Nowhere to run: Why some abused sex workers don’t want cops’ help

AT A GLANCE
  • Some women want out of prostitution, while some choose to remain in the industry. But they agree on one thing: Not to go to cops when they experience abuse
  • The police have programs to help abused women, but convincing them to come forward is easier said than done.
  • In the eyes of the law, people in the sex trade are both criminals and victims.
  • Sex workers express similar distrust in the legislative and judicial branches of government.
  • Feminists have a raging war in viewing prostitution.

After public outrage over the news of cops allegedly abusing prostituted women amid the coronavirus lockdown came out last May, the Philippine National Police (PNP) urged the women to come forward and name the perpetrators. 

The women, however, chose to remain in the shadows.

Cops repeatedly asked Rappler to reach out to the women, to assure them they will be given the best protection and counseling.

But their long, bad, and often contradicting history with law enforcement and the justice system may just be too much for them to put their faith in cops again.

Marivic, 'survivor' of prostitution

Marivic*, the woman who told Rappler that she was forced to have sex with a cop to get past a checkpoint, said that she has no plans of filing a complaint.

Hindi na po siguro [ako magsusumbong] kasi mahirap na. Okay na ang makakain kami ngayon,” Marivic told Rappler before the publication of the story. (I’m not willing to tell the authorities because it’s difficult. I’m okay that my family gets to eat now.) (READ: 'Walang wala na': Filipinos fear death by hunger more than coronavirus)

Despite the abuses, Marivic said that she finds it difficult to leave, as it gives her and her family enough cash.

On May 25, Police Brigadier General Alessandro Abella, head of the PNP’s Women and Children Protection Center, reached out to Rappler to ask for her contact information. Rappler declined to do so, due to Marivic’s request for anonymity.

Abella assured Rappler of Marivic’s safety.

Mayroon po kaming investigator, mga babae po… mga psychology graduate, nursing, trained po sila sa investigation on violence against women and children, specialized na mga investigator,” Abella said.

(We have investigators who are women… they are psychology and nursing graduates, they are trained to investigate violence against women and children, they are specialized investigators.)

He added that Marivic and the other victims will have to be in a safe house, while they build their case against the rogue cops. They will also be given lawyers.

“We will also hold the station commander responsible. We want to clean our ranks, these cops are wearing our uniform. The women are human and they have their rights and should be respected and protected even though they are prostitutes,” Abella said.

Meanwhile, Police Colonel Lailane Amparo, chief of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group’s Women and Children Complaint Unit, went to the Rappler headquarters twice – on May 27 and June 10. 

Amparo, like Abella, wanted to know the names of the victims and accused cops.

On both instances, there were no employees in the office, as everyone in the news organization was working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Rappler also got an email from the National Police Commission (Napolcom), asking for information necessary to prosecute the “unscrupulous police officers who are not worthy to remain in the service.”

Rappler told Amparo, Abella, and Napolcom that Marivic and the other women interviewed for the story refused to come forward to name the cops.

Marivic considers herself a “survivor of prostitution” and would like the entire sex trade to be eliminated. But she said that approaching cops may not be an option for now, given the institution’s history of cover-ups. As a survivor, Marivic rejects the idea that sex work is work.

While she continues to search for ways to exit prostitution, other women remain in the industry and want to sell sexual services. However, both who were forced into, and chose to be in, the industry agree: cops, and some so-called “clients,” can’t be trusted.

'Litigation is painful'

For Ada*, one of the best parts about engaging in sex work is being able to travel with the men she escorts. Only in her early-30s, Ada said she gets to eat at lavish places and have good conversations with men who are usually kind and generous. Some of them have even helped pay for her tuition, and gotten her high-end laptops for schoolwork.

But it hasn’t been all comfort and luxury. One day, a man stealthed her – or removed a condom during sex without her consent. Another insisted on having anal sex when it wasn’t what they agreed on. 

And her worst experience in the over 5 years of this type of work? When a client asked her to help him “borrow” a child for sex games, since it would look less suspicious if she made the arrangement. Ada refused, and tried to convince him to hire others who were of legal age. Filipinas look young for their age anyway, she said.

He refused.

