“Do you know where to go next?”
I was staring at an arrival board in Tokyo when she approached me. Fresh off a 12-hour flight with greasy hair and fuzzy teeth, I stared at the transfer board. It looked like the next flight to Manila was departing from terminal two. And I knew before she said anything that this was where she was headed, too.
Her name is May, and she is your classic Filipino woman, warm and kind, with a smile that can light up any room. She has a way of making you feel at home even if you are in the middle of Tokyo at an unfamiliar airport.
We were fast friends and took turns watching each other’s bags while we took trips to the restroom. She had lived in Orlando for the last 18 years with her husband, a former marine. She had a 24-year-old son, and this was her first time heading back to her homeland in nine years.
She asked me why I was traveling alone, and I told her I was there to visit friends and volunteer with an anti-trafficking organization called Wipe Every Tear. I explained that the organization took women out of the bars and put them through college. She smiled and said she understood, but it felt like there was more she wanted to say.
I had a feeling that working in the bars is where she met her husband and had her son, that she was one of the few who married a client and moved to America.
Before we could talk about too much else, a man of about 70 was pulled up in a wheel chair, he stood up and hobbled to a seat right next to ours. He was overweight with white stringy hair that was falling out of its comb-over, and his breathing sounded a little labored as he immediately started to engage my friend in conversation. I sat next to her answering a few work emails, and I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation.
He had a girl, as he called her, in Angeles City. For those of you who don’t know, Angeles City is the place most westerners go to purchase sex. There are bars upon bars there, with dozens and dozens of women staffing each one. Some of them are underage, all of them are there because of poverty and because they lacked another choice. Some were conned by family, others had nowhere else to turn to provide for their children, and still others are merely looking to survive.
I know Angeles City to be a dark place, where women are seen as objects to be bought and sold. In one of the bars, women are dressed in thongs and bikinis, dozens of them crammed onto a platform with numbers on their thongs so that foreigners can clearly choose the one they want.
So as he continued his story, sharing that he had a small son with his girl there, my stomach turned. I imagined the mother, young, beautiful and left with so few options that going with an obese man twice her age was the best one. He talked about how he had missed his girl and her son when he was back in the States. He had wanted to come sooner, but after a series of heart attacks, he was left alone in the hospital for months during Christmas. At one point, he caught my attention so he could show me a picture of his son.
I felt for him, he was clearly alone, and it was most likely the lonely heart that sent him to the Philippines. He was looking for someone to care for him, find him desirable, or at least pretend to. And in his life, pretense must have been better than reality.
He continued to talk about how wonderful Angeles City was and how it was a great place to raise a family. He tried desperately to impress my friend as he talked about homes that he had built all around the Philippines. It was around this time that he was taken in a wheelchair to board the flight first. A few rows in front of me, I heard him telling his new neighbors about how he was one of the top bankers in America at one point; I found that hard to believe in our cramped seats in coach.
There were many times while I heard him talking that I wanted to interrupt him and tell him that he wasn’t a savior like he thought he was. I wanted to tell him what happens to the women in Angeles City and how desperate they are. But God wanted me to listen.
He wanted me to listen to the lonely souls that frequent the bars and how in their minds, some may have convinced themselves that they are doing a good thing by giving money to these women in exchange for their bodies. Not all of the men are pure evil (though some definitely seem that way), they’re just desperate in different ways.
One man’s desperation for companionship finds the desperation of a woman needing to survive. I am in no way seeking to justify the actions of these men, but I am seeking to understand so we can combat what drives the sex trade.
The unfortunate truth is that we can rescue women from the sex trade all day, put them through school even. But where there is demand, people will find supply. So how do we stop the demand?
It’s very complicated, because not all men come for the same thing. Some men seek companionship, some are driven by lust and what they see in porn, some come for both. One thing is very clear, we can’t ignore them if we are going to end the sex trade.
So this is my prayer for the next week, for the next months, and the years until the sex trade ends: May I see the men through God’s eyes, and may he give us strategy so we can end it for good.