Beyond the neon lights: Stories of prostituted women

“They [women] are victims of the system. It’s a shame that is has gotten to this point of desperation, leaving them almost with no choice at all.”


OLONGAPO CITY – It was a Friday night. Neon lights adorned the street of Barrio Barreto.

This writer, along with a group of students from the University of South California (USC) School of Social Work, went inside one of the bars called Catwalk. Upon entering, we saw six women, all scantily-clad, dancing on stage. On the left was another stage where six other women were dancing to upbeat music.

The Catwalk was full. Many of the customers were white men. In one of the tables, a black man was kissing and touching the woman beside him who was wearing the same type of clothes of the dancers. The man later went to the nearest stage, throwing a few hundred-peso bills. The women dancing grabbed the bills in the air and the man then asked for a kiss from all the women.

One of these women was 22-year-old Gina who hailed from Bacolod City. Her father is a construction worker, her mother a housewife. She is the sixth of 12 siblings. Gina said her older sister, who has been living with her family in Olongapo City, convinced her to move to this city. She worked as a saleslady at SM Olongapo City for five months and received the minimum pay. When her contract ended, she looked for another job and landed in this bar.

For eight hours, Gina is expected to dance, drink, and “entertain” customers and would receive P250 (US$5.81). For every lady’s drink, which costs P150 ($3.48), she gets P50 ($1.16).

During the conversation, a woman in black leggings and sleeveless blouse was obviously eavesdropping. Gina said the woman is their “Mama-san.”

On each table was a basket full of plastic balls. Gina said a customer can buy it for P250 ($5.81) per basket. “They throw the balls at us. We get P20 ($0.46) from every ball.”

In another bar, at the Mango’s, we met Jenny (not her real name), 27 years old. Jenny said she has been at the club for five months. “I applied as a waitress but was hired as a dancer,” Jenny, a single mother of two, said. Her son is nine years old and her daughter is three years old.

Jenny told the group it is her first job. “The father of my children does not provide any support. I have to work for my kids,” she said.

Outside the bars, there were pimps peddling women and even girls to prospective customers.

Joy (not her real name), a member of Buklod Center, an organization of survivors of prostitution, became prostituted at the age of 12.

Abandoned by her step parents, Joy said she had nowhere to go so she lived in the streets. She does not know who and how to find her biological parents. “A friend introduced me to the trade,” she said. “I needed to survive.”

Joy said the going rate these days is P500 ($11.62). Of the said amount, P150 ($3.48) goes to the pimp and the rest goes to the woman.
Throughout the years of being in the sex industry, Joy has encountered violent customers, mostly foreigners. “There were times I was beaten up,” Joy said. “The worst was when a customer pointed a gun at me.”

During such incidents, Joy said she and the other women like her could not go to the police. “We might end up in jail. We know that we do is illegal,” she said.

Now 23 years old, Joy is pregnant with her fourth child, whose fathers were former customers. She refused to inform the fathers, except for one who told her to abort the baby.

Joy said she insisted on the use of condoms but some customers complained. She was taking contraceptive pills but forgot to take it for a week when she got pregnant with her third child, now a year old. She is due to give birth next month.

Joy attempted several times to find alternative jobs but desperate times called for desperate moves. These days, she earns income whenever she helps a neighbor sell barbeque. In times of urgent need, Joy admitted she would still accept customers. Even during her previous pregnancies, she was hired by customers.

In another area in the city called Subic are bars featuring women — almost naked — dancing. Charisma delos Reyes, adjunct of the USC Social Work Faculty, went with a team of students to two bars. The first named Club 1 and the other Chika Babes.

Women on stage wore red bikinis. “One appeared pregnant,” delos Reyes said. “Unlike the other dancers, her belly was slightly covered. When she moves, one can see her rounded belly.”

In this bar they met Cora (not her real name), a single mother to a two-year-old son. Cora came from a province in the Visayas. She said the father of her child beat her up and so she left him.

“It is heartbreaking, to see mothers forced into prostitution,” delos Reyes told in an interview. “That’s what makes women vulnerable, the financial responsibility of parenting.”

Britney Courtright, a student of USC Social Work, also met two mothers working in a bar named Lollipop. The first woman is 35 years old with two sons with ages 15 and 17 and the other is 26 years old who has a six-year-old daughter.

“One of them was wearing a Rosary. She told us that she goes to Church every Sunday,” Courtright said. “They denied any sort of prostitution and said they were just dancing.”

At Chika Babes, delos Reyes’s group saw women wearing only mesh scarf and mesh bottom to cover their private parts. Two women were switching off, dancing to slow, seductive music. “It was so hot in the bar, beads of sweat coming down her [dancer] body,” delos Reyes recalled. “Her face was blank, no eye contact with anyone in the audience. She was looking at the mirror or the wall.”

Elsa, a former bar girl and a member of Buklod Center, said dancers in clubs look at the mirror to pretend that they are dancing alone, that no one is watching them.

With the group of delos Reyes was Shelina Miranda, a Filipino-American who is taking up her masters in social work at USC. “As a Filipino, this is frustrating … but this is the real side that the Philippine government does not want us to see.”

Miranda, whose family migrated to the United States in 2001, said that a lot of stories of these women were similar with her family. “The motivation is the family, the sense of duty.”

“They [women] are victims of the system. It’s a shame that is has gotten to this point of desperation, leaving them almost with no choice at all,” Miranda said.

Most of the women the USC faculty members and students talked to did not graduate from secondary education; one did not finish grade school. The exposure to bars in Subic was part of the two weeks-long global immersion of the USC School of Work, in partnership with the Department of Social Studies of the University of the Philippines Manila.

All of them also said their “work” is just temporary.

Gina told her guests, forcing a smile: “I am studying basic computer course. This work is just temporary.”

Joy resumed her studies through the alternative learning system. Last year, she graduated Grade 6 through the help of Buklod Center.
Joy said she looks forward to the day when she could have a decent job. She said she plans to finish secondary education through the alternative learning system. “I want to be a chef,” she said shyly when asked about her dreams.

“It’s hard to pass judgment,” delos Reyes said. “In a country where there is high unemployment and no real job creation, this cycle would never be interrupted.”

Delos Reyes noted that in the bars they visited, there were Americans. She knew by their accent and their haircut.

“The bases have not been here since the 1990s but the remnants are very much here,” delos Reyes said, referring to the former Subic Naval Base of the United States.

According to a 1998 study, there were 55,000 to 60,000 women and girls in the “entertainment” industry in Olongapo City and Angeles City, Pampanga, where the Clark Air Base was located.

By virtue of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which was ratified in 1998, hundreds of American troops frequent the former bases and other areas in the country. Seventy ships and a hundred aircrafts of the US military enter the country every year.

“Under the guise of ‘entertainment,’ this kind of exploitation continues. It is a public health issue, a political issue, a matter of those who have power against those who have no power,” delos Reyes said.

Courtright said: “I wonder what the Philippine government is doing. It’s trafficking. I don’t see the connection between the government’s efforts and the reality that we’ve seen.”

Courtright said the government must support organizations such as Buklod Center, provide access to education and other social services for the women and the children.

“As a social worker, I am taught to always be hopeful that there can be change, even incremental,” delos Reyes said. “Some community organizations continue to persevere…If not all, we can start with one.” (

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