Inang Bayan

The Whore as a Filipino Metaphor

ALR Volume 26: Winter 2014


In this land of 7,701 beauty contests, Filipinos are assured that women occupy the highest places of honour and that the best Filipino man is a woman. At best, these condescending compliments are empty platitudes. Picture “Pilipinas” – aka Inang Bayan (Motherland) – the national archetype: isn’t she forever violated in those smarmy interpretative dance tableaux they stage during protest rallies or so-called mass actions, giving another dimension to the term “mother”? The Filipino attitude and relationship to what is female has ever been conflicted and mired in ambiguity.

Mary and Inang Bayan

The other side of this secular feminine persona is the Blessed Virgin Mary. The popular, cultish Filipino devotion to the Virgin Mother has been institutionalized and is especially evident in October, which has traditionally been her month. We even address her as Mama Mary, an infantile term of endearment that speaks volumes about the Filipino national character. Feast days of the Holy Virgin and the Blessed Mother venerate the purity of one and celebrate the fertility of the other. What is less recognized is that just as a triune god exists in the Christian Holy Trinity, so does a tripartite goddess make up the cult of Mary, the eternal and primordial woman. They are: Mary the Virgin, Mary the Mother and Mary the Magdalene (sometimes euphemistically depicted as a gypsy). It is this third, occult, persona that is our concern here.

Although Jesus Christ counted Rahab, a temple prostitute, in his genealogy, the Magdalene has ever been in popular wisdom or to common (not scholarly) knowledge, our prototypical working girl. She worked hard for the money, and had enough of it to splurge on perfumed oil for the Lord’s feet. In Jesus’ death throes, he did not ask any of his disciples to look out for her as he did for his mother. She could take care of herself, shaking her moneymaker. In the time-honoured tradition of the whore with a heart of gold, she probably took care of others too, as did the shrewd Rahab.

Gross National Economy

The Philippines owes much to such modern day Magdalenes. A significant part of our national economy is made up of the government-sanctioned trade in the warm bodies of japayuki1, or “cultural workers,” and those who inadvertently find themselves trafficked or worse. Just how much the nation owes to their remittances is never fully measured or acknowledged since the amounts that go through informal channels can never be accurately accounted for. The dollars and pesos of the poor, like the take from jueteng2 , are not given such statistical economic honours, but are considered invisible and relegated to the nether realms of the underground economy.

If the way they earn their money is not by their choice, prostituted women are usually too ashamed to admit its source openly. Trained in self-sacrifice, they do not want to cause their families shame or worry. So they swallow their pain and humiliation and write cheery letters home, assuring the family that all is fine. Besides, they know that even this will pass, as the trend in the flesh trade has always been to get them younger. ‘Hurry and grow up so I can send you to Japan,’ said an unemployed father who had to baby-sit while his wife did laundry for richer neighbours. He wasn’t joking.

The government as Papa (Sugar Daddy)

Overseas Filipino workers may toil and suffer infinitely more, but the strategic alliances formed by well-placed and entrepreneurial wives and mistresses of the elite are more profitable on a per capita basis. Consider that the three branches of our bloated, male-dominated Philippine bureaucracy provide many lucrative business opportunities for well-connected and enterprising young things who know how to capitalize on their physical charms. Pecunia non olet: money never stinks. As they grow in power and in wealth, these women are veneered with the respectability of the society page, the civic organization and the charitable NGO.

A business case worth studying is the edifying instance of the commercial and fashion model, an erstwhile beauty title holder and aspiring actress of modest talents, who became a favourite with a high government official. When this college dropout’s contemporaries were applying for their first jobs, she already owned a palatial mansion in an exclusive Makati enclave, and had already been awarded a couple of exclusive government contracts that set her up for life. The realtor who brokered the house deal joked that she was sitting on the tiniest collateral, and made an obscene gesture by putting the tips of his middle and index fingers together (to resemble the vaginal opening).

