Sunday Lifestyle

The oldest profession

- Tingting Cojuangco -

Prostitution has been described as “the world’s oldest profession.” Among the Aztecs, the Cihuacalli or “House of Women” was the name given to buildings where prostitution was permitted by political and religious authorities.

The Cihuacalli was a closed compound with rooms, all of them overlooking a central patio. At the center of the patio was a statue of Tlazolteotl, the goddess of “filth.” Religious authorities believed women should work as prostitutes, if they wished, only within such premises guarded by Tlazolteotl. It was believed Tlazolteotl had the power to incite sexual activity, and at the same time offer spiritual cleansing of such acts.

A later biblical story, in the book of Joshua, tells of a prostitute in Jericho named Rahab who assisted Israelite spies with her knowledge of the current socio-cultural situation and military positions due to her popularity with the high-ranking nobles she “serviced.” The spy, in return for the information, promised to save her and her family during the planned military invasion as long as she fulfilled her part of the deal by keeping the details of the contact with them secret and leaving a sign on her residence as a marker for advancing soldiers to avoid.

In Ancient Rome, prostitutes were often foreign slaves, captured, purchased, or raised for that sole purpose. Abandoned children were almost always raised as prostitutes. Enslavement into prostitution was sometimes used as a legal punishment against crime-free women. Buyers were allowed to inspect naked men and women for sale in private and there was no stigma attached to the purchase of males by a male aristocrat.

In the Philippines, most of the prostitutes apprehended in the 1800s were in their late teens and early 20s. Older prostitutes who were in their 30s or 40s were either married or widowed. Prostitutes hailed from as far north as Vigan, Ilocos Sur and as far south as Antique. All the apprehended prostitutes claimed that they had legitimate occupations that appeared in their expedientes or dossiers as costurera, labandera, cigarrera and tendera. To quote Ma. Luisa Camagay in Working Women of Manila in the 19th Century — a very amusing and informative book on women — there were four categories of prostitutes, depending on the way they plied their trade. One category of prostitutes was kept in prostitution houses under the supervision of an ama or amo. They were native Filipinos who stated their profession as cigarrera or costurera. The Filipino amo identified himself as a sastre so it was not surprising that this tailor would act as an amo considering that he did have access to the male population who might desire the services of a prostitute.

Another category of prostitutes included those who plied their trade by posting themselves along certain streets like Calle Iris of Quiapo, Paseo de Azcarraga, Gandara, and Santa Cruz, Binondo and Singalong, Herran, San Marcelino in Paco Dilao under the supervision of amas or amos. We’ve often seen that scene in the movies. Only, in Makati, some turn out to be transvestites!

Another category of prostitutes visited their clients in their own homes. These were the prostitutes who, from the archival sources, rendered service to Chinese males who came to the Philippines both single and married. Serapia was the name of their pimp, or corredora.

Finally, the last category of prostitutes included women who invited clients back to their own homes. Belonging to this category were Madame Sanchez, a Spaniard who lived in No. 6 Calle Uli-uli in San Miguel; Antonelle, an American who lived in No. 16 Calle Labasan in Sampaloc; and Lorenza, an Englishwoman who lived in No. 20 Calle Balmes in Quiapo. Presumably these women catered to men who belonged to the higher echelons of society.

Prostitutes were known by various names — prostituta, mujer publica, vagamunda and indocumentada. The term vagamunda reflected the roving lifestyle of the prostitute — that of a vagabond. Her inability to be registered in a particular locality earned her the title indocumentada, meaning no documents. If she was arrested, not only would she be penalized for sexual trafficking but also for not paying her cedula, which was the document necessary for her not to be classified as a vagamunda or indocumentada. This wandering lifestyle was alluded to in works which dealt with the life of prostitutes.

