Bok (not his real name) was 16 to 17 when he entered the sex industry. Then a newbie in the City of Manila, where he enrolled for college, “I didn’t want to burden my Mom (in the province) by always asking for money from her,” he said in the vernacular. And so when his PlanetRomeo profile gained traction thanks to his self-description as “tall, dark and… well-endowed”, “the became a source of income for me; so that at times, instead of asking from Mom, I even sent money to her (without her knowing the source, of course).”
Now in his early 20s, Bok works in the BPO industry; and no, he no longer does sex work, even if – he stressed – “I’ve no regrets being part of the sex industry in the past. I may even return… if needed.”
Bok is one of the many faces of those who have been involved or are still involved in the sex industry. And so – no matter how this issue keeps being pushed under the proverbial rug – this is actually a fact of life.
SEX WORK IN PHL
Exactly how many Filipinos are engaged in the sex industry is hard to ascertain. A 1998 study by the International Labor Organization, for example, estimated that there were at least half a million prostituted persons in the Philippines. In 2002, a study conducted by the University of the Philippines’ Population Institute and Demographic Research and Development Foundation found that 19% of young males paid for sex. Also, 11% received payment for sexual favors. Meanwhile, in a 2009 study entitled “Philippines: Women Struggling to Achieve Sexual Equality,” the estimated number of persons engaged in prostitution was around 800,000.
But no matter the actual number, it is said that prostitution may be illegal but is tolerated in the Philippines.
On one hand, there are laws penalizing prostitution. For example, Article 202 of the Revised Penal Code, as amended by Republic Act Number 10158, penalizes women who engage in prostitution. It specifically states that “women who, for money or profit, habitually indulge in sexual intercourse or lascivious conduct… may be fined or imprisoned, or both.”
“Any person found guilty of any of the offenses covered by this article shall be punished by arresto menor or a fine not exceeding 200 pesos, and in case of recidivism, by arresto mayor in its medium period to prision correctional in its minimum period or a fine ranging from 200 to 2,000 pesos, or both, in the discretion of the court.”Article 202 of the Revised Penal Code
(As amended by Republic Act Number 10158)
But on the other hand, local government units issue “pink cards” to masseurs and masseuses offering extra service. Karaoke bars have G.R.O. offering more than customer support. And even the Bureau of Internal Revenue wants to tax those who sell sex-related services online.
TIME TO HIGHLIGHT
For Michael David dela Cruz Tan, Editor in Chief of Outrage Magazine and concurrent executive director of Bahaghari Center for SOGIE Research, Education and Advocacy, Inc. (Bahaghari Center), there are layers of issues here.
“Is everyone in the sex industry prostituted? Are all sex workers in need of saving? Should this be legalized? Why is this also an issue of the LGBTQIA community? It is truly high time for us to talk about this,” Tan said.
This is something being seconded by Ms Eda Catabas, member of the Transgender Women’s Group of the Philippine Sex Workers Collective.
“When you’re a sex worker, it is common for people to automatically label you as a prostitute,” Catabas said.
At least for her, it is time to distinguish the two – i.e. one is forced into the situation, the other chooses to be in it. This is, admittedly, a contentious issue – e.g. there are feminists who’d argue that all persons in the sex industry are automatically abused; but there are also those who’d say that choosing to be in this line of work should be left to individuals, and this, in turn, is empowerment.
For Catabas, because this is a taboo topic in the Philippines, “we don’t really talk about it” so that “the level of awareness of people about this kind of work has not elevated.”
DEALING WITH MISCONCEPTIONS
All the same, misconceptions impact the lives of people in the sex industry.
For instance, there is a notion that people in the sex industry don’t know what they’re doing and that they need to be saved. The Philippine Commission on Women, for one, recommended for the establishment of “support mechanisms for prostituted persons to get out of the system of prostitution”. But “seeing a homogenous population in the sex industry is bad,” said Casabas, adding that it’s “also dangerous to the human rights of a sex worker (when you (impose a label on them) without a clear definition, aside from this being unfair.”
For Catabas, the word “prostitute” is loaded; and when this is imposed on people, all the misconceptions linked with the word is forced on people.
“Number one, majority will tell you it’s immoral, bastos or not a real work. (Also, that) it’s not a work you should be proud of, regardless of the effort, the hard work you exerted while doing sex work. (Similarly, you) can’t be proud of the (fruits of your labor) – for example, you were able to buy a house, you sent your siblings to school, you became a breadwinner, you feed your relatives. But (people expect that) you should just shut up about the fruits of your labor,” she said.
There needs to be a redefinition of terms here, Catabas said.
