Why punish prostitutes and not customers and pimps?

Jean Enriquez

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'When hip writers talk about prostitution, even pornography, as simply work or as free expression of sexuality, they miss the reality of patriarchy'

When I was a college student at the University of the Philippines, I was quite smug about my position on prostitution. I thought that the most progressive stand to take was to legalize the sex industry – to allow the women to do what they want to. I felt hipper when men around me had the same position.

I felt embarrassed about this standpoint when I came face-to-face with the women in prostitution. I was surprised to see the women who stripped on stage to be glassy-eyed. I thought they would be exuberant, enthusiastic in performing. My male companions (who came with us for security reasons) told me that the women had blank eyes because they used drugs. The women confirmed this with me later, that they “needed” the drugs.
Needless to say, they are poor. In Monumento, after sitting down with me for a while, a woman started talking about having been abused by her father, which drove her to leave the province for the city. Her story was not isolated. No, they did not dream to be in prostitution as girls. They had no option.

When I went to Cubao in later years, I found out that the majority of those whom a survivors’ group helped also escaped childhood sexual abuse.  


Myra, one of the women in Cubao, was raped by her uncle when she was 5 years old. At 7, her father also started abusing her sexually until she got pregnant at the age of 14. She ran away, worked in a home as domestic worker, then in a canteen as a dishwasher, where she was recruited to “work” in a bar. At 14, with two other teenagers, Myra was raped by the bar owner and told that, from then on, they would be serving customers. At 15, she was brought by a soldier to a brothel. She again got pregnant and was brought to Quezon City, where she escaped. She ended up in the streets of Cubao. She was sometimes brought by a pimp to climb ships in Batangas.

Lyn was 8 when she was raped by an adult male cousin. When she reached home, she was scolded by her mother for dirtying her clothes. She did not have anyone to get help from. She stopped studying even as a bright student. She drowned herself in alcohol and cigarettes and went out often with friends. Later, she left her hometown in Pangasinan and reached Monumento. There, a man offered her a home, but she was raped first. She went back to the streets and was offered money to go with customers. Penniless and having nowhere to go, she went with the pimp and was trapped in a brothel in Angeles. She later escaped to Monumento and then to Cubao, where she continued in prostitution.

The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women-Asia Pacific (CATW-AP), a feminist organization fighting modern-day slavery, started a shelter in Quezon City in 2006. Ninety percent (90%) of the women and girls who came were abused as children, by men known to them – father, uncle, cousin, neighbor. As society blames rape victims rather than the male perpetrators, the women and girls internalize the guilt. They consider themselves stained as society did.

It was critical for me to understand that other than the impoverishment of women, another factor that pushes women and girls to prostitution is the internalized perception that women lose their integrity when they are abused. Along with the fact that they have no shelter, no support system, no food, the girls in the streets are left without choices but to go with the women who are already in prostitution or are pimped before them.

They learn subterfuges – how to get around what men want from them. This is what is misunderstood by others as power or agency, thus the misnomer “sex worker.” The spectators miss the “herstorical” context of prostitution and the power relations between the women on the one hand, and the customer and pimps on the other.

Women are not the only actors in prostitution. As in rape and sexual harassment, the women are examined as if in a glass bowl, even punished. But the predators are ignored, invisible.

My exposure has gone beyond Cubao and Caloocan. I have seen the different faces of the women in prostitution (not different from you and me), in the rest of the Philippines, in Asia and around the world. I have also seen the customers. Almost 99% of them are men, are from all sorts of backgrounds and economic classes.   They ogle at the women on stage, dance with them after, grope them, ask them to sit with them while drinking, to laugh at their jokes, and bring them out of the bar. 

In Korea, as in Olongapo, the patrons are military men in search of a good time. Or professionals choosing from women in glass-enclosed cages. In Thailand, they are sex tourists from all over. But also local men. According to the book “Sex Slaves: The Trafficking of Women in Asia” (2000, Virago UK), 75% of Thai men are prostitution buyers. In Vietnam and Cambodia, 70% of those caught in brothels are reported to be state officials (Brown, 2000). 

