(In 2003, I did an ethnographic study of prostitutes in a limited and conservative setting. My background and training on the tools and techniques used in ethnographic studies helped me a lot in unearthing some of the facts about prostitution and prostitutes – facts, which most of them were not willing to share with anyone. I also came to know a lot about the environment in which they moved around in their day-to-day business).
Ethnography is the process of describing and analyzing certain aspects of culture in a given setting. For anthropologists, the framework of logical studies is the concept of knowing culture beyond its scope and visual meanings. Anthropologists would look at every individual as a member of a given culture with certain acceptable practices and symbolic interactions. They consider ethnography as successful when it teaches how to behave appropriately in an established cultural setting as in a family within the black community (Stack, 1974 and Abuso, 1986), in the school principal’s office (Walcott, 1973), or in a kindergarten class (Florio, 1978).
In the Philippines, the GRO, with the very deceiving meaning of “Guest Relations Officer”, is equated to prostitution or the performance of sexual acts solely for the purpose of material gain. The GRO is a modified approach in vending women for sex. Before 1970s, prostitutes used to ply their trade on the street and they came to be popularly known as “pick-up girls”. A customer in a vehicle would just drop by and pick up the girl of his choice. In the 1980s, prostitution was elevated to a more subtle level when young girls were recruited by bar owners to serve as GROs. In the beginning, the idea was purely to make the girls serve and entertain male customers in the form of conversation or simply keeping company. Some GROs admit that when a customer is kind enough to give the so-called “ladies drink” and extra tips, he is allowed to touch her delicate parts or allowed to kiss her.
Persons prostitute themselves when they grant sexual favors to others in exchange for money, gifts, or other payment and in so doing use their bodies as commodities. In legal terms, the word prostitute refers only to those who engage overtly in such sexual-economic transactions, usually for a specified sum of money. Prostitutes may be of either sex, but throughout history the majority has been women, reflecting both the traditional socio-economic dependence of women and the tendency to exploit female sexuality (Microsoft Encyclopedia, 2000).
Although prostitution has often been characterized as the “world’s oldest profession,” the concept of women as property, which prevailed in most cultures until the end of the 19th century, meant that the profits of the profession most often accrued to the men who controlled it. Men have traditionally been characterized as procurers and customers.
In most societies prostitutes have had low social status and a restricted future, because their sexual service was disapproved and considered degrading. A few female prostitutes, however, have acquired wealth and power through marriage; one example is the Byzantine empress Theodora, wife of King Justinian I (Ibid.).
Prostitution in the U.S. in the late 20th century takes various forms. Some prostitutes, or “call girls,” operate out of their own apartments and maintain a list of regular customers. Some follow convention circuits or work in certain resort areas, such as Las Vegas, Nevada, where demand for their services is high. Others work in so-called massage parlors, a newer version of the old-time brothel. The majority are “streetwalkers,” soliciting, or being solicited by customers on city streets. Increasing numbers are young runaways to the city who turn to the streets for survival. Because the statutes are enforced in such a way as to punish overtness and visibility rather than any specific act, almost all of the prostitutes arrested each year are streetwalkers. Customers, although legally culpable, are rarely arrested.
Researchers have recently attempted to separate moral issues from the reality of prostitution. The rationale for its continued illegal status in the U.S. rests on three assumptions: prostitution is linked to organized crime; prostitution is responsible for much ancillary crime; and prostitution is the cause of an increase in sexually transmitted disease. These assumptions are now in question.
Recognized experts have pointed out that prostitution is no longer an attractive investment for organized crime because it is difficult to control, is too visible, and affords too small a return compared to the severe penalties for procuring. It is obvious that ancillary crime (larceny, robbery, assault, and misuse of narcotics) does occur in conjunction with prostitution, especially when a streetwalker is involved. Whether it is rational to make one activity criminal in order to reduce or control another merits serious inquiry. Finally, public-health officials indicate that prostitutes account for only a small percentage of the sexually transmitted disease cases in the U.S. Greater sexual freedom has made young people the major source of such cases.
Incidentally in Cotabato City (the place of my study), GROs do not proliferate in as much number as those found in more urbanized cities in the Philippines like Metro Manila, Cebu, and Davao. This is primarily due to the fact that Cotabato City is predominated by the Muslim culture where prostitution is taboo (haram or forbidden). In addition, the Christian Church here is strongly against it from the point of view of morality. However, despite this, there are a few legal bars and videoke houses that employ GROs. As of this study (November 2003), there are three (3) such ‘night establishments’ that operate in the City.
