The Award for Happiness: Prostitution in the Philippines
The business district of Alaminos, in the Philippines, consists of roughly eight blocks by eight blocks of stores. A McDonald’s is surrounded by hardware and agricultural outlets that sell hog feeds and tractor parts. A 7-Eleven recently opened. The nearby Hundred Islands National Park has become a popular ecotourism destination for nationals and foreigners alike. Alaminos also has the closest ATM to Bani, where I’ve been stationed as a Peace Corps volunteer since 2011.
But say “Alaminos” in my office at the Local Government Unit, and people snicker. A derisive comment or gibe nearing sexual innuendo usually comes next, followed by laughter. Everyone knows what Alaminos means. It doesn’t mean the nearest ATM, McDonald’s, or ecotourism. It means prostitutes. It means going there after the sun sets. It means boys’ night out. The women in my office laugh, too. Like it’s an inside joke I don’t get just yet.
The first time I went to a brothel in Alaminos, it was by accident. I was with two colleagues from the LGU, Bill and Ka Rene; they took me to a restaurant to celebrate a recently approved grant. Bill aroused my suspicion when he ran a quick errand in town proper and returned with three women. Then he said he would be treating everyone that night, just after the grant money was deposited.
“Get whatever you want,” he said, addressing no one in particular.
Aileen, one of the three women, took us to Franz Bar where she introduced us to an eclectic group of prostitutes — transvestites, minors, costumed girls, and fetish experts.
“I have many experiences,” Ka Rene repeated all night. I didn’t indulge him as a private audience to his personal anecdotes, but he did tell me about mamasangs. Aileen was just that — a madam, a female pimp; but more than that, she was a matriarch for the slew of young, impoverished prostitutes in Alaminos. Beyond ensuring the constant income revenue from her sex workers, she made sure they had basic necessities — food, water, and shelter. It was difficult for me to reconcile.
The second time, a friend I was with claimed to have fallen in love with a girl — a prostitute — at first sight. I lectured him about underage girls, HIV and AIDS, and gender inequality, rote passages from Peace Corps initiative training manuals. Though skeptical at first, he quickly deferred to me when it became apparent I wasn’t judging his character as much as looking out for a friend. But I couldn’t shake the notion that he was just pacifying the cockblocker — me.
The third time I went to Alaminos I was with Ka Rene again. Ka Rene is nearing 60. When he doesn’t dye his hair jet-black, his roots where he parts it in the middle are white. He plays Hendrix and Dylan in the office, and wears Pink Floyd and Zeppelin t-shirts. His affability and capability to make those around him laugh make him extraordinarily effective at his job as a community development organizer. He settles disputes in conflicted communities so that projects can proceed. I’ve seen him put disgruntled strangers at ease within seconds of meeting him.
He also pays money for sex.
Over drinks, with several working girls sitting with us at our table, I raised the issue of the women’s enjoyment of their duties. While most of the women, avoiding eye contact, demurely submitted that they did enjoy it, one admitted that she didn’t.
“It’s not love,” she said.
Ka Rene was awestruck. A theme started to emerge to me. A pattern. These men actually thought — no, believed — that these women were hopelessly and absolutely in love with them. They thought their constant text messages were not mere marketing, but confessions of a tender and longing heart.
He didn’t sleep with any of the girls that night. In the car on the way home, he shouted at me, “It’s all your fault, Tyler!”
I couldn’t help but become angry. I knew Ka Rene wasn’t that naive, but maybe his feigned ignorance was a front for healing a broken heart. Nonetheless, I felt he needed a reality check.
“You know that’s her job, right? All you are is a customer to her,” I said. “Money. Cha-ching!”
For the fifteen minutes that it took us to get back to Bani, I could hear him mumbling, “It’s all your fault, Tyler. It’s all your fault.”
In 2012, the Philippines ranked in the top five locations for sex tourism in Southeast Asia along with Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Malaysia, but no one likes to admit it. Last October, the US Ambassador to the Philippines, Harry Thomas Jr., caught media backlash when he publicly stated that 40 percent of tourists, Americans and otherwise, come to the Philippines for the sole purpose of soliciting sex.
