Is Sexual Tourism Inevitable in the BPO industry?
For almost a year after starting Rethink Staffing in the BPO industry, I felt an immense guilt about how I was making my living. I would read news reports about the horrible conditions in offshore call centers. When friends asked what I was doing, I stumbled about, responding confusedly and obscuring the truth, in order to avoid the inevitable stigmas of working in the developing world.
In owning a BPO company in the Philippines, I couldn’t get away from the feeling that I was on the road to becoming just another labor exploiter in a long list of labor exploiters that went all the way back to Hernan Cortes and the cotton trade.
In 2016, as our business was developing, I was also grappling with how to work fairly and ethically between the developed world of the U.S. and the developing world of the Philippines. Forget about being a labor exploiter. What I didn’t expect was that I would be labeled with another, much more damaging and dark label.
Before my first visit to the Philippines in 2014, it’s not like I had never heard of sexual tourism, or heard rumors about the attitude of western men toward women in South East Asia. I had seen it in the movies, and even heard from my father about his army buddies’ trips to Bangkok when he was in Vietnam (he took his R&R in Sydney, and was married to my mother at the time). People, even close friends, would assume that I was in the BPO industry because I was or wanted to be a sexual tourist. (Sexual Tourism is defined as travelling to a poor country and, either transactionally or in the guise of romantic relationships, fulfilling one’s sexual desires.)
Economic power is at the heart of not only why I was in the BPO industry, but also what makes it work. By then, it was clear to me that this economic power, and the globalization of the labor market, has made not just our industry possible, but also made classic “colonial” behaviors probable. Not just labor exploitation, but also using individual economic power to fulfill sexual desires while doing business in the developing world — being a sexual tourist.
In her excellent essay, Margaret Dunleavy (an undergraduate at Melbourne University), provides a succinct historical analysis of the four societal conditions that make sexual tourism possible: first, the subordination of women; second, economic power; third, technological innovation; fourth: colonial imaginings and mythologies that perpetuate desires for women from other parts of the world (mostly in white males from the developed world).
When analyzing the conditions that have made the BPO industry so successful over the last 25 years against Dunleavy’s conditions for sexual tourism, even the casual observer can find strong correlation. Put simply: does the BPO industry rely on the same conditions for success that also make conditions ripe for sexual tourism?
As an entrepreneur, whenever I create a business, the why is just as important to me as the what or the how. As I was grappling with why I was in the BPO industry, it made me sick to think that people thought I was in the industry not just to fulfil my economic desires, but also to fulfill my sexual desires. In my brain, this produced a violent collision between my own self impression of a just and fair person, and what people really thought of me.
And so I reacted — at times aggressively with friends and colleagues, when they made the inevitable comment, castigating them and threatening to leave the friendship. After three years as a BPO owner, and many more as a BPO buyer, and with time between me and some of my earliest experiences, I realized that yes, the likelihood is (but not inevitable — as I will explain) that if you are in the BPO industry, then yes, you are also a sexual tourist.
But, two things anger me about the state of sexual tourism as it relates to the BPO industry, which is why in this article, I relate my own personal stories as illustration of these two things:
First, all people just assume I am a sexual tourist and that’s why I’m in this business.
Second, how many times Filipinos were aggressive in trying to make me a sexual tourist, against my wishes.
Again, it’s not like I was living in a bubble. I knew it existed. But no matter how much I refused, it kept coming at me. And so, my goal here is to not just castigate our industry for extending its history of abuse and exploitation, but to also warn current or future BPO leaders: temptation and acceptance of sexual tourism is everywhere, so understand the deep historical and economic conditions that explain why you are experiencing that temptation, why it’s accepted, and what to do about it.
I seek to give all people engaged in international trade a primer of what to expect when working abroad. I will analyze Dunleavy’s four conditions, showing how these conditions make the BPO industry and sexual tourism possible, by interweaving personal experiences of mine that show how ingrained the acceptance of sexual tourism is in both Anglo and Filipino culture. And further, when the BPO industry puts expatriates in the developing world to work, are we setting them up to become sexual tourists?
