MenagerieJames wears a scarlet letter
James wears a scarlet letter

At night, when people slip into their pajamas, lights from windows flicker out one by one, and the mundane world stays still, the red light districts come alive. They look the same as they do every night: bold and beaming, lurid with fluorescent signs, and piercing with loud music. Matching the scenery are fire truck red lips, five-inch stilettos, and bright tight-fitting clothes—the stereotypical portrait of a sex worker painted in everyone’s head.

Being a sex worker is a role that is dominantly played by women. Coined as the world’s oldest profession, there is a rich collection of artifacts and myths to prove that prostitution has been around for as long as humans have created societies. It was once sacred and then shamed, once an indulgence and then a secret. Women have been seen as temptresses and symbols of sex—and this image has stuck around with prostitution in the modern day.

Behind ancient stories and vibrant red light districts, however, is another side of the industry that is left unseen. For centuries, what is embedded in our minds is a picture of prostitution with a woman being the seductress. But what lies on the other side is a whole different story—one wherein a male plays the main character.

In a world where prostitution is taboo, male prostitution is on a whole different level. It thrives mostly in the shadows—active in the form of euphemism in ads, sly texts and emails, and underground connections. This hidden population of male sex workers remains unheard. And this is why James*, a 21-year-old former sex worker, had stayed silent.

 

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A 12-year-old sex worker

When a boy reaches the age of 12, it is a time of transition. Gone are the days of playing tag in the streets under the scorching sun. Beards start to grow and cartoon t-shirts are exchanged for polos. This transition from boyhood to manhood is when people tell boys to be tough. And this is exactly what James had to do; for the end of his boyhood marks the start of his job as a sex worker.

At 12 years old, James fled his home. What didn’t make sense to him was that he was not going to high school because his sister had to go to college. He was doing so well. He got high grades in English and History—his favorite subjects—and he vowed to teach either when he grows up.

Wala din namang nangyari,” he says bitterly.  

(Nothing even happened) [to his sister].

In his pursuit of independence, James ended up living along the streets of Manila for three days. He had to learn things 12-year-old boys shouldn’t even be worrying about; he dug through trash and collected empty bottles to sell to junk shops so he could have something to eat for the day. At night, when boys his age were tucked in their beds, James had to sleep on rough concrete, sweating off the heat from the afternoon sun. This is why when a stranger approached the young man in the middle of the night, James did not walk away. There was nothing left to lose.

The stranger, who he inferred to be gay perhaps based on his stereotypical Filipino transgender appearance, offered him a shelter—one where he could sleep on a bed and finally shower after three days of collecting trash and inhaling polluted Manila air. The 12-year-old eagerly agreed and started walking with a complete stranger. But of course there was a catch, the stranger explained. He was to become a sex worker, he said and then proceeded with the details.

James emphasizes that he was never forced to agree. He simply did. Perhaps it was because three days on the streets were too long. “You’re in between life and death,” he describes his experience. But possibly, it was also because he was 12 years old. “Dahil nga 12 years old ako, nag-start akong mag-adventure sa sarili ko,” he explains. (Because I was 12 years old, I started to become adventurous.) And so that night, knowing completely what he was asked to do, he walked to his new shelter offered by a stranger, certain and unfazed.

Since then, James had been a sex worker, living in a house where older men come and go, leaving cash by his bedside table as he dozed off from exhaustion, preparing his body for another night and another stranger. It was only until a year after when he decided to go back home and continue his education, thriving off of his freelance job sleeping with men he did not know.

As one who has become accustomed to the trade, James goes about his interaction with clients as if they were regular dates. Before or after doing the deed they would share a meal, or hang out in a mall. Along with the sex, James accommodates his clients’ desire for companionship, even just for a few hours in a day.

Because of his experiences, James sees his clients as people just like himself. “Tao lang sila na may pangangailangan din,” James would keep emphasizing, saying that his job fulfills certain needs for others. (They are just people with needs of their own.)

 

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The gospel according to James

With an auspicious pay for his youth, every night, James readies himself for the call. He takes his customers as they come—he has seen parloristas, nurses, and teachers with their trousers off—and there’s nothing quite grand about it, except for one. It was that one night when he realized that he had unbuckled an unusual pair of pants.

James saw an alb against the wall and from there he confirmed that his customer was indeed a priest. The man of the cloth then defended himself that he is just human and that he too has his needs—perhaps, a need that the church cannot provide. “Sinasabi ko lang na walang problema sa ’kin yun. Pare-parehas lang naman tayo,” James detailed. (I told him that it’s not a problem with me, we are all just the same.)

James is a Born-again Christian, although he is more of a preacher of open-mindedness. “Hindi naman sa ina-ano ko ‘yung religion namin. Kumbaga, if open-minded ka, okay naman. (It’s not that I’m [contradicting] our religion. What I’m saying is that as long as you’re open-minded, it’s okay),” he expounded. He reads the Bible and masters what’s written on it. He even backs himself with the story of Rahab, a prostitute who assisted the Israelites in capturing the city of Jericho.

The world of James is somehow parallel to that of Rahab’s, just like how every prostitute is marked with discrimination in this society.  In the Bible, Rahab, despite being recognized for her good deeds as written in the gospel according to James, she was still consistently referred to as “the harlot” on several passages of the New Testament. Furthermore, Rahab is described as part of Jesus Christ’s genealogy.

James, in his own gospel, believes that although he did not desire life to drop him at the bottom of the scad, making money in his sleep is something that he has already grown accustomed to. He believes that others knowing of his career path is a matter of “open-mindedness”—whether or not they respect that would be up to them.

 

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Just human

There are those who go into prostitution due to extreme poverty. They have no other means to generate enough income for their families and themselves, and jobs are becoming increasingly difficult to find; so they hesitantly resort to the world’s oldest profession to earn their keep. And there are also those who do it by choice; they are perfectly aware of what they are getting into, and they are there with the goal and desire to upgrade their lifestyle.

Whatever their reasons may be, it is a vastly different kind of life that none of us can quite imagine. While this career path may be irksome to most, it is ultimately more important to see commercial sex workers as people just like ourselves trying to get through life, with stories and battles of their own.

 

*Names have been changed to protect identities.