The curse of sex tourism

The prostitution industry in the Philippines is a national disgrace. It reflects rampant corruption. Even children are not safe from sexual exploitation.

[ By Father Shay Cullen ]

The sex industry is growing in the Philippines, spreading all over the archipelago. Hotels, bars and clubs serve as fronts. An estimated 1.2 million single male tourists arrive every year. Exactly how many of them buy sex services is unknown; this is an underground business, after all. What is clear, however, is that sex tourists exploit and dehumanise the nation’s youth. Women and even young girls are on offer for those ready to pay in pursuit of sexual indulgence.

Sex clubs proudly advertise local mayors’ permits and licenses to operate. The girls are supposedly clean of sexually-transmitted diseases. Once a club operator proudly told me that government-paid health workers come to the clubs to do the tests to be sure the girls do not infect the customers.

The health workers seem to have no concern that the young women are being exposed to physical and psychological harm. Evidence gathered by NGOs proves beyond a doubt that children as young as 14 can be purchased by private arrangement. Sometimes the victims are only eleven years old.

One million children are brought into the sex trade every year worldwide according to UNICEF. The International Labour Organization (ILO) states the figure as closer to 1.8 million. UNICEF estimates that as many as 60,000 minors are being exploited in the sex tourist business in the Philippines. NGOs believe the true figure is probably closer to 100,000.

Perverted mindset

Of course, it is illegal to sexually abuse children in the Philippines. But it is almost impossible to bring perpetrators to justice. NGOs like PREDA fight for the rights of abused children. However, they cannot rely on the judicial system, which is not immune to corruption. All too often, public prosecutors favour the accused merchants of commercial sex and ignore the rights of trafficked, raped and abused children. Bribes from traffickers, politicians or sex offenders make sure things stay that way. In some cases, prosecutors simply ignore registered complaints which, by law, must be processed within 90 days.

Recently, prosecutors in Olongapo City dismissed trafficking-of-persons charges against two US citizens, who had held two girls captive as sex partners for four years since they were ten years old. One of them, now 15, is pregnant. The prosecutors also failed to instigate charges of child sexual abuse. The suspects went free.

There is corruption in the private sector too, in the media for instance. “Envelopmental journalism” is the term a local media-watch organisation coined for the phenomenon of journalists being paid for not covering a certain topic or to do so only from a certain angle. Politicians and accused suspects give journalists brown envelopes stuffed with money to suppress the truth.

This kind of carrot, moreover, goes along with a kind of stick. The Philippines has a sad reputation of “media massacres”, the murder of journalists (see Alan C. Robles in D+C, 5/2009, p. 188 f.). Death squads not only threaten media staff. Honest civil servants or NGO activists are also at risk. Corruption has become so prevalent in the Philippines that the default option for most is to think “What is in this for me?” The more important question of what is morally acceptable and right is generally neglected.

The sex industry is at the heart of this corrupt mindset. Its basic message is that anything can be bought – even the body of an underage girl. The sad truth is that sex tourism, even in its most criminal form, enjoys political protection because it brings in foreign currency and generates revenues for local leaders, some of whom invest in the business themselves. A mayor who promoted his city as a sex resort was once even chosen to become the country’s secretary of tourism. But we see hardly any convictions of high-profile traffickers or paedophile sex tourists in the Philippines.

The irony is that it is harmful for a country to be considered a destination for sex tourists. Foreign travellers who are pursuing other, more legitimate motives like nature or cultural heritage, for instance, will be likely to shy from places tarnished by such a reputation, fearing for their own reputation.

Held as slaves

The relevance of child abuse in the sex industry cannot be overestimated. It is important to understand that the lines between adult and child prostitution are not clear cut. Many adult prostitutes were forced into the business at tender ages, and when a young woman is held as a slave, it does not matter much whether she is over 21 or below 18. The victims’ fundamental human rights to freedom and self-determination are constantly being violated.

Once she has been tainted by prostitution, a youngster’s chances of rejoining society, starting a family and living a normal life become very slim. In the Philippines, even teenage prostitutes who get pregnant are forced to have abortions in illegal clinics. Often the women try to hide pregnancies – with the result of later having to undergo late-stage abortions, a particularly horrific crime. Contrary to what the sex industry claims, sexually-transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS are common.

It is well-understood that girls suffer psychological damage in the sex industry. Many are brain-washed to believe that the club is their new home where they will one day meet a foreigner to marry and join for a happy life abroad. It is all an empty fantasy, of course, but the children believe it and look out for their “sugar daddy”. It is very difficult for these girls to build up self esteem. They face a lot of hostility and violence and have no trust in adults. Their life experience is one of abuse, rejection and hardship.

All nations must be judged on how they treat their youth and children. Hotels and clubs cannot operate without a mayor’s permit and license. The local authorities must assume responsibility. It is an outrage that the authorities lack the political will or some prosecutors have no moral courage to implement the law in the Philippines.

A dark side of globalisation

Tourist-sending countries, however, also play a role. They must realise that trafficking is a global trade and their citizens are part of the problem. Sex tourists create demand and pay big money. Donor governments should take note that some of their citizens are sex offenders in far-away places. Their criminal appetite is whetted in the Philippines and they are likely to prey on vulnerable minors at home too. Moreover, they are prone to spreading sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/Aids. It is in the interest of the EU and its member countries to do more to combat modern sex slavery.

Trafficking and exploitation of young people for sex slavery is rampant throughout the world. The US State Department publishes an annual status report that gives grades to the countries that rank from good to bad. To be on the special watch list is bad – that’s where the Philippines ended up once more last year.

The State Department’s report “Trafficking in Persons 2009” states in the Philippines section: “The Philippines is a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation and forced labour.” The document notes that Filipinas are trafficked abroad for commercial sexual exploitation, primarily to Asian countries but also to Africa, the Middle East and Western Europe. The State Department also points out that Filippinas are trafficked within the Philippines from poor rural areas to urban agglomerations “for commercial ­sexual exploitation or for forced labour as domestic servants or factory workers”. The flip side of sex tourism, apparently, is international trafficking of women.

Signs of hope

The Philippines is not without signs of hope, of course. Last year, an anti-child pornography law was passed. It reflects similar laws in other countries, prohibiting the possession, making, distribution and display of images of sexual activity involving children or their private parts. Attempts to access or transmit such images on the internet or by cell phone are illegal too. Unlike many other countries, the Philippines has made it mandatory for Internet service providers to install filtering software to block child porno­graphy.

Law enforcement, however, is an issue in its own right. PREDA and other NGOs will monitor the government’s performance and the Internet service providers on this count.

In May, Senator Benigno Aquino III won a landslide victory in the presidential elections on an anti-corruption platform. This was proof of the Filipino people’s desire to finally get an honest government of integrity. The question is whether he and his new administration can overcome the pervading culture of corruption and transform the Philippines. We sincerely hope so.

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