It was a PR disaster. Scathing reviews, suspicion over his sources, and condemnation followed from Malacañang Palace, several Filipino senators, and the Philippines’ Departments of Justice, Foreign Affairs, and Tourism. His remarks, felt nationwide, came right after the Department of Tourism had given their tourism marketing campaign a makeover. Their new slogan? “It’s more fun in the Philippines.”
The ambassador apologized publicly for his statements amidst arguments by the Department of Tourism that foreigners visit the Philippines primarily for affordable shopping and ecotourism. At least, that’s what the immigration forms stated. The Department of Tourism went on to explain that tourists are not asked if they are traveling to the Philippines to solicit sex, and stated that they “do not have accurate statistics on sexual tourism and related cases.” The International Labor Office, though, estimates that prostitution accounts for 2 to 14 percent of GDP.
Tracking the number of unregistered, trafficked, seasonal, and overseas sex workers is even less precise. Figures from foreign and local NGOs vary widely, with as few as 45,000 to as many as 800,000 people working in the sex trade.
The primary driving force behind women becoming prostitutes is poverty. The Philippines’ population reached roughly 100 million people as of this year, 32 million of which live in poverty. The unemployment rate plunged to its lowest point in over two decades in 2012 — 7.3 percent — but job shortages have been on a steady incline. An estimated 2 million Filipinos left the Philippines in search of employment in 2011.
Opportunities for women, especially impoverished and uneducated women, are scant. These are also the same women that have the largest families according to national surveys performed by the Social Weather Station. Many of the mothers claim that their pregnancies were unplanned, but they do what they can to get by. Becoming a sex worker requires no education, no references, and no experience.
However, in order for prostitution to be a viable opportunity for income, there has to be a demand. Before I moved to the Philippines, I never knew anyone who had paid money for sex, or at least anyone who would admit it. It was easy to loathe creepy men, hold philandering husbands and fathers in contempt, and proudly proclaim a moral high ground on the issue. But now these men were my coworkers and colleagues. I was appalled — but fascinated, too. I wanted to understand them. I started joining them on their trips to Alaminos, though I said I was only there to observe, to have a night out with the guys.
A week after my last visit with Ka Rene, my coworkers warn me against going to Alaminos. With the amount of gossip in my office, I imagine they think I’m a sex tourist rather than the embittered volunteer I’ve become. But that isn’t their main concern. There’s been a string of shootings throughout the week at some of the bars around town. One coworker blames it on shabu, a Filipino version of crystal meth. The bars are frequented by addicts, and it’s not uncommon for a Filipino to be carrying a gun. Although the police blotter cited no specific causes for the altercations, the buzz around town is that the shootings started as quarrels over women — prostitutes. Three men died from gunshot wounds.
It doesn’t seem to bother Ka Rene much. Crimes of passion aren’t uncommon. He wants to go back.
At Eliana’s, a family restaurant with live music in Alaminos, he tells me again that he has many experiences when it comes to women. He means prostitutes, but he avoids saying the word at all costs. We sit at a lacquered hardwood table in the back and order a bucket of beer and some food. When the band performs his request, Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry,” he sings along. He reminisces about the hippie era in the States and the first time he tried LSD. He’s impressed with counter culture and social movements.
But before delving further into the topic, he wants to tell me about his experiences. He has many.
His most recent was at the nearby brothel, 12 Doors. Kris, he says, was very professional. Kris had the confidence to ask for trike fare back to the brothel after the transaction was over. They took a shower together. He says he’s sure she had an orgasm. She even slept beside him for a while before leaving. Maris, on the other hand, was not as professional. She sat on the corner of the bed looking scared. They did their business and she left immediately without a word. He doesn’t think she climaxed. Even so, he says Maris is his favorite.
Ka Rene hails from Cavite, a southern part of the island. His wife worked abroad in Japan for a while. During this time, he took a girlfriend — a prostitute. He doesn’t mention her name. They dated, grew close, and eventually moved in together. He supported her for a year. One day, she left for the island of Cebu under the pretense of visiting her sick aunt. She left him her aunt’s cell phone number.
