Of victims and saviors: Sex work amid the pandemic
(First of two parts)
(Note: Names of sex workers interviewed for this article are pseudonyms or internet personae.)
MANILA, Philippines — Delilah, 23 years old, has been doing sex work since she was 18.
“There was a time when I was so ashamed to label myself as a sex worker because of the stigma and the threat of being doxxed or reported,” she told INQUIRER.net in a phone interview. “But two years ago, I started to embrace the term and reclaim words such as ‘whore,’ ‘bayaran,’ or ‘pokpok.’”
She finds it odd to be asked what sex work means to her. “I think people mean well when they ask me that,” she said, “but the thing is, we don’t normally ask that question to other workers.”
While she admitted that she enjoys the work because she gets to explore her sexuality and identity, she still believes that it is just a job. “I don’t think I have to feel empowered to do it,” she said, “and I don’t think it has to be any special.”
Her family knows about what she does, and while having no respect for her work, had learned to respect her boundaries. “My extended family thinks I’m just doing this because I’m sad or I’m in a damsel-in-distress situation,” she said.
She juggled sex work and studies, but with the pandemic forcing schools to go online, she chose to put her college education on hold and focus on work. She used to do “full service” or in-person work, but because of the lockdown, she moved online.
She earns two to three times the monthly minimum wage online, where the principle of harder work equals more money also applies. “But it doesn’t go without the social issues that we have,” she said, adding that double standards based on physical appearance remain.
Another issue she has with working online is digital privacy, saying she dreaded it for the longest time because of “horror stories” she had heard. “Since sex remains taboo in our country, the people have this obsession with scandals or leaks,” she said.
Payment also becomes tricky because sharing her bank account information creates a paper trail. “I’m really thankful that there’s an online community of sex workers where we share tips and help each other out [with matters such as payment],” she said.
Despite all this, she said she believes that the pandemic-induced rise in online sex work can be a good thing because more individuals get to explore their sexuality and even earn from it. “It’s like experimenting in the kitchen,” she said, “where you cook something, sell it, and see if people like it.”
“The danger is not in the work,” she said. “It only becomes dangerous because of the stigma, the legal ramifications, and it being underground, which is a very good spot for abusers.”
The internet is “a world in which selfhood has become capitalism’s last natural resource,” proclaimed writer Jia Tolentino. And thirst traps are a manifestation of this phenomenon.
Thirst traps are provocative photos used to attract attention, and they have been around — although in different forms — for the longest time, said sex and relationships therapist Rica Cruz, PhD, RPsy, who is also a sex educator.
“Thirst traps have always been in the media,” she told INQUIRER.net in a phone interview. “Maybe for [others] it’s surprising because it’s [now] out there on social media and they can easily access it, but that has been going on for so long, mainly because sex sells.”
As the cost of living continues to skyrocket, made worse by the recession, people have become creative in earning extra income. Some started food businesses while others turned to online retail. Some of those who habitually post thirst traps on social media have learned to monetize their “nudes.”
This, however, is a form of pornography and may even be considered sex work, which are both illegal in the Philippines.
Article No. 201 of the Revised Penal Code penalizes pornography with prision mayor (imprisonment of six years and a day to 12 years) or a fine ranging from P20,000 to P200,000.
Article No. 202 of the same law punishes women engaged in prostitution with a jail term of one to 30 days or a fine of up to P20,000. Article No. 341 punishes any person engaged in, profits from or pays for prostitution with imprisonment of 8 to 12 years.
Another law, the Philippine Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003, considers prostitutes as trafficked individuals and should not be prosecuted. Traffickers and clients are punished by imprisonment of up to 20 years and fine of P1 million to P2 million.
The Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 punishes those engaged in cybersex with prision mayor or a fine of P200,000 to P1 million.
“You don’t want to tolerate anything that’s illegal,” said Cruz, “but you want to be able to give them a space where they can be free to express themselves and to choose whatever they want to do as a means of living, as long as they’re not hurting anyone.”
Student sex work
Early this month, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian initiated an investigation of the online sale of explicit photos and videos by students raising funds for their education.
The NBI was then tasked with conducting the investigation and filing charges if necessary.
The senator said: “It is alarming that since there are problems brought by the pandemic, our youth are becoming victims of abuse and harassment. Criminals are taking advantage of the needs of students and this should be stopped by the government.”
Referring particularly to students of age who sell their sexually explicit contents online, Sharmila Parmanand said that student sex work is not new. “Students engage in sex work to pay for their tuition because we live in a world where we don’t subsidize education enough,” she told INQUIRER.net in a video call.
