KASAMA Vol. 11 No. 3 / July-August-September 1997 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network
It was a bright Thursday afternoon in February. Mostly familiar faces greeted us as we arrived at the ISIS Manila office for the afternoon's activity. A relaxed atmosphere pervaded the place. Laughter punctuated the afternoon air as people mingled with each other, glad at the opportunity to socialize before getting down to the day's business.
However, behind the facade of calm displayed by the mostly women visitors, a storm was a-brewing; and all because of a book.
The book hogging the spotlight is "Goddesses of the Lust Triangle: An Excursion into Manila's Erotic Dance Industry". It was written by Arnel de Guzman, executive director of the Philippine Migrant Welfare NGO KAIBIGAN, an academic, a long-standing human rights advocate, and definitely male. The book had raised a howl among women NGO workers and academics not because of its graphic and lurid display of the sexual slavery, exploitation and commodification of women but because it perpetuates an ideology that continues to subordinate, exploit and violate women. An ideology that women (and some men too) have had a long struggle with.
Flor Caagusan (Kalayaan), Aida F. Santos (WEDPRO) and Jon-jon Tuazon (PEPE) had been asked to give their critique of the book. Flor scored the author for using the term goddesses as it objectifies the women cleverly. She further argued that the use of the term puts focus on the women thereby avoiding the issue of men prostituting women. She went on to say that the book is not about the goddesses really, but about the gods.
Aida gave a lengthy critique based on her own reactions on the book and to answer some of the points raised by those coming to the defense of the book and its author. Aida pointed out that the author tried to mask his sexual incursions as a sociological inquiry. Even then, the author's real intent, the consciousness he carries around in his head, is revealed by his lack of framework and the language that he uses in the way he depicts the women. As had been pointed out by Cecilia Hoffman, the book (and its author) sees women as mere body parts.
Aida took to task the author for his lame excuse of ‘just documenting what he saw' to explain his lack of a framework. "Literature," according to Aida, "is not about simply mirroring unprocessed images; a writer (especially a researcher) has the responsibility to make those images stand with clarity and reason beyond mere description and mirroring."
Jon-jon based his critique on his experience as an educator and a cultural worker. He talked about an author's artistic license; his right to write what he feels like writing. But he also pointed out that rights are not without its responsibilities. Moreover, as an NGO worker, the author has a responsibility to his audience and subject that he failed to live up to when he decided to just document what he saw. In effect, he became an accessory to the exploitation of women when he failed to provide a deeper understanding of the context within which these women live. He went on to say that the author created something useless, as it had no intention to bring about change. Cecilia Hoffman disagreed and said that the book is not useless. It served the purpose of reinforcing society's negative view and treatment of women.
After the presentation, there ensued a lively, sometimes heated, discussion. The book brought to the fore the question of whether the work of women's groups have had an impact with society in general and with their colleagues in particular. The practice of male NGO workers frequenting bars also came into question. As pointed out by a male participant, the book articulated what is commonly happening in society (even among male NGO workers).
The discussion went beyond what is in the book. As what Cecilia Hoffman said, "It's not the book per se that merits attention; it's the whole context of it given the author's background as an NGO worker." Kathy de Jesus-Clarin pointed out that we should start questioning and challenging what is accepted as normal in society. The fact that the phenomenon of men sexually exploiting women being widely accepted should not be made as an excuse for its continued existence.
Addressing the question of women's sexual slavery, be it in prostitution, pornography or trafficking, should not be mere lip service. Women's issues and concerns need to be taken seriously, not just by women's groups but within the ranks of the progressive sector, if we are really sincere in our desire to change society. The time is now; the challenge is laid before us.
Reprinted from Network, newsletter of the Philippine Network Against Trafficking in Women, May 1997.
Sleaze and Smutch