A “men’s wellness club” is how the floor manager Via defined Pegasus when we asked her what type of establishment the place is. Pegasus is located along Quezon Avenue and it is famed to have produced some local stars, thus it has also been known to offer the most expensive service of its kind. Fortunately, we were accompanied by Francine’s dad, who–for the lack of a better description–is a street-wise businessman who knows his community very well (since the Bharwanis reside near Quezon Avenue).
When our car stopped in front of Pegasus, a valet immediately approached us. Right then, we knew that the establishment wasn’t going to be the typical raunchy club we see in Filipino movies wherein a naive probinsyana dances hesitantly in a bikini and with tears welling up in her eyes.
Pegasus could easily pass as an ordinary lounge or bar since there are no outdoor signs that made the establishment easily identifiable; just bright neon lights that spell the name of the mythical horse. There were even tarpaulins that advertised an image model competition, so unsuspecting passers-by might think that the place is just a studio or events place.
Two in our group are still minors, so we were uncertain if we would be able to enter the place. Luckily, since we were accompanied by Mr. Bharwani, we were admitted into the club. But we were informed that ladies would be charged 500 pesos for admission.
We noticed that the ushers were apprehensive when they saw us coming in. Judging that the rest of us won’t be generous patrons, they immediately approached Mr. Bharwani. He became our liaison with the staff in the club. We really owe him a lot.
The bright purple and pink lights on stage lit the room and the faces of the people around us. There were only a few customers and most of them were foreigners. There was a duo playing old karaoke songs, which should indicate that the usual customers are from an older demographic. The dark surroundings promoted a sense of privacy and gave the customers assurance of the company’s discretion. Our seats were huge couches enough to fit around 8 people; we chose the seats in the middle of the room to get a good view of the stage and the people around us. The menu contained a short ordinary list of alcohol beverages and cocktail snacks, although the prices were not the usual ones you would see in restaurants and bars. A beer from Pegasus would cost you around 210 pesos, considering this was already one of the cheapest drinks you could get. Part of the reason why the consumables are so expensive is that it was courtesy to buy the girl you “tabled” a drink. The girls would usually order cocktails which were more expensive than other drinks because they get a percentage of the price as incentive.
But of course, most of the girls’ earnings depend on what type of job they assume in the club. In a sort of hierarchal manner, these job positions increase in price as you buy your way up the ranks, so to speak. First, the Guest Relations Officers (GROs) charge P1, 100 an hour. They are the ones who accompany you through conversations. Next are the dancers/performers on stage, who you could table for P1, 200 per hour. Finally, there are the top of the line Centerfold Models which, being the most expensive, charge P1, 500 per hour.
Moving along with the night’s events, the band’s finished performance directed our attention to center stage, just as the bright lights and loud music went off. Then, one by one, the dancers entered the stage and delivered their performance. As students seeing this for the first time, we were left uncomfortable and apprehensive by the performances beheld onstage. This left us either cross-armed or cross-legged, as compared to regular customers who were confidently leaning against the couches.
Unlike conventional strip bars, the dancers did not actually strip all their clothes off during their performances, considering that Pegasus was deemed a high-class bar. However, some of the dancers’ moves (i.e., bending over) did merit a few cheers from some of the audience members.
By the time a Centerfold Model named Demi took the stage, everybody’s attention was drawn on her. Our tag-along block mate, Geejay, even commented, “Wow, she looks so pretty and rich. Why is she doing this type of job?”
Upon interviewing the floor manager, Via, we got to know that these hired girls belonged to the 18-23 age bracket. She also shared that the amount of customers vary from day to day, and that an influx of people did not really depend on a specific day.
Although Ms. Via was able to answer most of our questions, she admitted that she felt uneasy divulging information about the specifics of the services they provide due to Pegasus’ high affirmation for privacy.
We then asked Ms. Via if she could select a GRO for us to table for an interview. This is when we were introduced to Joyce (stage name), who approached us with a smile. We did feel, however, that she was somewhat bewildered, as we did not look like the usual paying customers. She sat down with us and we customarily offered to order her a drink, by which she got a cocktail.
Joyce openly answered all our questions with a smile, and it really did not take long for her to warm up to us. She began by relating that she has been working under Pegasus since July 2012 (7 months), wherein she works 6 days a week and relies mostly on tips and commission (350 commission an hour with customer).
Having finished a degree in nursing with the help of her uncle, Joyce shared that this was not the line of work she dreamed of. Due to unexpected pregnancy with her boyfriend at that time—who still sends in financial support for their child from the U.S.—she was not able to take up the board exams. But of course, she wanted to find a job that could sustain her child and family by her own means, and this was when she was introduced to the idea of working in Pegasus by her friend. We even remember her saying that she overlooked other options and immediately grabbed this job opportunity.
