Rights, not Rescue
Updated: May 21
Reimagining sex work in Philippine anti-trafficking and feminist discourses
Image by Gordon Johnson (Source: Pixabay)
In 1989, long before landmark laws on anti-trafficking and women’s rights were enacted in the Philippines, a few sex workers set up the first sex worker-led organisation in the country, Women Hookers Organizing for their Rights and Empowerment (WHORE). WHORE advocated for the decriminalisation of sex work, but were promptly condemned by the powerful Catholic Church and mainstream feminist groups. They quickly retreated from public advocacy and focused on mutual aid: raising money to cover hospital bills for those who fell sick and help members who were arrested. Gradually, WHORE encouraged sex workers to organise. Males set up Red Nobles, student sex workers set up Deviant Daighters and Deviant Dudes, and trans sex workers formed Shawushka. These groups eventually coalesced into the Philippine Sex Workers Collective. In the words of one of their founders, Tex, “Sex workers are the original feminists. We welcomed single mothers, we embraced trans individuals. We fought against HIV stigma… way before these became mainstream”.
The Philippines prides itself on being a global leader in anti-trafficking and women’s rights. For over a decade, it was among the top ten countries in closing the global gender gap. In 2002, it became the first Asian country to ratify the UN Trafficking Protocol, after which it enacted national anti-trafficking legislation. The story of anti-trafficking in the Philippines is one in which sex workers are portrayed as passive victims in need of saving by state agencies and NGOs.
Shared by the Philippine Sex Workers Collective on their FB page, on 4 March 2015(Left) and 3 August 2014 (Right).
I propose a different history of anti-trafficking that exposes the systematic exclusion of sex workers from policy-making conversations. Despite sex workers’ rich history of activism and contributions in fighting for women’s reproductive rights, LGBT rights, and rights for drug users and HIV+ individuals, they have been pathologised as "too damaged" or "too traumatised" to determine their best interest and provide feedback on laws and policies that control their lives. Instead, well-funded and better-organised women’s groups speak on their behalf: the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Asia Pacific and their allies deployed the testimonies of sex trafficking survivors to lobby for the conflation of all forms of sex work with trafficking. Based on the belief that sex work is universally victimising, the main intervention designed to ‘protect’ sex workers is police raids on streets, bars, and brothels where sex workers are ‘rescued’ and turned over to the Department of Social Welfare and Development for ‘rehabilitation’. Rehabilitation often consists of sex workers being housed in shelters and redirected to other forms of low-paying work.
There is a need to move beyond the stale paradigm of victimhood and sexual purity to a more pluralist vision.
Based on over 50 in-depth interviews with street workers and establishment-based sex workers in the Philippines, I tracked how raids and rehabilitation programs harm rather than help them. To avoid getting ‘rescued’ and losing their income, sex workers are forced to work in secret and unable to publicly advocate for rights or form unions. They
are rendered more vulnerable to police extortion and abuse. Those who are ‘rescued’ are redirected to other labour-intensive gendered forms of labour such as domestic work, factory work, baking, handicrafts, and hairdressing, which are seen as morally superior to sex work in the anti-trafficking fairy tale. In fact, many sex workers, especially single mothers with young children, deem the higher hourly rates and flexible working hours in sex work preferable to these alternatives, but have found their knowledge dismissed.
The silencing of sex workers in public and policy discourse reveals the conditions and boundaries around which "activists" are recognised and able to come forward as feminist and political actors, and poses important questions about who gets to define activism and labour. Ultimately, feminist politics in the Philippines is due for a course correction: there is a need to move beyond the stale paradigm of victimhood and sexual purity to a more pluralist vision of political agency for marginalised groups.
Sharmila Parmanand  is currently a teaching fellow in gender and human rights at the London School of Economics.