“The police are our real pimps”: Violence against sex workers in the Philippines

“The police are our real pimps”: Violence against sex workers in the Philippines

On the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers (17 December), Sharmila Parmanand discusses the intersections of violence in the Philippines against sex workers and against people who use drugs.

Sex workers in the Philippines experience many harmful effects of the war on drugs. It has increased the power of the police over sex workers’ lives, and it has made sex workers who use drugs far less likely to engage with the healthcare system for fear of their status being disclosed. Sex workers have always had a difficult relationship with the police, and street workers especially may be hesitant to access public healthcare because of stigma, but the war on drugs has significantly exacerbated these conditions.

What surfaced from my interviews with over 50 street and establishment-based sex workers in Metro Manila in 2017 and 2018 is that the police are perceived and experienced by sex workers as a greater threat than clients or third parties. “The police are our real pimps,” many of my interviewees would say.

The power asymmetry between cops and sex workers can be partially attributed to the confusing mix of laws that govern sex work in the Philippines. The Revised Penal Code 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. Various local governments have their own policies on sex work, ranging from tolerance and risk management to stigma and punishment, or a mix of these.

Corrupt police officers have regularly taken advantage of the legal limbo on sex work. Sometimes they conduct entirely anti-prostitution raids with the aim of arresting women and pimps, or extorting money or sex from them. Other times, they conduct ‘rescue operations’. The women never know what to expect. The police might aggressively break them up and drive them off the streets, or arrest them for ‘bagansya’ (vagrancy). However, the Philippines decriminalised vagrancy in 2012, which means that either my interviewees misunderstood the purpose of the raids, or these raids were indeed arbitrary and illegal.

My interviewees also 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. One said that in 2015, there was a sting operation on her street. “We were all caught and taken to a precinct. They said their reason was that there were minors among us. But we were all adults! Each of us and our pimp still had to pay 50 USD.” She added, “We don’t pimp minors.” 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.

Raids and rescue operations are not the only sites of abuse. Many of my interviewees pointed to instances of everyday extortion: Police officers would approach them and demand money, sex, or both in exchange for not arresting them. In one particularly egregious case, cops engaged in ritual humiliation by urinating on two sex workers who were waiting for clients on a street corner. Many experienced having a gun casually pointed at them by patrolling cops. Some of their worst clients were also policemen. In a context where sex work is criminalised, it is dangerous to demand payment from a client who is also a cop. Many street workers are unwilling to report abusive clients or managers to the police after having been shamed for doing so in the past, or for fear of being extorted or jailed themselves.

Under the war on drugs, which has seen the police exert greater power and control over civilians, sex workers have become even more vulnerable. Duterte has made several pronouncements to the effect of encouraging the police to aggressively pursue and even murder suspected drug users and sellers. There are credible allegations of drugs being planted on individuals and their property to justify criminal charges or police violence under Duterte’s current drug war. Based on my interviews, it seems that corrupt police officers have taken advantage of the war on drugs to weaponise the common association of sex work with drug use. 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.

“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 one of my interviewees when describing 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.” Another interviewee, who was raped by a policeman in a precinct toilet after he arrested her and threatened to plant drugs on her, said, “I couldn’t defend myself. Nobody cares about poor drug addicts dying. They care even less about poor supposedly drug-addicted prostitutes!” Several of my interviewees said that they are more frequently ‘invited’ to precincts for invasive strip and cavity searches as part of ‘anti-drug operations’.

According to ‘Tex’, one of the leaders of the Philippine Sex Workers Collective, “Sex workers are prime suspects not just as drug users but as people who work with drug dealers. This is not hard to believe for the police and the public. If they already think that you sell your body, why not drugs? A student sex worker was killed in Baguio. They were reported to be dealing drugs. Their fellow sex workers, who are too scared to challenge the police, have said this is patently false. Their family did not pursue the case because they didn’t want it publicised that their child was a sex worker.” Tex added, “Given the stigma against sex workers and given that anyone can just be reported as a drug user or dealer, anyone with an axe to grind against sex workers could just report them to the police.”

Many of my interviewees 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.

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. Most of the people who were killed without trial – at least 5000 based on the police’s own estimates, and above 20,000 based on estimates from credible civil society and media organisations – have come from low-income communities. Five of the sex workers I interviewed lost their partners to extrajudicial killings, and two of them have partners in jail for what they said were false drug charges. Two of them began engaging in sex work to support their children, while five engaged in sex work more frequently than they would have preferred, to make up for lost income.

In the midst of the drug war, many of my interviewees coped by paying higher bribes to cops. One of them summarised this as, “We pay the same amount weekly that we used to do monthly!” They also attempted to be less visible when soliciting clients, even if it reduced their earnings and forced them to operate in less secure areas. Several who used to operate independently were increasingly relying on third parties who offered protection based on links with the police. Three of them were strongly considering shifting to online spaces to solicit clients. Most of them could not afford this and did not understand technology well enough.

Some of my interviewees said that they were less likely to disclose their status as drug users to state healthcare providers, for fear of their private information being transmitted to the police, and that they were less likely to engage with the healthcare system in general, which means not getting tested for STIs or seeking medical assistance when they are ill. This makes them disproportionately vulnerable to HIV and viral hepatitis. Some sex workers who use drugs were less willing to serve as peer counsellors to other sex workers for fear of being identified by the police and executed. Peer-led initiatives are extremely important in providing support to sex workers who use drugs. Essentially, the drug war has made it difficult for some sex workers to exercise their basic human right to healthcare. A few who were HIV-positive have been forced to disclose their status to police officers for fear of being killed if they failed mandatory drug tests because of the substances in their anti-retroviral drugs. This is a violation of their right to privacy.

The Collective issued a call for solidarity with drug users four months into Duterte’s term. With the strong public sentiment against drugs and popular support for Duterte, however, the leaders of the Collective worried about raising the issue aggressively because of the risk of being misrepresented as arguing in favour of drugs and inviting more violence against sex workers in the very simplistic and emotionally charged public conversations about illegal drugs.

Under the war on drugs, Duterte has signalled to police officers that they can be assured of his protection when they murder drug suspects. Now more than ever, it is very difficult for sex workers to publicly expose police abuse. They generally fear retaliation and harassment. One sex worker who filed a complaint against a policeman was threatened by his colleague: “Do your children know what you do? They might not like their mother anymore if they find out.”

Sex workers in the Philippines need more platforms to be able to tell their own stories directly; they need access to legal support for those among them who have been victims of police harassment and abuse; they need to find entry points and allies within civil society, media, academia, and government that can allow them to challenge dominant assumptions about sex workers that do not reflect their lived realities. I am also conscious that while rattling off this wish list, I am still talking about a marginalised and criminalised community, some of whom suffer additional forms of discrimination (trans sex workers, sex workers who are HIV+, etc.), and many of whom support their families financially and perform caring roles. It is definitely not easy.


Sharmila Parmanand is doing a PhD in Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge on a Gates Scholarship. Her research critiques the dominant representation of sex workers in anti-trafficking discourse in the Philippines and the effects of anti-trafficking interventions on sex workers. She has worked as a volunteer with the Philippine Sex Workers Collective since 2015.

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