US Ambassador Harry Thomas started a controversy when he mentioned during a roundtable discussion on or before 23 September on combatting human trafficking in the Philippines, with justices of the Appelate Court, that “40% of foreign male tourists visit the Philippines for sex”.
I think that the controversy on that statement is quite overblown. Thomas has since apologized for his statement – an act that may probably have been necessary to fulfill his diplomatic function well. But I think that he didn’t need to.
Let us approach this question from a number of different angles:
I am curious how Ambassador Thomas came out with his “40%” figure. He must have gotten it from one or another study. But which? We don’t know (yet). Statistics and surveys are funny things. An organization that commissions a study could prove almost anything, and come to quite amazing figures sometimes, depending on the way the survey is organized and the questions are formulated.
So, how does Thomas (or rather, the survey on which Thomas based his statement) define “foreign male tourist”? Does this refer to all males who enter the Philippines (by plane, I assume) who show a non-Philippine passport? If this is the case, there a LOT of kinds of foreign male tourists, including the following kinds:
- foreigners with Filipina partners, in the Philippines for a family vacation;
- ethnic Filipinos with foreign passports, visiting, either alone or with family;
- children of Filipinos but with foreign passports;
- foreigners who come on business, who engage in sex with a Filipina while in the country, paid or unpaid
If you include the above types in the statistics, I suppose you can say that 40% of male foreign visitors to the Philippines could very likely have sex while in the Philippines. We can even go further and wonder why the percentage cited by Thomas is not higher. After all, he’s saying that 60% of male foreign visitors to the Philippines ABSTAIN FROM SEX while there? Amazing. Are we some kind of Buddhist, contemplative place then, where people don’t have sex?
Did Thomas say: “go to the Philippines for sex” – meaning that sex was part of the tourist’s agenda in the country, or do they “go to the Philippines mainly for sex”. It could also be: “go to the Philippines and have sex”. The answer to the different statements would vary, a lot.
If Ambassador Thomas is referring to “males of non-Filipino ethnicity, who join a tour group whose main purpose is to engage in commercial sex with Filipinas”, then I would respectfully disagree with him. I believe that the figure of 40% is a bit too high. However, I, like Ambassador Thomas, would be basing things on a personal estimate (or on the acceptance of someone else’s estimate) of what the real figure would be.
I believe that it would be difficult for ANYBODY to come up with ‘correct’ figures on this. After all, how would the surveyors find out? Would they question male foreigners upon entry if they are in the country for commercial sex? I can just imagine how that would work out (i.e. not very well, obviously). But even if they somehow managed to do such a survey, how could we know that the respondents constitute a representative sample? or that they answered the questions truthfully? Most likely, a more serious researcher would arrive at a figure for (probably estimating it) the foreign clientele of brothels and compare this with a figure for overall tourist arrivals. But even this method may miss the Malaysians and some Chinese (since they may look like Filipinos) or count some Filipinos (who may look ‘foreign’) wrongly. And then the Philippines is not Metro Manila, so did they go all over the country to count foreigners visiting brothels. And to even make matters worse, not all prostitutes are based in brothels.
The figures for tourist arrivals fluctuate per month and per year. So, if the surveying organization did indeed count foreign tourist clients at brothels and divide this with total tourist arrivals, the figures would depend on the year it was taken. The resulting percentage would be different if there were 2 million tourists in a given year, than if it was 3.5 million (which is the current figure).
After showing that Ambassador Thomas could not have a “scientifically valid” survey to back up his statement that “40% of foreign male tourists who come to the Philippines do so for sex”, there is also no way by which anyone else could prove (scientifically) that he had overestimated or underestimated the actual figure. In other words, he could be right or wrong, and it’s anybody’s guess which. On this basis, I think we should simply consider the statement to be his personal estimate, and treat it as such.
Should Thomas Have Raised the Point?
Several politicians have asked for an apology from Ambassador Thomas. Senator Lacson is one of them. As a former head of the Philippine National Police, I can understand Lacson’s point of view. The figure cited are an indirect slap to him and his performance as police chief. So, he has to go on record as objecting to it. But the likes of Senator Escudero are something else. Escudero is a ‘bright boy’ political opportunist who sees this issue as a way of scoring political points. I have absolutely no respect for the stand of Escudero and similar politicians. Because if Escudero and others were really sincere, they would be proposing steps to stamp out prostitution. Instead they want an apology, and talk about national honor. How cheap can they get? Their move to attack Ambassador Thomas smells something like: “I know my mother is a whore, but only I am allowed to call her that.” Quite hypocritical, actually.
Thomas’ statement will not bother foreign tourists at all. It will not lessen tourist arrivals. If I were a tourist, my questions about the Philippines would be: does it have interesting sights? good beaches? are the people friendly? do they understand English? is transportation good? are hotels and resorts good? is it easy to withdraw money from ATMs? I may even ask further questions such as: will I be inconvenienced by demonstrations or strikes? by electric blackouts? run the risk of being hit by a bomb? or kidnapped by criminals or terrorists?
But I have never heard of a tourist who decided against visiting a country because of what other tourists do. (I know. I live in the Netherlands, and constantly talk to Dutch friends who visit other countries – including the Philippines – on vacation.)
Thomas’ statement will not hurt tourism. Will it hurt something as important, like the Philippines’ reputation abroad? Well, as far as I can make out, the only time Thomas’ statement is mentioned in the international press, if at all, is when politicians denounce him. And it makes a really small ripple in the news, really small.
So, the Thomas incident is only a problem in the mind of some politicians. I think they should leave Thomas alone. I would say to them: “denounce Thomas and the US if you like, but do it for a more substantial reason, not this.”
Address the Problem
We however need to recognize that it true that there are indeed many male foreigners who come to the Philippines to have commercial sex, often with under-aged girls and boys, who are invariably exploited. I don’t think that commercial sex is wrong, per se. In fact, it is practically impossible to have a lot of tourists without commercial sex workers catering to some of them. But the conditions for sex workers in the Philippines are horrible.
Ambassador Thomas, after all, did point out to a real problem.
Some would ask: Is not all prostitution exploitation? A very valid question, especially if all you see is the Philippine context. However, I live in the Netherlands, where things are a bit different. In the Netherlands, most sex workers don’t have pimps; they enter into the profession because they are ‘forced’ by personal and economic conditions to do so, and not because of pimps or traffickers. They get to keep most of the money that they earn (they need to pay for rent and other expenses, of course). They avail of medical care and even police protection. And the police regularly frees women who were forced into prostitution (who compete with the legal prostitutes) by crime syndicates.
The problem in the Philippines should be first tackled at its worst manifestation, which is under-aged girls and boys forced to be prostitutes. I believe that this has to be stopped. The foreign and local crime syndicates doing this should be stamped out. Next, free the other women who had been forced by pimps or syndicates to be prostitutes. And then later, we may even talk about fully decriminalizing the sex trade and improving working conditions of sex workers.