Sex workers have always been treated with great disdain in Philippine society. To call a woman a prostitute (puta) or the daughter or son of a prostitute (anak ng puta) would perhaps be the gravest insult you can throw on any Filipino. Credit this to the Catholic Church and Christian fundamentalists (the Catholics make up 88 % of the country’s population while the Christian groups account for 8%. The rest are Muslims.) They have ingrained in the minds of the people that sex outside of marriage is dirty and immoral. To most Filipinos therefore, prostitution is a moral issue and those involved in it must be condemned. This has led us, sex workers, to be treated with stigma and discrimination.
As sex workers, we are forced to hide who we are and what we do for fear that if we are outed, we and our families would be subjected to public ridicule. Filipinos put great value on their reputation (karangalan) which could only be validated by community approval. To suffer shame (hiya) and losing people’s respect could do damage to one’s self-worth (amor propio). A ruined reputation could mean a ruined life.
Being poor in the Philippines, most sex workers come from poor families, means all your life you are going to be acculturated into the culture of silence until it becomes a way of life. You learn to keep your own views of the world around you to yourself. No matter how much you believe things to be wrong you must believe it to be right when the rich, your master (amo), to whom you depend on for your livelihood say so. The poor lose their voices in the process. The master who has control of their lives speak for them. The acculturation goes on until they come to believe their voices do not matter and that only the voices of the powerful would count.
Most of us, sex workers, have gone through this process of acculturation in our lives. We have learned to accept that speaking up and being listened to is a privilege that the poor and the powerless are not entitled to. It does not help that we are forced to hide who we are since the society in which we live has ostracized us. That should make it easy for anyone to understand why it was not difficult for the feminist (abolitionists) to appropriate our voices and to start speaking for us. Society has made us invisible so to have women of power speak for us was a blessing or so we thought. It was not a blessing. It was exploitation. They were not speaking for us, they were speaking for themselves in our name. They have assumed the role of the “amos” and again we whimpered in silence as they robbed us of our voices. Most Filipinos, the poor and the powerless, when faced by a desperate situation there is nothing they could do about would most often take the fatalistic way out. They would say “leave it to fate” (bahala na). And “bahala na”, it was for us.
For years, we could only stand , mouths gagged, as we watched our new “amos” build their careers speaking for other underprivileged and “mindless” women in their list who they claim do not have the ability to speak for themselves. We are on top of that list. We could hardly figure them out. Maybe because we have not seen the corridors of the university like they all did that they baffle us. They speak so fiercely about fighting for women’s right to self-determination but clearly that does not include us. Perhaps by women, they only meant themselves. We also do not understand the arrogance by which they have anointed themselves our saviors like it was their manifest destiny even when clearly we do not want them saving us because there is no reason to. What we want is save ourselves from them instead.
They do not only confuse us. They intimidate us. They speak in jargons we do not understand. We guess it was their way of telling us they know better and so we should just leave it to them to run our lives. But we really do not care about “patriarchy”, “commodification” and other words they spew. Those matters don’t bring food on our table nor pay for our rent. All we are interested in is work undisturbed.
We grew up with succession of “amos” taking command of our lives which in reality were never truly our own. It is time we claim our lives back. It is time we find our voices because only in finding our voices back can we say our lives are our own. It would not be easy but it is possible. It can take years to get ourselves back to what we really should be but we are undaunted.
We must serve notice to our self-appointed saviours/masters that their time is up. They can’t take our jobs away from us in the same way we can’t take them away from their careers even if they have built them under our expense. Under the bus is no place for any human. And yes, whatever the society or anyone thinks of us, we are human beings deserving of every right accorded everybody else. Those rights are not for anyone to dispense. It is for us to claim and we are going to claim them.
Our survival as sex workers has always come under threat. We knew the time would come when we have to defend ourselves. We prepared for such eventuality. Enough is enough. Our different organizations, WHORE (Women Hookers Organizing for their Rights and Empowerment), Daughters Deviant, and some male sex workers organizations, joined forces. We know we only have our collective strength to rely on and so we organized ourselves into an alliance, the Philippine Sex Workers Collective (PSWC).
The Collective would serve as our advocacy arm. It is its mandate to secure and defend our rights as sex workers. Its first major challenge is the Anti-Prostitution Bill patterned after the Swedish Model now sitting in the Philippine Congress for deliberation. We want this bill dead. To campaign against this bill’s damnation, the Philippine Sex Workers Collective, planned our own counter action, the Red Hat Campaign (“Red” which symbolizes the struggle for sex workers rights and “cap” which would stand for the right of every sex worker to be protected from discrimination, stigma and violence.). It is time to tell the world that only sex workers could speak for sex workers. It is going to be an uphill battle against the well-oiled and well experienced machinery of the abolitionists (the feminists, the church and the government). But it is our lives, the sex workers, not theirs that they are legislating. We would not allow it. We would oppose it to the end. We are here to stay and we are here to win.