Before we embark on the reasons why sexual tourism is inevitable in the BPO industry, we must acknowledge first that there have been many happy Filipino American, Filipino Australian, and Filipino British marriages. I have many friends who are in cross-cultural marriages, both in the Philippines, here in the U.S., and in Europe. I’m married to an American, so I can’t judge what other people’s cross-cultural marriages are like, or what the cross-cultural joys and challenges must be.
I also don’t know if all of those marriages started as sexual tourism relationships. But I do know some that have, then blossomed into monogamous relationships, and eventually cross-cultural marriages. People are people, and it’s not anyone’s place to judge — unless it’s bad for business and exploitative. I argue here and have argued before that, of course, sexual tourism is bad for business, which is why this article is necessary. But before I can implore BPO leaders not to become sexual tourists, we need to understand how inevitable it can be.
Subordination of Women
Prostitution is legal in several countries around the world, in parts of the U.S., and is openly practiced in several societies where it may not be legal. For the women who knowingly and willingly choose to be sex workers, that is their choice and their right. However, there has been much work done that proves that the majority of sex workers are forced into sex work by their circumstances, or even by violence. The BPO industry did not invent sexual tourism, but it has been a willing participant.
Unfortunately, like most BPOs, Rethink Staffing has its own history of colliding with a sexual tourist who, in my opinion, was in the BPO industry because of the sexual opportunities it afforded him. His name was Dave (names have been changed), and as I’ve recently written, he was an early partner in RTS who was kicked out of the company after sexually assaulting a married female employee in our workplace in the summer of 2016. Dave had been in the BPO industry for three years before we met, working in another BPO company in Manila doing sales.
Over the course of our acquaintance of about a year, Dave put me in a number of uncomfortable situations where the mechanics of sexual tourism was on stark display. He had friends, like him, who had wives at home but girlfriends in Manila. He took me to clubs that were created specifically to introduce young Filipinas to foreigners working in Manila, in hopes of making a match. They were what you would expect — a lot of tightly clad women lined up for men to inspect. I remember Dave being pissed because I took the car and driver we had rented and left as soon as I figured out what the club was for, leaving him there.
After my short experience in this club, I was curious about the traditions and customs that gave rise to it and motivated these women to put themselves in situations where they’d be subordinated. That led me to explore the WWII history of “comfort women,” Japanese Geisha, and then the “mistress clubs” in Japan, where these types of arrangements were accepted, if not legal, and quite transactional. There was even a book dedicated to this practice that I read to try and understand why people on both sides would do this. After reading this book, and from my limited experience, it seemed the same thing had spread to Manila and the BPO industry quite naturally.
My most direct experience with this type of transactional sexual tourism were the women who were subordinated by Dave. During our first meeting, Dave had his “girlfriend” Amy come out and meet us for a drink. Amy was lovely, spoke excellent English, and was happy that I was there to start this new business with Dave. Dave did reveal to me in that first meeting that Amy was his girlfriend, but claimed that he was in the process of leaving his wife. I later learned that this was not true, but he knew I was happily married, so he wasn’t ready to put his sexual tourism on full display to me yet until he figured out if I was looking to be a sexual tourist.
And I wasn’t looking to be a sexual tourist — but everyone else wanted me to be. Amy soon started to push me in ways I didn’t agree with. Dave and I would try and plan trips to the Philippines to work at the same time (Dave was from Australia). When I was in town and Dave and I were working, Amy was always around and always trying to set me up on dates with her girlfriends. I had told Amy I was married the first time we met. Subsequently, I had to tell her I wasn’t interested — but she never stopped trying.
