Clocks tick moments before the end of a mind-boggling exam. Mouths water at the sight of a moist chocolate cake. Hearts flutter at the scent of crimson red roses. These are just some instances where colors and numbers fill our minds with their attached meanings. But for some, numbers and colors are more than just about memory fragments. For the people in the sex trade, it’s about survival.
Sceneries of a prostitute
Women are assigned with numbers and colors, hanging like price tags for customers to pick from, and never their names written. Even with the discomfort of the usual scenery in bars and pubs, eager pairs of eyes, blinding neon lights, and stifling smoke, these people have accustomed themselves with the process and have chosen to hold onto that small tag, bearing their family’s hope for a good life.
Prostitution is a complex and long-existing trade, especially in a developing country like the Philippines. People find themselves in the industry for various reasons. But, more often than not, it is because of limited opportunities—a consequence of poverty. Some see prostitution as the only way out of their situation with its enticing expedited earnings.
“At first when you got to interact with them, ikaw na ang nagtabang pero ikaw pa ang sisihon kay gusto man nila ing-ana. Pero when you get involved with them and get to know them better, you would realize that the choice that they made kung naa lay opportunities will tell us na kung naa lang lain na kapakinabuhian they’d rather go there rather than in prostitution,” Jeanette Ampog, Executive Director of Talikala, expressed.
Jeanette is an educator who fell in love with Talikala’s cause which is to educate and equip women who have been forced into prostitution. They provide the women with the necessary knowledge about their situation and livelihood training to help them bounce back after leaving.
A woman hiding under an alias of ‘Melanie’, in fear of harsh judgment, also shares this reality. Married, yet often playing the role of a single mother, Melanie peddles goods like suman and halo-halo to sustain her children’s needs while her husband squanders their money in alcohol and gambling. Despite her situation, she usually offers a bright smile and eagerly talks to her customers. But, there’s one topic that she usually dares not speak of, her job before the onset of the pandemic: sex work.
Melanie saw herself like an item on a glass display in her job. Despite having worked as a sex worker for many years, Melanie still breaks out in a cold sweat whenever it’s time for her to sit on the podium where hungry eyes await. She recalled how intimidating the experience was especially when a customer finally picked her number or color. Yet, she chose to ignore her fears and doubts every time, reminding herself that she had no other choice and that it was only a job.
Paling self-image, fading dreams
“Walay choice. Wala pud koy nahuman,” Melanie quickly responded when asked why she embraced prostitution despite its uncertainty. “Panan-aw nako mao jud ni ang mas dali para sa akoa na trabaho.”
Melanie further shared how she started as a waitress in the club she used to work for. For her, it began as a curious venture when her aunt introduced the job. Despite its low pay, a meager 50 pesos per hour, the job pushed her to entertain the possibility of working as a prostitute.
With her voice breaking, she expressed how it was not only because of the dismal pay. The snide remarks of customers, such as “pakipot” and “nganong nisulod pa man ka ani kung dili ka pahikap?” served as the last straw. However, abuses were not only limited to words. Every order also came with unsolicited touching. At first, Melanie felt unsafe with her environment but with the frequency of these malicious acts, Melanie gradually believed their words and finally gave in.
“Labaw na pagmakainom na, mga bastos na jud. Puslan na dili man ko nila respetohon na waitress lang ko sa bar, pangwartahan nalang nako.”
She later justified that she would never have dared enter prostitution had she finished a degree and was not in urgent need of money. Despite her hard work in different part-time jobs, Melanie, in a resigned tone, said it was only in prostitution that she was paid well enough to support her family.
In fact, Melanie used to dream of becoming a fashion designer had it not been for her family’s limited finances. Even though she pursues her passion by tailoring her children’s clothes and modifying her dresses to fit the recent trends, Melanie, in a wistful tone, wished she had the chance to pursue fashion as a career.
“Isa pa, lisod maglahi ug trabaho kay hugaw jud tan-aw sa mga tao sa akoa, labaw na ng mga silingan.”
Prostitution amidst the pandemic
As much of society continues to battle a pandemic, Davao’s red-light districts have become ghost towns with no service demand for sex workers in fear of contracting the virus. Since prostitution remains illegal under Article 202 of the Revised Penal Code, and is harshly stigmatized as inappropriate and immoral by the general public, help is scarce for people who depend on the sex trade. They were left to fend for themselves.
Existing laws, such as RA 1161 or the Social Security Act, do not entitle sex workers and prostitutes with benefits. Also, the general notion of immorality that shrouds the trade discourages help from civilians and NGOs. Only a few NGOs like Talikala exist to not only extend help but also promote equal treatment for prostitutes.
“Nagpait jud mi kay walay kita unya balibaran pa akong panglabada kay tungod lage sa akong trabaho na basin nakakuha daw kog COVID. Maayo nalang naay mga nagapalimpyo, mao nakaipon gamay ug capital sa halo-halo ug suman,” Melanie recalled how help was denied by relatives and acquaintances because of her previous affiliation.
With the lifting of Davao city’s curfew and the use of Food and Medicine (FM) pass, more people, especially women, have returned to prostitution despite the health risks to earn money. Based on Talikala’s regular rounds, around 18 to 25 were observed to roam around the city every night.
Melanie’s case is one of many stories that shows the brokenness of our societal systems and the complexity of prostitution. It’s not just about the expedited earnings nor a fulfillment of one’s sexual desires. Underneath its flashy layers are the reality of robbed opportunities and unfulfilled dreams brought by poverty and a social system that reeks of partiality and indifference.
While some may say that prostitution is a matter of choice, Melanie and millions of other people who share the same palette of life are painted on the canvas of poverty and inequality. It is one that they cannot easily replace with the vibrant hues of dreams. Thus, a clean slate with access to different shades of opportunities must be made available for all before one can argue that it’s a matter of choice and not of circumstance.