With no closure from justice system, Filipino victims of sexual misconduct call out abusers online
(Last of three parts in an in-depth series.)
Calling out has existed far before the word “viral” was tied to online posts. It has been traced to black women, particularly black feminists whose voices have been shut out of the mainstream on issues such as racism and sexism. It has also been associated with public shaming, a practice once popular centuries ago and is now seeing a resurgence on social media.
Like public shaming, calling out has been criticized for inciting mob justice. However, for marginalized communities — such as women of color — it is at times the only recourse after attempting to deal with issues on their own.
But first, what is calling out?
“Moving away from the academic definition, I just call it holding people accountable for either socially or maybe morally irresponsible behavior,” said Jason Cruz, executive strategy director of ad agency Wizard Manila.
Cruz estimated that calling out became a global trend on social media around 2014 to 2015. “In the States, it started from the black community, calling out injustices to their communities, to their culture, to the fact that they get abused but from a more institutional level,” he said.
In the Philippines, women are taking to social media to talk about their experiences of sexual misconduct, at times naming their perpetrators. It is rare that such an account takes place right after the abuse is committed — often, the incident occurred years ago.
There are a host of factors on why it takes time for victims to speak up, says Nellen dela Fuente, a social worker at Tahanan Sta. Luisa in Rizal, a crisis intervention and recovery center for sexually abused street kids.
These include feelings of shame and fear; others stay in denial about what happened to them. In some cases, the incident is forgotten due to the trauma experienced, and memories return only after a triggering situation.
Filipinos’ non-confrontational culture, as well as a concern for community, may also affect how justice is sought. “As Filipinos who are mostly others-centered and palaging may malasakit sa kapwa (always have compassion for neighbors) almost to a fault, victims would likely put others first before themselves, even their own perpetrator,” child psychologist and psychosocial worker Dindi Sandoval said.
Fed up with rape culture, justice system
While a call-out can mention one perpetrator, it is also seen as taking a stand against rape culture, which perpetuates victim-blaming and normalizes men committing sexual violence.
Based on trends in the United States, the demographics of those who are likely to participate in call-out culture “lean more towards [the] liberal, progressive thinking,” said Cruz. In the Philippines, those who call out could be “more globally exposed” and would have “more progressive, more modern academic backgrounds.”
The socioeconomic background of one who would call out is likely middle to upper class since they have regular internet access and have a “safety net” which is needed in facing possible legal blows, Cruz said. He noted that a victim from an impoverished background may not feel empowered to speak up online without the money and influence of those who are more privileged.
Cruz said that social media is the “platform of choice” because it is a quick and free way to get attention. It also provides some degree of insulation, since calling out is done behind a screen.
“[Social media] gives you a little bit more courage and also it protects you from jeering looks or judgmental commentary from authorities that you are reporting it to,” Cruz said.
Sandoval, who has worked with victims of trauma under the MLAC (Mindfulness, Love and Compassion) Pyschosocial Services Inc., explained that those who speak up online find healing in sharing their trauma.
“By merely being able to share it with someone, anyone who can listen with compassion, can help ward off feelings of depression and can even prevent suicide,” she said.
Another reason: seeking justice. “Many call out because they are very frustrated with the justice system,” said Women’s Legal Bureau (WLB) executive director Jelen Paclarin, who has been in the organization for 19 years.
WLB was founded to represent women in courts for free but now only provide legal advice, given the struggle to fund cases that can last 10 to 15 years.
Barriers to justice
In the Philippines, there is no dearth of laws that can protect women against sexual violence: these include the Anti-Rape Law and the Revised Penal Code, which cover acts of lasciviousness and seduction. But implementing these laws effectively and with sensitivity to those who file cases is another matter.
When victims do report to authorities, they face prejudice, especially if social workers or police officers are not trained to be gender-sensitive, according to Liz Kollin, program officer for sexual violence of WLB.
Rather than be believed, women are doubted based on what they wore and whether they “look like a rape victim,” the stereotype of which is a woman who is “young, pretty or desirable.” These false notions have been disproven by Supreme Court cases — an 8-month-old baby has been a rape victim, as stated in “Making Sense of Rape”, a published review of Supreme Court decisions by WLB.
Still, these notions remain prevalent and can make going through the justice system sometimes even more traumatizing than the act of sexual violence itself. Paclarin says that if a woman is knowledgeable of the legal process, she is said to be taking advantage of it; if she is not, she is considered “passive” to her situation.
Victim-blaming and the psychological toll it takes are only some of the barriers to seeking justice. A lack of knowledge of the legal process, lack of a support system (such as family and NGOs to assist in the process), displacement (such as moving away or resigning from a job to get away from the perpetrator), and expenses from years of litigation can deter victims from pursuing a case.
Cautions against calling out
Paclarin warns that those calling out should be ready for the exposure and its repercussions, such as getting backlash for making an accusation online. Those who call out tend to be bullied and threatened, and can even be slapped with a cyberlibel case.
“You have to recognize the difference between the social activism of sexual violence vis-à-vis corruption. You’re sharing personal information about yourself that can be used against you in the future,” she said, advising those who plan to call out to be selective of the information which will be released.
“By sharing something too private and taboo, one is subjecting himself or herself to malicious and indifferent comments that can do more harm than good,” said Sandoval.
The credibility of online allegations has also been put into question given how easy it can be to post false accusations, or that a call-out can turn into bullying by strangers who automatically take sides.
Trish*, who called out her once-best friend Bryan* for taking advantage of her while she was unconscious, did not find cruel comments to him helpful. “You can give your support to someone without terrorizing the perpetrator. I’m not asking you to burn his house down or message him with hate, just believe me,” she said.