Her notoriously successful dalliance, however, did not deter the scion of a family with a suitably illustrious name from marrying her. After all, the market for sugar cane was down, and while the young husband came from haciendero3 money, he was never in his enterprising wife’s league. What she brought into that marriage, in terms of worldly goods, might be considered her dowry. So he willingly let her use his name to deodorize whatever was left of her reputation. As a boost to her husband’s hollow though good-humoured machismo, she got him appointed to a nice little sinecure in a Government Owned and Controlled Corporation. She was an exemplary in-law and shared the fruits of her labours generously with his family, so that she was fêted like a queen whenever she visited his home province.

Marriage has been defined as but another form of legalized prostitution and this is not merely limited to mail-order brides. This smooth operator practised diversity. She was so industrious and conscientious that neither wedlock nor motherhood could deter her from forming other pragmatic and profitable dalliances while there were still takers for that precious bit of fleshly human capital that she so shrewdly and profitably pandered. In our hypocritical society, her form of empowerment is considered illicit. Professional athletes who capitalize on their physical prowess are considered legitimate, but a woman who deliberately uses her own physical assets to achieve material success will always be a slut.

Spectacularly successful business women, as in this particular case, are not held up as models for the young and impressionable to emulate, although her (would-be) alma mater had no qualms about accepting her donations, and even naming a room and several scholarships after her.

With the passage of time and the infusion of more cash, she will probably be given an honorary degree. Time and good public relations bring new maidenheads to all.

Magdalena vs. Maria Clara 4

The Magdalene is the antithesis of everything that middle class Filipinas are ostensibly trained up to be. It is in the proprieties of childhood, though, that the banal certainty of virtue is first lost. From early on, it was impressed upon our tender sensibilities that being female meant we could never again sit the way we wanted to sit. Some unknown, probably male authority had ordained that at this junction between our legs resided an enigma known by various poetic names and quaint, even risible, colloquialisms. The great divide between the virgin mother and her fallen sister was made manifest. Of the latter, the less that was said, the better. The shadowy alternative, the road not taken, was not to be openly considered.

Nuns and teachers emphasize the “shoulds”. We should be as pure as Mary was: ever virgin, meek and mild, ever wondrously whole and unbroken, even after she had begotten God’s child. The sexlessness of mothers was a given that we were expected to look forward to. The teachers who modelled the virtues to us were generally drained of colour and dry as dust. They seemed held together by hair products and talcum powder. But the material realities have rendered irrelevant whatever remains of our schoolgirl values. There have been occasions when public school teachers and contractual factory workers have been ordered to “Lay down or be laid off” as a de facto matter of employment practice.

F. Sionil José, revered Philippine National Artist for Literature, has reflected on the value of being a skilled and knowing player in the flesh trade if a woman is to achieve success in what is essentially a man’s world: the patriarchy, as the feminists call it. This is in marked contrast to the Maria Clara ideal, overtly respectable and mahinhin5 to the point of weakness and subservience. That is the model that the educational system would rather uphold. Here is an excerpt from José’s novel Ermita6:

The surrender of her hymen to him then was a victory for her. There was so much mythology to it – its identification with purity, virtue, sinlessness – when in fact it was a constriction and could condemn a woman to an appalling ignorance of that broader human experience expressed in the meeting and merging of two skins. Now, she was free to do with her womanhood as she pleased, free in the same manner that men were free, and yet she was more powerful than they, for it was in her power to deny them, reject them at the portals they so avidly wanted to enter. And reject them she did because they were boors, because their manners were ghastly and uncouth in spite of their wealth, and they were repulsive. She had seen them in their most vulnerable condition: naked and without the adornments of opulence and office, hirsute or hairless, their bodies befouled with their sweat, the excretions of their lust, and down there – dark, sensitive and turgid, that is where their odours were meanest, vilest . . .

