, effectively decriminalizing vagrancy but retaining the provision that prostitution is a crime.14 That same article uses the term prostitutes and defines them as “women who, for money or profit, habitually indulge in sexual intercourse or lascivious conduct […]”15 Those found guilty may be fined Php 200 whereas repeat offenders are fined up to Php 2000 and/or a six-month jail sentence.16 Contrast that with the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 200317 which uses the term prostitution (Indeed, the term occurs in the text 12 times), and describes it as an example of exploitation, ergo the prostitute is a victim.
At the local level, legislation also reflects this confused and confusing approach. In Quezon City, for example, Republic Act 10158’s definition of prostitutes is adopted, but a 2005 ordinance mandates that sex workers are victims and it is their pimps and clients who should be penalized.18
Where do we go from here?
What is clear at this point is that sex work is a difficult issue to untangle. One, the conversation is framed by a narrative that is as broad as it is unhelpful, severely limited as it is by the media’s penchant for sensationalistic and moralistic messages. Second, the legal framework and the policy and development communities that interpret it are ambiguous in their depiction of the nature of sex work and the people that engage in them. Third, there is a debilitating lack of data that could provide an objective basis for policymaking and development of appropriate interventions that would address sex workers' concerns. Finally, to talk about sex work is to confront our own biases and preconceptions about sex individually and as a society.
Perhaps the only way forward is to allow for a safe space where sex workers themselves have the opportunity to share their stories.
Perhaps the only way forward is to allow for a safe space where sex workers themselves have the opportunity to share their stories. Let them define the parameters of their own narratives, and engage them with questions informed by an understanding that, yes, it is entirely possible that people might choose to do it.
This conversation isn’t going away anytime soon, after all sex work is the oldest profession in the world.
1Amnesty International Policy on State Obligations to Respect, Protect and Fulfil the Human Rights of Sex Workers. Rep. Amnesty International, 26 May 2016. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.
2Godwin, John. Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific. Rep. United Nations Development Programme, 22 Mar. 2013. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.
4"Q&A: Sharmila Parmanand on Sex Work in the Philippines." Personal interview. 18 July 2016.
5Macapagal, Raymond, and Danielle Ochoa. Baseline Assessment of HIV and STI Prevention Program for Sex Workers in Quezon City. Manuscript. Print. Unpublished.
62013 Integrated HIV Behavioral and Serologic Surveillance (IHBSS) Report. Rep. National Epidemiology Center, Department of Health, Dec. 2014. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.
8Macapagal, Raymond, and Danielle Ochoa. Baseline Assessment of HIV and STI Prevention Program for Sex Workers in Quezon City. Manuscript. Print. Unpublished.
9Noy Lauzon. Email Interview. 22 Sept. 2016.
11"Q&A: Sharmila Parmanand on Sex Work in the Philippines." Personal interview. 18 July 2016.
12Noy Lauzon. Email Interview. 22 Sept. 2016.
13"Q&A: Sharmila Parmanand on Sex Work in the Philippines." Personal interview. 18 July 2016.
14Philippines. Office of the President. Republic Act No. 10158. Official Gazette, 27 Mar 2012. Web. 10 Oct. 2016
17Philippines. Office of the President. Republic Act No. 9208. Official Gazette, 26 May 2003. Web. 10 Oct. 2016
18Macapagal, Raymond, and Danielle Ochoa. Baseline Assessment of HIV and STI Prevention Program for Sex Workers in Quezon City. Manuscript. Print. Unpublished.