Sex work, for her, is just like any other work. But the nature of the job is through sex (whether it’s traditional, i.e. penetrative, or more modern, i.e. online).
Sans the reconsideration, sex workers are at a disadvantage.
There are many rights sex workers are not afforded, Catabas said.
For one, there is the issue with access to education, where people are more accommodating of “working students”, but then treat sex workers differently, forcing sex workers not to pursue education while working in the sex industry.
There’s also the need to access quality healthcare services. “Due to the nature of the work, it makes you vulnerable to HIV and other STIs,” Catabas said. And yet “you won’t be comfortable going to healthcare facilities and tell them you’re a sex worker. That’s a big… hindrance already for you to enjoy your basic human right to access health care services. And this is dangerous; it can even cost you your life.”
And then there’s “the right to do what you want,” she added.
For Catabas, legalization of sex work is the answer.
“This will address specific issues of sex workers,” she said. “Laws, actually, are just so powerful. They will condition the minds of citizens. When a certain law tells you to do this, whether you like it or not, you have to follow that law. Because if you don’t, (non-compliance) will have consequences. So imagine if you legalize sex work, you are telling people that legally it’s okay (to do this) and there’s no problem (with this). In fact, service providers will be more welcoming… because there’d be nothing wrong with your work; even the country’s law is telling the people that it is legal, it is okay.”
For Catabas, in fact, pro-sex work laws can impact culture.
“There’s something about laws that could change people’s minds,” she said. Mindsets may not be changed overnight, but “when a certain law exists, you slowly change the culture.”
MORALITY HAS NO PLACE HERE
In a way, sex-related work is already tolerated. For instance, there are local government units (LGUs) granting licenses to massage parlors offering extra service; there are guest relations officers (GROs) in karaoke bars; there are people selling sexual content online; etc.
For Catabas, therefore, the “moral outrage” about sex work is hypocritical.
“Sex work is being tolerated in the country, and that’s the reality,” she said. Sadly, “this is still not being discussed so that (it is not formalized).” For her, therefore, if LGUs already have practices taking sex work into consideration, why not bring the discussion forward, perhaps to the national level? “It will help sex workers – e.g. access health care services, which are being denied to them.”
For Catabas, morality should not be included in this discourse.
To start, there’s supposed to be a separation of Church and State. “No one is stopping you to have any religion. But let us please ensure there’s secularism. We should not allow religion and people who draw from their religion to impose only what they believe in.”
Secondly, “your morality is something that you need to keep personal particularly when it already hurts others.”
Discussions on sex work neglect some populations, like LGBTQIA people. And Catabas said that “by default, when you say sex work, people identify this with cisgender women. But it’s a work wherein so many people are involved in.”
Trans women, for instance, may do sex work because of levels of social oppression. They get discriminated when accessing education. They are then unable to get good jobs (if they are considered at all). This forced them to find alternative work – e.g. sex work.
“In order for us to include LGBTQIA people are included when talking about sex work, the key actors – e.g. government, social welfare agencies, health care service providers, etc – should study more about sex work,” Catabas said. Some populations are overlooked, so a deeper look at the sex industry should be done.
And for the LGBTQIA community that may not look at the sex industry positively, “I can understand why people have different stands on sex work. But I hope you et education, awareness about sex work because you have many LGBTQIA siblings affected here. Open your mind, be empathetic. If you have privileges, good for you; but remember, not everyone has these privileges. Many are already affected by oppressors; don’t add to the oppression.”
NOW’S THE TIME
“The truth is, we still have a lot of unpacking to do as far as sex work is concerned,” Tan said. “
Abuso sa kababaihan, o maging sa mga lalaki? Immoral ang pagpuputa? This benefits the traffickers, not the foot soldiers?”
All the same, he stressed that “this is a reality we should not run away from.” This is because for him, “it is a reality that already impacts many aspects of people’s lives.”
For instance, in July 2021, 11% of the new HIV cases in the Philippines involved people who engaged in transactional sex (or those who paid or were paid to have sex). Meaning, “sex work does not exist in a vacuum; it – or its impacts – can be seen in other social issues.”
“And so yes, this may be illegal in the Philippines, but that it is being tolerated is widely known… and even accepted as just okay,” Tan said. “May nagbibenta at bumubili ng vidjakol. May nag-o-offer at nag-a-avail ng massage with extra service (ES). May mga DOTA boys. May nangingibang-bayan para magputa. All of these are part of the sex industry.”
So for Tan, “if we do not tackle this, we’re ending up punishing those involved in the sex industry whose rights should also be protected.”
With this, therefore, “it’s time to revisit this issue… now.”