Body ethicsBy Michael L. Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Recently I wrote about how two Filipino women working overseas had gotten into trouble for fondling the genitals of children. (“No touch,” Inquirer, 3/5/13). One was a nanny and was arrested and jailed for touching and kissing her ward’s genitals while giving him a bath. The other lost custody of her daughter after a divorce, when her non-Filipino husband claimed she was “abusing” the child through touching.
Despite our claims of sexual conservatism, many Filipinos are quite liberal about this kind of body contact, which in other countries can be interpreted as child sexual abuse. The women who do this to young children—usually their own sons—say they do this out of “gigil” or uncontrollable affection, the kind that makes you want to pinch someone except here there’s much more involved than pinching.
In my column I mentioned that this practice is marked by class differences, more accepted as innocent and harmless by lower classes, while upper-class Filipinos might not even be aware that this is happening.
Besides this practice involving children, adult males will also grab each other’s “baskets” from time to time, not out of gigil (I hope) but out of mischief, complete with macho “Uy, pare!” During basketball games (not the PBA), you’ll also see some of these foul moves, intended to distract.
After my column came out, one of my medical anthropology students, Noemi Bayoneta, wrote me about her memories of her hometown in Mindanao, and one “notorious” middle-aged woman known for doing a bit of what I’ll call “nutcracking,” accompanied by an exclamation “Hello, Dudungggg!”
Let me explain all those terms. “Nuts” is an English slang word for, well, let me use another slang term, the balls, and the way my student described this ninja “tita,” it really sounded like it was more than just grabbing. Dodong (or dudung) is a term of affection in the Visayas for little boys, although this tita spared no one, little or not, and some older males were known to flee in fear whenever she would appear.
I am certain this tita didn’t do all of this completely at random, meaning she did pick her victims from among people she knew. She has since passed on where, I hope, she hasn’t been picking on angel nuts.
Woman to woman
What surprised me from among the readers’ feedback was an e-mail from another medical anthropologist, Chic-chic Dagapioso, who noted that there is also woman-to-woman touching and, sometimes, grabbing. Here are excerpts from her e-mail:
“. . . We have women who, as a form of greeting, would ‘touch-that-part’ (the crotch; sometimes the breasts). Some of us feel uncomfortable about this type of touching, while some of us say ‘okay lang’ or ‘joke lang.’ There is laughter, sometimes uncomfortable. . .”
I asked around among my women friends and again found a class difference, similar to the one in the “Hello Dodong” phenomenon. Upper-class Filipino women were surprised to hear about this, while middle- and low-income women shrugged their shoulders and said, yes, it happens. . . a lot and that it’s frequently done as an “ambush” to surprise friends.
All this makes for an intriguing case study on the relationship of ethics and proxemics—proxemics being the study of how cultures define our bodies and spaces. Put another way, different cultures have different definitions of what’s public and private with our bodies, who can touch whom in what part of the body, and the type of touching. The acceptability of the practices is also bound to social relationships: mother and child, yaya and ward, pare to pare, mare to mare and to some extent, an older person to a younger one.
Central to our body ethics is a definition of what “private” means. Upper-class pregnant women, for example, complain about how in the Philippines people will approach them and ask how the pregnancy is coming along, and then rub the belly, sometimes even putting their ear to the abdomen, “Oh, it kicked!” The women who complain say they feel this touching is an assault on their privacy.
The “rules” will vary even with one cultural group. Thus even among Filipinos, there will be some groups that are more “touchy” than others. People in the Visayas are more prone to touch people than, say Tagalogs, as a way of greeting, or while conversing with each other. Then again, I’ve met people in the Visayas who are uncomfortable even about this casual touching.
With antisexual harassment laws in place, we need to be very conscious about the links between culture and ethics and to learn to respect boundaries. The antisexual harassment campaigns are there to address the potential for sexual abuse that comes out of power differentials. Harassment exists when someone takes advantage of his or her social position to take advantage of someone of lower status. Thus sexual harassment is frequently that of a man preying on a woman, an adult victimizing a child, an employer pressuring an employee, a teacher hitting on a student. What could be affectionate touching among friends becomes harassment when it’s a teacher using that same kind of contact with a student.
We need to revisit traditional practices and find a middle path between prudishness and lasciviousness. Christianity and Islam tend to be quite severe about bodies, especially women’s, as sources of temptations. Thus we see very restrictive rules to cover up bodies, and strict “no touch” rules. Unfortunately, the more restrictive the rules are, for example covering up the body, the more mysterious, and alluring, the bodies become.
Children need to be taught, at an early age, about appreciating, protecting and respecting the human body. By scolding children and calling them “bastos” for talking about the body and the genitals, we are only reinforcing a dark view of sexuality and, ironically, make them even more vulnerable to sexual abuse.
Especially because there is a cultural practice that allows adults to fondle children’s genitals, we need to have a very strong and clear message for children: no one, not even their own parents, has the right to touch their genitals. Philippine languages have many terms that can be used to define what a “bastos” (disrespectful) touch is: for example, the Tagalog hipo and himas.
For adults, it’s a mutated English word, tsansing, that captures the malicious intent. As far as I know, there is no English word “chancing” while “chance” has no sexual connotations. There is an entry on urbandictionary.com for chancing, noting that it is a Filipino slang, with this definition: “secretly peeking, or slyly touching restricted body parts.”
I’ve wondered if “tsansing” came about as more Filipinos realized that people were taking advantage of our generally touchy culture to take a “chance,” to take advantage of other people. A thin line indeed separates the naughty “Hello Dodong” and sexual harassment.
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