A lot of people are cringing over the Philippine President’s predatory kiss to a Filipino migrant worker during his State visit to South Korea. But what if it had been Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who kissed the woman on stage in front of the cameras? The crowd might have cheered even more. Trudeau was adored as an APEC “hottie” during his 2015 Manila visit. His clean look, boyish smile, toned body and gentle demeanor create a sharp contrast to our geriatric, unkempt, foul-mouthed, philandering and hard-hitting Head of State, who has mandated the murder of 20,000 suspected drug users . But would the Canadian PM’s hunkiness have made the act less predatory?
It is the sense of entitlement that permits people to act in a predatory way. Some younger and more attractive men have also been accused of sexual assault in North America, alongside Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Charlie Rose. But there was probably a greater sense of disbelief when names of charismatic men like James Franco and Matt Lauer came up. This is the danger when we stereotype, much less disregard gender-based violence, its perpetrators and survivors. And abuse is especially problematic when it happens in otherwise safe and fun contexts, when it becomes a spectacle juxtaposed with beauty, charisma and humour, when it takes place unexpectedly in public spaces, where we let our guards down.
The cheers for Duterte were quite telling. A majority of Filipinos overseas voted for him, encouraged by his Dirty Harry approach as mayor of his hometown of Davao City. Those cheers were an indication of just how easy a single performance can undermine rights and culture.
While reports claimed that Duterte asked the Filipino migrant worker beforehand, who could refuse a man on whose power one’s life literally depends? What options does she have if her employer maltreats her, if Korean authorities arrest her and if the Philippine embassy ignores her calls? Although 2.3 million Filipino migrant workers  are responsible for at least USD28 billion in remittances, they receive little assistance and protection from the Philippine government, even in times of crisis. In 2018 alone, the increasing number of deaths of overseas Filipino workers pressured the government to temporarily suspend labour migration to Kuwait.
As it turned out, Duterte never actually asked the woman’s consent. He was overheard saying: “Are you single? You’re not separated from him? But you can tell him that this is just a joke?.” The President was essentially asking whether her partner would give his consent as though she was his property. Official statements legitimized the disturbing action of the President and the deeply regrettable message it sent to generations who will be able to view the clip and read the Palace’s explanation that “it was a playful act in the culture of Filipinos.”
Indeed, Duterte has violated the Philippine Magna Carta of Women, including several laws on women’s leadership, sexual harassment and other forms of gender based violence so many times. He was candid in admitting that he viewed women as threats when they are placed in leadership positions. He defended, rather than apologised for, his jokes about rape. He announced with conviction, that women rebels must be shot in their vaginas. No accountability has ever been exacted for these discriminatory statements.
Phillippine laws on women’s rights and gender equality took decades of organizing, advocacy, campaigns and research that significantly drew from women and girls whose lives were destroyed by their partners, parents, relatives and other people who were supposed to protect them. But it took just a minute or so for one powerful misogynist and his spectators to undo these gains.
Women’s spirits are broken as spectacles and cultures are turned against us. Now more than ever, we need to keep our guards up.
Nina Somera is one of the leaders of a Southern feminist international network based in Manila. She is a Coady Fellow of St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.