José even includes thoughtful reminders, like a carnal “Seven Habits,” or a genital “Five S’s”, of what this successful woman did to care for her booty:

She had always been careful with her own hygiene; she always kept antiseptic that eternal wound, that gash, that slit, that warm, pulpy crevice which men so craved and yet were scared of . . . She pampered it with scented ablutions because it was her fortune, and more so because it was her, the fallow earth where anything could grow.

Daisy Girl vs. Gurang7

The fantasy archetype of the young Magdalene, as personified by the seemingly virginal but sexually adept schoolgirl, is found in practically all cultures where school uniforms exist. The mystique of virgin purity, like the heady secret perfume of pheromones, inevitably draws males to the perimeters of the convent school. Baby ang dating, hayop ang galing8 went the recent hype for a movie about such a precocious teen. Her showbiz enemies disparaged the actress by claiming that she had lied about her age, and was really no longer a daisy girl. Getting older diminishes a female’s value even more than getting fat. To become both old and fat is to enter the realm of non-personhood.

The appeal of the very young, inexperienced female as a sexual consort is very much a part of Philippine pop culture. Just look at the endless parade of starlets, essentially as fungible, faceless and forgettable as their films. Decades ago, an impresario named one batch of beauties he was promoting after soft drinks and another batch after liquors. Perhaps deep down he knew he was marketing consumer goods.

Very young females are so appealing because they are supposedly weak, helpless and vulnerable; and so it seems that any man can have them. At about the time that the Philippines was placed under Martial Law, beer houses began openly to advertise the availability of pubescent twelve to fourteen-year-old dancers and “Guest Relations Officers” as star attractions. Ninety per cent of the tens of thousands of Manila’s street children are believed to be sexually active – preyed upon by their elders, or by paying clientele. Seventy five per cent of those in the hospitality industry (dance instructors, GROs, waiters/waitresses) are minors.

A is for Aquarium

There are so many distinctions, just like career specializations and class stratifications, among women in the flesh trade. “Wanted – GRO” signs are everywhere, even in videoke clubs. The turnover in jobs like these is brutally quick. Bigger establishments have “aquariums”, rooms with large glass windows through which prospective clients can view the girl of their choice. Then there are the so-called fashion shows where the “models” parade in various stages of undress. Other shows have women bathing and performing other more intimate bodily functions. Such tasks are hazardous to the soul and no woman (or man) can usually get through them without some form of mind-altering substance to anesthetize their pain.

Outside the formal or club sector, prostitution is less structured. It’s no surprise that, as befits an archipelago, there are the alupihang dagat9 who are directly ferried to the boats by their pimps. The term refers to both trafficked adults and children. Aside from sex, they may be required to do menial work (laundry, cooking, cleaning – all the domestic tasks a wife is not paid to do either). Similarly coastal in operations are the buntog10 of Davao. They are generally harbour-slum children who cater to the sexual proclivities of the sailors and dockworkers. What distinguishes the buntog from the alupihang dagat is that they apparently have no pimps managing them, but rather act on their own, as a loosely knit gang of wayward and adventure-seeking juveniles. Aside from being in the top five among the countries most prone to natural disasters, the Philippines is also up there in the number of prostituted and trafficked children.

Another well-known phenomenon is “prosti-tuition,” commonly found in the University Belt11 and other urban centres of academe. This is seasonal, with an upsurge during enrolment at the start of the semester, and towards the end when there is a need to settle school bills in order to be allowed to take the final exams, or to get a grade. Runaway inflation has even made prosti-tuition an option for the Iskolar ng Bayan12 who had previously led a relatively sheltered existence among Diliman’s13 staid adobe paths, over-arched by lovely, leafy acacia trees. Just look out for the way some girls approach parked cars, sit and chat beside the driver for a while, then either get out or drive away with him.

