Fieldwork 2010: researching prostitution in the Philippines

With three weeks to go, Sanne Maris looks back on her fieldwork in the Philippines. This is part 6 of our series on master students’ fieldwork.

It is nine weeks now that I am in the Philippines, and fieldwork preparation taught me things should get normal after a while. They don’t. Every week I find myself in several situations in which I am either overwhelmed by everything that happens or it raises many questions on how to respond. I am here in the Philippines to conduct research on prostitution. My main question is how women who prostitute create and maintain security and how the organization I work alongside plays a role in this process.

I knew prostitution was big in the Philippines, but walking in the huge red light district of Angeles City, which is known as the sex city of the country, is still an experience. The clubs and bars with names as ‘Dirty Ducks’, ‘Eruption’ and ‘Forbidden City’ are concentrated on one main road and some side streets. Most of them are open 24 hours and girls in outfits from tiger prints to too tight glittering pink dresses call out to every white man passing with, ‘Sir, please come in’. In Angeles City the sex industry is focused on the tourists and you won’t find many Filipino men in the bars. Inside the bars the the dancers stand in their bikini, underwear or body paint on the dance floor, look bored, check their bodies in the many mirrors on the walls and try to get attention from the customers.

My presence in the bar most of the time is not unnoticed. The dancers stare at me and the customers look at me with question marks in their eyes. A few weeks ago when ‘barhopping’, we went to bar where the mamasan (female pimp), living in the same compound with me, invited us. She seemed happy to see us and affably served us a beer. A drunk customer sitting beside me asked me whether I wanted to pick a girl. No, I was not interested. A guy then?, he asked. He stood up and took the papasan (foreign guy who works in the bar to help the customers) by the arm and put the guy on my lap. All dancing girls started yelling. The papasan apologized quickly, but the commotion in the bar continued for a while and some girls called ‘barfine!’ (money for sex), ‘pay her a barfine!’. We both thought that was not a good idea.

The bar or club where the music is too loud to have a conversation with the girls and where I still feel somewhat uncomfortable being stared at is not my favorite place for gathering data. I much more prefer the drinking nights in the compound where the neighbor girls (former bar girls and mamasans) and I drink vodka and eat fish under the mango tree. Although girls when drunk often behave as lesbians by flirting with me, sitting very close to me and telling how beautiful my eyes are, they also tell their life stories more easily than when sober and often shy.

However much I sometimes want to study their lives while remaining invisible myself, there is no way I can go unnoticed. I become part of their lives for a while and they become part of my life. They ask me for help, advice and money and since I am not only a researcher but also a human being, I try to find my way in between being the anthropologist and being their friend. Some of the girls find their job fun, others find it horrible. Many of them see this job as the only way of earning enough money to provide for their families and kids, others use it to find a foreign husband to secure financial support and again others like to make big money and live life comfortably.

I have three more weeks in this very corrupt and incredibly beautiful country, and of course time is too short. There is so much more to see and to learn. Maybe the next visit.

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3 thoughts on “Fieldwork 2010: researching prostitution in the Philippines

  1. Lorraine 16/03/2010 / 20:04

    Beautiful! Can’t wait to you start writing it up.

  2. Mirjam 16/03/2010 / 21:26

    Good storytelling! Am looking forward to hear more stories in 3 weeks.

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