Sex workers in Manila have experienced a shift in their relationship with authorities in recent years. While some of them stood up to extortion at the hands of police in the past, things have changed, and they are now afraid to fight back.
In 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte was elected with a landslide victory, which was a consequence of his pre-election promise to save the country from a drug crisis. He has encouraged the police to pursue and even kill suspected drug sellers and users. Police in the Philippines estimate at least 5,000 people were killed without a trial, the vast majority of whom from poor communities. Sex workers were harmed as the drug war augmented their precariousness.
The laws “regulating” prostitution in the Asian country are confusing, making sex workers even more vulnerable. Corrupt authorities take advantage of this fact and raid sex workers’ homes under the pretext of looking for drugs or combating traffic. They extort money from the workers, the owners of brothels, and clients. Penalties for prostitution in the country can range up to life imprisonment if trafficking is proven.
The sex industry in Manila is concentrated in casa (brothels), escort services, KTVs (karaoke bars), and regular bars and clubs as well as massage parlors. There are a lot of freelancers on the street, most of whom are women and some of whom are Manila ladyboys. Most of them were born female, but the number of trans prostitutes is on the rise.
According to a study by the University of the Philippines conducted in 2002, 11% of young men had received money for sex, and 19% of young men had paid for sexual services.
The sex industry operates under the cover of entertainment. Prostitutes work as waitresses, singers, dancers, or hostesses in clubs and bars, where they contact clients who pay fees. Freelanceprostitutes roam bars independently looking for clients.
Data of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women show around 17,000 Australian men visit Manila on sex tours every year. They are joined by quite a few Europeans and Americans. Chinese, Koreans, and Taiwanese have built their own networks, usually around restaurants and karaoke bars in Manila. There are many sex workers from other countries as well. In October 2019, police rescued 91 Chinese sex workers in a raid in the capital. In recent years, sex workers and tourists have poured in from the biggest Asian country. The 91 women had been smuggled or trafficked to work as prostitutes, and all of their clients were Chinese as well.
The capital city is the biggest sex destination in the country. Smaller destinations include Subic Bay,Cebu City, and Pasay City.
One can see older Western men accompanied by young locals across the country, but not all of the latter are sex workers. The situation is exacerbated by a popular and legal phenomenon arranged by some online dating sites, namely mail-order brides.
The Role of US Military Servicemen
In 2014, trans sex worker Jennifer Laude was killed by a US serviceman, Joseph Pemberton, who was subsequently charged with the crime. The tragic case highlighted the ever-increasing presence of the government-protected and approved sex tourism in the country. In Manila, thousands of women and children are abused, sold, trafficked, and sexually exploited in brothels, sex clubs, and bars. The increasing presence of US servicemen in Manila under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), allowing US military to set up and occupy a base within the country’s camps, is fueling the local sex industry. Critics of the government’s policy believe this adds to sexual exploitation of young women and children and circumvents the constitutional ban on foreign military bases in the country.
The Catholic Church is rather silent when it comes to the issue. Critics find it should be more outspoken and at least attempt to influence society and government.The church does not actively opposesex traffic. Some members of the clergy perpetrate it. The church offers families, women, and children no protection.
Clubs, bars, and brothels can only workifthe mayor of Manila allows them to and if public opinion leaves their operations unchallenged. Currently, neither the mayor of the city nor the city council bans sex clubs, which implicates them in sexual abuse and exploitation.