In all my pieces for Davao Today, I try my utmost to give a different take, or be able to say something new, about the issue at hand. If I didn’t write about a topic, chances are someone somewhere had already said what I think should be said. So, I would normally just sit back and let things be just to lessen the textual bulk to which many of us are subjected to in the everyday.
Not this time. This time, what I have to say has been said a million times over, and it has likewise been ignored a million times over, especially by the very people who should be hearing and understanding this message.
A few months ago, the UP Mindanao community suffered an ugly spate of violations against some of our female students. The suspects were strangers – habal-habal drivers or an unknown man who tried to break into a boarding house. Among the responses of school and local government authorities was to conduct students assemblies and fora to discuss safety and prevention of crimes against women and young girls.
Though well-intentioned, these public discussions were still rife with archaic notions of gender roles and causes of sex crimes. In one forum, there was a palpable gasp from the audience when an official said that dressing “sexy” would “invite” potential predators. What was notable for me was that the audience, which was made up almost completely of UP Mindanao students, was aware (and unabashed) enough to make their disagreement known with regard to that pronouncement. The University Student Council and student groups Gabriela-Youth, Pi Sigma-Pi Sigma Delta, and Beta Sigma Fraternity and Sorority, perhaps at seeing how such ways of thinking ultimately did not help the problem it sought to solve, initiated another educative forum, this time, on rape culture and how to combat it.
The speaker was Ms. Jeanette Laurel-Ampog of Talikala, Inc. an NGO that reaches out to prostituted women and girls to provide them with counselling, assistance, and educational support to break the cycle of exploitation in which they are caught. No other better speaker indeed, because working with individuals who have been forced into the sex trade shatters many of the stereotypes about not just prostitution, but about relations between men and women in the Philippine context.
To begin with Ms. Laurel-Ampog (who is a long time women’s advocate and a mother of one of our Anthropology graduates) clarified that there is no such thing as “attempted rape”. Even without penetration, the mere touching of organs already constitutes rape. The lack of penetration therefore cannot be used as an excuse for a lesser charge. Also, though I already knew that a large number of rapes happened between persons who already knew each other (family members, friends, romantic partners), I didn’t know that the numbers were substantially disproportionate: less than ten percent are what can be called “blitz” rapes, meaning surprise attacks by a complete stranger on an unsuspecting victim.
This could be more skewed still given the fact that violations between people who know each other (like incest, date rapes and marital rapes) go largely unreported for various reasons, such as shame, strong discouragement from other family members (why report your lecherous padre de familia, or breadwinner if it means going hungry?), and even confusion by victims (he is my boyfriend, we love each other, he told me he would stand by me no matter what).
The problem is, the “blitz” rape is the “kind” of rape that pervades the news, popular media, and common thinking in general. This then gives rise to the notion that, like other “blitz” crimes like petty theft or getting mugged on the street, the onus is placed on potential victims to stop flashing their fancy cell phones (or legs) in public lest they “invite” the crime that would befall them.
Unfortunately, this is exactly how crimes against women and girls are often framed – including during the occasions they were discussed in UP Mindanao in the aftermath of those incidents. What results then are simplistic admonitions against wearing shorts and going out after dark, which opens the door to victim-blaming a-plenty: a woman’s own clothing and her own behavior are significant factors leading to – if not the actual cause of – her being attacked.
But rape isn’t as simple as being unable to “control” “natural” urges (i.e., when a man sees bare legs, “naturally” he will be aroused). Besides, this way of thinking also devalues men into being portrayed as unthinking deviants. As Ms. Laurel-Ampog reminds us, sex crimes are crimes of power. They are committed by persons who wish to demonstrate their superiority over their victims. They are related to other power relations in an unequal society. Reducing these incidents to “urges” and “natural” behavior obfuscates the historical roots of patriarchy, or the present dominance of a commodified (and commodifying) way of life.
I was asked to be a reactor at that forum, although to be honest, I could only react to agree with the resource speaker. The thing is, though I did learn a couple of new facts, I already knew most of what she shared at that forum through reading reliable articles, talking to and working with gender advocates, and sharing experiences with fellow women. These are the facts that will be gathered by those who have dared to ask why women are told not to stay out late at night while men are excused for behaviours that make it difficult for women to go out at night to begin with. These are the answers that any person of any gender who has consciously worked to make him/herself aware will know once they have seen the need to explain – and change – the unequal conditions they see pervading society. These are already there if only we care to open our minds and reexamine old beliefs and change stereotyped notions.
During this trying period I have seen many UP Mindanao students and younger faculty demonstrate a much higher level of awareness and opinion-making based upon sound evidence and a better grasp of progressive gender discourse than their supposedly authoritative elders. What I think this means is that after many repetitions—and struggles—the liberative discourse on gender has finally gained strong roots among the young. The generational divergence that seems to be showing at present signals hope: out of something old is emerging something new.