Philippines red light district
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.
These men actually thought — no, believed — that these women were hopelessly and absolutely in love with them.
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.
Before I moved to the Philippines, I never knew anyone who had paid money for sex.
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.