When the #MeToo movement exploded onto the collective consciousness of the United States in 2017, it prompted a years-long reckoning—one that’s still ongoing—with the country’s history of pervasive sexism and sexual abuse.
A year later, the Philippines had its moment too, with the #BabaeAko (“I’m a woman”) campaign launching a scathing indictment of the misogyny of the country’s political class, particularly as embodied in the swaggering, tough-talking President Rodrigo Duterte.
Now, two years after that, a new movement, this one called #HijaAko (“I’m a girl”), is taking aim at a broader toxic culture of casual misogyny, demeaning rhetoric, and victim-blaming that has long been a fact of life for women in the archipelago’s often-macho culture.
And it’s gathering momentum, at least in part, thanks to “disgusting” revelations about the employees of a local cookie company.
The revelations came to light last week when model and TV host Kim Cruz came forward with allegations that male employees of Cookies By The Bucket, a local chain, had distributed her and other women’s addresses, phone numbers, and photos in private chat groups, along with a torrent of lewd comments.
Screenshots of the private conversation between the men came from an unidentified informant who introduced herself as a former “student baker” for the company who said she quit because she thought the executives were “disgusting.”
“I heard them talking about the female influencers that they want to bang,” the informant wrote. “They collect your personal information and pass it from one executive to another.”
Other influencers have come forward to say they experienced something similar. Based on screenshots shared, the employees were kind and disarming to the women to their faces, sending messages dotted with smiley faces, asking for an address and contact person for cookie delivery. But behind the scenes, it was a different story.
“[T]hese pervs are spreading private addresses and numbers given to them for marketing purposes [it] is sickening,” Cruz said.
“I am sick of men getting away with things like these,” she continued, “and I am tired of seeing women traumatized by how they’re objectified and treated.”
The controversy prompted Cookies By The Bucket to post an apology on Facebook, signed by CEO Francis Mariano, saying “certain issues have surfaced recently” and that the people involved were fired. The apology has since been taken down.
By then, however, the revelations had already been widely circulated as emblematic of the culture #HijaAko is seeking to change, sparking online conversations about how Filipino men treat women behind closed doors. Trending over the weekend, Cruz’s original tweet now has over 22,700 likes, and has inspired other women to step forward with their story.
The most visible example of the Philippines’ macho culture is Duterte, the man who once told a woman to kiss him on the lips in front of the press, and who joked that he “should have been first” in line for the 1989 gang rape of an Australian missionary who was subsequently murdered during a prison riot that occurred under his watch as mayor of Davao. Duterte and his supporters have long justified these and other incidents as playful, and therefore acceptable, banter.
“This normalisation of the license to degrade and harass women, despite national Anti-Sexual Harassment Laws, ties well with Duterte’s blatant and arrogant display of power with impunity,” Leonora Angeles, a University of British Columbia associate professor of women’s and gender studies, told VICE.
This “free pass” is also afforded to men whenever people trivialise male aggression and misogyny with sayings like “boys will be boys,” and “it’s just locker-room talk.”
Since its inception just this month, #HijaAko has been calling out this brand of toxic masculinity, while also seeking to shift the blame for harassment and abuse from the survivors to the perpetrators.
The hashtag was born when television and radio host Ben Tulfo tweeted at female Gen Z internet personality Frankie Pangilinan, who had recently spoken out against a police missive urging women to dress modestly. In his tweet, Tulfo said “sexy ladies” should be careful with how they dress because they are “inviting the beast.”
Textbook victim-blaming insinuations aside, in the tweet, Tulfo referred to Pangilinan as “hija,” or “daughter/girl,” which many read as condescending, prompting Filpino women to reclaim the word, using #HijaAko to share their own experienes of sexual harassment and misogyny.
As Angeles points out, receptive audiences in the Philippines not only exempt personalities like Tulfo from rebuke, but enable their behavior.
“This uncritical audience of moviegoers, radio listeners, and TV watchers have enabled media personalities like the Tulfo Brothers—known for their machismo and bombastic and abrasive form of doing public service on air—and television networks to cover rape, domestic violence, and other forms violence against women in sensationalised ways,” Angeles said.
That environment of enabling appears to have even trickled into Filipino schools.
On Wednesday, another netizen came forward with her own story about how one of her male teachers at an all-girls high school regularly sent her inappropriate messages about one of her classmates. She said that her former teacher confided his feelings to her and guilted her into not telling anyone about it. The Twitter thread went viral and has led to other students from the school to share their own stories of sexism and harassment.
These are just the latest incidents exposing rampant sexism behind closed doors, but they aren’t the first. In 2018, a fraternity from the University of the Philippines came under fire when it was linked to unverified screenshots of sexist chat threads.
“Son of a bitch, these women. They keep on talking. Everyone knows that the reason the Lord gave them mouths is so that they could use them for blowjobs,” one message read.
Earlier that year, Pick-Up Artist (PUA) Academy, a business that coaches men on dating, was exposed for the sexism, lewdness, and objectification inherent in practices like “lay reports,” wherein members shared descriptive stories and photos of their sexual conquests, reportedly without consent in many cases.
Indeed, the incidents all share a common thread: though they happened in private, the attitudes developed in these closed forums could potentially lead to other forms of sexual harassment.
According to Marshall University, rape culture is “perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.”
This rationalisation of “locker room talk,” or passing off degrading comments as “just words,” has a direct connection to the normalisation—and by extension, prevalence—of sexual violence.
As psychologist Pamela Paresky put it when describing the phenomenon: “Words are among the basic building blocks that create our reality. A person sees life through a lens that is in part created by the words that describe what he or she sees.”
On June 16, the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights posted a graphic on Facebook that shows how tolerating microaggressions—things like victim-blaming, “locker room talk,” and rape jokes—works to support and excuse increasingly more dangerous behaviours. It illustrated how degration, including catcalling, stalking, and nonconsensual lewd photos, builds a foundation for the removal of autonomy and, in turn, sexual violence.
“While there is clearly a pervasive toxic masculinity going on under Duterte’s leadership and signaling ‘this is fair game,’ we also need to question the assumption of a ‘hegemonic masculinity’ that is totalising, universal, and permanent,” UBC professor Angeles said.
Angeles said she sees Filipino masculinity as plural, diverse, contradictory, and open to change — and added that she hoped Filipinos of all gender identities are capable of intervening in this critical historical moment to work for lasting change.
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