Like inflation, the encroachment of squatter settlements (or communities of informal settlers as the politically correct would rather call them), on the peripheries of the university has created new depths for the flesh trade in academe. The most bizarre case brought to light involved a professor accused of raping a child prostitute. The alleged perpetrator, who happened to be an Oxford scholar, had been in the habit of hiring pubescent young girls from the nearby squatter settlement to do chores in his university apartment. Those feckless little girls, preyed upon by a vastly superior male, might be said to be at the bottom of the ladder of whoredom. As in Filipino society, there were so many more crowding and jostling at the bottom than at the top.

Overall though, prostitution in its many forms is an integral part of the Philippine economy. The euphemistically termed “hospitality industry” is a mainstay of tourism that banks on the attractions of ever-smiling, docile brown natives (male of female) to white or yellow sahibs. An American correspondent for an international weekly was permanently traumatized when the bargirl whom he picked up at an Ermita honkytonk took her dentures out to give him a blowjob. Toothless Filipina whores vs. dollar-flush American tourists? No contest! An artist friend had a piquant encounter with another Ermita whore who was trying to cajole him into allowing her to give a blowjob right at his table. (It must have been a slow night, as he was patently gay.) He politely declined but gallantly offered to pay her to model in the nude for him instead. Deeply offended, she declined: What kind of girl do you take me for? That’s downright indecent – posing for nude pictures.’

‘Tis pity she’s a whore

Although the mores of whoring may be alien to the fine arts, the ranks of more conventional professionals owe a great deal to the world’s oldest profession. As previously shown, it is whoring on a part-time basis that has enabled so many driven young Filipino men and women to pursue their studies and graduate as professionals. Under the guise of an escort service, it helps to keep cash-strapped and ambitious millennials afloat, and decently fed and clothed, in the harsh corporate jungle. Big business runs more smoothly under the lubricious efforts of these moonlighting working girls and the professional call girls who have made this their vocation while they are still young and nubile. (Many actually pretend to their families that they are call-centre or BPO agents).

Such pros are common tender, given as tokens of appreciation and esteem during business transactions, especially among the Filipino Chinese. A Chinoy businessman grew so bored and sated with the inevitable girl escort whom he was expected to take home like a party favour that it got to the point where he had to pay her to go away. It was necessary, nonetheless, to do this with the utmost subtlety and tact.

Whores have feelings too, especially when they are mothers. One allows her clients to touch any part of her body except her breasts, which must be kept unsullied from now on, because that is where her beloved infant son nurses. Nevertheless, she has surgery done regularly to keep her body in shape. It’s a business expense. Top-flight whores are among the prime clientele of cosmetic and plastic surgeons.

Escorts have told of how they dislike being contracted by Middle Eastern businessmen – not solely because of the rough sex and what the women describe as their “goatish smell” – but mainly because these consummate male chauvinists rarely bother even with most basic aspects of considerate behaviour. The women feel that they are not treated as human beings.

A young man of my acquaintance used to patronise a particular escort. Because he liked her so much, he decided to give her to his best friend as a pre-despedida de soltero present. He didn’t realize, though, that the girl’s extraordinary passion when they were together was because she had developed special feelings for him. He invited her to have dinner with him and his best friend. When she learned that she was going to be handed over as a present to the soon-to-be-married friend, she flew into a rage and hurled the dinner crystal and flatware at them before stalking out.

Whores are not only an essential business and entertainment expense, but also play an integral part in civic organizations. A compadre owed his election to the presidency of one such brotherhood through his liberal distribution of gift certificates to a hydro-massage establishment that he co-owned. It is not uncommon for delegates at such conventions to find these girls sent as complimentary favours by candidates. This holds true for political gatherings where the stakes are even higher.

At the very top of the pyramid of whores are the society girls without any visible means of support. They are paid astounding sums, and give the impression that they are doing it as a favour. A Metro Manila mayor who liked beauty queens made it a practice first to sniff at their scalps, their breath and their armpits before they could pass muster. After that came the serious negotiations with the girl’s (generally gay) manager, or even with her family.

