Employees from the National Reintegration Center for OFWs (NRCO) together with other representatives from DOLE Offices joined the nation in paying tribute to the fierce and empowered women of the society by participating in women symbol formation held at the Quirino Grandstand last March 7, 2014. (NCRO)
Employees from the National Reintegration Center for OFWs (NRCO) together with other representatives from DOLE Offices joined the nation in paying tribute to the fierce and empowered women of the society by participating in women symbol formation held at the Quirino Grandstand last March 7, 2014. (NCRO)

It’s not so much the alleged “lewdness” of that performance during the October 1 birthday party of Laguna 4th district Congressman Benjamin Agarao by a group that calls itself “Playgirls” that should be pre-occupying social media and other commentators, but what it suggests about the status of women in the Philippines as well as the kind of political leadership this country has.

There is no disputing the utter bad taste evident in the performance—which, however, was not entirely the women’s doing, since it involved some of the guests themselves. In some of the clips that have been uploaded over some Internet sites, these guests are shown enthusiastically giving full expression to what appears to be their wildest fantasies. Those fantasies apparently include being serviced by willing young women. But it’s not the fantasies themselves that should concern us—almost everyone, whether man or woman, has at one time or another had them—but how they’re being realized: and that’s at the expense of real, flesh-and-blood human beings who have presumably been paid to cater to them. Equally important is whether these performances are preludes to solicitations for paid sex.

The key word is “paid,” which in the view of some observers (including some women themselves), means that because the women are supposedly doing what they do voluntarily, are compensated for it, and have been quoted as saying that they like what they’re doing, makes indefensible the claim advanced by some women’s groups that they’re being exploited.

It’s an interesting argument. But exploitation isn’t a matter of the victim’s opinion, but something that can be established, whatever the victim him/herself may think. If exploitation consists of using resources or people for one’s own benefit, pleasure or aggrandizement, hiring women for one’s sexual gratification or pleasure certainly qualifies as exploitation, no matter if they’re paid for it. The claim that it was all in fun, and “no malice” was intended is of course sheer fiction.

The use of one’s body for pay is also particularly demeaning, and in addition does not contribute anything to the sum of benefits that accrue to society from productive labor. A study in the United Kingdom on so-called “clubs” in which women perform essentially the same acts that the Playgirls are supposedly paid for (http://www.womenssupportproject.co.uk/) describes the “work” the women do as plain exploitation by club owners—which raises the question of who finance groups like Playgirls, who profit from their performances, and what the terms and conditions of their work are.

Meanwhile, the argument that the women themselves like what they do forgets, or has never quite understood, that even the most oppressed sectors of society tend to internalize the values of their oppressors: in this case to accept that women exist for the pleasure of men—who, after all, as another study points out, make the demand that women are made to supply.

Some 6,000 Filipinos leave daily for jobs abroad, over 50 percent of whom are women. The reality is that women compelled by economic need to work outside the home are often enticed into occupations that, because of limited opportunities for meaningful employment, require the use of their bodies for pay. What women like the Playgirls do may not be prostitution, but it does come close, could be the prelude to it, and is as much a part of the sex industry.

Such performances are not illegal, but the groups that offer them are apparently proliferating, and what’s even more significant, have become—and we have this information from Congressman Agarao himself—staple “entertainment” in the provinces as well as in the capital. Just like prostitution, it has become “normal.” No one—certainly not some members of the bureaucracy and the political elite, which includes Metro Manila Development Authority chair Francis Tolentino whose bright idea it apparently was to bring the Playgirls group to the birthday celebration of Agarao as a “gift,” like a basket of fruit or a birthday cake from Goldilocks—seems to have thought it exploitative, or even in bad taste. Apparently no one ever thought of looking at the women involved as human beings either, only as commodities like fruit or cake.

But as human beings rather than just mere bodies, women regularly outperform men in terms of literacy and education (more women than men are functionally literate, and are better educated). But this is not reflected in their presence in the work force, where men are dominant. Yes, the Philippines has had two women Presidents, and has a woman for Chief Justice. A woman is running for President in 2016, and another woman for Vice President. But as in the United States, the representation of women in government is not reflective of their numbers in the population. Men still outnumber women in Congress, for example. Despite appearances, men still dominate the power centers in this country, where women Presidents and Chief Justices are rare exceptions.

It might be argued that though rare, the election and appointment of women to high government and private sector posts is something that hasn’t even been achieved in other countries. But it can equally be argued that what best indicates the status of women in the Philippines is what happens to the great majority who are from the poor at home—where violence against women is common—and in the workplace—where sexual harassment is as “normal.” Apparently it has also become normal for such women as those in the Playgirls group to be gawked at, subjected to sexual innuendoes, and groped.

But the Laguna incident does serve a purpose. It helps refocus attention on what has been widely assumed: that gender equality has been achieved and that women in the Philippines enjoy a status women in other countries in Asia might well envy. At the same time, the apparent proliferation of groups like Playgirls, which service, among others, the various celebration rites of the gentry and political elite, deserves the same kind of attention that has been paid in other countries on similar phenomena, as in the United Kingdom, where the rise of “gentlemen’s clubs” in which women perform lap dances has been studied, among the conclusions being their essentially exploitative nature.

Meanwhile, as far as the Philippine political elite is concerned, whether they’re rural or urban, and whatever their so-called parties are, there can only be one conclusion: they’re as clueless as most of their constituencies are of the implications of such “gifts” as the Playgirls. It speaks volumes on the quality of the leadership they provide, and its consequences on the entire country and people, of whom more than half are women.

(First published in BusinessWorld. Image from the NCRO website)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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