For months, Ka Rene attempted to contact her through her aunt until one day someone finally picked up the receiver on the other end. The person, sympathizing with Ka Rene, explained that his girlfriend did not have an aunt in Cebu, that she was working in the brothels, and that he was one of many boyfriends she’d taken to support herself financially. He couldn’t believe it.
When his wife returned from Japan, she and Ka Rene separated, and he left his two daughters with their mother. Divorce is illegal in the Philippines, and an annulment was out of the question. So Ka Rene and his wife came to an agreement that they would treat it as a divorce. He moved far away up north, and she took another husband.
Ka Rene’s respect and reverence for his children inspired him to begin work as a community development consultant. He believes that he can be a better person for his family through helping others in his work.
In between draws of beer, he says that his daughter didn’t mind the separation. “She told me, ‘You’re still my father.’”
“What if your daughters wanted to be prostitutes?” I cautiously ask.
“Of course, I don’t like that,” he says and chuckles. “And they won’t do that. They have a lot of opportunities.” His eldest just graduated college and is seeking employment abroad.
He tells me that his wife was rumored to be a mamasang. When I ask him if it was true, he says, “Maybe.” Then he tells me of another woman he once knew who was also a mamasang and pimped out her two daughters. He says the daughters enjoyed the work, but couldn’t fathom what the mother was thinking. I can’t help but wonder if he’s talking about his wife and daughters.
“What about the prostitutes here?” I say. “They’re someone’s daughters, too.”
“Yes, that’s true,” he says. Ka Rene’s usual giddiness has dulled.
“Do you use protection?” I ask. Ka Rene looks at me, confused. “Condoms,” I say.
He shrugs his shoulders and looks taken off guard. “No,” he says and laughs.
“Do you ever feel bad for them?”
“Sometimes,” he says. “Yes. Sometimes the girls, after I…intercourse with them, they say, ‘Oh, what am I going to do?’” His response drops off and he lolls over his beer bottle as if reliving the moment he’s describing to me.
“And what do you say to them?”
“I tell them, ‘That’s life.’” Ka Rene chuckles again.
The Filipino cities with the most predominant red light districts are Manila, Cebu City, and Davao. However, the ones with the longest histories lie in Pampanga Province: Angeles City, Subic, and Olongapo, all of which are former American military bases. All of the women I met in Alaminos had, at one point or another, passed through Pampanga. Many claimed that they were from Pampanga instead of their actual hometowns, which were generally rural towns in the provinces with no employment opportunities.
The recent increase in US military presence in the Philippines has given rise to several protests by women’s advocacy groups like GABRIELA and WEDPRO. They feel that the increase in soldiers will lead to the perpetuation of prostitution…again. In 1997, it was projected that there were approximately 50,000 Filipino children fathered by US military troops with Filipina prostitutes. The majority of illegitimate children cycle back through the prostitution rings because of inherited poverty and their attractive — read: Western — physical features. It is estimated that 75 percent of the prostitutes in these areas are under the age of 18.
In a controversial proposal, the International Labor Organization motioned to legalize prostitution in the Philippines in order to better understand the trade’s dynamics through requisite documentation for business owners. It was argued that legalization had the potential to make the trade a safer environment for sex workers. WEDPRO strongly disagreed and held protest rallies in Pampanga in hopes that the government and the public would hear their plight. When the issue of legalization came up, they were outraged, citing that legalization would also legalize the abuses from paying customers.
WEDPRO urged for prostitution to remain illegal, but sought fairer treatment for the prostitutes so that women forced into the sex industry are better protected. Too often the women were the target of prostitution raids, after which they were issued expensive fines or faced jail time, while the brothel owners came out unscathed and able to continue their business.
With this strategy, WEDPRO hoped to eradicate illegal prostitution rings posing as legitimate businesses, thereby eliminating the availability of sex worker positions. However, it did not offer an alternative income for the women. Most likely, the women would seek a similar job in a different part of the country or abroad.
More recently, prostitution rings have started to expand outside of these major red light destinations and into the provinces. In small towns and villages, the largest consumers of the sex industry’s services are the Filipino men.
Aida Santos, spokesperson for WEDPRO, says that prostitution should be viewed in the context of political, economic, and social issues on gender structure. She holds firmly that men need to share responsibility for this.