“I snuck out while he was in the shower. Left my bag behind, filled it with random things, and put my stuff in plastic bags. I also left significant effects so he’d think I was coming back, like books and souvenirs we got. Then I asked a friend to get me the first flight back to Manila,” she said.

“I could have done more. I could have reported him, but I was also attending to my own trauma,” she added.

Even then, she said that approaching the police was “completely not an option.” 

“I distrust the police. I don’t think they understand the nuances of consent,” Ada said. Even as a sex worker, Ada said that consent can still be revoked. 

She also said she does not have faith in the courts, as they are “not friendly to women.”

“Litigation would be like amputating myself, slowly, with a blunt bread knife. I would not submit myself to that. From collection of DNA material, to affidavits, and all that – too painful. They’d just shame me, just so they can reinforce their value systems on what a ‘decent woman’ should be. It’s counterproductive [to try and bring my abuser to court],” she said.

Even after a handful of experiences of abuse, Ada described most of her 6 years in sex work as “generally pleasant.” It's also part of her assertion of body autonomy, she said. 

“I find most work environments even more oppressive and damaging to my mental health,” she said.

Distrust in cops, justice system

According to Article 202 of the 90-year-old Revised Penal Code (RPC), selling sex is a criminal offense. The RPC singles out women as “prostitutes” if they “habitually indulge in sexual intercourse or lascivious conduct.” People who sell sex can face fines and jail time. (READ: Why punish prostitutes and not customers and pimps?)

In an attempt to shift the narrative to protect prostituted women from stigma and victim blaming, the government enacted the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act in 2003. Then in 2009, the Magna Carta of Women named prostitution a form of violence against women.

This means that in the eyes of the law, sex workers are both criminals and victims.

Dianne*, one of the founding members of the Voice for Sexual Rights collective of sex workers (VSR), said that members of the collective are discouraged from seeking help from the police when they are abused by their clients because instead of being offered protection, they are stigmatized.

Imbis na ikaw ‘yung tutulungan, ikaw pa ‘yung ididiin. Sinasabi pa ng mga kapulisan, bakit nagrereklamo ka, eh trabaho mo naman ‘yan? Nawawalan na sila ng lakas ng loob na lumapit sa mga awtoridad kasi nga ganun ‘yung usually nangyayari. Parang sila pa ‘yung bine-blame kung bakit sila nagahasa ng kliyente nila, dahil daw doon sa nature ng trabaho nila,” she said.

(Instead of being helped, you’ll be interrogated. The police would even say, why are you complaining when that’s your job? The sex workers are discouraged from approaching authorities because that’s what usually happens. It’s like they are the ones being blamed for being raped by their clients just because of the nature of their jobs.)

And then there are times when the men in uniform abuse the very women they are mandated to protect. Dianne said that most of their 26 members have experienced abuse from police, especially those who operate in the Manila and Cubao areas.

’Yung iba ginagamit sila ng kapulisan para lang pakawalan. ‘Yung iba naman, pineperahan. Mayroong iba naman na kailangang monthly magbibigay sila sa pulis na 'yun para hindi na sila mahuli,” she said.

(Some of them let themselves be used by police just to be released. The others are forced to pay. And then there are others who need to pay bribes monthly to evade arrest.)

For those who do muster the courage to file a case, Dianne said their cases are not prioritized, or their lawyers from the Public Attorney’s Office often tell them to settle with damage money instead of pushing for jail time against their perpetrators.

Fear of cops

Sharmila Parmanand, a PhD candidate for gender studies, follows the situation of sex workers in the Philippines for her dissertation at the University of Cambridge. A significant sentiment in her fieldwork revealed that there is systematic abuse in the relationship between sex workers and law enforcement.

In my fieldwork interviews with over 100 sex workers in Metro Manila, whenever I ask them who they were most afraid of, or what the biggest threats to them were, it wasn’t their clients, it wasn’t the third parties or pimps – it was cops. Consistently.

Sharmila Parmanand

She explained that apart from cops extorting money or sexual favors from sex workers, they would also engage in “ritual humiliation” which included scaring and beating them. Cops as clients were also the ones who usually refused to pay.