She also stressed that victims, especially women like her, would not deal with calling out if what they said was false. “We [women] have long been marginalized. We didn’t have the opportunity to talk about it,” she said.
“There are people possibly abusing it, and they say people could lose jobs on false accusations. That isn’t the fault of the victims,” she stressed. “That’s on the company who didn’t investigate. #MeToo is supposed to get the attention of those who should be handling it, like employers who should investigate it.”
Online clamor turns into offline action
Whatever one’s opinion of calling out is, receiving online backlash — or the fear of it — has recently pressured even academic and literary institutions to take action on allegations of sexual harassment made against its members. The courses of action have received mixed feedback, but it is at least a step forward from merely hushing up rumors on sexual predators.
One observed response to calling out sexual harassment has been to preempt the call out, as in the case of esteemed poetry collective and publication High Chair. In October, it came to light that High Chair had folded up as sexual harassment allegations toward some of its members had “divided/demoralized the group,” even if there had been no previous news or online posts about such incidents.
No other details were revealed, though speculations in the literary community are that those involved may be High Chair writers who were not listed as signatories of the statement on its site. These include male poets who are also professors.
Last October, members of the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) community launched a protest following students’ social media posts about the alleged predatory behavior of certain professors and how the university was handling sexual misconduct allegations.
The uproar from the faculty and students questioned the lack of transparency on the progress of such cases. It led to a closed-door meeting on Oct. 18 among the administration, students and faculty. University president Jett Villarin, S.J. apologized to the community, stating, “There is much we can do to make our processes more responsive, more efficient, more sensitive, more caring and more Christian.”
Days later, Villarin stated in a memo on Oct. 23 that no formal complaint for sexual harassment had been lodged against professors who were called out online, namely Mary Thomas and Jesus Deogracias Principe. Professors from the English department have also defended Thomas’ character and condemned the accusations against her.
A coalition of university students, faculty and alumni founded Time’s Up Ateneo on Oct. 15 to “consolidate efforts against sexual violence and impunity,” according to its Facebook page. It called for a no-contact order for Thomas and Principe, and argued in an open letter on Oct. 24 that “stringent requirements” prevent cases from becoming formalized.
In another case involving a different incident and institution, a call-out has progressed into legal action. In early August, science fiction writer and journalist Timothy James “TJ” Dimacali was accused of raping a poetry fellow while she was drunk at the closing ceremony of the Iligan National Writers Workshop (INWW). He was a keynote speaker and panelist at the said workshop.
The victim released a statement on Facebook in August following speculations on social media that an incident of sexual assault occurred at the workshop’s celebrations last May 2019. She did not name Dimacali. She also said that she does not recall giving him consent to do sexual acts, including oral sex.
The organizer of the event, the Mindanao Creative Writers Group, Inc. (MCWG), said in a now-deleted statement on Facebook, through workshop director Christine Godinez Ortega, that it made an investigation and found that the incident was “a private matter between two consenting adults.” The statement only came after the online clamor, even when the victim did report the incident 10 days after it occurred. The statement also named the aggrieved party but not Dimacali. Artist groups and women’s groups decried the statement, calling for an independent investigation.
Meanwhile, Dimacali denied the accusations in a Facebook post and submitted an affidavit to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR). The victim filed a rape and sexual harassment complaint before the city prosecutor’s office in Iligan on Nov. 14, as per Mindanao Gold Star Daily.
Society’s role in ending sexual violence
As seen in the cases above, calling out online is able to not only raise awareness on sexual violence and the culture that permits it — it is also able to do so in a manner quicker than if one had to go through the hoops of the justice system or call the attention of mainstream media.
But social media call-outs should not be the only means of addressing sexual violence; the fact that it is resorted to should be cause for alarm. Efforts need to be focused on preventing sexual violence, which can be done in changing the way kids are raised, and making victims feel safe to report abuses and to heal from trauma.
Call-outs of sexual violence refute myths of who or what a perpetrator is. Most of those called out tend to be someone trusted by the victim and respected by the community: a friend, a partner or even a mentor such as a teacher. Such close relationships make speaking out more daunting for victims, said Sandoval.
That most acts of violence are committed by men is a symptom of how boys are raised into men. Masculine ideals like sexual potency and physical strength come with unrealistic standards, according to research of renowned sociologist Raewyn Connell. When they are unable to reach these so-called ideals, they become insecure and entitled in asserting power — such as hurting women when their advances are rejected.
Part of raising kids could include age-appropriate sex education, such as the concept of consent. According to Sandoval, “protecting” kids from sex and not keeping them informed about it with facts makes them more prone to danger when they do encounter an issue about it.
Paclarin gave the example of her own young nephew; she says they have an agreement that she cannot kiss him in public without his consent. She explained, “I don’t want him to learn when he is older that he can kiss whoever he wants because I did that to him.”
For those who are older, she advises not to assume consent: “‘No’ does not mean pretending to be uninterested.”
Current laws do not have a legal definition of consent nor do they consider consent as a central element in the crime of rape. This has long been advocated by various groups concerned with the welfare of women and children in the country.
So important is the need for accountability and resolution of rape that it is a crime against persons. This means that anyone with knowledge of the crime may file a case on the victim’s behalf, according to the Philippine Commission on Women.
And while the inefficiencies of the justice system is discouraging, it should be a challenge for the government to improve it, said Paclarin. She also explained that it is the obligation of the state to prosecute these cases of sexual harassment and abuse.
“It is as if [the victim and her family] were wounded,” she said. “You cannot leave the wound exposed because it will worsen. The government needs to stitch it so that they can get back to normal.” JB
[Editor’s note: The real names of the parties, whenever noted (*), have been withheld per their request.]
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