(Parmanand is a scholar with a PhD in gender studies from the University of Cambridge, whose research focuses on the relationship between the fight against trafficking, women’s rights, and sex work in the Philippines.)
She frowns at how sex work continues to be seen as something “uniquely disempowering” as compared to other jobs where workers are overworked and underpaid.
“This is a question of economic justice, not a question of policing,” she said, adding that instead of punishment for those involved, people in power must address the baseline concerns of students.
She said those who do it for pleasure or of their own volition — not out of necessity — must be left alone, simply because there is no coercion or violence involved. “If they’re doing it out of economic necessity, then the solution is to erase that economic necessity,” she said.
In a phone interview with INQUIRER.net, Gatchalian said there is a bigger issue lying beneath the seemingly trivial act of selling sexually explicit content online.
“The selling of the pictures is just a very superficial violation. The deeper violation here can be human trafficking,” he said. “Once you open yourself to people buying those pictures, those people can also become predators — and most likely they are — and it can escalate to human trafficking.”
Gatchalian said that if sexually explicit contents are easily available online, buyers may then resort to contacting and inviting the owners of the content, which could “open more avenues for other serious crimes.”
“My fear is, if we don’t close the door and continue to open that, you’re opening up also [individuals] that can be subjected to violence, abuse, and human trafficking,” he said. “The goal is to stop that already.”
With the NBI probe, Gatchalian hopes to determine the buyers and the mediums where the transactions take place, saying that child pornography and human trafficking also happen via the same mediums.
On the economic necessity that Parmanand was referring to, the senator said that parts of the 2021 national budget and Bayanihan 2 are allocated to help students with their educational expenses.
‘Knights in shining armor’
In her article “The Philippine Sex Workers Collective: Struggling to be heard, not saved,” Parmanand argued that contrary to the message of the anti-trafficking sector, which remains the dominant voice in the national conversation on sex work, not all sex workers are victims who need saving.
“[The laws in our country mirror] how sex workers are viewed in Philippine society: they are either ‘bad women’ with loose morals who break up families or victims who need to be pitied and saved,” she wrote.
Parmanand admitted that she currently has a cynical view of the country. “I think what’s going to happen [with the probe] is we’re going to celebrate policing and saving,” she said.
“When we think of a woman, we always think of a vulnerable victim-in-waiting that needs to be saved. That’s precisely what this [probe] does. It evokes those kinds of images,” she said, adding that male sex workers remain largely absent in the conversation.
Further, she said the public is easily seduced by the “macho protector,” describing Gatchalian and the NBI in this instance as acting like “knights in shining armor” who are “cracking down hard” on sex workers through online surveillance, thereby invading their digital privacy.
“It’s as if you have a problem that is defined by individuals who are ‘being forced’ to perform sexually online or sell sexually explicit images … and then the role that the state plays here is only as a rescuer,” she said. “That’s how the story is told.”
On the contrary, she said she believes the problem lies with the government. “If [the state is] not getting its act together, why are we giving it the power to rescue those people from the same conditions that [the state] failed them in or created for them?” she said.
A whole new ball game
The Voice for Sexual Rights (VSR) is an emerging organization in the quiet movement toward decriminalizing sex work in the country. Diane and Jackie, who are part of the group, said that with the lockdown making their situation more precarious, they are learning to adapt to the new normal.
“Since it’s still prohibited to rent hotel rooms, the workers have a certain place where they can conduct their work,” Diane, who is a former sex worker, told INQUIRER.net in a phone interview.
Jackie, who still does sex work in addition to tending a small store, said most of the sex workers she knows have been “on and off” in the trade, with some shifting to selling food or clothes online.
Members of VSR, which is currently composed of at least 26 former and current street- or establishment-based sex workers, are mostly single mothers. At present, they continue to recruit sex workers and maintain an online group chat where they assist and look out for each other.
Diane said that aside from getting caught, abused and extorted by the police, there is now the additional fear of getting COVID-19, forcing some members to change jobs. “But if the situation improves and there’s an opportunity to return to the streets, they said they’re willing to return,” she said.
Nonetheless, members of the group do not plan to shift online, which for them is a foreign arena that is already saturated. “Most of our recruits are newbies,” said Diane, “so they don’t have access or knowledge of doing it online.”
According to Parmanand, the reluctance to move online could be due to factors like lack of technical knowhow, insufficient capital for equipment and private space, absence of bank accounts for payment and digital surveillance.
With the onset of a new normal, which has forced industries to adapt, Parmanand said she believes it is vital for the conversation on sex work to amplify the voices of those who, for one reason or another, remain in the streets, because otherwise, the discussion will remain homogeneous.
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