“Once it’s a cop, they are in charge of protecting you, and they have so much control over the investigation process and they tend to protect their own as we’ve seen illustrated in other cases, like the drug war,” she said. (READ: Impunity: 'The cops were showing off')

"The [sex workers also worry] that President Rodrigo Duterte’s unprecedented masculinist rhetoric and behaviour, especially his strategy of using physical objectification and sexual humiliation against female opponents, has created an environment that is dangerous for aggressive sex worker rights advocacy," Parmanand wrote in one of her studies.

“What chance do you have as a sex worker?”

Debate among feminists

With the police force posing dangers to sex workers and prostituted women, the workers often try to find solace in feminist organizations, but it isn’t always easy.

“There are even feminists who discredit sex work, what more a hypermasculine institution such as the police force?” said Ada.

An added layer to the complex debate on sex work as legitimate work is the existence of feminist groups that consider all forms of sex work as violence against women.

One of these organizations is 36-year-old GABRIELA Alliance of Filipino Women, an umbrella alliance that is separate but affiliated with Gabriela Women's Party, which takes the same stand.

“Against a backdrop of unequal power relations and the historic and systematic oppression of Filipino women, referring to prostitution as ‘sex work,’ and thereby calling for its normalization and legalization, dangerously glosses over, even glorifies, the reality of exploitation and gender-based violence that prostituted women, and women in general, experience,” said GABRIELA secretary general Joms Salvador in response to emailed questions.

Parmanand said that Philippine feminist groups may sometimes have “well-meaning but very conservative interpretations of the prostitution issue.”

“The moment we say there is no possibility of someone making a considered decision, we enable interventions such as rescuing them when they did not want to be rescued. Or we remove any possibility of political agency – they can’t unionize, they can’t advocate for themselves. When they try to speak up for their rights, they are told they are too damaged or too traumatized to be able to adjudicate what is in their best interest,” she said.

While GABRIELA recognizes there are “a few” who have freely chosen to pursue prostitution as a way of living, the economic situation of most puts into question how much of a free choice it really is.

“At the core of such a decision, however, is the fact that women are socialized, hence their options constrained by a socially limited range of economic options, which could not be considered as truly ‘free choice’ at all,” said Salvador.

Dianne resents Gabriela Women's Party for standing in the way of their earning a living. Gabriela Representative Arlene Brosas has filed an anti-prostitution bill with the 18th Congress which remains pending at the committee level.

“We can’t approach Gabriela [party list] because they are against what we do. We can’t bring ourselves to seek help from other [organizations] representing women either. That’s why we decided to form our own group,” Dianne said in Filipino.

Parmanand also found in her research that sex workers who choose the work were not consulted in the formulation of the anti-trafficking law, the Magna Carta for Women, nor the anti-violence against women law.

"We had trafficking survivors, we had former prostituted women who say they did not choose this work, and of course we believe them. But it was only their testimony that was privileged. We never listen to anyone who has engaged in sex work and wants to continue to engage in sex work," she said.

Protection, not victimization

While firm in its stance to not recognize sex work as legitimate work, GABRIELA advocates for the decriminalization of prostituted women. 

“Prostituted women should be considered by both society and the law as victims of violence, abuse, and exploitation, and that they should be accorded with necessary protection instead of being treated as criminals,” said Salvador.

But Dianne and Ada don’t want to be seen as victims either. Dianne, a single mother, has been able to provide for her 4 children because of sex work. Even now working in a non-governmental organization, she still engages in sex work when opportunities come. She maintains ties with VSR, because for some, the group is all they have to find a sense of belonging.

Dianne advocates for the creation of a law that recognizes consensual sex trade and fosters an environment where sex workers would be able to collectivize and advocate for themselves. These spaces, they hope, would also allow them avenues to report abuses when they happen, and respect their work when there are none.

Ada, who belongs to feminist collectives, called for systems that would forward informal and marginalized sex workers’ rights. Organizing and collectivizing have “resulted in gains.”

“It’s empowering to have a community affirming my narrative…Knowing the truth of my lived experiences against these power systems [in oppressive structures] makes me see better spaces where change can happen,” said Ada. – with reports from Ralf Rivas/Rappler.com

*Names have been changed to protect the women's privacy.

Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a researcher-writer at Rappler. Possessing the heart and soul of a feminist, she is working on specializing in women's issues in Newsbreak, Rappler's investigative arm.

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