I employed the technique of attachment and detachment. By attachment, the researcher has to act like the subject of the study, or better yet, impersonate the subject to have a real feel of what it used to be like it for some time. On the other hand, detachment employs the technique of detaching oneself completely from the subject and acting as a total observer from the outside, the purpose of which is to establish an ‘outsider’s point of view’. As a male researcher, though, the attachments are quite limited because I cannot really impersonate or assume the character of a GRO. To supplement that inadequacy, I conducted personal interviews with the GROs in addition to the so-called focused-group discussions. I also used symbolic interactions and use of semantics to make sure that what will come out of the study were authentic results.
I went around the 3 bars and made observations for one week. Before anything else, I had talked to the managers of these establishments and explained to them the purpose of my study. I had cautioned them though, not to tell anything about it to their employed GROs for obvious reason.
I usually sat down for 30 minutes to one hour before picking on anyone of the girls to sit down with me. As a “privileged customer”, I was given priority in terms of choosing my table-mate from the girls. This is what I call the the normal encounter, where a GRO will sit down beside me, give me company, share conversations and talk about a lot of things or wide range of topics.
The normal encounter usually begins with asking the girl’s name which could proceed to holding her hands and kissing her on the cheek. I know that their names are fictitious because they always protect their identity as much as possible. But to other customers, who had become their regular customers and close acquaintances, the girls give a lot of true details about themselves. In some cases, some of the regular customers become the “boyfriends” of some of the GROs.
In my frequent meetings and conversations with the GROs, I tried to analyze what they normally do from the time that they wake up to the time that they sleep. Carla (19) narrates thus: “I usually go home at around 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning after my work at the bar. Upon reaching home, tired and exhausted, I can only manage to wash my face to remove my make-up and lie flat in bed to catch sleep. But this happens only when no customer would take me out. If a customer takes me out, I usually go home at 6 o’clock in the morning. I would be lucky if the customer would invite me to breakfast or give me extra tips.”
A customer prefers to take out the GRO after closing time. This is to save on the so-called “bar fine.” A bar fine is charged to the minimum after closing time. If a customer takes out a GRO before closing time, the bar fine would be charged the minimum plus the productive time that the GRO makes at the bar until closing time. Thus, the earlier a GRO is taken out, the higher is the bar fine.
Joanne (23) also narrates her usual routine: “I wake up at lunch time because Mommy (the girls’ matriarch) would wake me up for lunch. Then, I go back to sleep again. I should gain a lot of sleep during the day because we are almost sleepless every night especially when we are taken out by a customer. Then I wake up at 5 p.m. and get ready to report to work at 6 in the evening. This is the time I hurry up to wash my clothes, take a bath, brush up myself, and put on a make-up. I should look fresh, smell sweet and look beautiful so I can compete for the attention of customers. If no customer would invite you to his table, there will be no tips.” A tip is an extra amount given by the customer which becomes the personal money of the GRO.
Maricel (19) also narrates her normal work at the bar, and she says: “While waiting for customers, who usually come after 8 p.m., we sing our favorite pieces at the videoke bar. Sometimes, the other girls would rehearse their dance on the floor making use of the music that we play and sing. When the first customer arrives, we stop the music and attend to his need. There are more customers who start arriving after 9 p.m. and stay on until after midnight.”
One time, I asked Lovely (21) what a customer usually does to her when she is “tabled”. “First, he touches my hands while talking to me. His hands will start moving on to more delicate parts of my body which I usually parry when he does not give me lady’s drink.” A lady’s drink would cost 6 times or more of the original price of the item. The GRO gets her share for the night from the lady’s drink. To have more lady’s drink for the night, the GRO should master some skills in enticing customers to give them more lady’s drink. Other customers would rather give tips than give lady’s drink (which is more costly) so that they gain freedom in moving their hands around the girl’s body. Asked how much freedom she would allow a customer who satisfied her with tips and lady’s drink, Lovely answered; “I allow her to touch my boobs, ass, ‘pussy’ and kiss my cheek. When he is good-looking, we can go for kissing on the lips.”
I asked the girls whether they would give the same privilege to every customer regardless of their “looks”. And they were unanimous in saying, “yes, for as long as they pay the right price; we are looking for money, they are after the enjoyment; so, each should get what he/she deserves.” This, to me, is a very wise answer.
As I was talking to the girls, I never treated them as GROs or prostitutes. I always look at them as human beings with certain physical, emotional and psychological needs. I gained the cooperation and sympathy of the girls because I treated them with respect and understanding. I did this, on purpose, to make sure that they would not hold off important information that I need.