“You ask me how my life was? It was like that of the others of my kind. Days of bonanza, tempestuous nights, caresses by fortune, and the floggings by fate. This, in a nutshell, is my history. I went through towns dispensing smiles never thinking of the mothers, wives, sisters, daughters who perhaps were to cry because of them ...”

To keep tab on those engaged in the trade, the new Bureau of Public Health instituted the licensing of prostitutes in Manila. The licensing of prostitutes not only facilitated a census of prostitutes in Manila but, more significantly, it checked the spread of syphilis in the city. The licensed prostitutes were required to undergo examination twice a week.

Towards the second half of the 19th century, if a prostitute was incarcerated, she was sent to the Carcel de Bilibid. Within 48 hours the gobernadorcillo had to determine whether the prostitute was on the list of taxpayers of her town, her civil status, and the name of her parents. The friar-curate of the town was also asked to shed light on the origins of the prostitute. If the prostitute had syphilis she would be confined at the Hospital de San Juan de Dios instead of being incarcerated in the Cardel de Bilibid.

Upon release from the Carcel de Bilibid, some prostitutes returned to the Bilibid to ply their trade. Pretending to be relatives of the detainees, these women took advantage of the Thursday and Sunday visiting days to practice their profession. I have a report from a jail in the Visayas where this occurred. Rental of a room behind the cell went for a fee of just P5 paid to the Mayor.

Of the punishments imposed on the prostitutes, that of expulsion from her province and deportation to either Davao, Balabac or Palawan was severe, and a much-dreaded punishment among prostitutes. Efforts were exerted by their families to spare them from serving this punishment. Petitions of mothers and father of prostitutes were made to the Governor-General. Invoking reasons such as ill health, citing that the daughter was the sole breadwinner of the family or even issuing an outright denial of her activities as a prostitute by mothers was a common ploy used to avoid being deported to Mindanao.

Marriage or the offer of marriage circumvented the deportation of a prostitute. The Servidumbres Dometicas of the National Archives reads that, in 1849, Romana Pablo was on the list of those to be deported to Davao but was spared from exile because of Gilberto Escueta’s request for permission to marry her. Sotera Almario was likewise spared from serving this punishment when Don Jose Maria Medina, a Spanish mestizo, requested that she be released from prison because he planned to marry her.

On another occasion, the Chief of Police of the district affirmed that Eusebio was a mujer publica, having lived with different men in the past. The recommendation of the Governor of the Province of Tondo was deportation to the south of the islands, preferably in an agricultural colony, referring to the Isla de Balabac. This recommendation was approved by Governor-General Izquierdo. Eusebia Miguel, however, did not go into exile alone; Antonio Bonifacio, a fellow prisoner of Eusebia at the Carcel de Bilibid, who was serving a sentence for estafa, asked permission from authorities to marry Eusebia and serve his sentence with Eusebia wherever she was to be deported. Not finding any objections to this proposition, Antollio Bonifacio joined Eusebia Miguel in Balabac. A new life awaited the two in the new place, exiled in Balabac as man and wife.

Marriage was viewed as a means of reforming prostitutes. For these prostitutes, marriage was thought to be a means of “sobering them up.” Based upon available records after three years, a deportee could petition the Governor-General to end her deportation.

Concern over the activities of prostitutes during the Spanish period came in the wake of the growing peril of venereal diseases during the 19th century. Syphilis was considered one of the social ills of the period. This concern necessitated surveillance of the activities of prostitutes.

There is evidence that the naval station of Cavite was hit by an epidemic of syphilis in December of 1895 prompting the Jefe de Sanidad to alert the authorities of the naval station. A number of sailors infected with syphilis were confined in a hospital in Canacao, as noted in the Philippines National Archives.

For a Filipino woman of the 19th century to sell herself was definitely an acceptable profession, as long as she had papers documenting her tax payments. Whether it was decent or not was immaterial. Some parents, for economic reasons, even consented to their daughter’s choice of occupation, looking forward to the material compensation. It was, after all, a livelihood!

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