Senate President Tito Sotto posed a startling question to Sen. Risa Hontiveros on Thursday, during his interpellation of the latter’s bill which seeks to expand the coverage of the antisexual harassment law.
It was more a rhetorical question, actually, since Sotto was more than happy to answer his own query: “For example yung sinasabi ko (what I said), binibiro lang hinipuan na ganun (as a joke, someone groped another), will they be liable? You said yes. The answer is, I think it’s no.”
What is wrong with groping a woman, indeed, if, as the groper protests, it was only meant as a joke and done with no malice?
It’s an appalling statement, but this isn’t the first time Sotto has said something like it about women and gender relations.
In the confirmation hearing of former social welfare secretary Judy Taguiwalo last year, when Sotto learned that Taguiwalo is a single parent to two children, he quipped: “In street language, when you have children and you are single, ang tawag doon ay ‘na-ano lang.’”
Further back, in an episode of the noontime show “Eat Bulaga,” the comedian-turned-senator chided a female contestant who revealed she was a victim of sexual abuse by saying it was her fault, because she drank alcohol with men: “Kababae mong tao, pa shot-shot ka? (You’re a woman, why drink with them?)”
But even for someone with as checkered a record in this regard as Sotto, his latest remarks represent a new low. With his words, the Senate president was, in effect, championing the deplorable mindset of many men who think they have all the right to feel up women in the name of fun and play (“binibiro lang”).
Women who refuse men’s unwelcome attention are seen this way as too sensitive — grim creatures who take themselves too seriously. Really, why don’t they just play along? Must they treat everything so seriously?
But this is serious business — these incidents of fondling, or “chancing,” that women so often encounter in many places; in public transport, for instance, where crowding exposes them to unwanted body contact with men.
As Hontiveros rightly said in her rebuttal, it might all be a joke for men, but unwarranted touching is no laughing matter for women: “Ang babaeng hinipuan ng lalaki, hindi po namin yun tinatanaw na biro because that truly makes women feel unsafe.”
How difficult is that to understand? It is the woman’s body that is being toyed with, so she, not the man, has the final say on how the act should be regarded.
In reality, sexual harassment — unwelcome touching, catcalling, flattering but unwanted remarks, incessant texting or stalking — has nothing to do with making the subject feel good or complimented. Being unwelcome, these acts are invasive and make women feel threatened.
Such unwanted attention also violates one’s personal space, that invisible boundary that defines what people consider their own private and safe territory.
Unwelcome touching is invading another person’s private space to indicate not only enforced intimacy, but also the exercise of power over another. The message is, “I can touch you anywhere I want anytime. What are you gonna do about it?”
Here, however, is a senator of the realm basically reaffirming that long-entrenched sense of entitlement among men to violate women’s personal space on the hoary pretext that they are just being playful.
Worse, he may not realize it, but when Sotto — as Senate president, the third highest official in the land — normalizes such invasive attention as harmless levity, the message becomes even more menacing: “Who’s gonna take you seriously?”
Some two weeks before Sotto’s “hinipuan” question on the Senate floor, the Angono police earned the ire of netizens for its well-meaning but misguided and misinformed tips on avoiding rape.
The rape prevention guidelines focused, not on sex offenders, but on how women should dress, act and generally conduct themselves.
This was classic victim-blaming, people protested, and exactly why women who are victimized hesitate to report the crime, because they fear being shamed and blamed for it.
The post was promptly taken down, with an apology from the Angono police.
No such contrition from Sotto.
Asked afterward about the firestorm on social media that his remarks had generated, the senator said he had no time “to pay attention to judgmental people.”
Now, there’s a joke.
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