So, while this was my first encounter in the Philippines with a romance that also had an overt financial arrangement, it wasn’t to be my last with Dave. As Dave and I continued to work together for about a year, Dave cultivated other women in Iloilo, my Filipino home base. This included a woman who eventually called me to complain that she was Dave’s “second mistress.” I asked Dave about it, and got something close to “Mate, I’ve been honest with her about my wife and Amy. I don’t know why she’s complaining.”
The acknowledgement, and sometimes acceptance, of sexual tourism by business people, both foreign and domestic, was the most difficult thing, for me, to handle. Once, I was invited out to dinner by a female business colleague on a Saturday night. Before you jump to conclusions — she is happily married to the friend that introduced us, so it was nothing like that. But, over dinner, she asked me point blank if I had a girlfriend, in the U.S. or Philippines. When I told her I didn’t, she was shocked. When I asked her why, she just assumed that a foreign businessman had a wife at home and a girlfriend somewhere, if not in the Philippines. She said “that’s usually the way it’s done.” Since I knew her husband, I knew she would kill him if he had a girlfriend, because he told me how scared he was of betraying her, and she told me that, in fact, she would kill him if he did!.
If she wouldn’t stand for it in her own marriage, why would it be okay in mine?
It was Dave’s incredulity, and this colleague’s acceptance of it all, that really angered me. But, what could I reasonably expect? The BPO industry did not invent sexual tourism, but Dave’s reaction seemed to bring home the key point — that Sexual Tourism was an accepted, even inevitable, part of the BPO industry. Again, why was she complaining?
Dave and Amy weren’t in a relationship — he was ordering up the perfect sexual partner, attaching some romanticism to it to make everyone feel better, and happily paying for it. Did Amy have a choice, or did her lack of economic power put her in a circumstance where she looked the other way at some of the transactional aspects of their relationship and tried to make the best of it? Did she do what women have been doing for centuries — trade sex in the context of romance for economic security?
The 19th century economist, David Ricardo, created the Theory of Comparative Advantage to explain why nations should trade. Put simply, if India can make cloth cheaper than England, then England should buy their cloth from India, even if England can make their own cloth, because their production is less efficient than India’s.
While Ricardo foresaw the reasons why nations trade, he didn’t anticipate how the goods and eventually services that nations do trade may create economic power imbalances between them. To Ricardo, as long as nations could trade with one another, they were equal. Of course, we now know that his theories were way too simple to describe what happens in the modern world, most especially because his theories applied to the trade of good and not services (or people).
In describing the BPO business, I often tell prospects, friends and acquaintances what a person in our service centers make — in dollar terms. In response, I inevitably get a slow shaking of their head back in forth, indicating disbelief. Their reaction, of course, ignores Ricardo’s theories and basic economics.
But, when you come from the developed world, and you work in the developing world, it can be hard to separate your emotions from the logic of basic comparative economics. When you are among real people, and you look over and know that this person or that person is making a fraction of what you make, or that you have a month’s worth of their salary in your pocket, to you that person may start to feel like they’re worth less than you are. Not just economically, but as a human being.
This is a pernicious idea. But one that is rife throughout human history. Just ask the British in India/Africa, the Spanish in Mexico, the Portuguese in Brazil, or the French in Africa. All you have to do is to examine our shared colonial history and see that, in fact, we used Ricardo’s comparative advantage theory to create international trade where we value some people less than others. In his excellent book “The Empire of Cotton,” Sven Beckert argues exactly that: international trade was built on the cotton trade, and the cotton trade was built on the global search for cheap, exploitable labor. This is not exclusively a European phenomenon; let’s not forget the worst example of labor exploitation: Americans valuing their African slaves as “3/5 of a person” as is so shamefully enshrined in the U.S. constitution.
When one group of people values another at less than themselves, the psychological attitude that can take hold is dangerous. Attitudes such as “it’s okay to treat them that way” because “they’re cheap.” Economic power inevitably breeds this attitude. Sadly, I have heard such things in conversations with BPO leaders.
