Rodrigo Duterte

[OPINION] Duterte’s Phallus, Part 1: Junk politics

Vicente Rafael
[OPINION] Duterte’s Phallus, Part 1: Junk politics
'Duterte routinely threatens to castrate his opponents even as he repeatedly reveals his generous endowment'

Obscenity is an integral part of the stylistics of power…. The penis [is] a historical phenomenon in its own right…. The [autocrat] thinks and expresses himself through his phallus…. Without a phallus, the [autocrat] is nothing, has no fixed identity. Thanks to his phallus, the [autocrat’s] cruelty can stand quite naked: erect. 

— Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics

One of the ways in which President Duterte lays claim to both national and global attention is through his stories and jokes. He is widely known for his irreverence and bawdy humor. Both constitute important elements of his governing style. His stories reveal a reliance on invective and an obsession with obscenity. He makes frequent references to genitalia – his as well those of his critics, to the delight of his listeners. He revels in what the philosopher Achille Mbembe calls an aesthetic of vulgarity that has the effect of establishing a relationship of conviviality between himself and his audience. What results is an intimate tyranny, much of it centered on the tales of his phallus as it encounters the world. 

Here, the phallus should be understood less as a biological thing synonymous with the penis as a symbolic weapon for asserting autocratic authority and patriarchal prerogatives over women and men alike. Like guns, cars, or wealth, the phallus can be used to impress and to threaten, to unify and disperse, to induce pleasure but also coerce submission. It is the cudgel for enforcing misogyny and keeping women and lesser men in their places. Duterte routinely threatens to castrate his opponents even as he repeatedly reveals his generous endowment. Used to avenge imagined hurts and shore up a fragile ego, Duterte’s phallus proved effective in shutting down his opposition. 

Here’s an example: while campaigning for senatorial candidates during the mid-term elections of 2018, Duterte extolled the size of his penis in order to set him apart from the “ugly” candidates running in the opposition. Had God given him a small penis, he continued, he would have gone to the Church altar and cut it off saying, “Son of bitch, is this all you have given me?” Encouraged by the crowd’s laughter, he then recalled how he would walk around naked in the hallways at the YWCA as a young man. While everyone else covered up with a towel, he went about proudly displaying his junk. The other residents would look on in admiration: “[They’d tell me] ‘Son of a bitch, Duterte, you’re so hard!’…. When I was young, [my penis] almost looked up to the sky,” moving the microphone upwards to make the point. “Its head would almost reach his belly button…. I’m very thankful to my father. At least he let me out into the world highly-equipped.” He finishes by recalling how women at a local bordello were shocked at the sight of his member “They ran away. [They said, referring to me] ‘We don’t like him. That skinny guy. He won’t stop [having sex].”  

In his youth, Duterte claims, he literally stood out, creating a vivid impression among both men and women. While men envied his penis, women, however, ran way in fright. Wishing to have a phallus like his, the other men acknowledged Duterte’s possession of this power precisely for the respect it arouses in other men and the fear of sexual violence it stirs among women. Merging masculinity with misogyny, Duterte’s phallocentric politics is central to his authoritarian imagination, using the image of his penis to put both men and women in their putative places. 

Duterte’s phallocentric politics can be seen at work in a rambling speech from 2019 as he reacted to the rumors spread, among others, by Kit Tatad, that he was dying from colon cancer: “This Tatad, he said my day is coming. That I was confined with colon cancer. Nearly everyday he was going on and on. Even I started to believe him (laughter). So one day, as I undressed to take a shower, I held my anus, I smelled it. (laughter). Smelled like shit, and not some other…. (laughter) He said I was already dead. So I hit back. I said, this Tatad, son of a bitch. I would admit it if I were sick. You, son of a bitch, you have a serious case for 30 years of diabetes. Your dick can no longer (raises microphone to laughter and applause). When you have diabetes, 30 years (drops microphone. Laughter). No more. So I said, let me borrow your wife for one night, I’ll let her hold my body, go on. You son of a bitch, you’re asking for it.”

The president has always been particularly sensitive about rumors regarding his health and takes particular umbrage at those who suggest that he is close to death’s door. Duterte takes his revenge in the form of returning Tatad’s putative insults with interest. He recaps the rumor, acknowledging its power to compel belief through its repeated circulation. To make sure that he doesn’t have colon cancer, he talks about poking around his anus and smelling his fingers, reassuring himself that it smelled of shit rather than some other cancerous odor. Discursively exposing his anus, he also exposes himself not only to the possibility of being sick but also to the possibility of being duped. Reassured by his anal stink that he is fine, he goes on the attack. 

Punctuating his remarks with crisp invectives, he points out that it is in fact Tatad who has been ill with diabetes for many years. As a result, he can no longer get his dick (otin) up. Duterte illustrates this with the use of the microphone, tilting it up to evoke the robustness of his penis and down to picture Tatad’s sorry state. He goes from exploring his anus to scrutinizing his penis, linking the two as signs of his good health. And to clinch his case, he asks Tatad’s wife to verify the hardness of his erection as compared to the flaccidness of Tatad’s. Duterte’s mouth and anus come to the aid of the presidential phallus. He marshals a barrage of obscenities much to the delight of the audience. Duterte thus unmans his opponent. Tatad’s stories depicted Duterte in a state of bodily crisis. Feeling aggrieved, the president hits back, showing that in fact he remains in command, beginning with his control of the narrative by eliciting the mirthful response of his audience. Returning the insult with interest, Duterte draws a third person into the scene: Tatad’s wife. Along with the audience, Tatad’s wife becomes complicit in Duterte’s revenge as he cuckolds her husband, inviting her to grasp his thing. (To be continued) –

Vicente L. Rafael teaches history at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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