Posts Tagged ‘prostitution’

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“Most of the time I don’t even pay them; all I need to do is show them my baby blues. Sometimes I just give them bus fare home.”

Bob was the stereotype, the guy we all love to hate: tubby, white-haired, sunburnt, and dressed like a beach-bound slob. The guy you hoped didn’t share your nationality. I’d seen him in fast food restaurants, night clubs, videoke bars, and even aboard airplanes headed to vacation destinations. Always beside him there was a beautiful Asian woman—sometimes two—young enough to be his granddaughter. He was the Sex Tourist.

Prior to leaving for the Philippines, I’d spent over a year reading books and articles on human trafficking, and almost all of them were filled with sad victim stories. I’m glad for every person who picks up Half the Sky, Not for Sale, or Disposable People, and I wish more people were reading them. But if we want to understand the complex, sophisticated human trafficking machine, we need to understand how it works–and what fuels it.

The Low-Flying Dove, the novel that came out of my year in Manila, is my attempt to do that. The narrative follows not just trafficking victims and those trying to help them, but a pimp, a bar owner, a former stripper, and two customers. I knew that writing this kind of book would mean interviewing customers, or Johns, and I dreaded talking to people I was sure I’d hate.

But at last I enlisted the help of an NGO worker who had formerly been a sex tourist himself; I told him my objective (to get a real picture of why these guys did what they did) and within a couple of hours, I had a half a dozen meetings set up with guys of all ages and backgrounds.

But let’s get back to Bob.

I’d secretly hoped that all of the guys I interviewed would be like him: easily villainized and blamed. But the truth was a lot closer to home. Yes, there were some despicable, unrelatable sex tourists, but more frequently the men I talked to were surprisingly . . . normal. Likeable, even.

One middle-aged man from Boston sat with me for almost two hours and told me how heartbroken he was when his wife of forty years left him. He came to the Philippines looking for a wife and a second chance, and found her in the form of a 23-year-old bar girl. He met her by paying her for sex, but was indignant that men like Bob abused the girls. He thought sex trafficking was terrible.

I talked to several twenty- and thirty-something guys who had come to Asia to travel and see the world–not sex. They wouldn’t pay for it back home, so why would they in another country? But then they arrived in Manila/Hong Kong/Bangkok/Singapore/etc. and met another foreigner who took them out to a red light district, had a few drinks, and ended up at a strip club. Or they got a great deal on a massage, where their young, pretty massage therapist abruptly offered them extras.

“Normal becomes a pretty relative term after a while,” one guy told me. He’d been stunned the first few times he’d found himself in some of the situations above. But after a while, the things that had shocked him suddenly began to feel commonplace. “Guys do things here that they would never do at home,” he said. “Back home they might look at porn, but they would never go looking for a prostitute.”

Some of the men I met were traveling for work; they had wives and children whom they loved and missed. Many of them knew about sex trafficking and thought that it was atrocious. Not a single man I talked to believed that he was contributing to it in any way. Many times the girls who had convinced my interviewees that they were having a great time confided in me that they had been trafficked and were deeply ashamed of the life they were living.

It’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow, but thanks to our friend Anna Broadway, Valentine’s Day isn’t just for couples this year. Anna understands that sex trafficking and prostitution will continue to exploit growing numbers of women unless we turn our attention to the demand for sex—to the customers, or Johns.

All across the country, churches, groups, and individuals are joining Anna in praying for the Johns. We are too. You can read more about Pray for the Johns Day here, and also read an article where Anna interviewed me.

Would you join us in praying for the Johns tomorrow? You can find specific ways to pray on the PFTJ website. We’d love to hear about your experiences here, so please comment and let us know that you’re joining us!


We’ve only been gone a year, but my friend says I look older. At age 34, that’s the first time anyone’s ever said that to me. I’ve always had a baby face: on my 15th birthday my friends suggested I ask for the 12-and-under price at the county fair; in my passport photo (age 27), I look like a college freshman. But it seems that this year has left its mark.

So what have I seen that’s made me age? Life how most of the world lives it: orphaned siblings sleeping in subway stations. Squatter families living in cement-block shacks the size of an American suburbanite’s walk-in closet. Street women selling themselves for a few dollars or less. Sights that would change anyone with eyes to see. But my eyes have widened joyfully as well: gawking at Avatar-inspiring marine life, eating heartstoppingly-good native mangoes, high-fiving women (who’d never before exercised) as they finished their first race.

