Whilst finding exact numbers can be difficult, most sources estimate that 500,000 to 800,000 men, women and children are working in the sex trade in the Philippines. Sex tourism is mainly clustered around the major cities; however, its effects are felt countrywide where women and children are often forced or coerced away from their rural communities to work in the cities. Selling or paying for sex is actually illegal in the Philippines, however sex workers will be employed as a number of different roles that fall under ‘Entertainment’. Law enforcement turns a blind eye, and often accept bribes from sex workers in the form of sexual favors in order for their continued compliance with the industry.
A Short History of Prostitution in the Philippines
There is a long history of sex work and prostitution in the Philippines that goes as far back as the 1500s. A prosperous slave trade was established in the late 1500s between the Philippines, Spain, and the Caribbean. It is believed that some Filipino women were sold as “exotic sex objects” for work in European brothels. Slavery was outlawed in the Philippines in 1591, however, this did not stop exploitation by the Spanish colonists. In the last century, there was a resurgence of sex tourism due to both WWII and the Vietnam war.
During WWII (Specifically 1941-1944) the Japanese Imperial Army forced women to serve as “comfort girls” to the Japanese soldier stationed in the Philippines. These women were eventually compensated in the 1990s for their suffering and humiliation at the hands of the soldiers. The US liberated the country from Japanese rule in 1945. The sex tourism continued with the American soldiers and several women had children who were then ostracized by the community. Being social outcasts on the edge of society meant that this trend continued, the mothers sought sex work in order to survive and often their daughters met the same fate.
In 1947, Filipino President Roxas signed a military agreement resulting in 22 US military bases being stationed on the Philippines. The largest base, Clark Air Force base, located near Angeles City resulted in the city becoming the “mecca of the sex trade”, often referred to as Sin City. Sex tourism in the Philippines was rife in the 1960s and in to the 1970s with American soldiers stationed their due to the Vietnam war. These bases were eventually closed however, this simply shifted the clientele from Soldiers to tourists and the local community.
The Modernisation of Sex Tourism in the Philippines
Sex tourism in the Philippines continued to grow during the 20th century, and then modernised during the 21st century with the birth of the internet and easy access to internet cafes. Internet cafes meant that women and underage girls everywhere could perform webcam sex with men for money around the world. It’s commonplace for the cafes to have private rooms where the girls can work from. Most of the clientele are American or European men.
Exploitation of Children
Unicef estimates that there are 60,000 to 100,000 children involved in the sex industry in the Philippines, whilst Child Protection in the Philippines estimates that almost half of Filipino prostitutes are underage. There are a number of reasons children are involved in the industry, with poverty being the largest contributor. There are entire generations stuck in the sex tourism industry due to poverty. Surveys done of prostitutes working as massage therapists indicated that 34% of women stated they were in the industry to support their poor parents and 8% stated it was to support their siblings. This level of poverty means children can be forced to enter the industry at a young age in order to help support their families.
An even darker side to this story is the children forced away from their rural communities for sex work in the cities. The Philippines is hit with frequent natural disasters, often leaving rural areas in ruins and making many children orphans. There have been reports that traffickers target these young girls, either kidnapping them or with promise of shelter, food and a better life in the city.
Sex Tourism in the Philippines and the Effects on the Community
More than half of the children born every year in the Philippines are born to single or unwed mothers, and the percentage of illegitimate children in the Philippines is rising at the rate of nearly 2% annually. Whilst not all of these will be as a result of the sex work industry, it accounts for a substantial amount. These children often face a harder time in community. Single parent families in the Philippines allow the poverty cycle to continue and ensure later generations have a similar fate.
Although being a sex worker is not respected in the Philippines, sex work is somewhat tolerated by society as a whole. Local men contribute greatly to the industry and paying for sex is seen as an acceptable alternative to being lonely or propositioning their wives in some cases.
Over a third of sex workers reported that they had been subject to violence or harassment, not only from patrons, but from the police, and also from city officials and gangsters.
This leads to a situation where sex workers cannot be protected because they as individuals are not valued by society. Over 20% of the women surveyed in Filipino massage parlors said they were “conscience-stricken because they still considered sex with customers a sin.
A Future Without Sex Tourism?
In 2005, the government set up a bureau to bring together several government agencies, local charities and the legal authorities to tackle the issue. Whilst there is still a long way to go, awareness campaigns and work by organisations have made some progress on the issue. One organisation, End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT) guarantees young girls get shelter, advice and training to help protect them from traffickers. Several girls have been saved and re-trained for other jobs in the community such as chef work.
Ultimately there are still thousands and thousands of women and girls stuck in the industry, and this is unlikely to change overnight, it’s first going to require a change in the societal attitude to sex work and exploitation before these programmes can gain any traction.