Beyond Vhong, Deniece: The issue of rape

Nikki Luna
When we allow ourselves to speak about victims as if they deserve it we partake in this brand of violence against women

Claire, my classmate at the UP Women and Development Studies, was buying taho from a vendor one early morning when she again heard about the hottest topic in town: “Deniece deserves to be raped,” the vendor said in Filipino. “With that pretty face, anyone could have taken advantage of her.” Claire walked away without buying taho, muttering in disbelief: “Even Disney has stepped up to being gender-sensitive.”  

Claire worked as a program officer for the Women and Gender Program of the Jubilee South Asia Pacific Movement on Debt and Development. She also was in the United Nations Women as a consultant for the CEDAW and UNSCR 1325 Women, Peace and Security Program of UN Women Philippines. Nevertheless, one does not really need Claire’s profile and background to understand her ire. 

After the Vhong Navarro-Deniece Cornejo incident went viral on social media, the same video of the battered Navarro sharing his story in an interview was played again and again to the public. The media bit the drama for ratings. The alleged rape case hogged the airwaves, airtime, and headlines. The public forgot more pressing issues such as the pork barrel, Yolanda victims, Zamboanga siege victims, child abuse sex online victims, and the demolition in San Roque, Quezon City, where even children were not spared the violence. These were all put aside for the juicier gossip. (READ: The Vhong Navarro social media assault)

All eyes were on Navarro, lying in his hospital bed – the picture of the perfect victim. He said in the interview, “Kasi ako Tito Boy hindi ako gagawa ng move kung hindi siya nagpakita ng motibo na may gustong mangyari.”Kasi kung ayaw niya, sana sumigaw siya ng rape, sana may kalmot ako pag-uwi, may galos ako, meron siyang galos or sakal pero wala po. Maliwanag po na gusto niya yung nangyari.”

A 37-year-old able individual was leaving all the actions and its consequences up to a 22-year-old woman, insisting she asked for it. Our netizens have shared their two cents on the issue with staggering ferocity. Fellow Filipinos – both men and women – were quick to blame the alleged rape victim, zeroing in on her cosmetic/plastic surgeries, her background, her career. 

Without casting judgment on the case, how about we go way back in 1982? 

Flashback

A 14-year-old girl finally made her dream come true when she entered the world of showbiz. But only two years after, 16-year-old Pepsi Paloma suddenly dropped from fame to notoriety, when she became an alleged rape victim of much adored veteran actors Vic Sotto, Joey de Leon and Richie d’ Horsie.

Pepsi filed a rape case against the three men with the late Rene Cayetano as her lawyer. The three men made a public apology in their popular noontime show, “Eat, Bulaga!.” They knelt in front of the cameras to ask for forgiveness for whatever wrong they may have done. Some say that Tito Sotto later on convinced her to withdraw the allegations. Eventually, she went on to take other projects as if nothing happened. One couldn’t help but wonder though if the rape case weighed her down to a point that at the age of 19, only five years after making her dream come true, Delia Smith or Pepsi Paloma killed herself.

There was also the 22-year-old “Nicole” who filed a rape case against Daniel Smith, an American soldier, in Subic. Cristy Ramos and Amanda Coling likewise filed sexual harassment raps against Azkal players. Bashers taunted these women who dared to speak up, too. Their sentiment was based on the alleged rapists’ looks. They looked too good to rape. “Type ng Pinay ‘yang gandang lalaki. Baka sila (Azkals players) ang ni-rape.”

These days, the burden of proving the crime seems to always lie with the female victim. The woman should be aware of “signs” to prevent rape. When there are no signs of aggression, when she doesn’t scream loud enough or forcefully fight her perpetrator – it is the woman’s fault. It is not rape but a consensual act. 

I know of a rape victim who was forced to do a blow job. When she was being grilled by the court, she was asked why she didn’t bite her aggressor’s penis when it was in her mouth. The malice underlining the interrogation discouraged her. There she was being forced to recall the trauma inside a courtroom. She, too, withdrew her case. 

