Sunday, September 18, 2011

The red-light district in Manila

Part 1 & 2 & part of 3. Or check out my actual conversations under the ochre lights.

Part 1: Red-light wandering

I arrived in Manila on a Friday at the beginning of September, in the middle of the rainy season, carrying just two small suitcases. When I checked into my hotel -- Durban Inn, which TripAdvisor gives 4 stars and calls the 12th best hotel (of 51) in Manila -- I discovered that it hadn't been cleaned yet. I also found out that I was exactly half a block away from Manila's most modern red light district.

That night, I familiarized myself with the district's two thoroughfares, Makati Avenue and P. Burgos, noticing the fast food restaurants and the bank branches, the corpulent white men and the diminutive homeless, the piss on the curb and the harried traffic officers. The streets were cacophonous. In the restaurants, I noticed I was the only customer who wasn't with another Filipino. Manila's red light district is, in some ways, the epicenter of contemporary Filipino culture, a palimpsest of residents in various economic straits forced together by tourism. The service sector sells pabulum and lodging; transportation and sex. Here, Filipinos rarely buy from each other; every eye is turned towards the never-ending cycle of visitors.

Prostitution in the Philippines is illegal. Republic Act 9208, passed by the Filipino legislature on May 26th, 2003, states that the government "shall give highest priority to eliminat[ing] trafficking in persons." Anyone found guilty of actively recruiting women for prostitution gets an automatic 20 years in prison and a fine of at least 1 million pesos ($23,000); anyone who leases space to be used wittingly for prostitution gets 15 years and a 500,000 peso fine; and anyone who has anything to do with children is sentenced to life imprisonment.  Despite these laws, the sex industry is thriving. In 2009, there were an estimated 800,000 women working as prostitutes in the Philippines, and they are available through myriad avenues: bars, brothels, karaoke clubs, escort services, massage parlors, and on the street. Their main supporters are businessmen, usually of East Asian and Western origins.

On a Sunday night a couple days after I arrived, I walked outside to find some food. Because of a recent cell phone purchase, I was down to my last 111 pesos, or U.S. $2.64.

I see a woman in tight jeans standing on the side of the street. I wonder what she's doing here -- she doesn't look like a prostitute. Then she turns around and we make eye contact. She walks up to me and raises her eyebrows. I shake my head and turn away. Across the street, there are 2 other women in more traditional outfits: tight, short, shimmering dresses.

"Hey mister!" they yell. I want to talk to them, tell them I'm looking for food (and not pussy), but keep walking instead.

Manila's red light district feels safe. There's a perpetual traffic jam along Makati Avenue, and on my block, there are seven 24-hour fast food restaurants. There are also three bank branches, each with a guard carrying a machine gun in front of its doors. I am one of dozens outside on the broken sidewalk.

I walk past the Pussycat club and a tall woman who says, "Hi sir. Sex?" before I reach the McDonalds. In our borough of Manila, called Makati (like the street), there are 19 McDonalds. This is one of the nine that are open 24/7. Unlike China, Mickey Ds here is not a sign of bourgeois refinement. Waiting in line is a fat white male wearing a shirt that spells out "Philippines" in red and green over three lines of text, and a diminutive Chilean wearing perfectly square glasses. There's a Filipina woman with long permed hair sitting by herself on a stool, but it's not clear which man she's with.

I order a chicken sandwich, mainly because there's a huge advertisement on the wall for them. It costs exactly 110 pesos. The cashier thumbs through the change before handing back one peso. I put it in my pocket. The order is ready in 30 seconds. I am famished, so I start putting fries in my mouth.

On my return trip to the hotel, the very first woman approaches me again. There's no non-verbal communication this time. She asks, "Massage. Sex?" I shake my head and walk back to the hotel.

Part 2: The economics of prostitution

The women of the Philippines, on average, earn about half as much as their male counterparts. In a country where the GDP per capita is around $1,700, and where 40 million Filipinos are earning less than $2 a day, the gender disparity can be lethal. Prostitution is often the best -- and sometimes, only -- way by which a girl, without any other economic opportunities, can help support her family. "Often, the eldest child in a family is told, 'You should go to the city and find a job, wink wink,'" my co-worker tells me. "The family knows how horrible it is, but they'll send them off anyway."

The other side of the economic equation is how much businesses stand to make from prostitution. Local officials sell pricey licenses for bars and clubs to operate; taxes on the operations bring in an equally impressive sum. The sex industry, amazingly, is the 4th largest sector in the country's Gross National Product. Filipinos abroad contribute their share as well: "japayuki," Filipino women who work overseas in clubs (mostly in Japan), send back more than $150 million in remittances to their families.

Because of the money involved, there's a denial by government officials that sex trafficking exists. Corruption prevents incremental improvement from occurring; when foreign businessmen come to Manila specifically to find virgin girls, and are willing to pay exorbitant amounts for them. The wealth funneling in is simply is too much to ignore.

In 2007, the U.S. State department placed the Philippines government in their "Tier 2" of trafficking, mainly due to the fact that the country is a source, destination, and transit point for trafficking. UNICEF notes that the country is one of the world's worst areas for child trafficking, as over 100,000 children are affected annually. While the government here employs around 90 anti-trafficking prosecutors, and is currently engaged in 100 cases against trafficking, that's still a 1,000:1 ratio of workers to prosecutors.

The Journal of Health and Human Rights specifies the unsavory mechanisms sex trafficking takes here:
"Girls enter[ing] sex trafficking in Metro Manila often involves elements of force, deception, economic desperation, and psychological manipulation. Trafficked girls often do not realize they are entering prostitution and are deceived by promises of jobs (for example, domestic help or restaurant work)."
Many instances occur where children are sold as forced labor before being flipped for commercial sexual operations. Metro Manila can be thought of as a staging ground, where girls receive an "education" in dancing or entertaining before being ready for international exposure. Even if girls are rescued from the trade, the reintegration process is lackluster; a lack of services and opportunities often mean re-trafficking.

