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Philippines webcam child abuse arrests come after decades of exploitation and inequality

Long before the advent of the internet, the Philippines was a prime destination for Western child sex tourists. The US military presence in the country during and following the Vietnam War fuelled a demand…

Poverty and population growth have driven child exploitation in the Philippines for decades. Pat Roque/AP

Long before the advent of the internet, the Philippines was a prime destination for Western child sex tourists. The US military presence in the country during and following the Vietnam War fuelled a demand for prostitution that has grown today to massive proportions.

It was in this context that 17 British men and three Australians were arrested as part of an international police operation to disrupt a Philippines-based network that charged money to stream online video of children being sexually abused. Investigations in 14 countries have led to 29 arrests in the case overall, including 11 in the Philippines.

The investigation in the Philippines has focused on an impoverished village on Cebu island, which is a well-known hub for child prostitution of “alarming” proportions. It has been estimated that up to 80 households in the village are alleged to have been involved in the live streaming of child abuse.

NGOs report that tens of thousands of other children may be subject to similar abuse. Parents rent computers and UBS internet connections locally and then use internet chatrooms to find potential “clients” and negotiate a fee, which is then paid through international money transfers.

The online abuse of children has been characterised by Western law enforcement as an emerging threat to children. The involvement of parents has been reported with apparent shock. However, the live streaming of sexual abuse from the Philippines to the West is the online form of a pattern of sexual exploitation that has been occurring for decades – and which has its roots in the country’s long-standing economic problems.

The sex tourism economy

The poorest areas of the Philippines have the highest population growth; they face systemic undernourishment, poor education and health, and limited economic opportunities. Nearly 20% of the Filipino population lives below the poverty line despite the country’s macroeconomic growth.

Such dire conditions create a population of desperate parents who are widely taken advantage of by pimps, traffickers and abusive Westerners. In 2010, Unicef estimated that between 60,000 and 100,000 Filipino children have been victimised by prostitution rings. The production of child pornography in the Philippines occurs on an industrial scale, and is estimated to generate up to US$1 billion a year.

The Philippines' lax enforcement of laws against prostitution and child abuse can be explained by the economic prominence of tourism, which is deeply intertwined with the sex trade. So bad is the Philippines' reputation in this area that in 2011, the then-US ambassador Harry Thomas stated that “maybe up to 40%” of foreign men visiting the Philippines are sex tourists.

Meanwhile, as demonstrated by recovery efforts after the recent typhoon, corruption is still rife; prostitution and abuse are routinely overlooked, and attempts to prosecute foreigners for child sex abuse can be stymied by bribes.

Adding to these factors is the hugely increased regulation and punishment of child sexual abuse in Western countries since the 1980s, which has very likely helped drive the growth of child prostitution and pornography in the Philippines and South-East Asia in general. Therefore, fearing exposure in their own countries, Western sex offenders have long travelled to the Philippines in order to sexually abuse children with impunity.

Increased access to the internet in the Philippines has, it seems, made such travel redundant, since the sexual and economic vulnerability of Filipino children can now be exploited from afar. But the role of online technology in this abuse should not eclipse the core issues that render Filipino children vulnerable in the first place. Prostituted minors have reported that they entered the sex trade because there was too little to eat at home, and they had to find any employment possible to keep their families alive.

The online abuse of Filipino children by Western men cannot be disentangled from the terrible deprivation of the communities they grew up in, or the decades-long history of Westerners prostituting and sexually abusing Filipino children and women. The live streaming of sexual abuse from developing to developed countries is simply a new technological development in a long history of exploitation and inequality. Until that inequality is addressed, the highly profitable sexual abuse it fosters will continue to flourish.

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14 Comments sorted by

  1. Pat Moore


    Only 29 arrested...must be a tiny tip of a large iceberg. A very sad world.

    The sexual opportunism of some Western men seems to know no bounds.

  2. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email

    I remember the Philippine/Australia Friendship Society visitors touring left and industrial centres in the 70's. They told of how the US Sixth, or Seventh Fleets, was prostituting their children in and around Subic Bay. Many years later, while reading an auto-bio of an Australian Navy Commander, I noted that he was quoted as saying that whichever fleet it was was synonymous with child sex. I can't remember who it was, so no reference.

    I write this only because there is only one prior comment and the subject is far too important to let pass without discussion.

    So, here we go: I never went to the Philippines because, even thirty years ago, it had a dirty and unsavoury rep as a destination for child sex abusers.

    Now you: do you know a man or a group of men who ever went to the Philippines or Thailand on their own or in exclusively male company? Like a footy team end of year tour or a corporate reward? If you do,what do you imagine they went there for?

