Curse of Cybersex: The Lost Children of Cebu

By Katrin Kuntz

Cybersex is a big business in a city on the Filipino island of Cebu. To escape poverty, parents force their children to strip in front of webcams. City officials are fighting back in an attempt to prevent sexual exploitation from destroying a generation.

Behind the closed door of her office, Angeles Gairanod is sitting in front of her laptop, replaying the video that changed everything in her small city. The clip shows three girls lying naked on a bed in their hut. The girls are 11, 9 and three. What ensues is sexual abuse. Three minutes into it, their mother appears in the picture and also engages in acts of sexual abuse with her children. The video, shot in Gairanod's city, not far from her office, is three years old.

It's February 2014, she says after showing the video. "This sort of thing happens here every day."

Gairanod, 53, is a petite woman with a bob hairstyle and pearl earrings, the deputy mayor of Cordova, a sleepy city on the eastern coast of the Filipino island of Cebu. The densely populated municipality of 53,000 also includes large numbers of children. Banana and mango trees grow along the roads. During the day, the men drive their rickshaws along gravel paths, and at night they go fishing in rowboats. The women do the laundry and cook rice over sooty fire pits. Scruffy dogs, some that hardly seem alive, lie beneath the trees. More than 40 percent of the population of Cordova lives below the poverty line. There are few cars and most of the homes here are wooden huts.

Gairanod says her city wasn't a bad place before it gained worldwide notoriety as a production site for cybersex, and adults began selling their children on camera. Everything changed three years ago, when the children's aunt, no longer able to stomach what was happening, brought a memory stick containing the film to her office.

In the Philippines, incitement for cybersex can fall under human trafficking statutes. The penalties are high. Under the law, offenders can be sent to prison for between 15 years and life.

Gairanod has been on a mission since the first arrests were made in Cordova. Every morning at 10, she arrives in her office at the town hall, a large, beige building with a health clinic, offices for the town's three social workers and a 78-year-old mayor who delegates all the work to Gairanod. For her part, Gairanod is just trying to figure out ways to prevent the city's children from being harmed in the future.

A Pervasive Problem

She knows that cybersex has become a hidden source of income for the poorest of the poor in the Philippines in recent years, a business worth billions -- and one in which anyone with an Internet connection and a Web camera can get involved. In areas where there is no tourism, like her small city, it's the only form of prostitution.

Employees of Terre des Hommes, a humanitarian organization focusing on children's rights, were recently in Cordova. As part of a study on "webcam child sex tourism" on the island of Cebu, they also interviewed residents of the city. Gairanod was horrified to hear that tens of thousands of children in the Philippines between the ages of 7 and 17 work in the business, and that about 750,000 customers are online worldwide at any given time. But then she felt almost relieved when she realized that the problem wasn't confined to Cordova.

The problem is a product of the unusual confluence of poverty and an excellent digital infrastructure that is especially pronounced in Southeast Asia. In 2013, Asia had 1.3 billion Internet users, the largest number of any region worldwide. Access to the Internet continues to grow in countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia, which have become hot spots for cybersex.

"Ibabao has the most stable Internet connection in the city," says Deputy Mayor Gairanod, referring the neighborhood where the sex video she showed was filmed. She turns her Hyundai onto a gravel path, the only access point to the neighborhood and its 8,200 residents, at around noon. After seeing the 2011 video, she ordered that all Internet connections be registered, and soon the number of connections dropped from about 1,000 to only about 100. But the production of cybersex videos continued on mobile devices, smartphones and iPads, which connect to the Internet using WiFi.

Gairanod sees it as a declaration of war.

She steers her car past children playing in the sand and mangy dogs scavenging in a pile of garbage. The air is humid from the rain that fell the night before, and the smell of grilled fish and earth blows in through the car window. Gairanod is driving too fast. She doesn't like to be seen in the streets of Ibabao, where the people watch as she drives by. In fact, Gairanod would rather not get out of the car.

During the tour, she occasionally points to a hut and shouts bits and pieces of a story over the music playing in her car. As she drives, she tells stories of various cases of sexual abuse in the neighborhood, some so graphic they are unfit for publication. There is the neighbor who turned a family in, she says, the man who rents out his laptop and there, she says, pointing to a house, there was something with a cat. Or was it a dog?

Gairanod laughs. She once studied law, and her father was a judge, so she knows how to systematically take action against injustice. But the situation here is different.

The small city for which Gairanod feels responsible hasn't just become an enormous daily challenge for her. Cordova is a culture in which people pretend that open secrets don't exist, especially one as disgraceful as this.