In Cotabato, they are soldiers in camps. In Cubao, they are students. In the bars of Quezon Avenue, there are politicians. Oftentimes, they are unseen because they would order by phone the women whom they would offer as gifts to their visitors. I was once in Germany when a politician told me how he was welcomed not only with local food, but with women as gifts, in my own province of Quezon.

This is the demand side – the pull factor that determines prostitution and its profile. When the buyer wants younger women, then girls are searched for in the countrysides, where girls are vulnerable. That vulnerability may derive from previous sexual abuse experience, abject poverty, and socialization toward commodification or objectification.

Our research in 2007 showed that most of the girls in prostitution are from the rural areas, where their parents may also be forced out of their land or ancestral domain or fishing area. Or their families’ meager properties were destroyed by disaster or conflict. 

We investigated this demand side through research, and found that men are driven by a long history of normalization of male buying of women, by the idea that masculinity is about the entitlement over women’s bodies anytime, akin to rape, affirmed by pornography (now made massive by information technology). It is so normalized that in our research in India, boys believe that the abolition of prostitution would mean more rape. 

It is therefore important to see prostitution as violence in the same continuum as sexual harassment, rape, and pornography, where women are targeted because they are considered to be sexual objects or commodities. Like rape, it is an exercise of power, strengthened by purchasing power. As Sheila Jeffrey wrote, the acts in sexual harassment are considered women’s human rights violations by state laws, but are considered acceptable in prostitution – simply because customers handed money. Women, however, are not only groped in prostitution, but are slapped, kicked, their heads bumped against the bathtub, sometimes killed by customers. 

As critical as interrogating, buying is making the profiteers in prostitution visible. The business side of demand is what makes the industry even more difficult to challenge. The private owners of prostitution establishments that come in many forms are working tightly in many areas with local government officials. And I am not speaking only of the Philippines. 

An important call that Myra and Lyn make is to shift the blame away from the victims – from those bought and sold – and toward those who buy and profit from them. It is high time, therefore, that the Philippine law on vagrancy that revictimizes women in prostitution by criminalizing them, be repealed. Myra, Lyn and CATW-AP have been lobbying for more than a decade for a comprehensive anti-prostitution bill that protects those bought, but punishes the buyers and the business.

One thing is clear, when “hip” writers talk about prostitution, even pornography, as simply work or as free expression of sexuality, they miss the reality of patriarchy. How is it work when women do not have to train for it? Their qualification is simply being women so that their bodies can be used by customers in any manner they wish. In prostitution, women are not truly free. Regardless of negotiations, their commodification is institutionalized.

While we demand the protection of women who are in prostitution and the punishment of their perpetrators, the women and social movements aim for sustainable jobs, with dignity, that will truly rebuild society. If today’s hip writers say that prostitution is sex work, then governments will have nothing more to generate, they will point the starving women to the sex industry as an “option.” Nothing is more ironic when women only got there because of lack of options.

Genuine freedom is the capacity to pursue our dreams, unrestrained by society’s expectations, by violence against women, by unequal opportunities, by deprivation of basic rights. Among many rights, we, too, have the right not to be prostituted.

Myra now organizes other women in prostitution, educates them on women’s human rights together with CATW-AP, and has finished her high school through the Alternative Learning System. She left prostitution in 2009. She hopes to be a police officer someday. Having been abused by the police before, she hopes to truly protect the victims of society’s brutality.  

Lyn, meanwhile, left prostitution in 2005. She is an active advocate for the survivors’ group. She hopes to resume her studies in college and be a social worker. – Rappler.com 

Jean Enriquez is one of The Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service (TOWNS) awardees for 2010, and recipient of the first-ever “Pitong Pinoy” Yahoo! Modern-Day Heroes Award in 2011. She is currently the executive director of CATW-AP. 

Crying woman via Shutterstock


Bar code image via Shutterstock

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