    1. Bernard Linden

      logged in via email

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      I'm interested in the absence of conversation here, too. Is the topic too awful, or perhaps any comment seems glib in the face of the story?

    2. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email

      In reply to Bernard Linden

      I don't get it either Roger but I'll take this chance to thank the author for persisting in publishing informed criminology. Maybe we've hit compassion fatigue in Australia for stories of sex abuse? It just goes on and on, until we stop it.

    3. Jeremy Culberg

      Electrical Asset Manager at Power Generation

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      Anthony, I know of one group that will regularly do Thailand for other reasons - body builders. There are various performance (or image) enhancing drugs available there at a fraction of the cost of Australia, and in the broadest sense, not illegal.
      But otherwise, I agree. Thailand and the Philippines do have a reputation, which is not enhanced when travelling there for corporate business reasons, and being offered by the hosting company pretty much as many women as you'd like (Thailand in 2006).

    4. Elly Cooper


      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      Couldn't agree more - your final paragraph says it all.

      We need to see the perpetrators of child sexual abuse for who they are; common, everyday men who take the opportunity, or make the opportunity to violate our most vulnerable. These everyday men as I call them are almost protected by the general population who refuse to acknowledge what they are doing on these trips, or find the subject to disturbing to discuss or contemplate.

      I can recall hearing stories, not whispers but jovial laughs, about men and their "fun" in Thailand. Whether it be footy teams, corporate groups, friends travelling for some "man time". I cannot recall anything but laughter around these stories. We need to see them for who they are and what they are doing to destroy other people.

      Imagine if the general population changed their language around this issue.

    5. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email

      In reply to Elly Cooper

      Thanks Elly. I'm 'out' on the issue of being a victim of familial CSA, in public, here and there on the net. I'm not an activist, member of any organization, or campaigner of any sort, but I do speak as a victim, with intimate knowledge of the lifetime price that is paid.

      International travel has allowed for the externalization of the commodification of dominant (hegemonic) masculinity's desire, need it seems, to violate children.

      I will alarm you and perhaps others now by arguing that men who are perpetrators are so unhuman, so socially underdeveloped, that the only way in which they will ever learn the seriousness of their breach of social trust is to send a message to them through the medium of the body. One such as will never be forgotten.

      Yep, flog them. They will learn that way and no other.

    6. Elly Cooper


      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      Anthony, that is heartbreaking. My thoughts are with you. No words can convey the depth of pain you have been through. My only hope is that there are enough people who have had enough - enough of the silence, enough of the enabling, enough of the denying. I don't know the answers or the fix. I only offer opinion on what I have seen and experienced that allows this criminal behaviour to continue.

    7. Nicky Davis

      Survivor of clergy child sexual abuse

      In reply to Elly Cooper

      Indeed. We need to call them what they are, rapists.

      Just like giggling about "kiddie fiddler" priests, the jovial acceptance of child rape tourism is part of the problem.

      It is hard in the face of such an appalling situation to know what to do to help.

      But not accepting or laughing about this practice by western abusers, is one thing we can all do.

  3. Suzy Gneist
    Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

    It says (too) much about Western society/attitudes and is sadly still far too common - I really can't imagine how anyone can personally justify this behaviour yet present a 'normal' face in everyday life.

  4. John Doyle


    Shows how out of touch I am.
    I knew about such exploitation in Thailand and Cambodia, but nothing about the Philippines.
    It's not surprising, a combination of overpopulation among the poor, [no doubt the heavy hand of the catholic church there] and a way out for the poor to survive. Necessity overrides scruples.
    The Philippines has 98 million people and is hardly the most prosperous group of islands in the world.
    I see the church as yet again a contributor to child sex problems.
    Getting out of inequality is a non starter until population is stabilised.

  5. Pat Moore


    Predatory opportunism, transgression, sadistic exploitation of the vulnerable looms large in the history of Western male sexuality in patriarchal culture....spoils to the victor. Eva Keul's book "The Reign of the Phallus" examined ancient Athens at the height of its empire when the landed male citizen had a veritable smorgasboard of sexual choices, including boys, slave-prostitutes, courtesan-mistresses and wife locked up at home to ensure the patriarchal bloodline. History suggests that sexual pathology is inherent to the culture and possibly genetically inlaid.

    The power differential between perpetrator and victim expressed in abuse is the exciting thing to the perverted. Western culture now dominates the globe and the internet provides a new arena of possibilities. Predatory lust is globalised.

  6. Jan Stewart

    logged in via Facebook

    The internet has become the most powerful way to reduce women and children to commodities.....they are no longer people. You only need to look at the advertising of babeis for adoption from all over the world.....let alone the use and abuse of poor marginalised countries for sex.