Venuses of the Masses

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A recent, memorable non-fiction piece that I’ve read, written by a Filipino, is Joel Pablo Salud’s “A Venusian Tale.” This essay is part of the Blood Republic non-fiction collection.

It talks about the author’s short stint as a “creative manager” for a swanky Malate bar. I’ve written elsewhere that “A Venusian Tale” had a steady pulse that I found refreshing and intriguing at the same time, because the journo explored prostitution in Malate in a way that defeats common ‘outsider’ attempts to make sense of how it works.

Prostitution is often explored in as nothing but defilement, as if in the process of uncovering the underground economy of warm bodies, the spectator also becomes a merciless judge of humanity and morality – and the women involved are turned into helpless commodities.

We can see this process of unwitting dehumanization when prostitution dens are ‘busted’ on TV.

The maceration of womanity plays out easily enough, usually at dinnertime when everyone’s eating and hankering for the day’s news from any of the TV networks.

A footage rolls of a camera zooming in on the dark entrance of a bar/hotel/house. Then come the red flashing lights – signaling the onslaught of police forces.

Sometimes, random pistol shots will ring out. These are called ‘warning shots.’ The scene darkens and resumes in harsh fluorescent light. Women of various ages and builds are herded into police trucks like cattle. Some are even in some stage of undress – the police don’t care.

The women cover their heads in shame, fear or sheer terror.

The final scene adds the necessary element of guilt, one that people love watching. A reporter saunters close and asks one of the women: “what were you doing in there?” The woman will answer “I don’t know anything” or “I’m just a waitress.”

These women are now subjects of the state. They are also immediately held hostage by popular perception. You see, imprisonment has many forms. Iron bars are just one of the many ways that a person can be incarcerated.

They are now part of the Philippine zarzuela that is occupied by both “good guys” and “bad guys.” These women are the unspeakable ones – women who have gone over to the ‘other side,’ the irredeemable side, the side where humanity is exchanged for cash.

Salud’s “A Venusian Tale” tells a strikingly different story.

For one, the accomplices and operators are clearly outlined. Abstracted society disappears from view. The portrait of the immoral streetwalker is replaced with an image of a tired woman who cannot wait for the day to end.

Endings are beginnings. What the night ends is the struggle for material survival. Daylight reconciles the women, the streetwalkers, with the other struggles of life – parts of their lives that we know nothing about.

The cover of darkness provides the enticement to participate in alcohol binges and partake of the warm touch of a willing woman. Desire, longing and lust are rolled into a convenient transactional activity with no strings attached and no awkward calls the morning after.

Near the end of “A Venusian Tale,” the author comes into contact with one of the sex workers – a lovely lady by the name of Venus. Venus helps the author one night, when customers weren’t streaming in as they used to and the bar where the author is an undercover journalist was at risk of losing money.

Nothing in the text suggests that Venus is anything but a woman who, by chance or circumstance, works in the clandestine corners of society, sought out by the ‘respectable’ middle class locals and moneyed foreigners.

This is not to say that the fabric of her being does not buckle under the weight of her work’s hefty toll:

“During those rare occasions when she needed to squeeze out the little of what had remained of her faith in God, Venus would visit the Baclaran Church in the wee hours. She did this to avoid being seen by those she knew.” (Salud, Joel Pablo “A Venusian Tale” The Blood Republic, Makati: The Philippines Graphic Publications, Inc. 2013 p. 21)

Anonymity is a streetwalker’s shelter from pockets of moralistic rain and the harsher and more insidious hurricane of the state’s brutality. In the end, Venus, like so many others, remains in the shadows and fringes of society so that she can be left in peace.

Let the Venuses of the masses speak.

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