The stresses of being selected in the tabling process and consequently entertaining the customers roughed up Joyce’s first few weeks in Pegasus. But even though she gave herself only a week to last with that kind of job, she still persisted with a little help from the club’s management. Plus, the decent salary contributed to her decision.
But of course, some nights are not endowing as others. On bad nights, Joyce does not earn anything. Luckily, she averages an income of P2, 000 – P3, 000 from tips every night, not counting the occasional blowouts which see her earning up to P10, 000.
Another setback, aside from the risk of not earning anything for a night, was the risk of being courted by her customers. Joyce explained that having relationships with customers were absolutely prohibited by the management. She related that this was a precautionary measure done by the management in order to assure that they would not be held liable in case something bad happens to their employees.
Although Joyce has been working in Pegasus for quite some time now, she shared that one of her biggest fears is encountering someone she knows in the club. She admitted that she has not told her family about her job yet. All they know is that she is working as a call center agent. She said that it would be better for her family to find out only when she is not working in Pegasus, as she would be able to refer to it only as something she did in the past.
Despite all these, Joyce still pursues this line of work because she ultimately wants to be a nurse abroad, and that the money she earns here can help her save up for that dream. Besides, she related that the management makes it easy for her to come to terms with her job. They always prioritized their welfare through medical check-ups, and they always ensured that the girls were treated with respect. And of course, the bond and healthy competitive relationship Joyce has formed with her co-workers makes her stay in Pegasus worthwhile.
In the end, Pegasus was really just a place to escape to—whether it is the paying customers looking for a break from work, or even Joyce who wanted to escape her financial dilemma. Some nights even called her to make a conversation with the customer and just bond; because really, more than the half-naked dance performances, this profession existed to fill the need for human connection and communication. The funny thing, though, was that in a place where people come for company, at the end of our conversation, it was Joyce who was able to find company in us.
1. What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?
One of the perks we noticed from conducting a participation observation was that we were able to actually get close and make the people feel comfortable in our presence as we observe because we were part of the activity rather than feeling awkward if we were just to observe and interview them. This is something we achieved through ordering beers, watching the live performances and participating in the process of ‘tabling’ a girl and making casual conversation with her. This allows us to collect sensitive data that people of a certain community would not share easily to outsiders; it also allowed us to get more accurate and genuine responses, as sometimes people tend to change their reactions around outsiders.
There is a sort of duality involved in participant observation because you have to be actively involved in the activity but at the same time be very critical in analyzing what is happening around you. In a way this is duality of roles is what is challenging in doing participant observations.
Participant observation also helped us ask the right questions when it was time to conduct an interview. It gave us a new perspective and a deeper understanding of the activity and the people in a given instance that our questions became more critical and better versed than us merely observing from a distance.
One other challenge we faced in doing participant observation was objectivity. When one would do a simple observation, he/she must do so in an objective manner; free from bias and emotional influences and factor. In doing participant observation, since it required actual participation in the activities, it became increasingly difficult for each of us to separate ourselves from our biases, cultural, religious and personal beliefs because we ourselves become part of the activity.
All in all, we really enjoyed and learned to appreciate participant observations because it was a way to connect the researcher to the most basic human experiences, learning bit by bit the reason and the process of why certain things are the way they are.
2. What did having a key informant add to your understanding?
Participant observation gave us a glimpse and a point of entry into understanding another part of nightlife in Pegasus, but though talking to Joyce, we were able to truly look at the situation through a specific life story.
Observation gave us a general overview and flow of how things work and how people relate with each other in Pegasus, but it was through getting to know Joyce and asking her a few questions we started to build the puzzle of the lives that make up this activity. In a way, participant observation helped us with our key informant, because she was more comfortable sharing her stories with us, and it allowed us to ask deeper questions because we already got first hand experience of how things are in Pegasus.
3. What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
We believe if we did a questionnaire or an interview right away, our informants would not be comfortable sharing personal and sensitive information with us since we were strangers to them. This would increase the chances that they would distort the information they give us to comply with certain norms within the society, which are expected from them.
In our case, the people would have treated us differently if we did not approach the study as a participant. The manager, Via would probably withhold more information about the management and Joyce would not be so willing sharing her story with us. With conducting questionnaires and interviews we tend to get more general answers and there would be less pursuit in further elaboration. In terms of the interviewer or the observer, it is also very limiting because he/she would just stick to asking normal and general information. Questionnaires allow for the collection of data in large quantities but not really giving you a deep understanding on the subject of interest, unlike participant observation, which allows you to get to know the people and the situation they are in.
4. For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?
Questionnaires and interviews are used when the researcher’s subjective input is not needed. A questionnaire would be most useful in collecting large amounts of data in the least amount of time. It would also be beneficial to use this method to obtain general answers that can easily transcribed into numerical data/ statistics.