TOMORROW is Valentine’s Day, the most lucrative contrived retail holiday of the year — especially here, as Filipinos are rather ardent in materially displaying their affection — a nation-sized tempest of sentiment and hormones turned into a perfect storm by falling on a payday Friday.
For anyone not partaking in the festivities, it may be a miserable scene — traffic snarled worse than the Gordian Knot, not an empty hotel room or restaurant table available for hundreds of miles in any direction — but it will be a bonanza for the hospitality and retail industries. Flower vendors can earn a year’s revenue in one or two days, and for most jewelers, Valentine’s Day is a bigger holiday than Christmas.
V-Day is also one of the biggest business days of the year for a facet of the informal economy that, while not necessarily unique to the Philippines, is surprisingly well-developed, and very nearly institutionalized.
Most people, even those who are relatively worldly, probably do not realize just how big the sex industry is in the Philippines. According to a report by the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are an estimated 500,000 sex workers in the Philippines who would be considered more or less “legal”; that is, legally-aged adults (primarily women, but a significant number of men) who earn directly from their work. Revenues are more difficult to calculate, but are estimated to be about 2 to 4 percent of the gross domestic product, or between $6 billion and $12 billion (P303 billion to P607 billion) annually.
Strictly speaking, prostitution is not legal in the Philippines, but with the exception of reasonably sincere efforts by the authorities to root out the most execrable forms of sex trafficking involving minors and virtual (or literal) sex slaves, laws against it are only faintly matters of form and not at all of substance.
It is so tolerated, in fact, that the most familiar forms of it that exist everywhere else in the world — the stereotypical streetwalker, and girlie bars and massage parlors serving as thinly-legal cover for prostitution dens — are probably the least common forms here. A far greater and far more open trade is largely carried out online. There are a number of online escort agencies, as well as a vast number of independent workers, who ply their business on dedicated websites or on one of several online marketplaces — the same sites one would use to sell a used refrigerator, or look for a good deal on a secondhand cell phone — that helpfully provide euphemistic categories such as “intimate encounters” to make it easier for would-be customers and service providers to connect with each other.
Even though there is a small segment of the population and sex workers who take a liberal view toward the sex industry, the fact that it is so ubiquitous and very nearly institutionalized in the Philippines does not eliminate its inherent problems of exploitation and stigma. That same ILO study found, unsurprisingly, that a significant majority of sex workers would much rather be doing something else and considered sex work as employment of last resort, a necessity to support studies or the needs of immediate and extended families. The vast majority of ordinary Filipinos, without a hint of irony, condemned the trade as immoral and unfortunate.
It is easy to see, however, why the Philippines continues to tolerate the sex industry to the extent that it is implicitly encouraged. From a practical point of view, the large informal sex industry sector supports a very real formal one in the hotel industry, providing thousands of conventional jobs and a not inconsiderable amount of tax revenue for both local and the national governments. Not that there are any illusions about the demand driver for so-called “short time” hotels. One well-known chain, after failing miserably at trying to restyle itself as a “family-friendly” hotel, gave up and instead rolled out a suggestive, and very successful, ad campaign in which they transformed the name of the hotel chain into a verb for copulation.
From a more esoteric point of view, eliminating the sex trade is virtually impossible because of the frustrated prurience the weird combination of medieval Catholic morality and naturally libertine character creates. It has been suggested that if the conservative grip that keeps the Philippines the only real country in the world where there is no law permitting divorce, and raises substantial obstacles to making effective sex education and family planning part of the public health framework could be loosened, the sex trade would likely diminish naturally.
That may or may not be true, but in any case the point is certainly moot; there is no indication that Filipinos are any more inclined to let go of their Inquisition-era moral code than they are of their fascination with each other’s genitals, and so the sex trade – and all the quiet misery and dubious national reputation that goes along with it – is likely to continue to thrive for a long time to come.