But the low cost of labor between the U.S. and India/Philippines, speaking from the point of view of comparative economics, is the principal reason that the industry exists. The leveraging of economic power to find labor that can do the same work more cheaply has given rise to a $100bn/year global industry. Can that much economic activity be all bad?
The answer is largely based on how the BPO company operates. How do they use that economic power in the society in which they’re buying labor? When they bring expatriate managers over, and those managers see a culture of exploitation, cruelty, and worker fungibility, what lessons is the workplace culture teaching them? How do those lessons translate into their behavior when they step outside the workplace?
I play a lot of tennis while I’m in the Philippines. Almost every time I step on the tennis court with someone new, the assembled Filipinos are instantly trying to understand my economic power. They never quite understand why the American with the scorching forehand is in this small town of Iloilo. They inevitably ask two questions. First: “What are you doing here in Iloilo?” I always answer “I have BPO here.” That gets an understanding nod.
For whatever reason, owning a BPO business and wanting to play tennis in January when there’s snow on the ground at home in Philadelphia isn’t enough. How exactly did I find this small town? So, I inevitably get the second question: “Are you married to a Filipina?” To which I reply, “Nope, married to an American back in Philadelphia. We have three boys.”
It never fails, inevitably they always reply: “Doesn’t mean you can’t have a Filipina wife, too!” They and the other men on the sidelines of the court proceed to erupt in belly-shaking laughter.
Right there, they have evaluated my economic power, and realized that, since I can probably afford two families, why not have two?
I had a similar experience with Dave — where his economic power was clearly a part of his relationship with Amy. In Amy’s case, she currently worked as a nurse (a profession that doesn’t earn much in the Philippines, less than BPO Agents), and coming from a poorer family, she was expected to help the family, especially since her Father could no longer work.
As I came to learn (and Dave was pretty up-front about it), Amy was happy for the $500 or so Dave gave her every time he came to town, plus the shopping trips when Dave was in town. Those shopping trips were clearly part of their arrangement, because when Dave and I were planning our travel for business, he always needed a day or two at the end of a trip “to take Amy shopping.”
Many times I felt like I was in situations where my economic power was trying to be captured or exploited. It was the end of 2017 and we were investigating expanding into a new city in the Philippines. My Filipino partner and I went to this city to investigate. While evaluating the city, I told the investment folks at city hall that I wanted a tour of the city and its surroundings, to get a feel for the place, something I always do when investigating a new city.
Here, my economic power was clearly on display — City Hall knew that I would be making the final decision on where to locate the new office — hundreds of jobs and millions of pesos in increased economic activity were on the line. They obliged and provide a driver, and two female assistants to conduct the tour. (I later learned that the assistants were just interns for the office of economic development, earning the minimum wage — 8,000 pesos per month or $160.)
We drove around a bit, and once we finished looking at various economic features of the city — the port, other industries that were there, etc., the assistants told the driver to take us to this resort built up on a hill. “Sir, it’s a beautiful spot and you’ll be able to see the entire city and the sea.” I’m here to explore so sounds lovely.
We get up the hill and are walking around the resort — indeed they have observation points where you can see far to the sea.
Then the more outgoing one says aloud. “I wonder how much rooms cost.” There’s someone from the hotel staff milling about. She inquires further. The response comes back “only P4,000 a night.” (About $80 — half a month’s salary for her). “Quite reasonable,” I said.
“Do you want to get a room sir,” the lead assistant said. Confused, I replied, “I’m sorry? I already have a room back at the [name withheld] hotel.”
They both look at me, realizing I’m not understanding what they’re asking. After a pregnant pause, the outgoing one clarifies, “No sir, did you want to get a room with us?” I start walking as quickly as possible back to the van.
When we got back to the van, they asked me if I was married.