The systemic discrimination against women who file sexual abuse/harassment cases is alarming. In most of these controversial rape cases, the men are almost immediately cleared of responsibilities—be it due to their power, popularity, appearance and stature. 

The stigma remains. Rape victims are now judged guilty until proven innocent. Meanwhile, they have to live with the verbal abuse and public lynching. 

No excuses

Of course, we’re aware of cases where rape victims lie and make up stories. Yes, there are some who can be morally inept. But the issue isn’t about the small pie of “alleged victims.”

A bigger picture needs to be addressed. Women are being raped. And when we allow ourselves to speak about victims as if they deserve it – define her by her social background, judge her because of her chosen work – we partake in this brand of violence against women.  

We cannot easily objectify the women/victims. Each survivor is different in the same way that each perpetrator is unique. The issue is simple: There is no excuse when you violate a woman. Not the amount of alcohol she has had, not the length of her skirt or the neckline of her top. It isn’t whether she trusted to be with “friends” with the group that happened to be all male. No one has the right to violate her in any way. 

Rape happens anywhere, anytime. In dark alleys, parking lots, offices, matrimonial beds. You can be raped by a stranger, a priest, a celebrity, a teacher, your own brother, your own father. The abuser has many faces. And he does not discriminate. But he does have a perceived easy target. 

Since the second-wave feminism, the woman was given a so-called legitimate space outside the home. But the change is largely an incorporation into the neoliberal system, wherein her worth is measured by the wage she receives. She has stepped out and she has to step up to balance both home and work responsibilities. 

But inside and outside of these acceptable spaces, the woman is still beholden to discrimination.

The easiest targets of abuse are the women who are outside of the home, office, factory, family. This is the story of “Nicole.” This is the story, in varying shades, of all the other alleged rape victims. The premise is these women are supposed to “know” what they are getting themselves into. After all, they do earn from “selling” their bodies and appearances – bar girls, “guest relations officers,” promo girls, escorts, models, actresses. 

Vicious tradition of shaming

The woman who is out of bounds from the modern society’s construct of what she should be – strong yet pure, a trouper but modest, hardworking but decent – is deemed solely to blame for her actions.

The Navarro-Cornejo issue is slowly dying down these days. Along with it is the death of another alleged rape victim’s reputation. Navarro, as far as the greater public believes, is not a rapist but just a womanizer. 

Beyond Vhong and Deniece, the history of women victims we’ve known by their first names – Pepsi, Nicole, Cristy, Amanda, Deniece – is something to think about. There is one narrative that makes all of these stories of women rape victims sound one and the same.  

One needs to ask, why this tradition of impunity? And one will be led to a simple answer: because, like the perpetrators, one has also objectified the women. Hence the ability to name-call, reducing the woman to a word. “Pokpok.” “Malandi.” “Kaladkarin.” “Bayaran

There is a need to rethink this vicious tradition of shaming the woman. The state needs to cooperate. And the media. It should never name the woman victim. It is a basic human right for a rape victim not to be named publicly. Nor should media organizations exploit the popularity of a rape issue to raise their ratings and profits. 

The far bigger challenge is the integration of gender-sensitivity practice at the grassroots – in schools, where both girls and boys will be taught a fair sense of respect for each other as part of the curriculum. At this age, it seems laughable to teach such a basic concept in school. 

But this is precisely what should be made known: that the givens are not always acceptable. It is hard to reform a culture of patriarchy but a small step towards popularizing a new perspective will be vital. 

We need re-education. We need to see every woman as integral to the community. They could have been our mother, our sister, our wife, our daughter. They cried for help. We do not shun and dig a deeper grave for them. We listen and help. We collectively reach out and protect. Such is a community where rape is not a contested issue but a clear criminal act. Such is a community where women can live. – Rappler.com

Nikki Luna is an artist, graduate of UP Diliman Fine Arts and took her art residency at the Cooper Union in New York, She is also the founder of non-profit organization StartARTproject providing art workshops to women and youth victims of human rights violations. Her women advocacies are endeavors she is currently studying in depth in her MA in Women and Development Studies in UP.