When I land in Manila and wait on the long lines for immigration I count the number of men I think are visiting the country for sex. Americans, Europeans, and Australians usually travel alone. The Japanese and Koreans travel in groups of all men, probably because sex tourism is less of a stigma in those countries. A lot of the men move with the familiarity that comes from having been here before—their passport stamps confirming. These travelers seem to walk with their heads held high, with the knowledge that, like Thailand and Cambodia, the Philippines has a booming economy based on the pussy trade that continues to grow each year. But tourists are not the only people getting in on it; every Filipino knows at least one male who has lost his virginity with a visit to Air Force One. It’s all too common a suggestion for boys—go and become a man. The demand is everywhere, and in a country with few opportunities, there’s no shortage of supply.

Most of these strip clubs and massage parlors are located around the areas of Angeles City and Subic Bay, about an hour’s drive from Manila. At one time they catered to the American GIs from neighboring military bases. American dollars attracted a rush of women. Many thought that the red-light districts would go away when the bases shut down. They were wrong. There were plenty of civilian men willing to patronize the clubs and parlors. While prostitution is technically illegal in the Philippines, officials turn the other way, as the sex tourism brings millions of dollars into the economy. It doesn’t help that many of the State officials are also customers. What is the incentive to enforce these laws when the country needs every peso it can get? Besides, getting a “massage” and paying “bar fines” is not illegal.

Undoubtedly the most famous of all these places—with the t-shirts and other souvenirs to prove it—is the Air Force One massage parlor in Quezon City. It has become a national attraction for everyone from foreign celebrities to local politicians. Here, men rent private rooms for a massage and a little something extra. It’s a fairly simple process, where sex tourism is concerned. Decide what kind of woman you want. The first floor is for Coach and Business Class, and second floor for First Class. The women are categorized by age, beauty, and—this being the Philippines—skin color. First Class girls are usually younger, prettier, and whiter, many of them mixed or mestiza from their GI fathers, reminders of Clark Air Base and Subic Bay. The less-expensive Coach Class women are usually older and less attractive. Once a patron chooses a floor the curtains literally open up, exposing at least a dozen women to be chosen from. Think Rush Hour 2 here. Once the patron makes a selection he is taken to a room for a shower with the girl and then a “massage.” The whole transaction usually lasts an hour.

Strip clubs, or KTVs as they are also known in the Philippines, are pretty similar to the ones in the US—poles, stages, lots of alcohol, loud American pop music, girls dancing with blank expressions, and the smell of cheap perfume. But the usual fees for lap dances have been replaced by “bar fines.” Bar fines are paid to the club in order for a girl to leave for a couple of hours with a patron, maybe for another drink or a bite to eat, but inevitably they end up back at his hotel room for the main event. The girls don’t receive money directly for their services. In the loophole around prostitution laws, girls are given a cut of the bar fines. It’s really no different from classic prostitution, but the bar now serves as the pimp.

Women with little education and no money in the Philippines have few options. The country struggles with unemployment. Around 11% of the total population has to find work overseas, many as domestic laborers or even prostitutes. Families are broken up and children only get to see their parents a few times a year. It’s not a great situation for people whose culture revolves around family. Strip clubs and massage parlors offer jobs in the sex tourism and trade industry, in a country with limited resources. Women have the ability to stay and in many cases provide for their families. Many earn more money than their fathers, brothers, and husbands. It’s an attractive offer and still a sad reality in an otherwise beautiful nation.

Words by Marisa Pizarro
Photos by Steve Tirona