IF a prostitute were mistaken for a politician, would he or she cry, “Foul”?
Or shrug off the slip as just hair-splitting?
The recent incident over a public official charged for misconduct stemmed when the official, a woman, verbally and physically assaulted hotel employees who mistook her for her male companion’s “escort”.
In the official’s own statements, the euphemism “escort” was replaced with the Cebuano slang for a sex worker, “pokpok”.
In street talk, the Cebuano word is often accompanied by or substituted with an index finger tapping a surface twice to mimic the sexual act of penetration.
While “escort” attempts to neutralize the negativity clinging to the world’s “oldest” profession, “pokpok” abandons the pretence. It is gutter talk, which, by treating the sex worker as an object to be penetrated, diminishes and degrades the person underneath the label.
In keeping with pejorative language, “pokpok” spares the customer, who completes the transaction. In the cultural superstructure, a line is drawn between the women deserving of respect and the rest.
I sensed this in the 1980s, when I was a young non-government worker traveling for the first time to Thailand with a co-worker. We were “escorting” a public school teacher, who wrote a prize-winning essay, to visit women’s groups in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
My co-worker was delayed from boarding by immigration officials. Since they were grilling her in Filipino, I rushed to assist and got roped in the laser-focus of their speculations, which, while no word ever surfaced, centered on their suspicions that we were workers joining the international flesh trade.
In the business class of the plane, the European flight crew gave us the same skewed regard. My co-worker and I hardly resembled “painted ladies”. Traveling from our rural assignments, we were simply dressed, carrying only backpacks. Perhaps we looked naive, ideal for a market always in need of fresh meat.
In Bangkok and Chiang Mai, I realized that sex work was a far cry from the “Pretty Woman” fantasy spun by the escort played by Julia Roberts in the movie.
For one, her character had smooth arms, not marked by needle punctures. Needle-sharing was common among the intravenous drug shooters. The prerequisites for sex work: body orifices.
Some of the workers we met were still young enough to enjoy the keychains given away by AIDS advocates pushing the use of condoms. “Break glass in case of emergency” said the sticker encasing a tiny condom, which caused a lot of amusement among us girls.
Another glass ceiling still exists, segregating the women deserving of respect from the Others.
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* First published in SunStar Cebu’s July 15, 2018 issues of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata"