Behind the bars

The girls on stage are numbered, not named. Silently, they shuffle in a circle around the mirrored platform in the basement dance bar; arms folded around bare stomachs, eyes fixed on the scuffed metal floor.

At the back of the stage, a 14-year-old in black patent heels hunches her shoulders and tries to shrink into the shadows. It’s been a year since she was trafficked here to meet a demand fuelled by American male tourists. The threat of their attention makes her knees shake.

Of the 30 girls in the bar that evening, Rose* thinks she’s the youngest, but she isn’t sure.

Women and children in the Philippine city of Angeles have been a target for western sex predators for over a century: their abuse tracking back to 1902, when America established a military base six miles from the center of town.

Now, as the Philippine national government makes a huge tourism push and President Duterte explicitly invites foreign men to the country’s beaches for sex – the lives of Filipina girls in Angeles are poised to get worse.

In recent years, Angeles City’s Department of Tourism says it has seen a new wave of U.S. travelers book into the hotels that leer over the city’s red light district.

Meanwhile, rates of children rescued from the same streets is also on the rise. Between 2016 and 2018, social services say that the number of underage trafficking cases brought to their attention doubled in Angeles City. In 2018, the region had the second highest rate of sex trafficking in the country, after Manila.

Since September 2018, I have been visually documenting the role that Western sex tourism has on rates of trafficking and abuse in the Philippines, focusing on the lives of women and girls in the city of Angeles.

Subject to a bleak inheritance of colonial abuse, the girls raised here expect to enter the sex trade before their 15th birthday – while the men who travel thousands of miles to rape them expect to get away with it.

15/09/2018 – Philippines. Angeles City. Stretching out a total of 550 metres and jam-packed with predominantly male tourists at all times of day and night, Fields Avenue in Angeles is a nocturnal nightmare of neon lit strip clubs and dance bars, originally developed to cater to the US military when Clark Airbase was still in service up until 1991. These days, Korean infrastructure is leading the way, as East-Asian inspired hotels and condos pop up along the horizon – all offering “short stay” services to their customers and encouraging the presence of temporary guests.
27/09/2018 – Philippines. Angeles City. Hotels such as the ABC are rapidly expanding – each one designed by male managers for male customers and often openly commodifying the female form.
06/10/2018 – Philippines. Angeles City. Beauty pageants and sex auctions are organized during some of the pool parties at “Score Birds” hotel. The girls, who come from several bars of Walking Street, wear an identification number, the name of the bar they coming from and a white cotton top. Before the girls go on stage the top is sprayed with water to make it see through.
06/10/2018 – Philippines. Angeles City. Every Saturday from 2 p.m. till 6 p.m. a pool party is organized at “Score Birds” hotel, where several girls from the Walking Street’s bars are put up for auction for the elderly male customers, to keep them company for few hours during the party.
19/09/2018 – Philippines. Angeles City. A younger generation of sex tourist frequents the high-end pool parties that take place every weekend at some of the city’s luxury hotels.
Here freelance sex workers are allowed free entry – while men are encouraged to spend their cash on private poolside cabanas and penthouse sui- tes, complete with personal dance poles and extra large beds designed specifically for groups of latenight female guests. “We have learned to be very discreet,” says Jeannie, the manager of ABC hotel. “The men come here to be adventurous. They don’t want to be judged.”
12/10/2018 – Philippines. Angeles City. Angeles’ economy has changed a lot through the years, and even if the majority of bars continue to just line girls up on display for the clients, many clubs have also started to organize dance performances. The shows still have a strong sexual component but the belief is that the performances help to give a more legitimate appearance to the club.
11/09/2018 – Philippines. Angeles City. The majority
of the men who visit Angeles are from America – although recently girls say they’ve seen an influx of Korean and Ja- panese sex tourists too. “The Asian men are more polite,” says Diane. “Westerners think they can do whatever they want to us, and some- times they refuse to pay us after we’ve finished our work. Every time a Westerner picks me, I feel scared.”
15/09/2018 – Philippines. Angeles City. “The problem back home is that men aren’t allowed to be men anymore, and women don’t want to be women,” says Mike, 54 (not pictured). “All this sexual assault stuff at the moment… it’s very scary. You can’t
even go and say hi to a girl without worrying what she’s going to say about you later. Here you don’t have to worry about that sort of thing.”
18/09/2018 – Philippines. Angeles City. A US veteran shares a photo on his phone from inside one of the bars when Clark Air Base was active.
10/09/2018 – Philippines. Angele City. One means for the so-called ‘bar girls’ to earn money is through a game that sees cu- stomers pay to throw baskets of ping pong balls at the stage. As the balls bounce off their bikini-clad bodies, the girls scramble to catch them or grab them off the floor. Each ball they catch is worth 20 pesos – the equivalent of 37 cents.
10/09/2018 – Philippines. Angeles City. A woman begging in Fields Avenue.
31/08/2019 – Philippines. Olangapo, These days, dance bars that once catered to U.S. servicemen are now targeted towards – and owned by – U.S. veterans. In Olangapo, a former naval base an hour’s drive away from Angeles, Hot Zone is owned by a former marine. Here, teenage girls in custom-made marine uniforms slide down a fireman’s pole and perform sex acts on American men who lie flat out on the stage.
23/09/2018 – Philippines. Angeles city. As a former US colony, and home to up to 60,000 American servicemen during the Vietnam war, American symbology continues to dominate the streets of Angeles: influencing everything from the design of the strip bars to the clothes sold on the sidewalks.
30/08/2019 – Philippines. Angeles City. VFW Post 2485. Veterans, including Cliff Wilsey and current VFW commander Jimmy, share a drink at the bar.
28/08/2019 – Philippines. Angeles City. The American presence in Angeles and Pampanga dates back to 1899, at the start of the Phil-Am war. Here, a map of the campaign is displayed in the Pamintuan Mansion museum in a cordoned off area, currently closed to the public. Pamintuan Mansion was used by General MacArthur as a residence in the early 1900s.
30/08/2019 – Philippines. Angeles City. VFW Post 2485. It’s been over 30 years since Clark Air Base – once America’s largest overseas military base – was shuttered, but a century of US military history has left deep grooves in Angeles City.
Today, America’s second largest overseas post of the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) is located on the edge of the town’s red light district, and caters to over 1600 U.S. veterans who have opted to return to the region after leaving active service. It’s location, locals say, is not a coincidence.
For almost a century, the active presence of the American military in Angeles created a demand for young, often-underage girls that local traffickers would feed into – building up a citywide sex industry founded upon sexual exploitation and abuse. Now, thirty years after Clark closed, and a new generation of girls are living out the same American nightmare endured by their mothers and grandmothers before them.
30/08/2019 – Philippines. Angeles City. A U.S. veteran takes a break from playing pool at the VFW. Every afternoon, groups of former servicemen in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s meet together in the VFW bar for Happy Hour – trading war stories, and joking about the girls they paid for sex in town the night before.
09/10/2018 – Philippines. Angeles City. School projects are becoming increasingly expensive in Angeles, and often cost too much for many families to afford. R, 12 years old, and R., 14 years old, are best friends. Recently they have started spending their weekend evenings walking up and down Fields Avenue looking for American clients in order to get the money for these school projects. “It’s a secret,” they say “if our parents knew this they would be broken. But we don’t want to have to leave school.”
07/08/2019 – Philippines. Angeles City. Lily*, 12, clutches her favourite teddy bear in the children’s home where she lives outside Angeles City. It’s been two years since she was rescued from a hotel room by local police who were following an American veteran suspected of child abuse. As the police pushed there way into the bedroom, they found him trying to hide three children aged 10 to 12 in the wardrobe – sex toys strewn across the bed. Lily has been living in a shelter for abused girls ever since. “I miss my brothers and sisters,” she says. “Sometimes when I think about them I need to cry for a long time.”
10/07/2019 – Philippines. Angeles City. Princess, 15, and her boyfriend, Raven, 15, make up after a fight. Raven is currently unemployed, and depends on Princess’ earnings from prostitution to pay rent.
“Sometimes he hits me, because he doesn’t like that I go with foreign men for money. I come home in the morning and he is so angry and he throws things at me or puts his hands all the way around my throat and squeezes a lot until I can’t breathe and I can’t cry. Later he says sorry and I say it’s OK because he is the father of my baby and he loves me and I love him and this is just the way things are between us. Then tomorrow it happens again and I wonder if I shall be scared of all the men I meet forever.”
29/09/2018 – Philippines. Angeles City. Diane is 29, and has been working in Angeles’ sex industry since she was trafficked into it at 16 years old. These days, it feels formulaic – she sleeps during the day next to her two year old son, Prince, before showering and getting ready in the corridor outside their room. If Prince sees her leave, he’ll cry. “Before I got pregnant, I wanted to stop and get a different job, like in a call centre,” she says. “Every girl I know in Angeles dreams of working in a call centre. It must be amazing.”
24/09/2018 – Philippines. Angeles City. For the past three years, 38-year-old Moriel has been a freelancer on Fields Ave- nue. It means she can pick her hours, and her clients
– but it makes life more dangerous. STD screenings are no longer free, and men are often abusive. “But I can’t work in the bars any more because there’s too much competition with the youn- ger girls,” she says. “I will do anything it takes to find a customer, but the older I get, the harder it is to make them want me. They want girls who look like children.”
09/10/2018 – Philippines. Angeles City. R. , 14 years old, and R., 12 years old, getting ready to go out to look for costumers.
29/09/2018 – Philippines. Angeles CIty. Anisah’s six-year-old dau- ghter, Nisha May, finds it difficult to concentrate or sit still. “Her teachers think she has something like ADHD, because she can’t focus and she’s so hyperactive all the time,” says Anisah. “I worry that if I get a job in one of the nightclubs, then I’ll be away from her too much, and her behaviour will get worse. But if I can’t find work soon, then I won’t be able to pay for her to go to school at all, and then she wouldn’t stand a chance. I don’t know what to do.”
09/10/2018 – Philippines. Angeles City. Priscilla, 36 years old, was trafficked into Angeles to work in the sex industry when she was 14 years old by a family friend. Nine years ago she gave birth to her daughter Maxine, whose father was an American customer, who regularly beat Priscilla. On one occasion, the American broke one of Priscilla’s front teeth – ending her career in the city’s red light district. Now Priscilla picks up litter for a living, and earns $4 a day. She often has to take Maxine with her because no one of her friends can keep an eye on her. “When I can’t buy food I usually go to McDonald’s with Maxine to take the leftovers that people leave on the table.”
29/09/2018. Philippines. Angeles City. “I can’t imagine life not being like this,” says Diane. “Nobody is going to rescue me or make it better. It wasn’t my choice but it feels like my fate.”
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