Was it only a kiss? Duterte’s latest gimmick reveals what’s wrong with our ‘culture’

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At a community meeting with OFWs in South Korea, President Duterte asked a woman in the audience for a kiss. As the public expressed their outrage online, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque defended the act as a "light moment accepted in the culture of Filipinos." Illustration by JL JAVIER

Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this piece are the author's.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Last Sunday, at a community meeting with overseas Filipino workers in South Korea, President Duterte beckoned to two women in the crowd. He was meant to give them books as a gift, but he jokingly added that there was a catch: “May bayad ‘to. Halik!” The crowd cheered.

When the women received their books, they shook his hand and did the typical mano — a sign of respect towards elders in our culture. After all, he is revered as ‘Tatay’ by many.

But insistent on getting his kiss, Duterte said, “‘Wag kang mag-amen-amen diyan. Oy, halika dito.” He asked for a beso from one of the women, and, amid more cheers from the crowd, a peck on the lips from the other.

As the video of the event circulates online, it sparked outrage from each and every direction. But Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque defended the act in a statement, saying it was merely a “playful act, a light moment that is accepted in the culture of Filipinos.”

After some thought, it seems that Roque might be right.

Watching the video again, I’m reminded of a typical scene at a Pinoy family gathering. Maybe it’s a reunion, maybe a Christmas party, but the scene is almost always the same. You have your archetypes — your balikbayan cousin, your maalagang titas, your malambing lolos and lolas, and your malokong tito. You can often find that tito with a beer in hand, tipsy before half of the guests have even arrived, his boisterous laughter filling the room.

Like Tatay Digong, Tatay Jojo or Chito or Emong or Carding will ask his pamangkins to kiss him. Maybe he’ll ask them to sit on his lap. Maybe he’ll ask for a hug. Whatever it is, the kids can’t really say no, lest they disrespect Tatay. Not wanting to disrespect their relative either, their parents will egg them on, “sige na, anak, kiss mo na si tito,” despite their child’s reluctance.

It’s a first lesson in consent, a failed one, and the implications of this “culturally accepted” act are concerning.

“In being coerced to kiss or cuddle someone they don't want to, that child is being told that how they feel, what they want to do with their own bodies, doesn't really matter. That an adult's wishes and sensibilities matter more,” writes Annalia Barbieri in an op-ed about teaching children about consent. What happens when that child meets an adult who wants more than an innocent peck or a hug? Must they still adhere to what they’re taught is culturally acceptable?

And what happens when boys adopt their titos’ behavior and carry it into adulthood? Where do we draw the line between “pang-saya lang ng mga tao, gimmick,” as Duterte called it, and sexual coercion? And what do girls have to protect themselves in a culture that celebrates the wielding of power against them?

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Now, more than ever, there seems to be a deeper, more familial connection between the head of government and its citizens. Perhaps it is his casual nature, his everyman character, that draws many towards him like a father figure, ‘Tatay Digong’ as he is often called.

Yet in our culture, it is still taboo to talk back to our elders, to question their choices and their behaviors. Our parents, titos, titas, and grandparents are authority through and through even as we reach adulthood, and we often ignore their shortcomings and accept certain behaviors as harmless character flaws.

Do we then need to question our reverence for Duterte and our relationship with our president, or do we need to find a way to begin questioning the ways of our elders when they cross the line? For, when it comes to issues of consent and power, jokes said in passing and kisses made for “gimmicks” are hardly ever harmless.

Aside from influencing young boys on their behaviors towards women, the issue may also affect workplace power dynamics, especially among OFWs and their employers. Migrante International Spokesperson Arman Hernando said that the recent kissing incident could have an effect on how our OFWs are treated by their employers. “Whatever the employer sees from our own president, that could be reflected on how they would treat our Filipina workers,” said Hernando.

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In 2015, during his presidential campaign, Duterte flirted with and kissed women, but denied any malice or sexual connotations to the act. In 2016, Duterte joked about wanting to be the first to have sex with an Australian missionary who was raped and killed in Davao in 1989. In 2017, Duterte joked again about taking the blame for his soldiers should they rape anyone during the martial law imposed in Mindanao. Earlier this year, Duterte made remarks about shooting women in the vagina.

According to a 2016 report, it is said that one woman or child is raped every hour. If it is in our culture to make light of sexual advances and the rules of consent, must we also come to expect it part of our culture that rape happens every hour?