« Yup, to a lovely American woman, 3 boys. »
Note that I was wearing my wedding ring the whole time. I’ve always wondered if the assistants were ordered to do it, or asked to do it, or hinted, or if they took it upon themselves to put the best foot forward for that city, and maybe start a relationship with someone with much greater economic power, giving me a further reason to invest there. Or, maybe I misunderstood them. Or, maybe they saw my wedding ring, and were more careful in choosing their words than they would have otherwise been.
What I do know is that if we had equal economic power, we would have never been on top of that mountain looking wistfully out at the sea. It’s impossible to conclude that difference in economic power that gave rise to our $100bn industry, and whatever motivated those women were different; economic power produced both outcomes. (And before you try and think of other reasons why those women would have propositioned me, regrettably, I do not look like George Clooney during his ER days.)
Economic power gave rise to the BPO industry, through the “cheapness” of labor or through a person “having less value” than another person. That’s economic fact. The question is what do with that economic power? Are we benevolent, or are we exploitive? Do we use our industry as a force for good, or do we use its economic power to satisfy our sexual as well as economic desires? More specifically, are we sending our expatriate managers into their new jobs learning to exploit, both economically and sexually?
There are a number of fundamental technological inventions throughout the centuries that have facilitated international trade, and thus have set the stage for both the BPO industry and sexual tourism.
Dunleavy identifies inexpensive air transportation as one of the key drivers. Obviously, people can’t have sex unless they’re together. So cheap air travel was key to making this happen as Dunleavy correctly argues. The second key technological innovation cited by Dunleavy is inexpensive access to the internet. Right there, you can easily see strong overlap between sexual tourism and the BPO industry in the needed technological innovations.
The BPO industry exists because of three key technological innovations: inexpensive global communication networks; the falling cost of computing power; and reliable, fast and inexpensive international money transfer networks (for both small and large transactions).
Obviously, if the cost of laying undersea fiber optic cable had not fallen dramatically in the 1990’s, the industry wouldn’t exist. In fact, World Bank’s World Development Report has proven that the cost of internet access in the developing world has a direct correlation to the growth of the BPO industry, especially as you look at country-by-country conditions.
The falling cost of computing power has also had a large impact. It has made computing prices affordable in the developing world, where there is typically a higher import tariff structure, and thus made total investment needed much lower when setting up a BPO. This has brought many smaller entrepreneurs into the industry, generally a good thing and the symbol of a mature market — unless they behave poorly when not at work.
Finally, the dropping cost, reliability and speed of various international money movement networks. Whether it’s the SWIFT banking system, Moneygram, Venmo, etc., all of these have given rise to being able to move money faster, easier, and at lower cost. Families no longer have to wait for relatives to return from abroad with their economic power in their pockets — it can be sent in under two days in most cases, even for small amounts (cryptocurrency will only accelerate this trend).
While these three technologies, plus inexpensive air travel, has made the BPO industry affordable to operate and thus allowed it to flourish, they all also provide fertile ground for allowing sexual tourism to occur.
The falling cost of that computer in your pocket is making it easier, much easier, even in our interconnected, data-collecting world, to hide relationships. Most married sexual tourists I know have more than one phone. This is common practice among the sexually voracious here in America too — give the person with whom you’re in an extra-marital relationship a fake name and phone number — and when that text comes in or the phone rings — you know exactly who you’re supposed to be.
This happens in the developing world, too. I have an acquaintance who, while not married, still lives with his partner and their daughter and prefers discretion and separation. But he’s also juggling two girlfriends at once, plus his partner. The result? He has three phones and a separate bag to carry them. (Note that he is unlike most Filipinos because he has economic power — his family owns a large business where he works and enjoys a large salary.)