But next month, I’m returning our old fantasy life, the Bay Area. Land of data plan complaints, hybrid hypermiling, and wine even in gas stations. Beloved Bay Area folks fret about real estate values or finding organic baby food at Whole Paycheck; Filipinos we have come to love worry about buying food for six on four dollars a day, or having to return to prostitution to pay their dying baby’s medical bills. Our old friends may see the change in my face, but can they feel it in their hearts? Will they even try? After a year of being a foreigner, an outsider, and a target, I fear being an alien in my native land.

When my wife and I quit our jobs last summer and moved to Manila for a year of volunteer work, I naïvely assumed it’d be similar to family trips as a kid: live overseas, see some old stuff, then pick up where I left off. But as a young but astute friend observed, the Philippines has “ruined me for the better.” So now my face tells a more serious story; my eyes focus on things besides literature, nature, and wine. Question is, will others want to see through them?

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For the past four years before we came here, my job coaching cross country and track & field at Mills College swallowed my life, and race planning was the most difficult part of it. Yet Take Back the Night prompted much more tooth-gnashing, hair-graying, and tear-shedding than any of those other races ever did.  I could chronicle the months-long nightmare of nailing down the date, venue, sponsors, equipment, and marketing, but suffice it to say that everything that could have gone wrong with this event, did.

But at last June 18 arrived, cool and overcast.  Then at 3:00 the skies opened.  We huddled in the stands, hoping that the storm would pass, but the only change was the dirt track turning to mud.  We made nervous jokes about gathering animals two by two. Around 5:00 we gathered to pray, and finally the rain lightened to a heavy sprinkle as we set up for the race. By 6:00 the Samaritana women and other race registrants began to show up.  The women were jittery and feeling varying degrees of fear and excitement about running the 3k or 5k–distances unthinkable just a few months ago when they could jog just once around the block when Super Babae began. “When it started raining, I prayed to God that it would stop in time for the race,” one of the women said to me around 6:30.  “And now it’s stopped. God answered my prayer.” (It started raining again just minutes after our event, and has been raining non-stop every since.)

It was almost completely dark by then, but when we asked the security guard to turn on the electricity for the lights and sound system, he said he couldn’t turn anything on until 7:00 (the time that the 10k was supposed to start), and meanwhile runners and the DJ’s sat in the stands in the dark.  7:00 came and went, and another security guard told us that the event permit, due to a clerical error, said 7:00 a.m. instead of 7:00 p.m. And of course he didn’t have the authority to override it, and his superior had gone home, assuming that because of the rain we’d canceled. So no lights. A race in the dark and the mud? It was a liability bomb just waiting to explode.

Meanwhile the 10k runners were getting restless on our mud swamp of a track, and our MC’s were stalling by yelling announcements with no PA system.  After some heated conversations and frantic prayers, the senior security guard returned from his house to turn on the power and lights to a big cheer from the crowd, and only 30 minutes late, with the Philippine National Anthem and an opening prayer, Take Back the Night was on.

I gathered the women for a quick pep talk, and they put their hands in the middle of the circle and chanted “Super Babae” (Taglish for “Super Woman”).  At the 5k starting line, one of the Samaritana women called the other women together to pray.  She thanked God for the change in weather, and prayed that they would be strong and able to run away from their past, no matter how they finished, and take back the night in their own lives.

As the runners splashed on their way, I cheered and swelled with pride as I saw each Samaritana woman pass, often in pairs or trios, alternating between wide grins and pained grimaces. Nate and Coach Kenny (one of our visiting American volunteers) ran with some of the women who were struggling, encouraging them through each soggy lap.

As the runners crossed the finish line, there was lots of cheering, laughter, and muddy, excited hugs.  One of the top female finishers said that running through the mud had been a fun, new challenge, different from other races she’d run.  The Samaritana women talked about how they’d thought they wouldn’t make it, but were so happy they had.  They were proud and amazed that they’d been able to go so far, and one of the women was pleasantly surprised to find that she’d earned a medal by finishing in the top three in the 3k!

As we awarded medals and cash prizes and then cleaned up for the night, there was a general feeling of cheer and inspiration, despite the long day of rain and the muddy races.  Several runners and volunteers thanked us for putting the event on, and said how inspired they were to be a part of it.  The women thanked us again and again, saying how special it was for them.  As we hugged them and told them again how proud of them we were, their glowing faces told us it had been worth it.