‘“One consistent factor we have observed in the course of our research and studies on prostitution is men’s unchanging behavior toward women. Even now, most males regard women as inferiors. We need to reorient the people that prostitution is a violation of human rights and that it’s not okay to use or pay women for sex.”
The newest hot spot in Alaminos for nocturnal entertainment is known as 12 Doors. At the beginning, it consisted of a row of pillboxes that held 12 individual establishments. It wasn’t long before an additional 12 establishments were constructed out back. Then 12 more. And 12 more again. Forty-eight doors, all within a few months. When it became apparent that the numbers continually increased and the name changed every time, they began to call it Gawad Kaligayahan — the Award for Happiness; GK for short.
All of the businesses are identical inside and out. The main entertainment room where the women interact with the men is a 25-by-25-foot block of concrete strewn with plastic tables, plastic chairs, and a videoke machine; the lighting is always dim. The red haze from the neon lights outside filters in through the windows. In the back, behind the curtain, are the kitchen and a set of stairs leading up to the women’s sleeping quarters. At any time, there are between 10 and 15 women living and working at each business.
A cinderblock wall was constructed along the roadside the length of the building to conceal it from passersby. During the day, you can see nothing. At night, the red glow and videoke racket are reminders that the place is still there behind that wall.
It’s Ka Rene’s and my fourth time to Door 2. How did I find myself in this place again? When I first started joining him, I was curious about why prostitution was treated with such flippancy by my coworker. Then I wanted to chastise him and rub his nose in it. Then I wanted to help the prostitutes, but found that I had to help Ka Rene first. It became a guilty pleasure, like watching a crappy telenovela where you know which parts will leave you hanging, and where the story ends — but you just have to watch it play out regardless of its predictability.
I see Maris, one of Ka Rene’s favorites, snuggled up against a man at a table. Another pudgy working woman and five other men comprise their party. Empty liters of Red Horse, a local beer, are grouped together on the tabletop. The men sing love ballads in Tagalog. Everyone cheers when a man takes a stab at a song in English, but the others are not to be outdone. The competition is palpable.
One stands up and dances by himself. Another stands on a chair and shakes his booty. One tries to commandeer the mic mid-song from another, and the singer picks up his cell phone and throws it. It skids across the floor to the bathroom. The owner of the phone, perturbed, snatches the thrower’s cell phone off the table, stands, and hurls it at the concrete floor. It shatters into several pieces all over the room. The women don’t flinch. For a short moment, the camaraderie and mirth dies. Before long, the singing and dancing begin again as the pudgy woman retrieves the pieces of their cell phones.
Bakla, the in-house attendant, recognizes us immediately and approaches our table.
“Kris?” he asks.
Ka Rene nods and Bakla walks behind the curtain to summon her.
“I don’t even remember what she looks like,” he says to me. So I tap him when she comes down the stairs.
“Oh, that’s her?” he says. “She’s beautiful.”
Kris is short and petite with a flat stomach, even though she calls herself fat. She has perfect teeth and a large mole on her cheek next to her nose. She takes a seat and orders a Red Horse — the strongest of Filipino beers. Kris’s chestnut hair falls to the middle of her back and is freshly straightened. She has an immaculate French manicure and smells of sweet perfume. Ka Rene flirts and laughs. Kris seems mildly uncomfortable with his touching and petting, so she makes efforts to seem inaccessible. She blocks his hands by reaching for a beer or lifting her cell phone near her face to text.
She rolls up a napkin and tosses it at Maris. Maris glances back at us repeatedly. It’s obvious that the two are texting back and forth. The rowdy men at Maris’s table filter out of the room and she goes upstairs for a few minutes, then returns.
“I told them I was going to bed,” she says to me and sits. “They’re on business from Dagupan. They’re crazy.”
The length of Maris’s tank top covers her high shorts. Her blue fingernail polish is chipped and only covers a small portion in the middle of each nail. She sits with her arms crossed over her stomach, shy of the extra pounds she’s put on from childbirth and drinking beers all day. The difference between her chubbiness and Kris’s slenderness speaks to the length of time they’ve been in this profession.
