I was in a hotel elevator with another man, probably involved in maintenance. The elevator door opened and a bellboy stepped in, giving a side glance to the maintenance person. The elevator moved a few floors up, and when it opened, the bellboy, used a rolled newspaper that he had been holding to tap the other guy’s crotch—a bit like a monarch knighting someone except on the wrong part of the body—then stepped out.
Were they secret lovers? Or members of some frat or cult with secret gestures?
No, and no. Such scenes are actually quite common in the Philippines, so common we don’t notice, but I did because it reminded me of a topic for my column, which I’ve postponed for various reasons.
Flashback to the year 2008, when I received a fax from a barrister (lawyer) in Hong Kong asking if I could testify in behalf of a Filipina domestic worker who had been accused of sexually molesting her ward, a 4-year-old boy. She had been arrested and jailed, and the trial was about to begin. The lawyer, a warm and kindly British man who had been extending legal assistance to overseas Filipinos in Hong Kong, said the Philippine consulate would shoulder my airfare and living expenses.
The employers charged the domestic worker with sexual molestation because their son had allegedly complained about her kissing his private parts. They called in the police, who arrested the Filipina and put her in jail, where she languished for several days. The poor domestic worker pleaded that there was no malice involved, and that she did that to her own sons as well back home.
I was supposed to testify as an anthropologist and to explain that this practice is indeed common in the Philippines and has no sexual meanings. I had a long session with the defense lawyer who warned me what to expect in court.
It was indeed grueling in court. The courtroom was cold and the stern-faced magistrate or judge came out in robes and a wig, in the British tradition. The judge and the prosecution lawyer were Chinese and were clearly unsympathetic to the Filipina, who kept crying during the session. I could imagine how traumatizing all this was for the woman, who had no relatives and few friends, this being her first overseas assignment.
I explained I had seen variations of the practice in the Philippines, ranging from gently rubbing, to fondling, and yes, even kissing, but that there was no malice involved, the women explaining this is done out of “gigil,” an overwhelming feeling of delight and affection. Fathers do not usually do this, to their sons or daughters, and as the child grows older, maybe aged four or five, the mother refrains from the practice.
“What is the prevalence of this practice?” the prosecutor asked, making it sound almost like a disease. I replied, “fairly widespread” and the prosecutor asked if there had been surveys on the practice. I said no, holding myself back from retorting that it would be ridiculous to do research going door to door asking mothers if they did or didn’t.
The testimony was in vain. The judge explained later that while they recognized my training, and my being a university professor, my testimony could not be accepted because it was anecdotal, and not backed by scientific surveys to prove it was indeed cultural. Besides, the judge’s voice turned more stern; even if the practice was accepted in the Philippines, the fact remained that the defendant was now in Hong Kong, and had to follow Hong Kong’s norms, which in this case was no touch, no touching.
I didn’t write about that case because the defense lawyer went on to appeal the case. I learned later that the higher court turned down the appeal, and the woman was given a 7-day jail sentence. She has since returned to the Philippines and the defense lawyer has since given me permission to write about the case, hoping this will alert other Filipinos to this potential problem.
After I got back I talked about the case with friends. Upper-class Filipinos were always shocked to hear that these practices existed. More middle- and lower-class Filipinos shrugged their shoulders, giving their own anecdotes and elaborating on the different functions of these practices: getting a child to sleep, soothing a restless child, or just a show of affection, especially during and after bathing, sometimes accompanied, one mother told me, by exclamations “Ang bango bango ng anak ko!” (My child smells so good!) If there was shock from these mothers, it was learning that such acts could land them in jail in other countries.
Then there were stories about male-to-male touching. What I described in the elevator was a mild form; at other times it might involve a light touch, a kalabit, and still other times it was nothing short of “crotch-grabbing,” playful teasing inflicted at the most unexpected moments, including during basketball games, that most macho of sports. No homosexual intentions here, the proper term from the social sciences being homosocial, male-to-male bonding of sorts. The grabbing can be a friendly gesture for a team-mate, similar to a high five, or a distracting one for opponents, talk about foul play.
Curiously, one time in Vietnam I mentioned the Hong Kong incident in a workshop about culture and sexuality, and a Vietnamese anthropologist perked up, telling me she had recently dealt with a similar problem involving Vietnamese seafarers landing in jail for crotch-grabbing in Central America. She didn’t have to fly to testify, sending instead a written statement through the Vietnamese consulate that this was normal behavior in Vietnam. The seafarers were exonerated and I thought that, maybe, Latin cultures are probably more understanding than the Chinese when it comes to such matters.
The story doesn’t end there. Last year, I was visited at UP by the tearful parents of a Filipina working in a nearby country. (I have to censor myself here because there are still some legal proceedings going on.) She had married someone from that country but they had divorced and the man had taken custody of their daughter, then gone to court asking them to deny visitation privileges to the mother, accusing her of sexually molesting their daughter, with descriptions similar to the Hong Kong incident.
I agreed to help, by providing a carefully worded statement about the practice being cultural, one that many upper-class Filipinos disapprove of but which nevertheless is largely accepted, without any sexual meanings. Again, the overseas court refused to accept the culture argument, saying that the mother had to follow local customs. She has been threatened with deportation since then, because there was no reason for her to stay on in the country.
One practice, seen as perfectly normal in one culture, is criminal in another, with dire consequences. With some 10 million Filipinos now working overseas, we need to be aware of these cultural differences.
Meanwhile, we might want to reflect on the differences in interpretation of these practices even within the Philippines. The basketball players can take care of themselves, including figuring out whether the grabbing was just male bonding or more. But, as part of sexuality education, families should discuss the other practices involving younger children, who must learn to distinguish between a mother’s friendly fondling and a pedophile’s more malicious intentions.
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