[Dash of SAS] Prostitution or negotiable affection?
ANGELES CITY, Philippines – Bars line the narrow strip that is lit up in dulled lighting. Loud music spills onto the streets mixing in with the bustling of passersby. Inside the bars are versions of candlelight - dimly lit interiors swathed in red–orange light.
Its patrons are mostly men dressed in shorts and t-shirts, flipflops or sandals. The more dressed ones come in knee high socks that end in chunky white rubber shoes, topped with short-sleeved polos of light material with patches of chest hair peeking out from behind undone buttons.
Working in the bars are mostly women dressed in form-fitting dresses or short skirts, teetering on heels. They strut in an adapted sophistication that they cannot quite own, like a little girl walking around in her mother’s high heels.
Fields Avenue looks like a mini Las Vegas from the era of Bugsy and the founding fathers of the mafia.
No, there is nothing romantic about this place.
And yet, this is the place where many go to find love.
This is the place where the heartbroken and the down-trodden come with the hopes that they will meet their significant others and that fate will bring them together in a swaddling of romance.
“The attraction of Angeles City is its beautiful women,” a foreigner living in Angeles who has made the city his home told me.
A veteran of the city that he has grown fiercely protective of, he has become the unofficial go-to for advice on what to do in the city and the best way to meet its beautiful women.
He is swift to correct misconceptions but fairly acknowledges some truth in them.
“These men are mostly in their twilight years. They’re widowed or divorced and traumatized. Most of them are looking for companionship,” he explained.
“I tell them that age doesn’t matter here in Angeles City. If a 50-something guy tried to flirt or even smile at a 20-something girl in the US, he would automatically be considered a pervert. The girls here don’t mind the age gap.”
“Would she mind if she were more economically empowered?” I asked, putting the obvious question on the table.
He paused for the slightest moment, before replying with a long-winding answer that ended with, “Well, it’s just like prostitution anywhere else in the world.”
“So why are they called girlfriends instead of prostitutes?” I push on.
“Because the men treat them well. The men respect them even if they know they are paying for their company,” he said of the “girlfriend experience."
“And while she has other ‘boyfriends’ on the side.”
Emotional and financial exchange
I get it. Angeles City is a melting pot of youth and economics blurred by the lines of sex and illusion of romance. Where working in a bar in the hopes of meeting a good man to have and to hold serves a meal ticket, a career path to an education or if they really hit the ‘jackpot,' a plane ticket to fly them out of destitution.
Girls come here when there are typhoons and when their former homes can no longer offer them safety or opportunity. Some run away from abusive oppressive homes; others come here for the fun of it.
On my first visit to the City of Angels a few years ago, a revered MamaSan who has been in the bar business since its lights were a bright beckoning light once asked me, “How much can you make in a month? I bet my girls can make as much as you or even more.”
Then she did the math. By managing around four different boyfriends, her top girls can make up to P80,000 a month - each. It requires skilled juggling and multi-tasking but that is made easier through technology and varying timezones.
“We don’t even have to have sex (to make money),” MamaSan’s star bar girl told me. “I just sit with the guy. When he talks to me, I lean in and look into his eyes. I laugh when he says something funny and squeeze his shoulder. Then he slips me some dollars as a tip.”
As we talk, others who aren’t quite as gifted with congeniality sit at the side of the bar, like wallflowers waiting to be picked.
For the fun of it
The lure of easy money and fast romance are the lure for many like 19-year-old Kate.
Like a lot of the other girls, Kate is not originally from Angeles. She started doing cybersex in Iloilo where she said “everyone was doing it." When she learned how to work a computer herself, she learned how to eliminate the middleman.
Her boyfriend is a 45-year-old Australian she met on line. He sends her money every month and came to visit her last year. In between visits and chats with her beloved, Kate maintains a profile page on other sites like Blue Jasmin.
She has perfected the strategy of using an attractive approachable profile picture, whose promise is upheld by friendly engaging conversation.
On sites where she’s paid by the minute, she slows her replies and escalates the teasing. “Minsan gusto lang nya pakita ko dede ko. Yun lang, may bayad na. Walang galaw-galaw.” (Sometimes the guy on the other end just wants to see my breasts. Just that and I get paid for it. There’s no touching involved.)
She has also learned to identify customers who are soft and sympathetic and most importantly, easy on the purse-strings. “I always say that I want to study but we don’t have money. Nagpapa-awa ako and then maawa naman sya so papadala sya ng money. Sometimes $100 agad ang padala.” (I make myself look pitiful and they pity me and send me money. Sometimes, they send $100 right off.)
She has been able to finish high school, is setting her sights on college and has had her home fixed, much to the delight of her parents.
I met Kate when she was in Angeles over the weekend with a girlfriend whose boyfriend is a 40-something American.
The girls were looking for fun and were hoping to earn money on the side. To secure her chances of a return on her investment for going there, Kate scheduled dates with two men beforehand. She is booked for the weekend, she said.
It’s hard to tell where the business transaction ends and the semblance of a relationship starts. It makes it even harder to tell who the lucky one is.
“We know it’s transactional, but what can you do?” asked a gentleman, well into 60s with a waifish 20-something on his arm.
As they say, all’s fair in love and war. While you can’t buy love, affection — and its different permutations — is certainly negotiable. — Rappler.com
Ana P. Santos is a former banker turned public health journalist focusing on women’s issues and sexual health rights. It’s a mouthful and for the most part, she’s simply referred to as a “sex columnist.” She blogs (and rants) at www.sexandsensibilities.com and tweets @iamAnaSantos.