“In the past, I could still shame the cops who were trying to extort from me. I would ask if they were proud of themselves for taking the money for my child’s milk”, explained Maria, a sex worker in Metro Manila, when asked to describe the shift in her relationship with the police. “I would taunt them for being too cowardly to go after the real criminals instead of us helpless women. Some of them would leave us alone after. But things have changed now. We do not fight back. We are too scared.”
President Rodrigo Duterte, who was elected in 2016 by a large margin, ran on a platform of saving the Philippines from a “drug crisis”. Since then he has effectively encouraged the police to aggressively pursue and even murder suspected drug users and sellers. Most of the people who were killed without trial, at least 5000 based on the police’s own estimates, have been from low-income communities. These deaths have been widely documented and criticised. They are not, however, the only negative consequence of Duterte’s policy. Sex workers have also been disproportionately harmed by the campaign because the drug war has increased their pre-existing precarity in Philippine society.
Precarity by law
The confusing mix of laws that regulate prostitution in the Philippines makes sex workers vulnerable to abuse. The Revised Penal Code, enacted in 1930, treats women who sell sex as criminals who should be fined or imprisoned. This is partially contradicted by the Philippines’ 2003 anti-trafficking law, which defines taking advantage of the vulnerability of a person for the purpose of exploitation, including for prostitution, as trafficking. It also runs up against the 2010 Magna Carta of Women, which names prostitution as an act of violence against women from which they should be protected.
Corrupt police officers have regularly taken advantage of the legal limbo on sex work. In my interviews, sex workers reported having been subjected to raids where police officers used anti-trafficking as a cover to extort money from them, their clients, and owners of commercial sex establishments. These allegations of fake and indiscriminate raids are also documented in the Philippine section of the US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report in 2010, 2017, and 2018 and in a UN report on sex work and the law in Asia and the Pacific.
“Nobody cares about poor drug addicts dying. They care even less about poor supposedly drug-addicted prostitutes!”
Under the war on drugs, which has seen the police exert greater power and control over civilians, sex workers are more precarious than ever. The perception that drug use is widespread among sex workers is easily weaponised against them. Many of the 50 sex workers I interviewed had police officers threaten to plant drugs on them if they did not pay bribes or give in to sexual demands. Gina, for example, was taken to a precinct, where her phone was confiscated and she was threatened with false drug charges. She was made to dance for the police officers and then taken by one of them to the toilet where he raped her. “I couldn’t defend myself”, she said. “Nobody cares about poor drug addicts dying. They care even less about poor supposedly drug-addicted prostitutes!” Many also lamented the loss of clients and income. Regular clients are staying away from the bars and brothels, where anti-drug raids frequently happen, because of the very real risk of getting shot or extorted if found there. Unsurprisingly, their clients who are also police officers are still around.
It is painfully predictable how a violent war on drugs and expanded police powers can wreak havoc on already stigmatised communities. “Sex workers are easily seen as prime suspects”, said one leader of the Philippine Sex Workers Collective. “Not just as users, but as people who work with drug dealers. This is not hard to believe for the police and the public. If they think it is easy for you to sell your body, then why not drugs?”. Sex workers have also been found among the victims of extra-judicial killings, however little noise is made about such discoveries. “Their fellow sex workers are too scared to challenge the police”, another leader at the collective said, and victims’ families do not pursue the case because they don’t want it publicised that their child was a sex worker.
Many of my interviewees cope by paying higher bribes. Rosa personally delivers her bribe money to the police station every week to avoid the risk of harassment. They also attempt to be less visible when soliciting clients, even though this reduces their earnings and forces them to operate in less secure areas. Several who used to operate independently are increasingly relying on third parties who offer protection based on links with the police.
Some sex workers say they are less likely to disclose their status as drug users to state health care providers for fear of their private information being transmitted to the police. A few who are HIV positive have been forced to disclose their status to police officers for fear of being killed if they fail mandatory drug tests because of the substances in their HIV medication.
Not only has the war on drugs hurt existing sex workers or made it harder for them to exit, it has also pushed women into sex work. Five sex workers I interviewed lost their partners to extra-judicial killings. “The police raided our house and demanded that we produce names of drug sellers, but we didn't know anyone”, Rita said. “I was jailed for six months while pregnant and they took my husband back to our house and killed him there.” Rita is one of two who began selling sex after their partners were killed in order to support their children. The other three had to engage in sex work more frequently after their partners’ deaths.
Since 2016, the collective has shifted their strategy from broader rights advocacy to one of basic survival and providing basic support to sex workers at risk of violence or HIV. These stories highlight the hidden costs of the war on drugs and expose the power that the police hold over sex workers in the Philippines. They also underscore the need for sex workers to play a central role in crafting policies that affect their lives.
A longer version of this article was first published in Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 12.