Of victims and saviors: Sex work amid the pandemic

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MANILA, Philippines — Delilah, 23 years old, has been doing sex work since she was 18.

“There was a time when I was so ashamed to label myself as a sex worker because of the stigma and the threat of being doxxed or reported,” she told INQUIRER.net in a phone interview. “But two years ago, I started to embrace the term and reclaim words such as ‘whore,’ ‘bayaran,’ or ‘pokpok.’”

She finds it odd to be asked what sex work means to her. “I think people mean well when they ask me that,” she said, “but the thing is, we don’t normally ask that question to other workers.”

While she admitted that she enjoys the work because she gets to explore her sexuality and identity, she still believes that it is just a job. “I don’t think I have to feel empowered to do it,” she said, “and I don’t think it has to be any special.”

Her family knows about what she does, and while having no respect for her work, had learned to respect her boundaries. “My extended family thinks I’m just doing this because I’m sad or I’m in a damsel-in-distress situation,” she said.

She juggled sex work and studies, but with the pandemic forcing schools to go online, she chose to put her college education on hold and focus on work. She used to do “full service” or in-person work, but because of the lockdown, she moved online.

She earns two to three times the monthly minimum wage online, where the principle of harder work equals more money also applies. “But it doesn’t go without the social issues that we have,” she said, adding that double standards based on physical appearance remain.

Another issue she has with working online is digital privacy, saying she dreaded it for the longest time because of “horror stories” she had heard. “Since sex remains taboo in our country, the people have this obsession with scandals or leaks,” she said.

Payment also becomes tricky because sharing her bank account information creates a paper trail. “I’m really thankful that there’s an online community of sex workers where we share tips and help each other out [with matters such as payment],” she said.

Despite all this, she said she believes that the pandemic-induced rise in online sex work can be a good thing because more individuals get to explore their sexuality and even earn from it. “It’s like experimenting in the kitchen,” she said, “where you cook something, sell it, and see if people like it.”

“The danger is not in the work,” she said. “It only becomes dangerous because of the stigma, the legal ramifications, and it being underground, which is a very good spot for abusers.”

Monetizing nudes

The internet is “a world in which selfhood has become capitalism’s last natural resource,” proclaimed writer Jia Tolentino. And thirst traps are a manifestation of this phenomenon.

Thirst traps are provocative photos used to attract attention, and they have been around — although in different forms — for the longest time, said sex and relationships therapist Rica Cruz, PhD, RPsy, who is also a sex educator.

“Thirst traps have always been in the media,” she told INQUIRER.net in a phone interview. “Maybe for [others] it’s surprising because it’s [now] out there on social media and they can easily access it, but that has been going on for so long, mainly because sex sells.”

As the cost of living continues to skyrocket, made worse by the recession, people have become creative in earning extra income. Some started food businesses while others turned to online retail. Some of those who habitually post thirst traps on social media have learned to monetize their “nudes.”

This, however, is a form of pornography and may even be considered sex work, which are both illegal in the Philippines.

Article No. 201 of the Revised Penal Code penalizes pornography with prision mayor (imprisonment of six years and a day to 12 years) or a fine ranging from P20,000 to P200,000.

Article No. 202 of the same law punishes women engaged in prostitution with a jail term of one to 30 days or a fine of up to P20,000. Article No. 341 punishes any person engaged in, profits from or pays for prostitution with imprisonment of 8 to 12 years.

Another law, the Philippine Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003, considers prostitutes as trafficked individuals and should not be prosecuted. Traffickers and clients are punished by imprisonment of up to 20 years and fine of P1 million to P2 million.

The Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 punishes those engaged in cybersex with prision mayor or a fine of P200,000 to P1 million.

“You don’t want to tolerate anything that’s illegal,” said Cruz, “but you want to be able to give them a space where they can be free to express themselves and to choose whatever they want to do as a means of living, as long as they’re not hurting anyone.”