* * * * *

And now we want to thank all of the good people who helped make the event possible!  Thanks to our sponsors Quezon City and Gatorade, to our event partners World Vision and Run4Change!  Thank you to Chloe from Mellow 94.7, Raffy Reyes from RX 93.1, and Katherine Visconti from ABS-CBN for promoting the event.  Thanks to all of the churches who promoted and signed up for the event.  Thanks to the UP Gender Office and College of Human Kinetics for helping us secure the venue.  Thanks to Coach Kenny and the team from Cole Valley Christian school in the US for hours of volunteering, and our friends Joe and M3 for compiling results.  Thank you to everyone at Samaritana who worked so hard around the clock for weeks before this event, especially Ate Becky, Ate Sunny, and Ate Jane.  Thanks to Ate Denise, who spent her entire birthday making sandwiches for and working at the event.  Thanks to everyone who sponsored women to run, making it possible for dozens of them to participate and see what they were capable of.  Thank you to the more than 40 friends and family across the world who committed to praying daily for this event for many weeks, and who were such a source of encouragement to those of us planning.  Most of all, the glory goes to God; it was pretty obvious to us all that this thing couldn’t happen without some miracles, and we’re grateful that His hand was on it all.

If you have a few more minutes, check out more event photos on Samaritana’s facebook page here.


*** Warning: the following post may reduce your guilt-free consumption of internet porn ***

Fun-loving web surfers, have you ever paused on your merry way to ask yourselves the question “Boy, where does all that porn come from?” Perhaps not. It’s a question we’d probably rather avoid, right? We just want to complete our transaction, if you will, and move on. (Like eating fast food: don’t ask what’s in it–just fill your appetite.)

In the course of our research leading up to this year abroad, and also in the first three months of our stay in the Philippines, however, we’ve been confronted (to continue the analogy) with the ingredients and the supply chain of this sector of the economy that makes the fast food business look wholesome. Now I believe that there are some women who subsist by selling their bodies who are self-actualized and emancipated, catered nutritious foods, treated respectfully, never been abused, enjoy good health, are paid a dignified salary and 401(k), and go home to loving partners, families, and proud communities. I also believe that it’s possible to be attacked at random by a Great Northwestern Spotted Ferret Bat.

What this video dramatizes in four arresting minutes is a story that is all too common, a story that plays out in apartments, condos, and motel rooms everywhere from California to Calcutta, Miami to Manila. It’s not graphic, but it may be disturbing; don’t watch if you don’t want to see what goes inside this proverbial can of Spam.


“We made connections between men’s demand for and socialization through pornography and the rape, woman battering, and sexual harassment we had a decade earlier begun to mobilized against . . . . although many of us believed that we were protesting images of violence, in reality we were protesting violence documented. The rape was not only on paper. The images were mostly photographs of actual women, with histories of horrific abuse, whose bodies were bought, sold and violated for the benefit of sex industry profiteers . . . it was a sobering revelation: the sex industry defenders we were pitted against on TV talk shows were the most brutalized sex industry victims.”*

Dorchen A. Leidholdt, Co-Executive Director
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women


* For more on the link between pornography and prostitution (and for an excellent history of the fight against sex trafficking), read CATW Dorchen Leidholdt’s complete speech here.  It’s long, but well worth the complete read.

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Quezon City, like most of metro Manila, is a cloud of exhaust, a cacophony of roosters, stray dogs and permanent traffic, a wet blanket of heat. But step through the doors of Samaritana Transformation Ministries, and you find yourself in an open-air courtyard with a stone labyrinth set in the grass, a soothingly trickling fountain, and the airy feel of freedom in every room. Women sing as they cook or clean, and others laugh as they make earrings or greeting cards to sell in the Philippines and the U.S.  You may also see women working on their English language skills, sharing past hurts in Tagalog Bible studies, quietly talking in individual or group counseling, or more recently, gathering together for yoga or strength training in our newly-formed Freedom Fitness group (more about that later).

Samaritana has been sending volunteers and staff out to the bars to build relationships with prostituted women since 1992, when then-seminary student Thelma Nambu and other friends met to pray for, visit, and befriend these poorest of the poor, lowest of the low who make the worst kind of living by selling themselves each night for the equivalent of $2 or $3. The ministry was inspired by the story of Jesus meeting an outcast woman at a well, and showing her the way to a new life that didn’t involve men using and then discarding her. Bringing that story to life today, Samaritana is a haven for women who have left, or want to leave, their lives on the streets.

During an orientation meeting for new volunteers, we learned about Samaritana’s extensive programs: in addition to the daily schedule for “women friends,” there are scholarship programs for children, medical missions, police training (to educate them about sex trafficking and to view prostituted women as victims, not criminals), partnerships with faith-based and secular feminist NGOs alike, and visits to squatter communities to spend time with new women friends who have not yet left life on the street—just to name a few.  To hear the women’s stories of abuse, poverty, and shame, it’s astounding that anyone can recover, and yet we see daily proof that healing is, in fact, possible. The same young women who have been pushed to the edges of society (both culturally and geographically) are now giggling as they watch Nate wash dishes (kitchens are generally women’s turf here) or teach us how to eat fish and rice with our hands.

