Does sex work truly empower women?

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Despite the polarized opinions on sex work, one thing that supporters and critics both agree on is that sex workers should not be treated as criminals. Illustration by KRISTIENNE AMANTE

Warning: This article contains material that may be sensitive.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Sex work — or the provision of sexual services in exchange for money — is still a highly debated field in the Philippines. Going by the country’s laws, it is a criminal offense to engage in sex work. According to Article 202 of the Philippines' Revised Penal Code, “women who, for money or profit, habitually indulge in sexual intercourse or lascivious conduct, are deemed to be prostitutes.” Authorities can arrest and jail offenders, as well as make them pay fines ranging from ₱200 to ₱2,000. Article 341 imposes a penalty of imprisonment from 8 to 12 years on anyone who engages or profits from the industry.

Despite the standing laws, a 2013 interview with the NGO “Women Hookers Organizing For Their Rights and Empowerment” revealed that there were around 500,000 men and women engaged in prostitution in the country, and the Department of Justice and UNICEF estimates that 60,000 to 100,000 of these are children (usually teen girls). After all, the history of prostitution in the Philippines reaches far back: from the comfort women during the Japanese occupation and World War II, to the time of the American naval bases in Subic and Olongapo, to the growing cybersex industry and sex tourism today that brings in foreign clientele from East Asian and Western countries.

While the dominant narrative is how prostitution furthers women’s oppression as it is a result of patriarchal conditioning that sex should be monetized, the debate on the validity of sex work as labor is now highly polarized among women’s rights advocates, with other advocates claiming that sex work is a valid form of labor that helps women reclaim control over their bodies as long as it is consensual.

CNN Philippines Life interviewed four women’s rights advocates on their takes on this issue.

Unequal power relations and patriarchal oppression

Bebang Siy, author of “It’s a Mens World” and “It’s Raining Mens,” shares an encounter she had with a certain “Grace'' who worked at a nightclub in Quezon Boulevard. As contribution to Siy’s undergraduate research dating back to 2001, Grace shared with her how she got into sex work.

“Isa sa mga nahinuha ko... she was there because madali makapasok sa ganong work,” shares Siy. “Mag-apply ka ngayong hapon, makakapasok ka na sa gabi. Kailangang kailangan niya ng pera dahil day-to-day ang expenses at pera nila. Meaning, kung ano kitain niya ngayon ay pang-kain nila bukas. Fake news na may babaeng kusang pumapasok o pinipiling pumasok sa sex work… laging babae ang frontliners sa paghahatag ng pagkain sa mesa. ‘Pag wala nang maihatag, ano ang gagawin niya?”

On the other side of the debate, Sharmila Parmanand, Ph.D. candidate in Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge and author of the study “The Philippine Sex Workers Collective: Struggling to be Heard, not Saved” shares one conversation she had with one of her interviewees. The woman defended sex work, and likened it to marriage where the existence of abusive husbands does not mean all domestic relationships are bad:

“Teh, ano bang trabaho ang may panganib na gagamitan ka ng dahas at kailangan mong makipagkantutan o tsumupa kahit ayaw mo — at minsan wala pang kapalit? Pagiging asawa ‘di ba? O bakit yan hindi ipinagbawal?"

While there are many stories on both ends of the argument, several women’s rights advocates assert that term “sex work” itself shouldn’t even be normalized. According to GABRIELA, a grassroots-based organization that advocates for women's issues, prostitution should not even be called sex work because prostituted women cannot be considered society’s usual workers.

“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,” says Joms Salvador, Secretary General to GABRIELA.

For anti-sex work groups, the industry of prostitution cannot be divorced from its history of perpetuating poverty and upholding patriarchy, seeing as it is usually men who use their spending power to maintain control over the lives of prostitutes.

According to Salvador, prostitution likewise sustains violence, since many prostitutes are already former victims of sexual abuse. This leads them to further victimization, as they are forced to work in prostitution dens where they only get a fraction of what they are paid and fall into drug abuse in order to numb the pain and their feelings at being trapped in such a system.

The question of morality and dignity

Critiquing the sex industry using theories on labor and power, GABRIELA further argues that sex work is not real labor at all.

“The distinction between real labor and prostitution must be clarified: the worker sells her labor so that the machine owned by capitalists could generate profit, while the prostituted woman is forced to sell her body for the pleasure and dominance of her usual client, a man,” says Salvador.

Siy argues that since it is the sex worker’s body that is commodified, they lose much more than the usual laborer.

“In short, hindi lang ito usapin ng pera, effort, at oras sa sex worker,” says Siy. “May puhunan itong dignidad. Kapag tinatanggal mo ang dignidad ng isang tao kapalit ang pera, hindi ba opresyon iyon?”

But on the other side of the debate, advocates for sex work argue that it shouldn’t be equated to a loss of self and dignity. Parmanand questions the assumption that selling sex leads to a special kind of trauma.

“Many sex workers do not attach this kind of meaning to their sex acts with their clients,” shares Parmanand. “In the words of one of my interviewees, ‘I still have my body. It’s here with me now. What do you mean I sold it? I allow people to do certain things to my body and I do things to theirs. When non-sex workers have sex, they have boundaries, right? We do, too. Ours are explicitly negotiated.’”

