Women are undoubtedly objectified and marginalized in mainstream US society, but imagine a place where it is taken to the extreme. Women outnumber men 3:1, the only job they can get is in service, they are expected to dress in a sexually provocative manner at work, and prostitution is so widespread and commonplace that it is institutionalized. I wish this scenario was just a feminist dytopian nightmare, but I can tell you first hand that there is such a place. Welcome to Barrio Barreto, Philippines.
I can’t exaggerate the level of exploitation that takes place here. Thousands of women are employed as a “bar girl” which is a euphemism for prostitute. These women, some of them as young as 16, come from poor provinces where the employment prospects are bleak. They can make more in the bar than they ever could at home, and many of them are supporting their extended family in the home province. This is what makes the “bar girl” situation so disgusting – it’s economic as well as gender exploitation.
Let me paint the scene. Overweight and alcoholic men in their sixties stumbling from bar to bar with sunburns and ill intentions. The bars all employ upwards of twenty young and scantily clad girls, who have to compete with each other to get “lady’s drinks” bought for them by the patrons. These drinks cost twice as much as a regular drink and are a payment to the girl for her attention. The goal of being a bar girls is to get “bar fined”, which means bought for the night. The prostitution is so overt here that the prices are totally standard and you can even charge it to your room or a credit card. 1500 pesos is all it costs, which is less than $40. That means that my dive course cost as much as 14 “bar fines”. Sickening. I suppose the price shouldn’t matter, it is the exchange itself that is the problem, but if women are forced to sell themselves to disgusting old white guys then they sure as hell deserve a lot more than $40.
At this point I should probably interject with why I spent five days in this place and how I came to know so many details. I ended up here for a cheap and quality SCUBA diving course, which worked out incredibly well - great instructor, good equipment, and gorgeous surroundings. I knew before I arrived that prostitution was common in this area, but I was completely unprepared for how visible and unavoidable it is. After the days dives were done, my instructor and I would go to the resort bar to have a beer, and I was immediately swarmed by the bar girls. I can’t convey how guilty and dirty I felt just because I was there. As a single, white, male traveler, I couldn’t separate myself from the institutionalized exploitation. Buying beer at the bar undoubtedly supported the establishment, making me a supporter of a horrible system that goes against everything that I value. The only way I convinced myself to stay for a few beers was because I really wanted to know how the system works. I wanted to learn about where these girls come from, how the money changes hands, and how they feel about it. I was probably just fooling myself, but I thought of it as ethnographic fieldwork.
To counteract the support of my patronage, I tried to do what I could to express my disgust for the situation and to help a few of the girls who are exploited daily. Instead of buying the “lady’s drink” my instructor said that if you give an under-the-table tip, then the girl gets to keep all the cash, rather than just a fraction she would get from a lady’s drink. When one of the girls insisted on giving me a back massage while I sat at the bar, she said she was paying her way through massage therapy school. I gave her a generous tip that covered her next tuition installment. After my second beer, my disgust for the scene grew. I asked two of the girls about their plans after they stop being bar girls. They couldn’t, or wouldn’t, answer. After I asked, I felt terrible because I was making them feel even worse about their situation. I was making it sound like it is there fault for not having made other plans beyond being a bar-girl. If you are forty years old and have been a prostitute for 20 years, what kind of job could you possible get in a developing country? I asked a completely stupid question, but I still wanted to know if there was any hope for these girls after they are considered too old for the very old clientele of the bars.
As I was at the bar, I couldn’t think of anything else except the future of these girls. They are forced to sit next to you and chat, so I was going to make sure that I told them exactly what I thought of the bar scene. For my own benefit, and for decent white guys everywhere, I wanted to be sure that they knew that not all white men are pigs. They spend almost every day with white guys, and probably 95% are sexist assholes who have no respect for human dignity. I was as careful as I could be not to insult them for their position, letting them know that I understood why they were working as bar girls, but that I sincerely wish that they could be paid the same amount of money for a different job. I wanted to yell to all of the girls “we’re not all like these scumbags in here!”
