Photo by Ice Arrojado-Basit
The PAMPUBLIKO team sat down with Sharmila Parmanand, one of the country’s leading researchers on sex work. In this far-ranging discussion, we explore the mechanics and dynamics of sex work in the Philippines, the landscape of discourses and interventions around it, and what policy directions the country can take in addressing sex work.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. The views and opinions expressed by the interviewer do not necessarily reflect the views of PAMPUBLIKO or its members.
Nicole CuUnjieng: So how did you get into the kind of policy work that you are doing? What was your route in?
Sharmila Parmanand: My Master’s was in Gender Development and there are a lot of development-related policies that have fairly strong gender dimensions like migration and trafficking, even poverty alleviation. So I ended up working for an anti-trafficking organization—one of the leading local ones [Visayan Forum - Ed.]. This organization offers a suite of services that covers a wide range. There’s policy work and direct services such as shelter, raids and rescue, and there are community prevention activities. And, in all this, of course, Visayan Forum works very closely with the government.
I think the anti-trafficking community does great work. However, I had some questions about how knowledge is produced in this community. What assumptions are made about victim populations? Who gets a seat at the table when we make these policy discussions? What is our relationship to funders and the funders’ own agenda?
NCU: Is the discourse around anti-trafficking empirical and research-based?
The way we’ve been dealing with sex workers seems to be like the way we deal with child victims in general, which is to assume trauma, no agency, and no organization. And then to make decisions for them.
SP: That is aspirational. The goal is to always be evidence-based, but like in a lot of development work, there really is very little reliable data of that tells us what works and what doesn’t work.
There are consultations—this is true. But who gets invited into these consultations is very variable. And even if you have people invited, who feels like they can speak freely in these consultations? They might get disinvited if they say the wrong things—like the politics of inclusion and exclusion, right?
I also noticed that a lot of resources are spent on sex trafficking. And my parallel example would be domestic workers where the approach towards them has been to recognize that they are vulnerable so we need to institute some protections and to include them in the discussion; to encourage them to organize and formalize and speak for themselves. So I was just very curious: Why is this our approach for domestic workers? Why is this our approach for agricultural workers and fishermen but not quite our approach for sex workers?
The way we’ve been dealing with sex workers seems to be like the way we deal with child victims in general, which is to assume trauma, no agency, and no organization. And then to make decisions for them.
Given my gender studies background that got me thinking and so I reached out to the sex workers in the Philippines and, true enough, there are some legitimate grievances there.
NCU: So I read and heard excerpts of a podcast about an anthropology of pimping. The work was written by an anthropologist who ended up working very closely with an informant who used to be a pimp in the 1970s in Oakland. One of the stories was about a man in an impoverished black community, who became a pimp. The portrayed narrative is that in certain communities, the pimps are often the figures with cash—they have disposable income. So they play a kind of role, almost like a grandfatherly role in the community…
SP: A patrilineal role…
NCU: Yeah, exactly. And the younger men imitate that. Then, because they need to gain the trust of the women who will work with them, and they’re just starting out and don’t automatically have women who are turning to them for management or protection, they often begin pimping by “turning” their girlfriends, encouraging them to get into this kind of work. It starts by saying: “Why don’t you sleep with Mike? You know him; he’s our friend. He’ll give you this much money and you can keep the whole thing” and that’s how this relationship begins.
Now in your look at the way that these arrangements and relationships form in the Philippines, do you see similar kinds of intimate building of trust or, in other situations, certain cases of exploitation of that kind of intimacy and trust, or does the genesis tend to look very different?
SP: I’m fairly certain there are relationships of that nature in the Philippines, and that some forms of grooming do exist. But I don’t know that that is representative of most situations. Though, yes, I have spoken with some pimps who do share that part of their strategy includes gaining the trust and affection of young women—showering them with gifts and eventually leading them to the sex trade—and there’s an emotional entanglement there. But based on the people I’ve spoken to, that doesn’t seem to be the norm.
NCU: The media portrayal of sex workers is that of the provincial girl—the quite pristine, moral provincial girl—moving to dereliction in the urban setting and losing the ability to negotiate for herself her various relationships and, then, being forced to rely on whomever brought her there. Is that representative?
SP: To some extent, yes. Although, arguably, this loss of complete agency and autonomy exists for many other vulnerable employment situations.
NCU: I had a conversation with one of our members at PAMPUBLIKO about the sexism of the penal code and he was basically saying that men are not sex workers under the law.
SP: Yeah. Prostitutes under law are defined as women [See Article 202 of the Revised Penal code—Ed.].
