Saturday, February 26, 2011

Of Martians and Venus fly traps

GIVEN that they intersect so often, you’d think men and women view sex in the same way.

Seemingly not.

I realized this while alternately moderating and participating in a discussion about protecting women journalists in sexual harassment cases. Last Friday’s forum followed a presentation of safety tips made by Cherry Ann T. Lim, assistant executive director of the Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC), during the CCPC’s 22nd quarterly meeting.

Here’s what I observed and realized:

Talk about sex, women giggle. Talk about sexual harassment, men giggle (I suspect they only titter in mixed company because anything as loud as a guffaw or an audible sex crack will draw dagger looks from us).

When hearing about a case of sexual harassment, women frequently ask this about the victim: how is she? Men are fixated on other details: what was done to her?

Depending on the gender, there’s a difference of emphasis in the term, “sexual harassment”.

Generally, males react strongly (can one say “primordially”?) to the “sexual” aspect: Is the victim attractive? Did she invite the attack? Did she resist? Really, did she resist? Were the sexual advances unreciprocated, really now?

Really, I reminded the two men I asked after the forum that in a case of sexual harassment, it’s implied that the sexual behavior of one of the parties is unwelcome. One fellow argued that sexual harassment may be “reverse harassment,” or retaliation by a female aggressor who morphs into a victim after her advances are spurned by a hapless male, now accused of being the predator.

The other man said that if he were attacked by a “carnivorous” female, he would only cry out for help if she wasn’t to his liking.

I’m convinced that both men were serious and not humoring me (proof of that being that they did not feel the need to preface their views with “seriously,” a white flag men sheepishly wave about when a subject exacts an involuntary Jekyll-and-Hyde reflex despite these enlightened gender-sensitive times).

On the other hand, the women I’ve asked say harassment occurs because “men believe they can get away with it.” Sex may make the world go round but the bottom line, baby, is about power.

The power that puts one beyond the pale of sensitivity and accountability is not only embedded in formal positions or traditional standards of authority. It can come from a perception of superiority, making a predator think his maturity, experience, and even sentimental intentions absolve him from appropriately responding to a peer’s discomfort with or rejection of his advances.

Lim reported that “the key factor in dealing with sexual harassment is its impact on the victim, not the intention of the perpetrator”.

“Abusers should not get away with it” is as unequivocal a message a victim can send out in a world of “misunderstood” gestures where “nice” can easily become something else when there are no witnesses but the two of you.

In 1992, John Gray wrote in “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” that the two genders are “diametrically different” in needs, values and ways of communication. Likening men and women to beings coming from different planets, Gray pointed out, for instance, that “men complain about problems because they are asking for solutions while women complain about problems because they want their problems to be acknowledged”.

In the recent case of sexual harassment filed by a local correspondent against a news source, I realize that when a victim speaks out about abuse, her struggle is just beginning.

In this enlightened age, where sexual politics scours a victim for the credibility to claim to be one, I value being a member of a gender that’s still stereotyped as virgin or whore, Venus or Venus fly trap (a plant that traps and liquefies insects).

Let predators be warned: no woman struggles alone. A sister will not just be a whine in the wilderness.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 27, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, February 19, 2011

How to be a predator

CORRESPONDENT Carmel Loise Matus recently filed a formal complaint of harassment against Talisay City police chief, Superintendent Henry Biñas.

Last Feb. 18, 2011, Sun.Star Cebu’s Garry A. Cabotaje, Justin K. Vestil and Kevin A. Lagunda reported that Biñas viewed that his “friendly gesture… was misconstrued” by Matus.

The Police Regional Office 7 is investigating the administrative complaint.

As a former teacher of Matus, which is also her nickname, I thank her for speaking out, as well as Cebu Daily News for standing by their reporter.

When the summer term begins in less than a month, Mass Communication majors will be taking their internship with media institutions around the country.

Apprenticeship cements many students’ career choices. Sexual harassment from colleagues or sources is often raised in classroom discussions, but when it does happen, few know how to react. By speaking out, Matus shows us.

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” —that’s Eleanor Roosevelt, quoted by Matus in her Feb. 18 email to her teachers.

I’ve learned from the joys and aches shared by former students embracing a journalist’s life.