A-list whores come from good families. Certain taipans require a guarantee of pedigree before making such girls their mistresses. Naturally, their families benefit too. The girl’s youthful energy is believed to pass through the ancient, jaded penises of these worthies in a form of vaginal osmosis. This is not unlike a practice that Gandhi himself was said to have indulged in, except that he got off by sleeping chastely between two naked virgins, his whole body functioning like a sponge, absorbing their youthful energy through his pristine pores. The taipan’s way is perhaps more pleasurable – at least for him.

Pros and cons

The efforts of NGOs and other well-meaning humanitarian organizations to rehabilitate women in the flesh trade is clearly aimed at the less well-connected and adept majority at the bottom of the prostitution pyramid who are unable to make a decent living or to ensure a secure future out of this short-lived trade. They are the trafficked victims, the putas “in especially difficult circumstances”, not the movers and shakers who get ample material rewards for their services. The options offered to them by way of alternative livelihood are not much better. They are taught how to sew, or to make holiday knick-knacks so that they can then be exploited by the sweatshops in the export subcontracting industry, thus being transformed from local meat products into globally expendable elves.

When I was a young matron and already past the age where I might be mistaken as a practitioner of the trade, I asked some male friends to take me to see some professional whores in action. They took me to a karaoke bar where the winsome hostess sat between my two friends and told them the story of her life. She was twenty-two and had a BSc degree in Economics from a state university in the Eastern Visayas. The driving ambition of her young life had always been to work as a bank teller but, alas, even such modest jobs were scarce and, as this poor little probinsyana (country mouse) complained, she knew no one in the banks who could get her resumé read or even considered. Meanwhile, there were half a dozen or so younger siblings still at school back home, so she had come to Manila, and this is where she had ended up.

It was so much like the songs of Florante and Freddie Aguilar that I asked one of the men with me, a well-connected Chinese lawyer, to see what he could do to help her with her modest dream. The very next week my friend delivered and told me that he’d secured a job for her at the bank of one of his clients, in the Binondo14 branch, no less. We went back to the karaoke bar that evening, to bring her our glad tidings that her girlhood dream was about to come true. She could discard her skimpy cocktail dress for a bank teller’s demure uniform. She’d no longer have to sing the theme song from the Titanic, night after night, while a stranger’s coarse, dry hands crept under the hem of her skirt.

She was very surprised to see us and, to my even greater surprise, not exactly pleased with our news of the guaranteed job at the Binondo bank. Then she explained that she was sorry to have put us to all that trouble, but she was not ready to give up singing after all. There was no more talk of aspiring to the dream at the end of a four-year college course. She thanked us, but it was really, ‘No thanks.’ She was fine as she was and, actually, even happy.


1     A Filipino colloquialism with derogatory connotations for those who go to work in Japan.

2     A form of illegal gambling usually controlled by rural politicians.

3     Plantation.

4     A character in José Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tangere who was considered to be exceptionally demure and cloyingly lady-like, although Rizal has her kissing the image of St. Anthony before her chaste lover visits, an act that Rizal scholars say is meant to imply that like St. Anthony, she struggles with carnal temptations.

5     Demure and refined.

6     Ermita is the Red Light District of Manila.

7     A “daisy girl” is a teen, as in “daisy siete”, a corruption of the Spanish diez y siete whereas “gurang” is a Filipino pejorative term for a woman past her prime, and may be taken to mean anyone who is no longer a “daisy girl”.

8     Translation: ‘You think she’s just a kid but she knows her stuff.’

9     Literally, a sea centipede: an allusion to the wild and expendable nature of these hapless young boys and girls.

10 A Visayan term meaning to defeat, but actually an ironic reference to the unmanaged and casual nature of this sex trafficking of adolescent or younger children, which may involve unpaid daisy chains.

11 A rundown Manila district where the less prestigious universities are clustered.

12 Translation: National Scholar due to their state-subsidized education.

13 A district of Quezon City, site of the most prestigious state university.

14 The Chinese enclave in Manila that is considered the true business hub.



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