NCU: How does that play out in the LGBTQ community?
SP: There is a thriving male sex worker scene but I think their vulnerabilities are different. Imagine, there is much fear of raids and police interventions in that situation, but the whole issue of safety, security, susceptibility to HIV, etc. are still concerns. However, it seems that female sex workers are more prone to police abuse or brutality.
But obviously, trans individuals are vulnerable in general because there’s already discrimination in terms of access to traditional jobs, right? So there’s different types of vulnerabilities.
NCU: What other regional comparisons can you give us in terms of how sex workers are treated? Let’s look at our nearest comparison regionally.
SP: For the Philippines, we have a dualistic way of looking at sex workers which also confuses the issue. Our anti-trafficking law assumes that they’re victims or it lends itself to that assumption. So that’s one approach we’re taking. The other approach we’re taking is in our penal code. They’re criminals, right? And now there’s a lot of traction for decriminalization. So the Philippine Commission on Women has taken that position, which is not full decriminalization—just decriminalizing the sex workers’ side but not the buyers’ side. So you have these confused hodgepodge policies.
I mean, to be fair, in other countries it’s also hodgepodge. In Hong Kong, if you’re a local, you’re left alone by the police, likewise for Singapore. But if you’re a migrant then there are more restrictions on you. So in that sense, it’s a bit difficult to compare.
NCU: So the discrimination actually centers on a different factor rather than the work itself.
Eiroll Manalo: What’s the big idea behind decriminalizing the sellers’ side as opposed to decriminalizing both sides of the transaction?
The position behind full decriminalization is to let people do whatever they want, so the principal justification is that sex workers have agency.
SP: For the advocates of decriminalizing only the sex worker side, the position they take is that it is still inherently exploitative, it should never be encouraged and allowed. But, of course, we don’t want to punish the victim, therefore we punish the buyers’ side to end demand, right? So the approach is still very much that the sex workers are victims and that they must be protected.
The position behind full decriminalization is to let people do whatever they want, so the principal justification is that sex workers have agency. They are able to opt into these situations and we must respect it, like it’s a consensual transaction.
But from the practical position of ending demand, we’ll still have the same consequences as driving it underground with partial decriminalization—if one half of your equation is underground, then the entire thing is still underground.
EM: And you’re also driving down the prices?
EM: So there’s more competition? So, ultimately, they’re more vulnerable?
SP: Exactly. Like if you have no alternatives for these women and then you’ve just undercut their earnings. Assuming that ending demand is successful, the kind of men who would follow the law and not seek the services of sex workers would be the nice guys, guys who can be guilted into not purchasing sex anymore. So the kind of men left seeking the services of sex workers are precisely the kind of men…
NCU: Yeah, and also what you offer as the seller will have to change to make it worth it for the buyers, so you’re compelled to sell riskier actions/activities…
EM: Are there countries who have tried this?
SP: It’s a mix. New Zealand has more or less complete decriminalization.
NCU: On both sides?
SP: On both sides. And in terms of outcomes like health, access to legal recourse in case of abuse, access to fair compensation, sex workers seem to report higher scores there.
Sweden has done the halfway thing—the Nordic model of partial decriminalization—and there’s dispute in terms of whether it’s actually working or not.
NCU: The argument against legalization, meanwhile, is that you still create an underground market and, therefore, a tiered system, right? So you essentially make the bar too high for the legal side, which gets all of the privilege and protection, while the most vulnerable people are still underground and now officially shut out of that legal privilege and protection.
SP: Basically, we don’t trust the state one hundred percent to get it right, and the state will always overregulate. And because you overregulate that will happen.
NCU: That’s why I’m wondering why partial decriminalization can’t work, and I suppose it’s because it’s inefficient. It gives too much to the state, whereas to just treat it, meanwhile, as regular work, with labor laws applied, is the most efficient way. Is that the idea?
SP: Yeah. So, to be honest—and I hope I’m representing the argument correctly—I really feel that the aversion to legalization from the sex workers’ side is mistrust of the state overregulating, and taxing them, and imposing all sorts of fees. Whereas, for me, I do find that it may be more palatable to advocate for decriminalization instead of legalization because legalization comes with it, practically, endorsement, which some people are averse to. So I’m like, alright, if you don’t want to overly endorse, sure. Don’t legalize but then decriminalize. But it’s coming from very different perspectives.
NCU: Is the export of labor as a central component to the state’s labor policy a factor that makes full endorsement of sex work basically unfeasible?