Dave certainly knew the ins and outs of the technologies that supported his sexual tourism. While Dave usually just brought Amy cash whenever he was in town, because he was in town reliably every 6 weeks, there were times when Amy asked to “borrow” money, and Dave had to moneygram it to her. He would withdraw the money from the bank account he kept in the Philippines that his wife didn’t know about, and sent it to her. I also know of one person working in the BPO industry who fathered a child in the Philippines, but was then forced to leave the country by his employer for doing so. He still sends money back every month to support the child.
What can we conclude from all of this? Our analysis of the technological factors that give rise to sexual tourism clearly shows that the BPO and Sexual Tourism industry rely on the same technology to make it all work.
Colonial Imaginings and Mythology
Many people accuse the United States Military of inventing sexual tourism on a large scale. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. army basically setup up Bangkok, Thailand as an “R & R” destination for U.S. soldiers, complete with U.S. army issued condoms. After he was removed as Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara worked with the Thai government to make Thailand a tourist haven, which basically continued the Bangkok sex trade. Of course all of the promotional materials contained attractive Thai women.
Sexual tourism existed long before U.S. ground troops were committed to Vietnam in 1965. One can argue that the “Grand Tour” that 17th and 18th century young men (and women) had, gave rise to some of the earliest instances of sexual tourism. Wealthy and aristocratic English and Europeans would visit “the continent,” to finish off their education, enjoy the art, history, architecture, food and sex of the places they visited. The Grand Tour continued in the 19th century when newly wealthy Americans starting making the journey across the Atlantic.
Europe may have invented sexual tourism, but it certainly occurred in other places in Asia. The Japanese in WWII setup a system of “Comfort Women” during their occupation of the Philippines. In the pre-war period, British Men working in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Shanghai would often live in Asia with their families, but enjoyed having extra-marital relationships with Asian women, and break them off when returning home. The book “The Lover” by Marguerite Duras, tells the true personal tale of sexual tourism reversing the western-eastern cultural norm, if not the gender norm of such relationships, in the late 1920’s in the Mekong Delta.
In 2018, even the hit Netflix show “The Crown” perpetuated some colonial imaginings and the attendant mythology by none other than Prince Philip himself, showing him cheating on Queen Elizabeth while having a sexual encounter with a “native girl” somewhere in the British territorial possessions in the South Pacific, whilst on his “grand publicity tour.” When wealthy male landowners in the American south of the 18th and 19th century began “visiting the slave quarters,” that was probably a form of sexual tourism, since the women were certainly subordinated and came from Africa.
So as my experience working cross culturally in the BPO industry continued, with such a long history, why was I so surprised that most people would assume I was a sexual tourist?
I can understand it on the tennis court in the Philippines and certainly in a club or when I was with Dave, where my economic power is on stark display, but I was most surprised by the attitudes of those outside of the industry — those who may have never been to the developing world to see what it was like.
Back in the U.S., former military officers that I know, upon hearing I was spending a lot of time in the Philippines working, often smirk and say “Working? Sure you are!” Even if they had never served in the Philippines, they clearly had heard the stories from comrades who had, often telling me stories about exploits they had heard of. When I first started hearing this from them, I sheepishly said it’s not like that. Now, I get annoyed and tell them not to do it again.
Sexual tourism is evidently well known enough in American culture, even by those not in the military nor those who have never been to the developing world. I have almost ended friendships because, upon hearing I’m working in the Philippines, friends make inappropriate comments, about which they have no knowledge or basis. It angers me because, simply at the mention of the name of the country, that’s what they assume — like that’s the only thing the Philippines is good for!
The assumptions about sexual tourism happen everywhere — home, in the developing world — even the space in between. One of the worse examples was coming through customs in Manila Airport with some much need equipment for our IT-infrastructure team. After levying the duties, I was checking out at the cashiers. The customs officer who levied the duties, and had up until then been quite nice, started making conversation as we waited for the cashier to make the tally. He said to me (again, trying to determine my economic power), “You married to a Filipina?” After I replied no, married to an American, he then said… Well, by now you know what he said next.