Once, I asked Carla about her most unforgettable experience in her “profession.” She said: “When I was taken out by a sadist, chauvinist customer. He was very nice to me in the beginning and would give me anything I want. As soon as we were starting to undress, he gave me a strong spanking and hit me all over my body while uttering insults. After what he had done, he knelt down before me and begged for forgiveness, asking that he will give me anything I want if I agree to have sex with him. I was really surprised and confused but I was completely helpless. With his masculine built, what else can I do better than cry.” “Did you have this recorded in the police blotter?” I asked. “No, I did not care to do that,” answered Carla. Here is a situation where an utter violation of a person’s right is never cared about. What to other cultural societies, especially in the U.S. and Europe, is completely unacceptable and may even be a serious crime, here it is not considered at all in the same point of view by a GRO.
Lovely also narrated her unforgettable experience. “I had a boyfriend, who, I think, loves me very much and I also love him. Jimmy (not his real name) would ask me often if I really love him. You see Kuya (a name given in respect for an elder brother), a GRO like me is perceived to be insensitive and therefore cannot have a real feeling for love. Because we go out with any customer who would take us out for sex, we had become accustomed to making love without real feelings for it. I told Jimmy that is a different story, it was purely business. Business and love are two different things.
Anyway, Jimmy and I were so much in love that one day he wanted us to settle for marriage, and so, he told his parents about it. His parents would approve of Jimmy’s getting married but they wanted to see and know his girlfriend. But you know Kuya, when they learned that I am a GRO, they disapproved our plan to marry. I was really hurt especially that Jimmy chose to obey his parents.” One would clearly see how a GRO is being ostracized by society, usually referred to as “kalapating mababa ang lipad,” or simply cheap girl.
I asked the girls if they would consider other kind of job if given the chance. They were unanimous in saying “yes!” “And why are you not getting out of here?” “We are not sure where to go or we will not eat. Besides our parents and siblings are dependent on us for support, and we don’t know where we could earn more than here,” most of the girls answered this way.
One time, Joanne felt very depressed about her situation. She wanted to get out of her kind of job but could not do it. This was aggravated by a quarrel with another GRO. “Alam mo ang ginawa ko Kuya, naglaslas ako” (You know what I did? I tried to cut my arm veins). The girls express their frustration and depressions in many ways, others in overt ways and some are simply covert. But the meaning and symbolism are the same – if given the chance or a better opportunity, they would opt for other kind of job.
Finally, I asked the girls what circumstances brought them to this kind of profession. Maricel recalled: “I am the sixth in a family of seven. My parents died (Mother first, then Father) when I was very young that I can hardly remember how they look like. My two elder sisters are both working abroad now, but all my brothers were indifferent to me. They would often tell me that I was inutile because I was the only one with no income. Not being able to withstand this kind of situation, I stowed away. That was more than two years ago. They never knew that I am here in this kind of job.”
Lovely (19) also shared her experience: “My Mother and Father separated when I was not even conscious about the world. I have never seen my mother, I only saw my father by his picture. I grew up with my Lola (grandmother), whom I thought was my real mother until I was 15 years old. When my Lola told me that she was not my real mother, I felt very depressed. I learned that my father and mother are now having separate families of their own. One day, I just found myself that I was prepared to leave to go somewhere with the hope that I will meet either of them. With my second year high school education, there is no good job waiting for me. And so I landed in this kind of job.”
Findings and Conclusion
As stated earlier, an ethnographic study is considered successful when it has established certain cultural practices or patterns were developed and accepted in a given culture, no matter how big or small the scope of that culture is. At the night club houses, I learned about the following:
1. When a GRO prepares to report to work, the things that she should not forget to put on are: make-up, perfume and panty-liners. The make-up improves their facial look amidst the blinking lights; the perfume makes them smell fresh and sweet; and, the panty-liners improve the shape of the “pussy”;
2. In the pub-houses, the GROs were not served drinks when there is no customer. They should develop the skill to entice customers to give them “lady’s drink” and extra tips;
3. In the new-found family of the GROs, they cannot disobey their ‘mommy’ (matriarch or handler);
4. The GROs had learned to reverse night and day. They sleep during the day to prepare to work at night;
5. GRO is not a preferred job but they get hooked to it by force of circumstances, usually poverty and family problems;
6. Through experience, the GROs learned to deal with rude customers;
7. When you try to understand the GROs, they begin to divulge some true details of their lives; they show that they are also ‘feeling’ and ‘thinking’ individuals;
8. By the experiences that they divulge, the GROs seem to be willing victims for the sake of earning money;
9. The GROs manifest different types of depressive tensions; some in overt ways while others are simply covert;
10. The GRO can be an affectionate lover despite the perception that she is insensitive and unreal when it comes to love.
11. Majority of the GROs pointed out to unstable family situation and extreme poverty as the main reasons that led them to their kind of “profession”.
(All photo credits: Google images)