Sorry, Not Sorry: Digong, Tito Sen, and the Language of Sexual Assault

In the middle of campaign season in 2016, Presidential candidate Roderigo “Digong” Duterte made international headlines when a video was posted on Youtube. In the video, the would-be President, then Mayor of Davao, commented on the attractiveness of an Australian missionary. Jacqueline Hamill, a  lay minister of the Joyful Assembly of God, had visited a local prison in order to pray with the inmates. The members of the Joyful Assembly were taken hostage by a prison gang demanding to be transferred to a national penitentiary.

On video, Duterte,  commented that Ms. Hamill was so beautiful that the members of the gang should have granted the Mayor the courtesy of raping Ms. Hamill first.

O ito, ang ganda-ganda pa, mukhang artista, putangina naunahan pa ako, patayin nyo lahat. (“Oh, this one is so beautiful, she even looks like an actress. Son of a bitch [those hostage-takers] even [raped] her ahead of me. Kill them all.”)

Duterte’s “joke” caused international outrage and soon after various supporters began to attribute an apology to Duterte. Despite pressure from national and global women’s groups and media, Rodrigo Duterte refused to apologize. He threatened to sever ties–although he would retract–with Australia and the US after their ambassadors objected to his language. He went so far as to discredit all claims that he had ever or would ever apologize for an emotional and impassioned response. He  refused to acknowledge his seeming  desire to sexually-violate Ms. Hamill himself, dismissing it simply as “gutter language.” He asked people to focus on his outrage and his desire to have all her violators punished: “patayin nyo lahat” (“kill them all”).

Mayor Duterte was shortly elected President of the Philippines by a wide margin, thereby revealing that his self-styling as a libidinous, unapologetic, straight-talking politician was not at all detrimental to his popular appeal. Digong’s refusal to skirt taboos has become part of his self-presentation as a politician who doesn’t politick. His offensive, immoderate language has been widely  interpreted as sincerity. The lines expressing his outrage at not having sexual access to Ms. Hamill prior to the hostage-takers are also in-line with his self-professed status as a lover of women. In the perverse  logic of his explanation, Digong asks his would-be constituency to understand his expression of violent sexual desire as the motivation that provoked him to effect just punishment for Jaqueline Hamill’s rapists and murderers.

On July 9, 2016, Senator Tito Sotto (Tito Sen) made an appearance on the daily noontime show Eat Bulaga. In the segment Juan for All, and All for Juan, a woman, Katrina, asks a panel consisting of the television comedians (and a Senator) how to reconcile with her estranged husband. She play-acts an apology, and the panelists remind her that people who ask for forgiveness must be partially at fault. Katrina confesses that her husband became angry one night when one of his own drinking buddies may have sexually assaulted his drunk wife. The woman admits to having drunk too much to remember events fully. The Senator scolds her: “kababae mong tao shot-shot-shot ka.” While the language is difficult to translate, Tito Sen  essentially scolds Katrina her for behavior unbecoming a woman. By drinking publicly with men, she put herself at risk of sexual assault (even if she recalls the assault more through rumors she and her husband hear after the event).

One of the  hosts of the show then asks if she had been wearing shorts that evening, and the panelists and hosts make fun of her further when she admits to having worn shorts. The segment’s hosts mock her bodily self-presentation, rolling up their own shorts to suggest a drunken Katrina’s provocative sexualized drunken appearance. The fact that Katrina is wearing shorts during the filming of Eat Bulaga while appearing both maternal and wholesome seems beside the point.  The male panelists and the male interviewers part with her by giving her a cash prize and the benevolent, paternal advice that she should behave with more propriety and focus on the welfare of her children (as opposed, perhaps, to focusing on drinking with strange men). The segment’s hosts ask her to apologize to Tito Sen because her behavior had upset him.  The hosts then asks the woman’s son to send an honest message to his mother. The thirteen-year old son Carlo then echoes the paternalistic language of the show’s hosts and asks his mother to stop drinking.

Of the panelists, Senator Tito Sotto admonishes Katrina most openly. His scolding–his victim-blaming–sparked outrage.The Philippine Commission on Women, a government agency that promotes gender equality,  describe Sotto’s stance as symptom of the  “culture of misogyny that justifies and normalizes abuses against women.”  Like Duterte, Sotto has refused to apologize for his language. Instead, he was outraged, defending his right to absolute “freedom of speech” and casting himself as a defender of the institution of marriage.

Digong and Tito Sen believe that bodies–not language–should be policed. Bodily desire is unruly. For these men, bodily desire  leads to criminal behavior like the rape of beautiful missionaries or what they might consider criminal-adjacent behavior like drinking in public. Bodies must be subjected to discipline: witness the extrajudicial killings of alleged drug users and alleged drug dealers that have begun and risen on a national stage since Duterte’s presidency. The new President possesses faith in bodily punishment such as incarceration and death penalties. He believes in  disciplining the young by insisting that they not be visible on the streets past 8 pm. Occasionally, the discipline of the body is more benevolent. The bodies of drug-users and drug-dealers who have voluntarily surrendered, for example, are being disciplined through zumba. An addiction to dance-as-exercise becomes a substitute for the more damaging addiction to meth. Tito Sotto–whos once opposed contraception because he believed it promoted undisciplined sexual practices–disciplines the bodies of women. Those who drink in public in shorts with other men are just, for Tito Sen, asking for it.

In order to police bodies best, Digong and Tito Sen insist on their absolute right to speak immoderately with little regard for other people’s pain, suffering, or rights.  Their refusal to apologize for offensive language speaks to a refusal to submit their words to regulation.  An apology –not forthcoming–would be an admission that their language can be and should be scrutinized by the language police. Admitting the legitimacy of criticism implies agreement  that  politicians should be held accountable for the language they use. The now-President and the long-term Senator insist that their effectiveness requires them to break taboos and to speak the unspeakable. They insist on their absolute freedom of speech as a condition of policing citizens’ bodies.

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