Maris tells me that Kay was looking for me. Kay, another worker, had told me she was from Pampanga. We talked the first time I went to GK. She came back and worked at GK for two more weeks because her toddler daughter was sick and the hospital bills were too expensive for her small income from her corner shop to cover the costs. After she earned enough to cover her daughter’s treatment, she went back home to Pampanga.
In between his two favorites, Ka Rene is all smiles. I know that he’s been with both of these women. Maris knows this, too, but Kris doesn’t. Maris feels that Kris would be upset over this fact and never told her. Ka Rene doesn’t try to hide it, nor does he feel compelled to expose it.
Ka Rene touches their bare thighs and twists their hair. They flinch, but stay put. He asks them to stand and compares their physiques. After several beers, a plate of fried chicken, and a few songs, Ka Rene is ready to leave. It’s 3:30 in the morning.
“I will buy Kris,” he says to me. “You pay for all this,” he says motioning to the food and beer on the table, “and I’ll pay for Maris,” he says. “For you.”
I nod. The other attendant, a pregnant woman that only recently has taken leave from entertaining customers, comes to clear the table. Her belly is bubbled out big.
“When is your baby due?” I ask her.
“Next week,” she says. Two weeks ago, I saw her drinking beer with two men; her stomach was no less noticeable. I congratulate her on the baby. She smiles and picks up the empty bottles.
“Boy or girl?”
“I think it’s a girl,” she says. She disappears behind the curtain.
We arrive at Rose’s Inn just before four. Kris chose this one because it’s clean. She knows all the rent-by-the-hour joints with a front desk open 24/7. They know her, too. The entrances to the rooms are through a small one-car garage with metal doors that slide down and latch from the inside. Ka Rene and Kris go to 108. Maris and I go to 105.
Maris turns on the air-conditioning and lies on her stomach on the bed. I take my cell phone, cigarettes, and keys out of my pockets and lie on my back beside her. She’s smiling, holding her breath, and then she lets out a giggle. I imagine her in this room with Ka Rene sitting at the corner of the bed, scared and naked.
“We’re just talking,” I say. “Is that OK?”
Maris turns on her side to face me. Of course it’s OK with her. At first we talk about favorite Filipino foods, me missing my mother in the States, how nice the air-conditioning is. Then I ask her about her family and where she comes from. She’s originally from Masbate, a bus ride well over a day away. She dropped out of high school at 16 and had her first child at 17. The father abandoned them, so she moved to Manila to earn money to support her baby back in Masbate. She worked in retail for a year, but heard of more lucrative opportunities in Angeles City.
She worked at the bars there for two years, always busy. The workload became overwhelming for her so she moved to Alaminos, where she got pregnant again. She thinks it might have been from a Malaysian customer, but isn’t certain. Both of her parents died while she was gone. Her younger brothers and sisters still live in Masbate with her first child and families of their own, but Maris doesn’t keep in contact with them. Everyone thinks she’s still working retail in Manila. While she tries to save money from work in Alaminos, a friend in Pampanga cares for her second child.
“What did you do for work in Masbate?”
“Boutique sale,” she says.
“Which work do you like more? The boutique or the bar?”
“So why don’t you go back then and quit this?”
“I have fears,” she says. She’s scared of her family, what they will think of her if she arrives with another child and no money. She’s ashamed of the past five years. She begins to cry.
“What? Are you going to help me?” she asks sarcastically, laughs, and wipes her tears. “I’m not crying,” she says. “I’m just tired.”
She rolls back on her stomach and stuffs her face in the hard pillow. I notice that the tone of her voice has not changed. Usually, when people cry, their voices become distorted. The knot in the throat, the mucous running from the sinuses, the pressure from restrained whimpers — they all do something to the voice.
But not Maris. She’s always sounded that way since I had met her.
“I made a promise to myself,” she says. “In 2013, I’m going home with my baby.” Maris says she would rather make her money from her cuts from the expensive drinks at GK than come to these rooms, even though it pays less. But she feels it’s not her decision to make.
I sit at the coffee table and smoke a cigarette while she lies there, silent. I cannot bring myself to badger her further. It seems inconsequential for her at this point. I feel awful for oversimplifying her situation. I wanted to believe that it would have helped her to make different decisions or open up to different opportunities. So she wouldn’t be here, crying in a bed in which she’s sold her single-mother’s body countless times.
