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Amnesty International just made a decision regarding decriminalizing the sex industry and I frankly wonder if they understand anything about it. In the dialogue about this within the Amnesty International circles, the Philippines is mentioned. Here’s an excerpt of what Janice G. Raymond who is the former co-director of the “Coalition Against Trafficking in Women” had to say about this in her article “Amnesty International’s Sex Trade Decision: Not in Our Name”:
What poses as Amnesty’s masquerade of protection for women in prostitution?
An alleged poverty program for poor women. It was Ken Roth, the director of Human Rights Watch, tweeting his support for Amnesty’s proposal to decriminalize the sex industry, who gave this game away in saying: “Why deny poor women the option of voluntary sex work?” Ken joined the chorus of johns who spout a welfare narrative to justify their sexual exploitation by turning it into a virtue. He echoed the American prostitution user interviewed in the Philippines: “These girls gotta eat, don’t they? I’m putting bread on their plate. I’m making a contribution” (Portside).
There is much I want to share with American mothers regarding all this. In 1989 I visited the Philippines and traveled extensively. Since 1898, the US inequitable relationship with the Philippines has been one of conquest, colonization, economic control, military occupation and a joint military relationship with the Philippine military. In 1989 there were intense activities by the US military and government to counter the growing Filipino movement to rid the Philippines of the U.S. bases – primarily Subic Naval Base in Olongapo and Clark Air Force Base in Angeles City that had been allowed in the Philippines since after World War II. In 1991 the bases were finally ousted after the Philippine Senate chose not to renew the Military Bases Agreement with the United States. Under the Bush administration, however, the US military is once again in some parts of the Philippines. This does not bode well for the Filipino people.
My travels took me to the city of Olongapo, the home of the U.S. Subic Naval Base, where I spent time with representatives of organizations working with abused children and prostitutes around the base. One of the pastors in Olongapo asked that when I got home if I would please talk with American mothers about what their sons were doing in the Philippines. “Then,” he said, “maybe we can finally end this abuse of our children and women.” As a mother myself, I took this request to heart.
In Manila in 1989, while being driven by an elderly taxi driver, I decided to ask about one of the most famous and powerful US military officers ever in the Pacific region – none other than US General Douglas MacArthur, the Commander of the Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific during World War II. “Where did MacArthur live when in Manila?” I asked. “It depended on which girl friend he wanted to spend time with,” he said immediately. I didn’t know my question would provoke a comment about MacArthur’s sex life in the Philippines. His famous statement “I shall return” suddenly had new meaning! Having just returned from Olongapo, however, where I was inundated with information about the US military and its sexual abuses, the driver’s response resonated ten-fold.
When I arrived in Olongapo, the major news was about the death of a young 12 year old girl. She had just died in the hospital from a vibrator that had managed to work its way into her intestinal tract. The culprit in this case was a European male pedophile, but Americans were complicit. The US had been instrumental in creating this culture of sexual decadence.
Let me share a little about Olongapo. In 1989 it was a city of approximately 300,000 people that largely catered to the US naval base and had been known as a “rest and recreation” area for US sailors. There were estimates of some 16,000 prostitutes in Olongapo and some 3,000 street children. Like the rest of the 65 million Philippine population at the time, 70% of the Olongapo residents were below the poverty line. The port in Olongapo was considered one of the best in the Philippines.
Subic Base was located on the ancestral land of the Aetas or Negritos, one of the ancient and darkest skinned of the Filipino tribal groups. Signs around the Subic golf course warned the Aetas that they must not be seen and rather stay in the jungle. Stories in Olongapo abounded about Aetas who defied these rules and were shot at by the military.
My visit to Olongapo corresponded with a US naval ship of approximately 6,000 men that was about to arrive in the port. That’s 6,000 men with money to spend and ready for recreation. Many of us think that with an American base and US dollars flowing from the military personnel that economic development would flourish in a city “graced” by its presence. This is a myth. The existence of a US base generally leads to a dependent economy and degradation.
After decades of the Subic Base’s existence, the largest domestic employer in Olongapo, I was told, was an organization called PREDA (www.preda.org), headed by the Catholic priest Father Shay Cullen. PREDA employed some 30 workers in a handicraft business. Otherwise, there were Filipino workers on the naval base, but this, of course, was a dependent employment and not an entity owned and controlled by the Filipinos themselves. There was also a flourishing “hospitality” business of nightclubs, as well as prostitution of women and children and speculation of the existence of a pedophile syndicate. During the Jim Crow era the bars were segregated and even in 1989 Filipino males were not allowed in some of them.
According to Alex Hermosa, a PREDA staff member, the population of the area was growing, yet there were more permits for bars than for small industries “which is one of the problems we have,” he said. “People want to earn quick money through bars and nightclubs and the local government seems to be encouraging this thing… because, of course, many of the government officials own bars as well.”
Apart from handicraft work, PREDA devoted its efforts to assisting and counseling abused children and women around the US base. Edson Alabaso, a counselor for PREDA, said many of the prostitutes were victims of illegal recruitment. “Girls from the provinces will be deceived by opportunists,” he said, “where they will be offered good jobs in Olongapo, where in reality they turn up being hospitality girls. It can be tied up to the fact that the rural areas in the Philippines are basically underdeveloped. So a majority of our people go to the big cities in search of greener pastures…and many hospitality girls hope to marry American servicemen. So indirectly, America influences this type of influx of people to big cities because it dictates the economic policies in this country. And directly,” he said, “the US Naval Base pulls people to Olongapo because of the distorted development that it offers our people.”