Healing from lives of abuse and shame is slow, hard work, but it’s clear that Samaritana has spent every bit of the last eighteen years figuring out how to best serve these women, and that God has blessed that work.  We’re honored to be a part of it, and grateful to all of you who have supported us (and Samaritana) in our work here!

On the Streets

Posted: August 20, 2010 in Our work
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We’ve been in Manila for nearly a month, and after days of language school, orientation with three different organizations, and three weeks of Friday-night outreach training, it’s time to venture into the world we’ve been hearing and reading about for the past several years, the world of prostitution and sex trafficking.

This past Friday, after two hours of training at Samaritana,* half our group of volunteers prepares to head out to the bars; the other half stays to pray for the safety of the group and the conversations we will have. We are excited to meet these women face to face―this is why we’re here―but also a little scared.

We go to an area just a few miles from our house on Commonwealth Avenue (one of the main roads through Quezon City). It’s an area we’ve passed by many times on our way home from work or school, with one dingy “karaoke barafter another. These bars are often little more than shacks of corrugated metal and plywood, with a fluorescent tube or string of Christmas lights to attract attention, a lone TV up front for the sham entertainment, and tiny curtained-off rooms in back where the true, sordid business goes down.

These poorest-of-the poor women mostly wear T-shirts, shorts, and flip flops, and spend hours standing or sitting on the curb, breathing exhaust from the 8 lanes of passing traffic, and pimping each other, or letting their bar owner or pimps advertise them to passersby to avoid the potential shame of being rejected directly.

During the hour and a half that we’re out, we sit and talk with women from two neighboring bars. In our halting Tagalog, we attempt to ask their names, ages, and whether or not they have kids (most of them do).

A pretty, petite girl catches our attention, because she is the oldest daughter of the bar owner. We’ll call her Lucia. She is my first “woman-friend,” a term we use at Samaritana rather than “prostitute” or “sex worker.” It’s a distinction I’ve come to appreciate: these are women who have had to make a “choice” when there isn’t another option. Lucia says she is twenty-six, but she looks more like sixteen. She and the other girls with her are continually rubbing their noses and sniffing, a mannerism we later find out is the result of sniffing “rugby,” or rubber cement. (Incidentally, Lucia tells us that she gave birth to a baby boy just a month ago, and yet she started working again almost immediately after he was born.)

As we’re talking, the bar owner grabs two of the youngest-looking girls and touts them as virgins to men walking by, who eventually decide to move on to another bar. At one point we walk to another bar, and even though I’m standing right beside Nate, I see every girl we pass eyeing him, doing their best to pose for him and catch his attention. As soon as I reach over and hold his hand, it is as if I have flipped a switch, and they are just girls and women again, slouching back into their resigned stance of waiting. All of the girls we talk to seem surprised to see a man who isn’t there to use them.

One of our first days here, a cab driver told us a girl can be bought for 100 pesos, a little over two U.S. dollars. One girl tells a fellow Samaritana volunteer that she has “no life, because she hasn’t had any customers today.”

This is just the first of what will be our regular Friday nights, but it’s clear to us already that God is at work here in a powerful way―but that doesn’t mean the work is easy. Transformation happens slowly in these lives among the slums of Quezon City, but there is hope.

*Samaritana is a local NGO dedicated to fighting sex trafficking, and the main group that we will be working with this year. We’ll discuss our work with in more detail in upcoming posts, but for general information though, please visit their site listed in our sidebar.

Neither Laura nor I have ever felt called to full-time charitable/missions work, but the year before we got married we got the idea of putting our regular lives on pause for one year out of every seven, and donating that time to helping others. (We were inspired by the scriptural idea of the Sabbath Year, as found in Leviticus 25.) We got married in 2003, so 2010 marks the seventh year. We knew we were going to go somewhere and do some sort of charitable work, but what?

Once we started learning about human trafficking, we were impressed with the urgency of the problem and concluded that fighting this injustice would be a worthwhile use of our year away. While it is a global problem, we were drawn to Asia for various reasons, and as Laura went through the application process for the Fulbright scholarship, that helped us narrow it down to the Philippines, which met several of our criteria: hot spot for trafficking (5th worst in the world), yet not hopelessly corrupt government; existing organizations in place whom we could partner with; culturally different enough to force us to re-evaluate our lives.

Laura recently received notification that she has been awarded the Fulbright, confirming that our work in the Philippines will involve the following: Laura will be working with Samaritana, a Manila-based non-profit that rehabilitates women rescued from prostitution, and writing a novel about sex trafficking, in consultation with a scholar at the University of the Philippines. Nate will be working with some combination of Samaritana and International Justice Mission.