SP: Yeah. I think many feminists and policy makers want to avoid full endorsement. You know what’s interesting though is that based on my interviews with Filipino domestic workers in Singapore and Hong Kong, some of them do moonlight as sex workers.
SP: So they go in there with a domestic work visa and, of course, they do work for a household. But on their off days or free time, they do some sex work on the side. But that’s something we’re never going to recognize for many reasons. One, there is an aversion to recognize that the problem exists—that could get us into trouble with the recipient government who will be like, “Wait, this isn’t allowed.”
But because we don’t recognize it, there are so many needs that these women have that might not be addressed. What’s also interesting and a bit unfortunate is that many of the women themselves don’t want to identify as sex workers. So when asked about what they’re doing, the will say “I am receiving gifts from my boyfriend.” And, of course, we don’t want to push the issue with them. But by most measurements what is happening is sex work. So their resistance to the label plus the resistance of state actors to recognize what’s happening means that they don’t get access to health care and protection.
NCU: I’m still interested in the male perspective because that’s not really a perspective you read or hear about a lot. And, so, from your understanding, from a policy standpoint, what’s the gender interpretation in terms of the analysis you’re applying when you talk about male and transgender sex work?
SP: In law, they’re kind of invisible, which is sad and I feel that needs to be addressed. But I also feel that, in a way, there hasn’t been much push for this to be addressed because at least they can operate under the radar as opposed to being policed, right?
I think we need to be cognizant that there are different kinds of vulnerabilities. Even the Sex Workers Collective seems to recognize this. At least in my conversations with them, they say that in their board, they have more female sex workers than any of the other demographics and when they make policies, they make sure female sex workers get a veto because even in their own calculation of the situation they feel that the female sex workers are the most vulnerable and seem to be taking home relatively lower pay.
NCU: Interesting. So the pay is actually lower for women?
SP: Based on anecdotal observation, yes. We don’t really have a robust data set. But to be honest, I might also be out of my depth here in terms of male sex work and trans sex work. There’s very little data and information on it.
NCU: So I always hear the number 800,000 as an estimate of the number of sex workers in the country. Is that accurate?
SP: The estimate we have is 500,000 sex workers, which is really an off-hand comment [a member of Sex Workers Collective, name withheld—Ed.] made, but I don’t know that we have…
NCU: Real numbers.
SP: Real numbers. Yeah.
EM: But that number always comes out about sex workers in the Philippines…
NCU: 800,000. Yeah.
EM: I was looking for a direct source…
SP: I cannot find a primary source. I really can’t.
EM: So we do not have complete figures?
SP: No we do not. We may have estimates. I think Davao has an estimate of 3,000 or something like that. But we really don't have concrete numbers.
NCU: That was another question I was going to ask you about. The Davao Women’s Development Code—what are your thoughts on the model there?
SP: So, again, it’s a bit of doublespeak. Because in their Women’s Development Code, they identify sex work as exploitation. Prostitution is exploitation. But in actual practice, it does seem like there’s more respect for sex workers’ agency and privacy. I don’t know if that’s the intention behind the policy.
Given Duterte’s pronouncements, I’m inclined to think maybe not. I’m trying to think that the intention might really just be practical harm mitigation. But what seems to happen is that there is more space for sex workers to make choices. And more protection against police abuse there.
But I doubt that the intention is progressive. But you know what, that is better than what’s happening in other areas.
NCU: In thinking about creating laws around sex work—to decriminalize sex work—even to protect them from exploitation and abuse rather than banning, and allow people to have recourse to proper labor laws and protections, how can we strategically achieve this? Understanding the context here in the Philippines and the framework we’re working under, what is actually possible and how would you achieve it?
It’s important to build an evidence-based review of how the rescue and raid industry has led to more harm than good.
SP: So I’m of two minds about this because the Philippine Commission on Women would like to decriminalize one side of the equation, right? And that’s where most feminists are throwing their weight; they support this belief.
In a vacuum, I guess it is an improvement but I also understand how that might undermine the long-term goal because then it entrenches the idea of victimization and it’s going to be very hard to get political capital for full decriminalization later on. So a model that says we decriminalize the sale is a model that lends itself to the raid and rescue intervention. But I also think full decriminalization might not be politically feasible right now.
I’m interested to see how Duterte’s position plays out because he’s been known to have said that he has no problems with sex workers as long as they go through the health check-ups, etc. But at the same time, the feminist—I mean the women’s lobby—around him, the women he chooses to listen to as his gender focal people have a very clear belief that sex work is exploitative and should never be allowed, so I’m just really wondering how that’s going to play out.