All of these instances show the broader knowledge of sexual tourism in our culture, but it doesn’t relate to the BPO industry specifically. In the Philippines, the BPO industry is one of the largest employers in the country, and is the country’s second largest industry, by trade volume. Like India, the BPO industry built the Philippines a rising middle-class. Again, how can all this economic activity be bad?
But, there is another, very dark side to this mythology, when the industry seeks to get foreigners to work in the developing world. In some cases, when BPO companies ask Americans or others to work “in-country” for a period of time, sexual tourism is sometimes sold as a side benefit to whomever is being asked to be in-country. They don’t call it that, of course, simply saying to those considering it, “You’ll have a lot of fun.” This has been said to single and married men alike.
The implication in such comments is obvious and, thus, inevitable. If the senior manager had never said anything, would the junior manager have figured it out? Probably. Just go down to the bar in the lobby of the big international hotels, and open your eyes to see a very nice, very polite sexual tourism market in action. But, when those senior managers say something, they’re creating the mythology that their junior managers then live out.
And in the process, they create sexual tourists.
Where does this leave us — as people and as an industry?
By now you are probably wondering if I ever had or have a girlfriend, or if I have ever broken my vows to my wife, who has never visited the Philippines. I work in the BPO industry — have I ever succumbed to the accepted norm?
If you were expecting some type of confessional, I’m sorry to disappoint.
Let me say so it’s very loud and clear: even though I have been put in many uncomfortable situations — situations that may have gone the other way — I do not currently have nor have I ever had a Filipina girlfriend; nor have I had dalliances or one-time mistakes that would have broken my vows to my wife. I have been faithful to her, and I have reported most of these and other experiences to her, as long as she wants to hear them (which sometimes she doesn’t). But it hasn’t been easy.
When you work in the BPO industry, even if you’re not living in-country, you are often away for at least a week, which includes a weekend. It’s just not that easy to go from the U.S. to Asia, and the time difference makes it harder. What I never understood was — why can’t I just be social to relax without there being sexual overtones. It’s not like I’m ever out in public in the developing world without my wedding ring on.
Besides the stories I’ve thus far related, there were many people I met in the Philippines pushing me to sexual tourism. Close and not-so-close business colleagues who, when we were out, would continue to buy drinks, even though I refused over and over again, and then mysteriously have a “friend” show up to accompany us to see if I could be induced in a drunken state to make a mistake.
In the most egregious example of the economic power, subordination of women, and romanticism that makes up sexual tourism, early in my time in working in Iloilo, a male acquaintance I had recently met offered to entertain me one night with dinner and some drinks. After a nice buffet dinner at a hotel, we get into his car to go for drinks at a club he frequented. Once inside, I learn he has a liquor locker there, and the place is really a borderline strip club where he knows everyone. There are stairs leading up but no signage indicating what happens up there.
After a few minutes, a woman who works there clad in a tight-fitting and revealing dress, comes over with his bottle of Johnny Black, glasses, and a bucket of ice. He stands up to greet her and kisses her intently on the mouth, while grabbing her backside. I later learn that she’s one of his girlfriends.
They settle down to catch up — clearly they know each other well. She then switches to English and engages me in small talk. She asks if I’m married, and about my wife and family. She then asks me to describe my wife — tall or short, fat or thin. I tell her my wife is 5’10” and athletic — she’s a runner. After another drink, I’m introduced to a woman named “Yumi,” who’s taller than most Filipinas, thin and muscular, and looks Japanese — hence “Yumi” (not her real name, but the name she uses that night). After talking with her, I learn that she was a professional dancer when she was younger — very athletic like my wife. I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t attracted to her.
We’re sitting, facing each other across a table. My glass is empty, so Yumi gets up to refill it, and sits back down right next to me. We keep talking. She asks me if I’d like to go out with her tomorrow night. I’ve had a lot to drink and don’t understand what’s going on, but I’m curious. I ask her what this club is all about. “I thought we were just supposed to go upstairs or something?” She says no, it’s not like that.