Dubious 'Family' Businesses

It's difficult to understand how parents can reach a point where they would abuse their own children, especially in the Philippines, where the role of family is so important. In many cases, though, adults don't see anything particularly objectionable about posing in front of the camera. They argue that no real abuse takes place, that there is no rape and that the chats and live images of naked children are still better than conventional prostitution.

There are even cases in which several families share a laptop and build a business at home, or in which youths prostitute themselves in separate booths at Internet cafés. In the "peso peso cafés," where there are no attendants, they can go online for a few coins, so that cybersex becomes available to anyone.

Of course, Cordova isn't the only place in the Philippines where children are abused in front of web cams. It is, however, a place where the world knows about it, in the wake of a few local raids and one major, international one.

In 2012, British police officials discovered child pornography from Cordova on the computer of a man known by the authorities to be a consumer of child porn. In the ensuing operation, dubbed Endeavour, involving investigators from 12 countries, 29 people were arrested worldwide. Eleven of them had presumably developed a network in Cordova and earned more than €45,000 ($62,000) with the online abuse of children. The agents secured about 4 million images of abuse, and 15 children aged 6 to 15 were brought to safety. "It's a terrible blemish," says Gairanod.

The question is what she can do to correct the problem.

After the tour of Ibabao, she takes us past the supermarket and the police station, where there is one person in jail for attempting to steal the gates to the cemetery at night. She invites us to her house for a meal of grilled fish, and as we arrive she drives past the 98 fighting cocks her husband keeps in the yard. During the meal, she talks about her dream of saving the city, and about the kind of child Mary Rose* once was.

'Show-Shows' and 'Chit-Chats'

Today Mary Rose is sitting in the living of a small yellow house in Ibabao, where she lives with her parents and five of her nine siblings. She is 20, a friendly but shy young woman. There are teddy bears on the sofa next to her, and there are pictures of saints on the wall. Lothar, Garry, Kieth and Watch Men used to gaze into her dark, windowless room, when Mary Rose was still taking her clothes off for them.

"I did a show for them," says Mary Rose. Here they call it "show-show" or "chit-chat." In Visayan, one of the languages spoken in the Philippines, repeating words is a way to minimize their impact. She referred to her customers as "Mister." Her career began with an invitation from a neighbor who owned a laptop and promised her a boyfriend from America. The man's name was Garry, and he sent her money through Western Union in return for Mary Rose taking off her clothes.

A show cost 2,000 pesos, or €32 ($44), and it lasted until the customer climaxed.

For two years, Mary Rose went to her neighbor's house every night. She and other female friends would undress, fondle themselves and dance in front of the camera. Mary Rose was deeply ashamed each time she did it. But, she told herself, Garry is on the other side of the world. It meant that he could remain a virtual person. In fact, she thought, maybe he isn't even a real person.

But Garry liked Mary Rose, and soon he paid her to buy her own laptop.

Mary Rose launched her own business at home. Her parents didn't like what she was doing, nor did they like the fact that she had begun skipping school because she was tired. But her father earned the equivalent of only a few euros a week selling stone. With the money that Garry had sent, the family was finally able to tile the kitchen floor.

Mary Rose found new customers on Yahoo Messenger, she says, customers like Lothar, Kieth and Watch Men. She began inviting her female friends to participate. Sometimes there were up to 10 girls at a time, performing seven shows at night and the next morning.

Lothar also wanted to see children.

Rich, white men are still afforded king-like status in this part of the Philippines, so the girls obliged Lothar. One of the girls brought along her baby. The child was already naked, says Mary Rose. She says they only played with the boy and didn't abuse him. She says the infant may not even have noticed someone was watching on the screen.

But one day there was an argument over Garry, says Mary Rose. He played Mary Rose and the neighborhood girls off against each other. The pressure was too much for Mary Rose, and when she started having crying fits, her mother reported the neighbors to the police.

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1. optional
peskyvera 04/17/2014
The West has become a decadent society.
2.
thomas smith 04/17/2014
this is admirable, but it seems to me the real fight should be to provide enough income for the families so that sex work is not the only viable source of income. quote: "She steers her car past children playing in the sand and mangy dogs scavenging in a pile of garbage" in this scenario sex work is a rational choice.
3. Cebu
broremann 04/18/2014
sexual exploitation in all its form is reprehensible, but it is a result of poverty, and it is needs that must be address first, with our capitalist economy there wil always be pockets of utter wretchedness around the world
4. Capitalism and Poverty
stever_sau 04/23/2014
You're right, capitalism is indeed part of the problem. Every time any other way is tried you get a mass of poverty with pockets of fabulous wealth. Surely the demand for such debauchery will decline when most cannot afford enough food to eat, and those who do have the money, well, they will not have to settle for getting it over the internet, they will just buy the children and keep them on their estates, dachas, and Places.
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