Here’s a recap of the tips I’ve picked up, too, from the other side: the predators that make journalism a thorny path:

Get drunk on power. Public figures attract the media. Public officials affect people. Even public figures not elected or appointed into position wield this iota of power: the power of information journalists seek to do their jobs. However, if you want to stroke your ego from pinkie to volcanic proportions, imagine Power as a eau de cologne you spray on before kissing wifey in the morning and going out to entrap Ms. Reporter.

Be “tricksy”. Take a cue from Gollum/Smeagol, the creature psychotically split between his evil and good sides in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Don’t fret if you’re as ugly as you look. Predators are great with disguises: turn your beer belly and thinning hair into the stooped, softened outline of an avuncular source. Learn to whisper: instead of shouting at you to speak louder, a polite young person will bend her head closer to hear you. (By the way, “avuncular” means “behaving in a kind and nice way to someone who is younger, rather like an uncle”.)

Coach one-on-one. Interns or apprentices get pleasantly surprised when their workplace supervisors or sources offer to go over their copy during a pricey dinner, in a cozy tete-a-tete, or an even more private place “where they can’t get disturbed”. If you really want to teach an aspiring journalist to learn accuracy and fairness, you can always reiterate or paraphrase your major points, hand over a fact sheet or press statement, or email your replies to her questions. You can also electronically edit her manuscript so the revisions are tracked, or scribble the old-fashioned way with a red pen or a marker. On the other hand, if the game plan is to keep her rewriting copy until it’s just the two of you left in the office, you were never interested in her choice of facts or her command of English, were you? So, mission accomplished.

Gender-tag journalists. In the King’s Language, there’s a reason why there are seamstresses and laundresses, but no reportresses and editresses. Gender is not germane in the practice of journalism. Why put color in a “lady reporter” texting or calling you at night or during weekends and holidays to get your side of a story? If a “gentleman reporter” does the same things, would you also smirk and assume he’s using his job for a personal agenda?

Humor the young. If caught in the act or your victim complains about your harassment, reach deep into your arsenal and regress, even predate “avuncular”. Act like the lost babe in the woods. Only the innocent would mistake a woman’s breast for her shoulder. Or be so confused by the hard, brute lash of verbs: “grab,” not “hold;” “squeeze,” not “bump;” “knead,” not “brush”. Faced with exposure and sanctions, a predator tosses back emotional harassment at a young person for being overly sensitive in reading into green jokes and belittling asides that repeatedly allude that she got her scoops because a source enjoys her favors. If regressing into a thumb-sucker does not work, try infantile. Rhymes very well with “reptile”.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 20, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Why we cry

THERE’S a woman in the office who’s always crying.

I can’t see her but I can hear her. If she were like other women, who’ve learned to cry in silence so total they can pretend to themselves they’re not crying, it might be so much better.

The way this woman carries on, though, I’ve begun to think of her crying as her natural voice, the only way she has to let us know she’s around.

Like the women who weep mutely but talk volumes through their denial of sound, the woman can turn the dark and the silence of an office abandoned by workers for the day into any number of things she chooses: a hammer shattering the fog of preoccupations or a sliver of cold whetted against the nape, slowly, cruelly, with a lover’s strokes.

I am here, that sobbing declares in a room that’s just chairs, tables, cabinets.

Listen to me.

I once found it odd that to the guards and other male tenants, she is an altogether different woman. She is petty, quick to take offense, spiteful: the flushing of toilets in the middle of the night; the restless treading echoing from a dim, empty stairwell; long black strands of hair stopping up a men’s toilet.

The night shift guard steps out of the building into the cold of the night when she carries on too loud or too long. This must goad her, this masculine reflex at self-protection. Light a cigarette. Raise a wall of smoke between one and the spitting creature. Wait. Wait for the ill humor to consume itself.

An engineer saw her, in uniform, walk between him and the guard who was guiding him around the basement. The two men did not stop in their talking. Only when they went up to the office and the engineer looked around for that rude employee did he realize that he didn’t see her face. His basement companion never saw her walk between them.

I compare the men’s delayed acknowledgment to the women’s. Working to finish some documents in a near deserted office, a secretary is transfixed by a weeping stranger, her crouched figure framed against the library walls. An applicant, waiting for her turn in a late evening interview, hears keening rising from the pool of dark in front of her. When she emerges out of the building, the woman breaks into tears.

Do I do her a disservice by thinking of her only as damned to wander in the wilderness of her desolation? In life, a woman cries for many reasons: in ecstasy, pain, relief, exultation, anger, exhaustion, inarticulateness, helplessness, bliss, acceptance, fear, loss. Why oversimplify tears when these cannot be touched or tasted?