She shares that the question of morality is pushed heavily on sex workers, as they are looked upon as “bad women” in comparison to those in other industries who are then labeled as “good women.” In regard to the claim that sex work upholds the patriarchy and gendered norms, she argues that many other industries contribute to this as well, such as cosmetics and religion. The only difference for sex workers is the involvement of sex and virginity, which are individual moral standards that therefore should not be imposed universally.

Agency and limited range of options

Another contentious point of debate for women’s rights advocates is the question of agency. Can a woman truly freely choose to engage in sex work?

“Personally, sex work implies that there is consent and agency on the sex worker's part, while prostitution implies trafficking, exploitation, and forced work,” says Trisha Ines O'Bannon, founder of youth-focused sex education platform Now Open PH. “Of course, some people don't draw that distinction at all, including some sex workers themselves.”

According to Parmanand’s research, many of the sex workers she talked to were single mothers who specifically chose sex work despite having other legal and more acceptable occupation options such as domestic work, factory work, or working as salesclerks. They said that sex work gave them flexible working hours and higher hourly rates, compared to other jobs that were labor-intensive and required placement fees but paid little.

Parmanand argues that it is not right to deny sex workers their agency nor to view them as victims, simply because they are the ones who know their circumstances and lived experiences the best, enough to decide for themselves. She says, “[Anti-sex work groups and trafficiking survivors’] voices are important, but they cannot speak for people who identify as sex workers and want to be allowed to remain in sex work because they think this is the best option for them.”

On the other hand, Salvador argues that this “free choice” is questionable, because sex workers are given a limited range of options to begin with. After all, if one is presented only with bad job options, how much freedom can you truly exercise?

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

Salvador shares that from GABRIELA’s 36 years as a women’s organization, an overwhelming majority of those in the sex industry are from poor and underprivileged families who, if given opportunities for accessible education and other employment options that could help them adequately support the needs of their families, would definitely leave prostitution. This, in turn, would mean that those who “freely” choose this work are the minority.

Labor is a spectrum

Parmanand poses a different way of viewing the field of sex work, in that we should think of all forms of labor as a spectrum, and sex workers as part of that spectrum. In other industries, forced labor and trafficking also exist, but that does not mean that the work in itself should be banned. Instead, Parmanand proposes that we remove abusive cases, while allowing the rest of the sector to continue working.

Likewise, while opponents of sex work claim that women in this field get into it for the money, she says that the same can be said of most jobs — you may not always be excited for it, but at the end of the day, it is work.

Decriminalize, not legalize and raise living conditions

Given the polarized debate, there is one main thing that both sides agree on, and that is that sex workers should not be treated as criminals. They state that they are not calling for a legalization of prostitution (where illegal and legal versions of prostitution would then arise), but instead ask for its decriminalization. In the current setup, sex workers are also afraid of authorities who view them as criminals, because discovery by the police would also mean arrests and fines. In some cases, police also ask for sexual favors in exchange of sex workers’ freedom.

“The major benefit of decriminalization is that it allows existing sex workers to get the help they need when they need it,” says O’Bannon. “This includes regular check-ups — very important for public sexual health — and legal recourse if a client is abusive or violent. It also prevents women from losing other jobs, housing, or education just because they are a sex worker.”

The difference though lies in its extent. Anti-sex work groups want to decriminalize sex workers but criminalize the demand side, meaning clients and operators should receive the full brunt of the law. Even the Philippine Commission on Women recommends this, stating that the problem of prostitution will be effectively addressed if those who fuel its demand are penalized. Likewise, they also want to amend the law’s definition of prostitutes as women, thus ignoring other sexes who are also vulnerable to criminalization.

On the other hand, pro-sex work groups want full decriminalization, meaning both sex workers and their clients should not be punished by the law. They state that decriminalizing sex work does not stop groups from helping those sex workers who want to exit and find other options, but for those who want to stay, criminalizing their clients will limit their already limited options and cut off their income stream. Parmanand states that the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, UNAIDS, WHO, and global sex workers orgs (including in the Global South) likewise support full decriminalization, seeing how “end demand” models in other countries did not lessen sex workers.

Other differences in approach is how pro-sex work groups work towards minimizing harm and helping sex workers continue working in safer environments (with access to birth control and testing centers), while elevating their voice and platform as people to be heard, not victims to be rescued. Anti-sex work groups on the other hand, believe that sex workers should be given awareness of their rights, assisted to mobilize and exit the industry, given education, and provided alternative job options.

But at the end of the day, all women’s rights advocates agree that a more holistic approach should be taken, wherein initiatives for sex workers should still be complemented with raising their living conditons.

Salvador says, “Rescuing’ women from prostitution dens would only prove useless, and these women might only go back into prostitution if such rescue programs do not include appropriate and necessary rehabilitative economic programs that would provide viable and long-term alternative jobs and social services for rescued prostituted women.”

Likewise, O’Bannon agrees that the problems of privilege and class structures in sex work need to be addressed. “Many are forced into sex work because they have no other choice. But you can't eliminate prostitution simply by criminalizing or decriminalizing sex work. It needs to be a holistic approach that involves higher wages, universal basic income, better benefits, and job security across the board, so that sex work doesn't become the ‘only/last resort’ for vulnerable people.”