During my stay I developed a particularly strong contempt for the manager – a morbidly obese Australian who is insults his staff in front of customers and sleeps with a different bar girl every night. Something about the way he strutted around the resort barking orders to local staff who are working in 100 degree heat for a few dollars a day made my blood boil. On my second to last night my instructor and I had a few beers to celebrate my course completion and it wasn’t long before I was giving my guilt-ridden spiel to the bar girl who came to sit next to me. I was delighted when she seemed genuinely touched by my attempts to explain that I think she deserves better and by my apologies for the way my countrymen act in here. She opened up and told me about her plan to get a degree in IT at a call center. She is saving money to pay for tuition and has a plan. As she talked, she was always glancing over her shoulder because if the other girls or a manager heard, she would probably get fired. She had only been there for one month and she was the first girl would tell me that she hated the situation as well. She had finished high school, but this was still the fastest way for her to make money.
One of the most common defenses for prostitution, especially in the context of a poor country, is that if the bar girls weren’t working a prostitutes, then they would be starving in their home province. This is the same way many guys justify giving money at strip clubs – “at least it provides an income to these under-privileged women”. “It is money that they wouldn’t otherwise have.” Bullshit. You can still give money to a girl without her taking her clothes off, and you can give money to a bargirl without having sex with her. Give the money, but pass on the exploitation. So that is what I did.
As I was ranting to this girl about how disgusting I found the other patrons, I specifically mentioned the manager. She told me that he tried to “bar fine” her last night, but she refused. I was surprised that there is any element of consent, but she said that she continued to refuse she may lose her job. This was too much for me to take. First I was furious, then I was sad. Really, deeply sad because this sweet girl who traveled hundreds of miles to provide for her family is forced to sleep with a fat sadistic jerk. She had the courage to say no once, but she is virtually powerless in the situation. I teared up right there in the bar. I told her that I wish there was something I could do to help her and the other girls, but that all I was doing was sitting there drinking beer acting like I’m above the situation, which doesn’t help anyone. I knew there was no way to destroy the system, so I thought of the only way I could help this girl that I could. I paid her “bar fine”. In the sick rules of this place, that means she is mine for the night. I’m sure when I told her that I was going to pay her bar fine that she thought that everything I had said up to that point was a lie. I explained that I want her to have the money that she would get from such a transaction, but she shouldn’t have to be exploited to get it. I also made sure she knew that all I wanted was for her to have the night off to do whatever she wanted. I tried not to let myself feel like a hero for such a small gesture – I could and should do ten times more to help these victims. I realize that I probably benefited from the transaction more than she did – I get to feel holier than thou and sleep well knowing that at least one girl is not having to sleep with a stranger for money.
After I paid the bill – unbelievably, you really can do this with a credit card - she escorted me to my room. As we passed people on the way to the room, I couldn’t bear the fact that they thought I was doing exactly what I was trying to prevent. I told her that she really didn’t need to walk me to my room, but she explained that if the others see her leaving on her own after I paid, she would get in trouble and they would assume she ripped me off. The last thing I wanted was for her to get fired, so she came in to my room and we sat at the foot of the bed for about five minutes watching videos of Abel on my computer. I’m sure it was the strangest bar fine experience she has ever had, but I hope it was one of the more pleasant and memorable. Even after all of that, she didn’t seem to believe that I was just going to let her go. When I told her again that I didn’t even want a massage, I just wanted her to go home, I could tell that her smile was genuine. Until that moment, I doubt she believed anything I said about my distaste for prostitution. Why would she? She has been exposed to some of humanity’s most revolting and sordid specimens for a month. If my gesture gave her just a hint that there are more decent men from the West, then it was worth it. It kills me to think about her back in that bar, competing with other girls for attention from perverts who think that having money gives them the right to use other human beings any way they see fit.
I used to think that prostitution should be legalized because making it legal will make a common activity safer for the woman involved. Now that I have seen institutionalized prostitution, I could never support legalization. It may seem consensual on the surface, but more often than not a woman turns to prostitution only because it is the best opportunity available. Until every single girl has a guaranteed education and opportunities for employment in any field she desires for good pay, prostitution should not be allowed because it isn’t truly consensual. No one should have to sell their body because it is the best economic opportunity available to them. That is often the case in the US, and it is definitely the case in the Philippines. There will always be men devoid of dignity who will pay for sex, but I will never support a system or law that caters to them.
After reading this it may sound like I had a terrible experience in the Philippines, but that isn’t the case. The diving was fantastic, I had an awesome day on a secluded beach BBQing and hiking with a fun family, and had lots of time to relax on my own. The food was great, the locals were lovely, and the weather was perfect. The only negative experience was being exposed to the human toll of sex tourism. Despite the distress it caused, I’m glad I know more about the situation. It opened my eyes, tested my patience, and helped me to solidify my values.