What we can’t explain, we stereotype. We poke around the building’s history, sifting for some tragedy, a calamity on the scale of the human that can explain the thread of woe that stretches this woman between our plane and the other.

Was she a victim? Perhaps this explains her low regard for men, the tinkering with the anal, the tricks, the sudden crashes that drive the men to seek refuge behind a glowing cigarette and a screen of macho cool.

A woman’s tears make a man nervous, goes the popular wisdom. I knew someone so reduced by a weeping woman, he had to succor every lady crying on his shoulder by taking her to his bed. Or so he said in our company while his wife smiled, a thin brittle line that reminded me of dots you had to connect to find the secret escape.

On days when I cannot hear but sense her, I ask her if she sometimes tires of crying. All that overflowing must drain any source. As one woman to another, I coax her to leave the unwashed dishes on the pantry, the unflushed toilet, the desk with the unfinished deadlines.

Go out. Have a life. There’s more than one reason to cry.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 13, 2011 issue of the Sunday column, “Matamata”

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Know, choose, live

THANK you, Father, for your text last Thursday. I didn’t know today, Feb. 6, is Pro-Life Sunday.

Your invitation to read the Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), “Choosing Life, Rejecting the RH Bill,” was just in time. I had seen the CBCP full-page ad in a national daily, but had skipped it.

Rather than download the Pastoral Letter from, I retrieved the Feb. 3 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer to hear the side of the bishops, as expressed by Nereo P. Odchimar, D.D., Bishop of Tandag and CBCP president.

Scanning the Pastoral Letter, I found shoals of assertions I can rest on after floundering in the reproductive health (RH) controversies that divide this country. “The conclusion is unavoidable: for our country to escape from poverty, we have to address the real causes of poverty…”.

The three words that complete this sentence, though—“… and not population”—pushed me off my ledge and back into the deep where I will have to tread water until I decide to become part of “the great multitude of lay people all over the country… (who) defend and promote our position”.

For while I agree with the bishops that we should uproot the evils aborting our development—“misguided economic policies, greed, corruption, social inequities, lack of access to education, poor economic and social services, poor infrastructures (sic)…”— I am stumped by the assertion that “contraceptives are hazardous to a woman’s health”.

The CBCP asserts that contraceptives are “anti-life”. These “may cause cancer”. “Condoms provide a false sense of security”. “’Safe sex’ to prevent HIV/AIDS is false propaganda.”

The quoted assertions are refutable through science and logic. However, these are nearly impregnable as a miasma of blame and contempt preventing the vulnerable from seeking the medical information and services that could protect or save them.

How many unmarried women resort to tight bindings to prevent their baby bumps from revealing their “shame”? How many children have their physical, mental and emotional growth compromised because their mothers were cowed by conventions: good girls don’t learn about sexuality; good girls trust their partners to know and do what’s best; good girls don’t get pregnant without a ring on their finger?

Nothing threatens life more than ignorance. The ignorance that blinds a person into stumbling on the consequences of acts by trial-and-error. Or damns someone for precisely seeking to avoid this comedy of errors.

I remember being struck by the contrasts after a young woman told me she was expecting a child. My first impulse was to congratulate her. Both of us, though, were somber, far from celebratory. Had she been older and “settled down,” I imagined we would have sat down and swapped stories and tips about infanticipating, giggling how we mustn’t do this over coffee as caffeine would have to go for the baby’s sake.

As it was, we were weighed down by the unexpected and unresolved. She and her partner had not foreseen the pregnancy. She would keep the baby, but was unsure about her partner’s role in the future awaiting “the two of them”. Not three but two: hard wisdom bought by a few weeks of menstrual delay.

My second impulse was to urge this young mother to go for prenatal check-ups at a health center or government hospital. She had not told her parents; her confidante was a younger sister who would know even less on what to do with maternal exigencies.

Please get a doctor to prescribe supplements, I asked. The baby will draw on your calcium reserves. You don’t want to lose your teeth.

From a great distance, the child-with-child looked at me: I cannot afford to buy vitamins. I’ll do my best for my baby, but I can’t afford to think now of myself.

Choose life, preach the bishops. I agree: Know. Choose. Live.

( 0917322631)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 6, 2011 issue of the Sunday column, “Matamata”