For me, it’s important to build an evidence-based review of how the rescue and raid industry has led to more harm than good—how sex workers are economically dislocated but actually aren’t better off after the interventions have kicked in—they might actually be worse off. We should also ask what rights abuses exist at the point of rescue, or how they’ve been forced to reorganize their lives as a result of fear of these interventions. Just document all of that and use that as a basis for policy. I don’t know how far it’s going to go but even as it stands we don’t have strong evidence-based data, right? That may be one place to start.
EM: Do you think that the discussion—the main ideas behind the discussion of sex work and interventions for those engaged with it goes back to our attitudes towards sex?
SP: Yeah, yeah.
EM: I mean, to our view of sex as…
EM: Or that it should be done within the confines of marriage.
SP: Yeah. Extramarital sex is dirty, yes.
EM:When I talk to people about this, I get comments about sex work being a sin, about that being something that should be punished by law and by God, so I guess the discussion, and people’s interpretation of sex workers as victimized, as committing a crime…
SP: So this is the weird doublespeak that I’m really uncomfortable with, right? Sometimes it’s the same people making the same set of clashing arguments, so, on the one hand there are slippages even in the anti-trafficking community. The press line, the official line is that they are victims. They are exploited; they need to be helped and rescued. But sometimes people will slip into these kinds of slurs, like “It’s dirty,” “You’ve lost your dignity,” “It’s easy money.” So I’m like, how can it simultaneously be both? How can they 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. Which is why, for me, some people are well-meaning but potentially misguided. I think for some of the opponents of sex work, the moral cover is really just a moral cover, but behind that is really just moral outrage. You know what I mean?
EM: There’s also this sense, a feeling of “We need to protect these people.” That’s sort of the approach I sense from some feminists.
SP: So the feminist argument is very different. The articulation of the feminist argument against sex work on its face seems different from the articulation of, say, a super religious argument, which is, again, it’s dirty; it’s wrong; it’s immoral. The feminist argument would be that you are exploited. But sometimes the two arguments actually intersect.
EM: Meaning they come from a position of judgment?
SP: Yes. Also what was very interesting to me, when you were saying how to strategize, I feel like with domestic workers, we treated them as partners in anti-trafficking work.
So with sex workers, it just seems like a very intuitive fact. If you want to recognize, sure, this is a very vulnerable occupation—nobody’s going to deny that. But if you want to be more efficient in identifying the real victims, shouldn’t you be working with the community? Because they’re the ones with the access to knowledge…
NCU: They’re the frontline…
This characterization of them as too traumatized and too psychologically scarred to make rational sense, I really think, is patronizing to them.
SP: They’re the frontline. And they also have the incentive to police their ranks for two reasons. One, just in general, we want our communities to be functioning properly. If you belong in a community, you will be emotionally invested in it. You will be unhappy if there’s abuse happening. But apart from that, just from a competition perspective, the community will report that this pimp is selling minors, for example. Why the opposition to that? This characterization of them as too traumatized and too psychologically scarred to make rational sense, I really think, is patronizing to them.
Bernice Violago: I recently saw this news article saying that in the United States, a lot of students are actually using sex work as a way to pay for their tuition fees and college loans. And I watched the video testimonies of these women and sometimes, they say, it’s not really about the sex but that they get into these arrangements. They get money but they don’t need to have sex with them. But, you know, people still consider it as sex work. Is that something that is also happening in the Philippines?
SP: It happens in the Philippines a lot. I mean, I don’t think that’s the norm but it does happen, for example, among students in private schools. And it’s not even a survival issue. Sometimes it’s just like, “Oh I want a new phone” or “I would like new shoes.” These cases then show that there is agency in sex work. Of course, I’m also very conscious of not pretending that this is the face of the movement, because within the sex work community, there are hierarchies. And there’s also a lot of resentment among street-based sex workers against the more high-end Internet-based sex workers or students engaging in sex work who come from a position of privilege and are in a better position to negotiate their clients or their hours. But yes, that does happen even in the Philippines. I’ve spoken to several students of private universities who engage in this.
BV: Do they identify as sex workers?
SP: I think they identify more as escorts, or they just prefer to not label what they’re doing. Some of them are in the sugar baby- and sugar daddy-type arrangements, and in some situations sex isn’t even part of the equation. It’s more emotional intimacy than sex. Like there is an entire erotic service provision industry and it’s pretty segmented but it happens. I mean in Australia, I think a study was released in 2011 or 2012. Some 30% of university students have engaged in some form of sex work.
