Philippine Sex Workers: between a cross and a hard place

by Melissa Austen
A familiar Lou Reed tune cools Burgos Street’s sticky air like a Venice Beach summer breeze—the song’s ‘70s birthplace. “Shaved her legs and then he was a she. She said, ‘Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.’” 

The lyrics saunter onto the street from a sit-down bar. The bar is popular for its Western continental brunch buffet.  Mainly older, expat men, Filipino girls and baklas fill its seats. Bakla is a local term denoting those who are physically male, but identify and dress as female. Baklas are not a wild sight in conservative Metro Manila. An increasing number of baklas, along with local women and minors, wait along Burgos Street, the Red Light District’s hub, for clients. Their work is a 24/7 operation; a shop whose revolving door remains, for the most part, unguarded. I spent the first three weeks of my stay in the Philippines on Burgos Street.

Coincidentally, my first assignment at the AHRC was to write a petition about a criminal law targeting women sex workers. My task was to investigate how to challenge the constitutionality of Section 1 of RA 10158, which criminalizes sex work conducted by women. Specifically, I examined how our lawyers can establish that Section 1’s targeting of women sex workers is discriminatory under the Philippine Constitution. I was also instructed to recommend for the court to read out the word “women” from Section 1’s criminalization of “women prostitutes.”

There are some advantages to this proposed solution. Reading out the word “women” from Section 1 would make the criminalization of prostitution less arbitrary in its modern application. Many baklas and other transgendered persons, in addition to some men, engage in sex work in the Philippines. Males working under the red light are a blind spot in Philippine law. Section 1 does not capture them, so men are given the green light under Philippine law to engage in sex work. Women alone, because of their sex, are vulnerable to criminal charges for sex work. Reading out “women” from Section 1 would render all sex workers—regardless of their sex—indictable.

Section 1 of RA 10158’s arbitrary criminalization of women sex workers is, of course, unjust and sexist.  For this reason, the Philippine Legislature would likely agree that this law requires revision. Reading out the word “women” from Section 1 would actually support this law’s legislative purpose to criminalize sex work. It is thus possible that the court will find Section 1 to be unreasonably discriminatory toward women under the Philippine Constitution.

For me, things get sticky during the discussion (or lack thereof) on reading out Section 1 in its entirety. The result would be decriminalizing sex work in the Philippines, a paradigm shift that would not go unchallenged. A likely and important critic is the Catholic Church, a prominent actor in many areas of Philippine society. The Church is vested with heavy political clout. For many of my colleagues, the Church’s probable opposition to decriminalization provides a sufficient reason to oppose decriminalizing sex work.

My colleagues’ cultural and religious concerns are valid, and I take them seriously. I also take seriously my role as an intern: I am here to help my organization fulfill its human rights agenda to the best of my ability. As a new visitor, I do not know how to best respond to safety and legal issues facing sex workers in the Philippines. However, many groups against decriminalizing sex work are not responding to all angles of the sex work problem. I wish to see the public weigh its discomfort about decriminalizing sex work against the adverse effects of criminalization on sex workers.

A concern for the well-being and safety of sex workers has led some countries recently to decriminalize sex work. Women and children involved in sex work are vulnerable to rape, murder, AIDS, and other sexually transmitted infections. In the Philippines, over a third of Filipino women sex workers interviewed in 1998 reported that they have been subject to violence or harassment, most commonly from the police, but also from city officials and gangsters. There are no recent figures on violence against sex workers, illustrating the lack of resources given to researching dangers posed to this marginalized group.

Decriminalizing sex work in the Philippines will not fully protect sex workers from violence and illness.  However, sex workers could benefit from a less stigmatized status when seeking social services and accessing the law. Moreover, decriminalization would shift the police’s role from punishing sex workers to protecting them. Those for and against decriminalizing sex work in the Philippines probably agree that improving sex workers’ safety is desirable.

The causes of sex work are just as important to examine as the effects. Surveys of women working as erotic masseuses indicate that 34 percent of these women described their choice of work as necessary to support poor parents, 8 percent to support siblings, and 28 percent to support husbands or boyfriends. More than 20 percent of respondents said that the job was well paid, but only 2 percent said it was easy and enjoyable work. Poverty and familial responsibility, coupled with a lack of economic prospects, are key drivers for poor women to enter the Philippine  sex industry.

I would like to see more discussions in the Philippines on whether sex workers, induced by poverty to enter the sex industry, ought to be punished by the criminal law. Reading out “women” from Section 1 would better carry out the Philippine Legislature’s intent to prohibit sex work in its entirety. Yet the public policy merit of this law has yet to be evaluated on some important fronts. A key front is child welfare.

The relationship between poverty and sex work is particularly stark in the context of child sex workers. The Philippines ranks fourth among nine nations with the most number of children trafficked for prostitution. Pills and condoms are unknown among many child sex workers. Child sex workers commonly drink small amounts of Tide, believing that detergent bleach will prevent STI-transmission. First-line responders say that poverty, peer and family pressure lead most children to sex work. These minors are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation because many of them lack knowledge of their vulnerabilities.

The criminalization of sex work in the Philippines is especially dire at this moment. A bill to reduce the age of criminal responsibility to twelve may pass this year. I attended the House of Representatives during the bill’s second passing. If this bill is passed, then child sex workers as young as twelve can be trapped behind bars, beyond the reach of rehabilitation centers. This possibility seems odd since both sides of the decriminalization debate would probably agree that child sex workers require rehabilitation.

In many ways, these children are already locked up by their psychological trauma. Often, children in rehabilitation ”want to change but can’t get out of the system. They feel caged and trapped,” explains Dr. Norietta Calma of the Philippine General Hospital’s Child Protection Unit. Still, therapy can help prostituted children face the truth and finally ”forgive themselves.”  If we view child sex workers as requiring emotional and physical healing, then the question of whether sex work is an illness plaguing poor youth needs fleshing out.  This question is mired with legal implications.

I do not have an answer to this complicated question. All of my expressed concerns are issues I wish to see debated in the Philippines. I situate myself outside this debate.

One truth is clear, though: Philippine sex workers are subject to violence and danger in their workplaces with little or no protection. Women sex workers—and, if the AHRC’s petition is successful, all Filipino sex workers—are caught between a cross and a hard place in the Philippines’ muted debate on decriminalizing sex work.

If the new crime bill passes, then children ages twelve and up will be tacked onto the debate. Sex work in the Philippines is not just a wild, moral problem: it is a grave social crisis with far-reaching health, criminal and social consequences. These consequences require further evaluation by critics and supporters of sex work criminalization.

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