Maris’s cell phone rings. It’s Kris. Ka Rene is finished after not even 10 minutes, and he’s already asleep.
“Tyler? He’s just sitting, smoking a cigarette…we are just talking…yeah,” Maris laughs, “a cherry boy for real.” I’ve gained the reputation and nickname “Cherry Boy” at the brothels because I look young, buy the women drinks, and talk with them, but never take them out. I try to explain that I’m not a virgin, but my proud claims are always met with feigned acceptance.
“Kris wants to go back,” Maris says after hanging up.
“That’s fine,” I say. “If you want to go back, you go back.” After our short discussion about returning to Masbate, this question seemed to be more emblematic of her situation, the answer, more weighted.
“What about you?” she asks. It’s clear that Maris would rather wait out the remaining two hours on the room in the air-conditioning. She’s getting paid for it. I insist that it’s her choice, but she defers to me. So I suggest that Kris joins us. After a text and a few minutes, there is a knock at the door.
I open the door and Kris lingers back, staring at her phone. She doesn’t want to look inside the room. She only enters after seeing us fully clothed. Then Kris stands in front of the mirror, applying lip gloss. She won’t look at us, and Maris invites her to join us on the bed. Kris stands quietly at the foot of the bed.
“Did he smell bad?” says Maris.
“No,” says Kris. “He was fast. Already asleep.”
“Let’s go back,” says Kris. “Maybe there are people waiting for me there. I can still make more money.”
Maris looks at me but doesn’t assert herself to Kris. Kris still has the vigor of a new recruit — no children, no worries, and only a slight taste for shabu. They want to leave ahead of Ka Rene and me, but I tell them I’ll be just a second. I pound on the door to 108. There is no response. I can hear a television blaring. I knock louder. Again, no response. The door is unlocked and I crack it ajar, just enough to avoid seeing Ka Rene’s bare ass.
“Hey,” I shout. “We’re going home now.”
Ka Rene stumbles to the door and holds a hand towel at his waist.
Ka Rene pays for a trike back to Bani. He rides in the cab with Kris and Maris while I ride side-saddle on the motorcycle. The road is deserted and the air cold. Maris tells Ka Rene that we didn’t have sex. I imagine he’s confused. He might question my sexuality, if I’m a cherry boy or not, if I’m attracted to Filipinas or not. I doubt that he’ll ever offer to pay for a woman for me again.
When we get back to Bani, he gets off three blocks before his house and gives the trike driver 300 pesos. He doesn’t want the women to know where he lives. His hair is ruffled; puffy bags are under his eyes. He doesn’t mention what Maris told him. He just rubs his head, gives a half-hearted wave, turns, and walks home alone. Surely, it’s something that he’s been able to turn his back to and walk away from many times before. I am no longer angry, no longer vindictive towards Ka Rene. It seems all of us share a heavy heart.
Maris and Kris wave goodbye to me from inside the tiny sidecar.
“You take care,” says Maris.
“Thanks,” I say. “You too.”
The man driving the trike pulls a U-turn and takes them back home to GK.
Two months later, Ka Rene is still talking about his exploits during drinking sessions, but he doesn’t go to GK as much. It’s not due to the fact that there were four more shootings there. It’s because he’s been spending weekends traveling back to Cavite to spend time with his daughters.
But tonight, he’s noticeably drunker than he usually permits. We’re gathered around a plastic table outside the house of another coworker. Others struggle to hush his proclamations of sexual conquest so that wives inside the house do not hear. He squints to keep his focus on me. He wants to tell me something.
“You know Maris? She texted me. She’s back in Pampanga,” he says. “Angeles City. She says she’s not coming back to Alaminos. She’s going to Cebu to look for work. I don’t know why. I think it’s because she’s weak. I told her to call me if she goes back to Alaminos before she leaves,” he says. The others bark out changes in conversation to muddle Ka Rene’s voice. When the topic of the upcoming elections gains momentum and charge, those waiting their turns to voice their opinion jab Ka Rene in the arm and give a quiet laugh of validation. But Ka Rene isn’t laughing anymore. He pours himself another drink.
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]