When a friend told me that in a metro outside Metro Manila families are selling themselves supposedly out of sheer poverty to foreign “buyers”, I was stumped for words. I’m referring to the phenomenon of sex trade in cyberspace. The notion including mine regarding these transactions is it happens between two willing adults and so to some extent people ignore it, but families doing it together defies “normal.” You feel revulsion. And questions heretofore unasked because you don’t dare go there are suddenly exposed for the asking. You now question the meaning of family, the capacity of the family to protect its members, the “purity” of intentions of blood relatives, and be suspicious of the capacity of parents to be good fathers and mothers. And is poverty to blame for the failure of family in this case? A recent encounter in a municipality in the Visayas provided some light.
I had left my laptop in Manila which necessitated my renting at a computer shop in order to do my emails and type my field notes. A young woman came in later that day and she was given the unit next to mine. She was obviously friends with the shop owner, chatting together while the unit was being booted. Sometime into her activity at the keyboard, the speakers of her PC came alive. A man – a foreigner it sounded like – was at the other end. The young woman didn’t adjust the volume and so everybody in the shop was privy to the call. The man asked if she was alone and she said yes. At her reply, the shop owner and a few others who were following the conversation laughed. The man replied back that he could hear she wasn’t. Conceding, the young woman said she was actually with her grandmother. The others laughed some more. The conversation between the young woman and the man went on until she addressed the shop owner and the others. She asked them how much they think she should ask from him. (At this point, I surmised that her “transaction” with the man had been going on for some time.) They gave her an amount and she repeated it back to the man. There were some more transaction details afterward.
Meeting up with the agency staff after, I told her about the event at the shop. Oh my god, she said, are we so lonely that we have to buy companionship or sex through the internet? This is the added value you get in sharing. You get back new perspectives. Hyper-developed societies, so goes reports, are increasingly experiencing depression, loneliness, and social distance. Conversely, in developing countries, the reported attitude is who cares if you’re depressed or lonely as long as you pay up. It may be that the man who was transacting with the young woman is a “victim” of his country’s hyper-developed life and the young woman, a “victim” of her environment’s prevailing attitude.
Money, whether or not a priority need of the young woman, is apparently desired enough for her to have wanted to do something to get it. Money then is the initial push. What was the final push? In her town, it seemed such cyberspace transactions are what everyone else does. The openness in which the young woman held her business with the man and the encouragement she received from the others in the shop is indicative of it. In the presence of favorable factors, what’s keeping her from availing “easy” money? What this is driving at is, poverty is a driving force shaping the young woman’s decision to do the act but it isn’t the final push. The difference is clear.
The same applies to a related trade, prostitution. My interviews with some showed poverty is the initial push for women to think about going into this work, but it is always somebody (bugaw) who encouraged their “idea” and supported it (e.g. “soft launching” them to clients) that had led them to finally be in there. Otherwise without encouragement or support toward that, these women would’ve gone into other work. Between the time the women had thought of the idea and when they had begun to be introduced into the trade was marked with indecision and this vulnerability was taken advantage of. By the time they were actually in the trade, it was too late to back out.
Back to the concern of urban poor families selling themselves wholesale, to suppose that it was poverty (financial need) which has finally pushed them to do it is doubtful. As with the case of the young woman in the computer shop, the conditions in the families’ environment need investigating into because these to me are the final culprits.