Behind The Photographs Of Angeles City Bar Girls

Margaret Wright
11 min read
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Media outlets have wrung every drop of sensationalism from Michael Wiener’s photo scandal. The serious public scolding has died down.

May 25 KOAT news report about a YouTube spoof was evidence enough that the county commissioner’s controversy is fading into parody. The video depicted a condiment-squirting hot dog running for office.

Wiener capitalized on the clip, telling the news station that the satire shows he can really “cut the mustard.” The anchors looked amused. With primary election day approaching and Wiener running for a second term in District 4, “it might just be that all publicity is good publicity," said reporter Todd Unger.

The photos may have been useful to the commissioner, training the spotlight on him during election season. But Fields Avenue, the red-light district of Angeles City in the Philippines, remains a dark place. That’s where Seattle photographer John Keatley got two shots of Wiener posing with young Pinay women on the street. In front of the Texas-themed bar that caught Wiener’s eye, the girls from the photo are presumably still standing there every night, still smiling.

Beyond the Hype

David Maddox is the director of
Release, an Albuquerque nonprofit that advocates for stronger laws to combat human trafficking statewide. He contends “it goes without saying” that the Philippines is among the most favored worldwide destinations for men seeking sex with prostitutes.

Wiener sat down for an endorsement interview with the
Alibi the week that the photos broke. He said he visits the Philippines every year to see his young daughter, and he had a different take on the country’s reputation as a pivotal site for commercial sex. “I don’t really know anything about it, other than what I’ve just looked at on the Internet over the past couple of days,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of hype there, and it’s probably blown out of proportion. People have their own agendas, and I think sometimes they use things to fit their agenda.”

There is plenty of evidence that the problem is more than hype. Conduct a simple Internet search for Fields Avenue, Angeles City, and up pop sex tourism guides on how to negotiate the cheapest price for various sex acts with bar girls. Such anecdotal results are backed up by hard facts, many of which point to a high degree of involuntary participation in the trade—sex slavery.

The International Labor Organization, an agency affiliated with the United Nations,
reported in January that large numbers of Filipinas are trafficked internally and worldwide for prostitution or forced labor. says despite Philippine laws against the sex trade, “hundreds of victims are subjected to forced prostitution each day in well-known and highly visible business establishments that cater to both domestic and foreign demand.”

The U.S. ambassador to the Philippines,
Harry K. Thomas Jr., riled the country’s leadership in the fall when he said while officials claimed there was no underage sex trade on Fields Avenue, he helped activist organizations rescue more than a hundred children who were working as prostitutes.

“What I wonder,” Thomas said, “is why anyone who drives through Malate late at night, anyone who goes to Fields Avenue or parts of Cebu, would question the fact that these places exist.”

A Troubled Past

The story of the Angeles City sex trade, like the story of Wiener’s controversial photographs, begins with Americans far from home. From the end of World War II until the damaging eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, the Philippines played a major strategic role for the U.S. military.

Clark Air Base, with its veritable city of young GIs accustomed to rowdy “rest and relaxation,” was the main economic driver for the surrounding area. And Angeles City, just outside the base gates, swelled with bars and clubs, many of them well-known for peddling cheap sex with local girls who had little hope of finding livelihoods elsewhere. In order to keep boys in uniform healthy, the U.S. military sponsored hygiene clinics where prostitutes underwent regular STI screenings.

Today, the Air Force base is devoid of soldiers. But the vacuum that opened when the U.S. military left was quickly filled by a growing global sex industry. Women from the Philippine countryside flocked to big cities for work, hoping to send money home to their families, and often ended up in the sex trade. The streets of Angeles City were soon teeming with older tourists from Australia, Sweden, Korea, Japan and the U.S.

The sex industry brings significant economic benefit to the area—including to the many white, Western club owners who propagate racist fantasies about Filipinas and reap the majority of profits. But human rights advocates say it comes at a cost to the women and children who work there.

Husband and wife Curtis and Grace Romjue are the reason two photographers from Seattle ran into Commissioner Wiener in Angeles City. Their nonprofit organization hired John Keatley and filmmaker Eric Becker to document a pilot project:
Arts Aftercare introduces art therapy curriculum to organizations that rehabilitate survivors of sexual exploitation.

Curtis says the demeanor of Angeles City bar girls can mislead outsiders. “Why are they smiling and look like they’re having a good time? If they’re there and making money, then in that moment they’re putting their game face on,” he says. “If they’re smiling and flirty, they’re more likely to make money. … When they’re in that situation, it does look like they’re having a good time.”

The Romjues’ years of work in aftercare for survivors has lent them insight into the commercial sex trade’s impact. Grace says women and girls lose the ability to trust other people and struggle with long-term mental health issues. They also contend with the aftermath of debilitating sexually transmitted infections and injuries from physical abuse.

“Many of them are stunted in their development, so even though she might be 18 she might be more like a 9-year-old as far as her ability to emotionally interact with other people,” says Grace. “There are people who say that she chose to do it, and, ‘Look, she’s smiling.’ And every case is different. But every aftercare center we went to is proof of the opposite.”