In the end, it's really poverty that's driving them towards this path. As an NGO worker notes, prostitution is simply a means for survival:
"[T]he very force of poverty and lack of choices [means] you don’t even have to whip them; you don’t even have to tie them down in the brothels so that they’ll keep coming back to you. Because they will, because they don’t have anything to go back to."
Part 3: The males who love them

After a week living in Durban Inn, I made plans to move half a mile away, to a small, brand-new apartment in the Grand Soho in Salcedo Village, an affluent suburb in Makati. A day after the broker tells me everything is finalized, I receive a text telling me the owner has not responded, and that the deal is off. With just a day to find new housing, I follow a fellow co-workers advice and look around the red-light district for temporary housing options. I end up at 500 P. Burgos, a complex in the middle of the red light district, scrunched between a 7-11 and a girlie bar. The hallway is bare and dingy; the room is sickly and uninspiring. But the rent is just $400 a month, with a one-month deposit. I sign up, withdrawing 36,000 pesos from a China Bank the street over, and hand all the cash to the landlord.

The apartment, which is two times as spacious as my would-be space in Salcedo, is on the 3rd floor. It looks out onto the street P. Burgos; in fact, I can actually see main street sign right below me. My neighbors keep to themselves, though from glimpses I can tell they are families. The toilet flushes, the guards are friendly, and my bed is queen-sized. But I am still in the middle of the red light district. Occasionally at 4 a.m., I wake up to Katy Perry from the club a door away. Cars and trucks honk incessantly, and the harsh sounds pass easily through my sliding glass doors. An synthetic sounding oboe, at the most random times, plays the first measure of Titanic's "My Heart Will Go On" before cutting off abruptly. When I leave my complex, there are always 3 massage ladies, dressed in pink nurse scrubs, positioned outside, leaning on the hood of a car, asking me if I'm interested.

The dark, filthy kind of prostitution is not evident -- at least, not from the street. This is a more upscale district. There are two rich and amazingly well-lit hotels right across the street from me: City Garden and Makati Palace Hotel. There is a Korean supermarket on the opposite corner. Other than a deranged homeless woman who jumps in front of incoming cars only to duck away at the last second, cackling wildly, order and civility are preserved. The massage ladies take shifts to be outside 24 hours a day; there are two competing groups, one dressed in pink, and one dressed in aquamarine. The bars, from the outside, look plain, other than the lone Filipinas that make eyes at you when you walk by. (Some bars advertise midget wrestling, but maybe that's a thing in Southeast Asia.)

Perhaps the best indicator of this area's relative ease are the males that frequent it. I have seen all types. There are Indian men, scruffy and dressed in dark polos, that walk around in groups laughing to themselves. There are Koreans who look like American F.O.Bs, in crocs and bright shirts, that talk on their cell phones while walking down the street. There are Africans, though not many, who are often twice the size of everybody else on the street. And, of course, there are the Caucasian males.

They are everywhere, and they are of every aptitude and emotional state. Most of them have a slightly lost look on their face. Not many seem embarrassed. Most of them are fat, in that their stomachs protrude past their belts. Some of them are disgustingly skinny and wear fanny packs. A few are ripped beyond belief, with tattoos splaying out from their wife-beaters. I see them either walking down the street alone, or at a table, talking to an attractive Filipina. Once, I saw a family -- one white male and one Filipina woman -- with three kids, and wondered why they were tourists in the red-light district ("Look kids, here's where me and mommy met!") Most often, I see a taxi cab pull up next to me, in front of one of the expensive high-rise hotels, and watch a white male pull a petite, black-haired Filipina by the hand into the entrance.

One night, after a particularly self-conscious male walked by me, I wished I had the balls to pull out a camera, snap a picture, and say, "You're going on the Internet, bro." But I didn't have a camera. And I don't think I would have done it, anyway.

I've mixed with some of these males before, on a crazy Friday night, no less. The most telling statement of the entire night was, "I love this country. I'm never leaving." This in relation to the girls of the Philippines: curvy, shy, easy, and, of course, for these guys, DTF. That night, I understood the draw for these men: this was easy, inexpensive poon, and they were lazy.

Shyness factors here not at all. There are ways for a shy guy to draw a steady girlfriend; the bare minimum that pickup teaches men is that confidence is really all that's required to have at least some girls feel attracted to you. That's not hard to do. Learning seduction should temper the urge ever to come to Manila just to have sex. But the males who come here either can't handle facing rejection, aren't willing to put in the effort to become rock-solid individuals with tangible goals and skills, or (most dubiously) don't have time for a girlfriend. Apparently, it's East Asian businessmen who most frequently haunt the Philippines red-light life; can their acuity for business not translate to females as well? Maybe, though, the promise of prostitution is not to pick up a girl, but to pick up a sizzling hot one -- the kind you would never have a chance with in the real world. That might be true elsewhere. Here, on my red-light avenue, some of the girls are so unattractive,  it's evident that the men with them aren't looking to move up; they just want sex.

Before that crazy Friday night started, I met a 46-year-old Japanese man with rotting teeth and a fish-gut belly smoking on the patio of my old hotel. We talked about how he has a Filipina girlfriend who's too shy; and who got offended when he took her out to a $10 meal, because she thought he was showing off his money. He's the most omega male I've ever met in my life. In an attempt to understand his psyche, I'm going to text him tomorrow to see if he can grab lunch. The insights should be fascinating; I'll write about them here as soon as I'm done.