NCU: So I’m still trying to disaggregate, because it seems like you’re talking about various discourses and various groups and constellations of them. So there are the people who actually discuss sex work and all of the advocacies and NGOs around that. Then there are the anti-trafficking groups and they seem to be different and they overlap sometimes but they seem to have different goals. Is that the way you think of the landscape?
SP: I think predominantly in the Philippines the civil society and the public sector in general seem to view sex work as exploitative and sex workers as victims—there seems to be some consensus around that, at least. You will also have fringe groups who view them as immoral and criminal. But from where I’m sitting, among civil society and the governing partners, the prevailing view seems to be that they are victims and they shouldn’t be punished. But they shouldn’t also be allowed to do that, either.
NCU: So there are different groups with different strategies and different goals but basically the same underlying assumptions?
SP: Yeah. So the anti-trafficking movement, globally, the predominant view is still that sex work is victimization but there is complete support for decriminalizing the sale. There are other elements of the movement that are now moving towards full decriminalization, organizations like Anti-Slavery International, Amnesty International, Global Alliance Against Trafficking Women—GAATW. So that’s where they are; but they’re not mainstream voices yet.
NCU: Got it. Because we were talking about sex workers being frontline witnesses to work against trafficking, I would think that there would be some sort of strategic overlap.
SP: I think that this is done very meaningfully. It is being done now, but the way that it was done previously is that women are rescued from sex work, and are then taken to shelters and rehabilitation centers. Some of them are genuine victims in the real sense of the word trafficking, right? But what happens is these women are then asked to give testimonies for their rescuers. And I’m quite proud to say that Visayan Forum doesn’t do that or at least not under my watch.
We need to also understand the position of the women. A lot of anti-trafficking organizations will produce these women who will speak and say, “I was victimized. I’m an ex-sex worker. I don’t want to go back into sex work,” without discounting what these women have to say. I would like to believe that they are the authorities over their own experience.
I think we also need to be conscious of the power dynamics operating there. In a world where sex work is either criminal or trafficking, if you are rescued, it probably makes more sense for you to say you were victimized or you didn’t know what was happening, right? And, I mean, when I spoke to sex work organizations in Taiwan and in Hong Kong, they admit that this is the advice they give to sex workers.
NCU: Yeah, so they’re not criminalized.
I think as development service providers, we need to be conscious of the amount of power we have over these people.
SP: Right. Especially for migrant sex workers, what are you going to do? Just say that you are a victim, right? And so you are sheltered and given access to resources. And of course, there is the stigmatization involved.
I think as development service providers, we need to be conscious of the amount of power we have over these people. So they live in our shelters, they are at our mercy. That’s how they feel. And in many situations, they may feel that they have to transact with us. And when that happens, in a fundraising event or policy discussion, they will be asked, “Would you be okay to speak about your experience?” Do you really think that the sex worker at that point is going to break ranks and say, “Actually, I don’t feel like I was quite a victim but then I was handled this entire template of what to say”? And, of course, the kind of counseling you receive is also going to color how you view the situation, how you make sense of it. So a lot of these testimonies you see of sex workers as victims are mediated by the institutions that rescue them and conduct interventions into their lives. I don’t want to discount it, obviously. But at the same time, I think we need to talk to sex workers who have not been rescued and see what they think.
NCU: So, under your watch with Visayan Forum, how did you do it?
SP: I think we make it very clear to the women that they are not under any obligation to speak. If they want to, they are welcome to talk about their experiences. There’s no condemnation to sex work. If you feel like you are not a victim, if you feel like you don’t deserve to be rescued, tell us and you may leave; stay here if you fee l like you need our services. And we work with the police, right? So we’ve made it very clear to our police partners that before we join rescue and raid operations, we would like there to be credible intelligence that there is strong reason to believe that this is a trafficking situation, so either it is forced prostitution for adults or minors are involved, because otherwise, we do not want to get involved. Because our agenda is not anti-sex work; our agenda is anti-trafficking.
Of course, the lines are harder to draw in actual practice because I do feel that some people do have an anti-sex work agenda. For example, USAID: For all implementing partners and organizations that receive funding from the US government—Visayan Forum doesn’t—you need to sign an anti-prostitution pledge which commits to never supporting or condoning prostitution and you need to also demonstrate that for every intervention you’ve conducted, you’ve at least attempted to rescue sex workers. So if that’s how your greatest funder behaves, that colors how the agents on the ground are going to act, right? And so given that we are interacting with many different actors who have these incentive structures, it gets tricky. But at least with Visayan Forum, we’ve been very clear. We are not anti-sex work—we haven’t taken a clear position in sex work, and fair enough—but we are anti-trafficking.