A foreign journalist working with Philippine police and an American non-government organisation (NGO) has exposed more of the under-reported underworld of the Philippines’ underage sex industry. A Daily Mail UK report detailed the undercover investigative journalism of Peter Bridge (not his real name), a Belgian national.
The investigation focused on illegal brothels and cybersex dens in the northern Mindanao city of Iligan. One particularly chilling photo depicted a “paedophile pageant” in which girls aged from eleven to fifteen years are lined up for clients to choose from. Bridge recounts the experience of entering one of these dens posing as a foreign paedophile…
‘They gave me a selection of girls to choose from, between the ages of 11 and 17.‘I could choose any girls I wanted. I told them I was interested in having six girls, two every night – 15 and 17, 11, 13 and then younger. They agreed.’The girls were later delivered to [Bridge’s] hotel room where investigators wired the room with hidden cameras.Over the next few hours he interviewed them to find out as much as he could about their conditions, families and treatment.
The Philippines is a top supplier of illicit cybersex content involving minors streamed over the Internet to paedophiles all over the world. It is also a popular destination for child sex tourists who come mainly from Europe, North America, Australia, and Korea. Often it is the victims’ Filipino parents themselves who, driven by poverty, sell them into the trade. Once in, some of the children themselves work with these criminal syndicates to recruit other kids.
The Daily Mail reports further how “[poverty] combined with the rise of cheap, high speed internet access has turned the country into the hub of a billion-dollar cyber sex industry with tens of thousands of girls being exposed to sexual abuse.”
But even in mainstream media, the practice of abusing children has enjoyed a long tradition in the Philippines. Back in 2011, when President BS Aquino had not even spent a year in power, reality TV mega-star Willie Revillame attracted a social media storm after he allegedly abused a six-year-old boy on the popular TV5 game show Willing Willie. Aside from advertisers pulling out of the show en masse, there were no consequences felt by Revillame who went into “semi-retirement” presumably to enjoy the vast fortune he accumulated doing these shows.
Going even further back to 1982 were the reports of how Vicente “Tito” Sotto (now a Philippine senator and, back then, a huge media celebrity) figured in the case of the alleged rape of fifteen-year-old starlet Pepsi Paloma by comedians Joey de Leon, Richie d’Horsey, and the Senator’s brother Vic Sotto. Paloma later committed suicide after Tito Sotto “intervened” in the case and the accused celebrities issued a public apology.
There was speculation at the time that the fallout from the episode severely impacted Paloma’s career after producers would no longer touch the starlet with a ten-foot pole following the incident. Amazingly, the careers in the entertainment industry of the accused continued to flourish despite the scandal (and, of course, Tito Sotto went on to become a powerful Philippine Senator) — a testament to the deeply ingrained culture of impunity in the Philippines. Paloma reportedly went on to hang herself under circumstances which, like most of her life, were presumably “shrouded in mystery”.
The lack of real consequences felt by rich and well-connected celebrities and politicians is telling of the sort of society the Philippines is. What is more disturbing is that there is likely to be a vast number of cases of abuse, criminal neglect, and exploitation in which children are the primary victims that happen under the media’s radar in the country. Philippine Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda himself conceded that child pornography in the Philippines has long remained “under the radar” and that the government is only now “placing greater emphasis on fighting the crime”.
Indeed, the prevalence of child sexual abuse in the Philippines could trace its roots to the underbelly of Filipino culture itself. In mid-2015, the Philippines’ social media community was on fire over a supposed video sex scandal involving child star Andrea Brillantes who, at the time, was only twelve years old. Such was the obsession of the Filipino public with Brillantes that she emerged as the most Googled person in the Philippines in a report published by TIME Labs at the end of 2015.
It is, of course, a no-brainer to propose that any serious effort to stamp out the global child sex industry is to cut the supply at its source. What is more confronting is facing the cultural reality of Philippine society where much of the supply originates — a society that regards sexualisation of children with disturbing banality.