Alabaso defined a “hospitality girl” as a “person who offers her body to foreigners or to anybody who wants to have sex with her in exchange for money. Most of the hospitality girls have licenses,” he said, “so that they can legitimately be called ‘hospitality girls’. In order for (them) to get a license they have to undergo a checkup once a week at the social hygiene clinic so as to make sure (they have) no sexual disease whatsoever….but the women have to pay for the treament.” According to Hermosa, however, “the services of the City of Health office, including the medicines, (were) paid for by the U.S. Navy. So (the US military was) sort of making the women safe for the American sailors” even though the women had to pay for treatment themselves.
I heard complaints in the Philippines about Americans bringing in AIDS, so it appears to me that the American military should have been given a health observation or exam as well before venturing anywhere in the Philippines, especially those who chose to have any kind of sexual relationship with Filipino women.
The women were encouraged to ask the sailors to use condoms. Hermosa also said that when the sailors were on liberty they were given a number of condoms but, according to the women, in spite of their requests they rarely, if ever, used them.
Here is how the prostitution system worked. The young women, referred to as “fresh”, worked in the bars in the Magsaysay area of Olongapo – they were generally from ages 14 to 30. They danced in seductive scimpy bikinis in the bars where they were observed by sailors who would then select the woman they wanted for the night. They then made their request to the owner of the bar. The cost was about 500 pesos (approximately $25-US) of which the bar owner took 300. So the women earned about $10.
The children were another matter. The abuse of children was extensive in Olongapo with reports of children as young as 4 years old being abused. Alabaso said that the child prostitution syndicate in Olongapo, at the time, catered “to the needs of American servicemen who (were) considered to be pedophiles. As a matter of fact, we have one resident here (at PREDA) – a street child – she’s 13 years old. But at 11 she was already being used by the Americans for sex.”
According to one of the prostitutes, there was a hierarchy established in the military for how women could be brought on the base. She said, enlisted men were required to have passes to take a woman on the base. However, a first lieutenant or a sergeant were not, according to her, required to have passes. She also said that sergeants were allowed to take 6 or 7 women with them on the base at one time. The women were not allowed to sleep on the base. She told me that, for example, if women went on the base at 5 PM they could perhaps have dinner, dance, and go on the ship but they would have to be out the same day. Men could sometimes have women spend the night on the base, she said, but it depended on their rank.
Richard Gordon, the Mayor of the city at the time, claimed there was no prostitution in Olongapo only “entertainment with sex.” As owner of one of the largest hotels in Olongapo, the Mayor had a vested interest in maintaining the US bases and the culture it created. To control and manipulate the growing opposition to the US bases in the Philippines, the Mayor licensed vendors in the city (i.e. flower vendors, bicycle riders, jeepney drivers, vendors in the markets) who were required to wear uniforms. According to Alabaso, when the Mayor organized “pro-base” rallies, all vendors were required to attend or they would lose their license. In addition to the Olongapo police, the Mayor had his own private army or “salvage team” that was used to intimidate and harass people with “negative attitudes about the base or negative attitudes about his administration.”
I asked Alabaso, as a Filipino, how he felt about the situation in Olongapo. He said, “ Personally, seeing all this exploitation that the Americans do to our women – they use our women for their satisfaction and the pay money in exchange – I can’t help but condemn these people. I can’t help but hate them. I can’t also help but condemn what they are doing to our children, especially our girls who as young as they are already being exploited/used by the American pedophiles for their sexual cravings. It’s condemnable – the whole scenario in Olongapo made by the American servicemen….(The Americans are especially difficult) when they are drunk. They shout everywhere. They jump. They wrestle on the streets. They become wild. No Filipino can intimidate them. No Filipino can say to them ‘Hey man, you’re getting so unruly. What are you doing? This is not your place!’”
It’s important to note, that what the US military had been doing in the Philippines was with a nod and a wink from the powers that be, sometimes likely with official or unofficial policy, as they attempted to ensure that thousands of US troops were happy while away from home. The consequences of the military’s behavior on the Filipino population and the on-going legacy and social costs today from this behavior, however, seems of little concern to the US military or government.
Thanks to the “Gabriella Alliance for Filipino Women”, I was able to talk with a few of the prostitutes in addition to the one mentioned above. One of the women told me that she was from a rural community where the economy was virtually nil. She came to Olongapo to engage in prostitution to help her family and in particular to help her brother go to school. Her family consented for her to do this and she had been consistently sending money home. She can no longer live in her village, however, because she will be ostracized she told me. It is a sacrifice she made for her family. Perhaps this is an example of someone who could be assisted by Amnesty’s decision, but I am not sure about that. At the very least she should not be criminalized for working to help her family but the prostitution recruiters are another matter.
Women under these circumstances become commodities and exist under a form of slavery – bought and sold. It is far better that economic and educational opportunities for women be prioritized. In fact, it is now realized that the world is better, safer and less violent and abusive when women advance, when democracy prevails and when women lead in both business and government (Konner). Chris Hedges also makes reference to the economic issues relative to it all in his recent article “Amnesty International: Protecting the ‘Human Rights’ Of Johns, Pimps And Human Traffickers” (Hedges). It appears the Amnesty International staff and members have much to learn!
Finally, the individual responsibility and behavior of American soldiers in the more than 120 US bases around the world is quite another matter. I know that it was here that my Filipino pastor friend thought that American mothers could play a role. Perhaps if mothers knew more about the abuse by the military they could be persuasive with their sons.
The world and US safety would be far better served if American sons and daughters were here in the US where they belong and where they are needed. But at the very least if American mothers don’t like what’s happening they should lobby for a change. As Alabaso said at the end of our discussion, “You (in America) can help us by pressuring your government about their expansion worldwide (of) the installation of (US) military bases. It doesn’t work for us here in the Philippines, neither does it work for you as a people.”
Konner, Melvin, Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy (2015) W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York.