Curtis and Grace agree with some sex workers’ rights activists who assert that there are practical distinctions between voluntary and forced sex work. There is a circumstantial difference between a young woman on Fields Avenue who chooses to leave with a customer for a small bar fee, Curtis says, and a young woman sold into servitude in one of the hidden, underground brothels on the margins of Angeles City.

Grace adds that all forms of the sex trade there are linked: “There might be those establishments where the girls are over 18 and get their IDs checked. But with all those people traveling there for that one purpose—the sex industry—obviously you’re going to get underground businesses, which are very, very dangerous and hurtful to the community.”

Shay Cullen, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who heads the long-standing Preda Foundation, has worked for decades to raise awareness about at-risk, poverty-stricken children in the Philippines. He witnessed firsthand the effects of the sex trade on women and children in Olongapo, another former U.S. military hub. Cullen regularly testifies that the Philippine government lacks the will to do anything about severe instances of abuse.

“We have court cases against the bar operators when we rescued minors from the clubs—but to no avail. The justice system is nonfunctional,” writes Cullen in an email interview. “The foreigners are special. They go free. Impunity is the run of the day, although there are social workers and undercover police trying to catch the sex abusers and tourists with minors. … We get some convictions, but never enough.”

Act Locally

Maddox of Release (short for Restore Everyone’s Liberty Everywhere Abolish Slavery and Exploitation) did volunteer work for months with the New Mexico attorney general’s human trafficking task force and is the leader on Albuquerque’s task force. He found himself frustrated by politicos grandstanding about the Wiener photographs.

“Their inaction is just as bad as his actions,” says Maddox. He says the issues raised by the photographs have particular resonance because human trafficking and sexual exploitation is taking place on a local level. Policymakers could choose to make a real difference, Maddox says.

Both Albuquerque and New Mexico lag behind in taking measures to limit risks for strip club dancers and other sex workers, he says. The City Council faced opposition to its
Sexually Oriented Business Ordinance in the last couple of months from club owners and the American Civil Liberties Union. The measure would require that records be kept—subject to inspection by the city—to prevent the employment of anyone under age. The local chapter of the ACLU said depending on the detail in those records, that rule could violate the Constitution. The bill might be voted on later in the summer.

Still, Maddox says, policy steps could be taken to address demand for the local commercial sex trade. He says he’s studied “john schools” instituted in cities—such as San Francisco, Phoenix and Seattle—in an effort to redirect the behavior of individuals arrested for soliciting prostitutes. The schools function like traffic court, where convicted offenders pay to attend classes. The fees can then be sent to law enforcement vice squads to conduct stings and to nonprofits that offer support services to help get prostitutes off the street, says Maddox.

He says the schools require johns to receive education about vice stings, the legal ramifications of supporting prostitution, human trafficking, violence prevention and sex therapy. They could be instituted here if there was enough political will, he adds. “New Mexico is the only state in the Southwest that doesn’t have a single john school,” says Maddox. “Even Las Vegas has one.”

Securing such measures would require the work of citizens and policymakers, says Maddox. “It’s hard to see people and politicians attacking Wiener when they’re not doing anything about the issue themselves,” he adds.

Meanwhile, photographs on
Keatley’s blog have generated a heated chain of comments. He says the potential photographs have for raising awareness about the complexity of the commercial sex trade is important—though he’s bothered by readers justifying Angeles sex tourism as harmless.

“For people to say, ‘Oh, those girls are smiling and having a good time, leave them alone’—Well, I don’t know those girls and their stories. But I do know that all of the girls on that street are smiling. It’s called survival,” he says. “We all do things we don’t want to do in our jobs. These women have to smile. The alternative doesn’t look great for them.”

Keatley’s other photographs from his time in the Philippines have gotten much less attention. Perhaps the most arresting work is a series on sex exploitation survivors, posed in front of a bright green wall of the aftercare center in Manila where they convene for services.

When Keatley proposed the idea of formal portraits, the center staff warned him that most of the women would likely not be comfortable being photographed—that maybe only one or two would be willing to sit for him. But after talking it over, all of the women agreed. Keatley says he and Becker made a big production of the shoot, setting up special lights and reflectors.

“We heard the next day that some of the women said it was the first time they ever felt beautiful,” he says.

The portraits show ordinary women in jeans and T-shirts. Their expressions look unforced and natural. One woman has short, unruly hair and an open grin. One looks past the camera to something in the distance. A few women are obviously shy. Not all of them are smiling.

A list of statewide human trafficking resources:

Attorney General Gary King on trafficking:


New Mexico Organized Against Trafficking Humans:

New Mexico Clearinghouse on Sexual Abuse and Assault Services:

Live Smiling Girls!

Participants in the Manila-based Samaritana program for women transitioning out of prostitution sat for a portrait session in April.

John Keatley

Live Smiling Girls!

With more than 32 percent of the Philippine population living in poverty, prostitution can seem like the only viable option for many women responsible for supporting themselves and their families.

John Keatley

Live Smiling Girls!

“The women I met had this incredible desire to learn and grow and contribute to their families and their communities,” says John Keatley. “It’s a quiet strength you see in them.”

John Keatley

Live Smiling Girls!

Fields Avenue in Angeles City, Philippines: Bernalillo County Commissioner Michael Wiener was photographed touring the red-light district.

John Keatley

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