I’m perplexed by this — by this point I assumed this was a high-end brothel where I could accept by going upstairs or refuse by staying downstairs and drinking. I tell her, “You know I’m married, why would we go out?” At that point, she moves a little closer, puts her hand on my thigh, and says, “So you could see me again and get what you want.”
That’s when I realize it’s a setup. I’ve not been keeping track of how much I’ve had to drink, I lean back a minute to collect myself. I then stand up, ask for the check, throw money on the table, and say to my friend, “Let’s go, we’re leaving, now.” (Author’s note: I later learned that this friend had told another friend that he was purposely trying to get me to bite on Yumi — with the intent to blackmail me for money.).
Like it or not, capitalists come to Asia and the outsourcing industry exists because labor can be had less expensively in the developing world. This is economic fact, and many lives have benefited, on both sides, because of this economic fact. But at the same time, because of my own experiences, when clients inquire about posting someone to the Philippines, and that someone is a man, especially in his 20’s or 30’s, I talk to them honestly about sexual tourism. I have even offered to have “the talk” with that young manager, before they embark for their flight to Manila, to help them understand that if they’re not careful, the pressures to become a sexual tourist are quite large, and even more so with the culture of exploitation in the BPO industry.
But people are complex beings. It can take years to develop one’s personal value system, and even longer to learn how to live consistently and happily within that value system. You hope people make good decisions that don’t hurt other people, that they can live with, but when a lot is left unsaid or unnegotiated, as humans living in lawful societies, we quickly find ourselves in ethical quandaries in which we may not know how to behave.
In writing this article, I am not looking to damage anyone in particular, nor seeking to get ahead of our competitors because of the stand against sexual tourism I herein take. No, what I’m seeking is simply to make BPO and Client leaders wake up, and realize that the bad reputation we have globally is, unfortunately, well earned. As a new person entering the industry three years ago, my experiences simply confirm that.
I always assumed that if you wanted to be a sexual tourist in the Philippines, you at least had to go out looking for it, and thus were safe if you didn’t. What I did not expect is how many times it would try and find me.
Industry leaders privately complain about low margins. They console themselves with the overall big numbers of business they do (I call it ‘brag-a-seat’), but their bragging hides how bad their margins are. I assert that their margins are bad because their behavior is bad. And it starts with the economic and sexual exploitation their leaders bring to the shores of the societies in which they have operations.
BPO leaders as inevitable sexual tourists is simply the most salacious lightning rod for controversy that could be cultivated among expatriates doing business abroad.
The fact that it’s institutionalized, in clubs and in the workplace, by the culture on both sides, makes all the good work moot — all that we’ve done as an industry, over the last 30 years, to reduce global poverty.
Sadly, we are known and remembered for being exploiters and sexual tourists instead of the economic warriors we are, who have fought under dangerous conditions, to build a $100bn industry and bring positive international trade to more people around the world than ever before.
I got into this industry because it was an economic powerhouse and I was personally going broke. This industry saved me economically, and I’ve been quite vocal about it. As we’ve created an economically powerful industry over the last 30 years, and now as we look forward into the next 30 years, will the industry evolve with the forces of capitalism pushing it to be more “conscious?” Or, will we continue our bad practices and bad habits, and suffer the slim margins that go with it?
The choice is ours. As I’ve said it again and again on this medium page — I’ve created Rethink Staffing as a social impact, fair trade outsourcing company — yes, because once I learned what the industry was really like, it was the right thing to do. But also, and most importantly, because it’s good for business.
As RTS gets bigger, in the future, I hope to share RTS’ financial results as a way to prove that a social impact business model in this industry is superior to a profit-maximizing one, and convince more BPO leaders of our way of doing things.
Until then, let’s teach our managers that sexual tourism is not inevitable, nor is it good for business, nor is it the right thing to do.