Women’s choices suffer the illusion of freedom. In a nation like the Philippines where class and privilege can color any discourse, talking about consent – and agency, and empowerment – in relation to women’s bodies would require admission of harsh realities.

GRAPHICS: James Tristian M. Atillo

When Jaime Vanderberg of Canada, Abbey-Anne Gyles of Britain, and Emma Mae Sheedy of Guam accused a sponsor, Amado S. Cruz, of sexual misconduct during last November’s Miss Earth Pageant, Cruz was officially banned from attending the pageant, and widely lambasted on social media. He had allegedly invited the women to his private residence and suggested that they could give him sexual favors in exchange for winning the pageant. The threat was inherent in the offer: if you don’t give me what I want, you won’t win here.

This choice, to be silent in the face of sexual objectification or lose opportunities for success, is one that women who face harassment in the workplace or adult spaces are constantly forced to navigate. In our ostensibly illegal yet booming sex industry, this dilemma is especially stark.

It is just frustrating that we are able to be indignant about sexual harassment in our country when it happens to foreign women, but can so comprehensively fail to legislate for, or even recognize, the hundreds of thousands of Filipina women who are being sexually exploited. We award visibility to issues with the same biases borne of our colonial history.

In addition, feminist Deborah Cameron pointed out that the oppression experienced by women with privilege, while not necessarily the first priority the feminist movement should address, is a sign of an important truth: It shows us that women in all income brackets, everywhere around the world, are unjustly discriminated upon on the basis of their sex. Patriarchy is a systemic problem that every woman experiences in her own way.

A survey of Filipinas working in massage parlors found that a third of them experienced violence and harassment on the job, a significant portion of which was from police. Only two percent of them reported finding the job enjoyable, and many believed what they were doing was sinful. However, the majority of them were working as sex workers because they had to support their poor parents or husbands. These women have to endure a job where degradation and exploitation were the norm, rather than the exception, because of the economic constraints of poverty.

Filipina women in the workplace, especially those in the sex industry, exist at the intersection of many systemic problems. Poverty and an inadequate public education system means that many girls end up with no formal schooling. This keeps them in the difficult to police informal economy.

The political dominance of conservative religions keeps contraceptives away from women, making them more likely to have children- something employers view as a liability. For sex workers, our weak political institutions allow for the precarious status of prostitutes under the law: at once vulnerable women vulnerable under anti-VAW laws, workers in an industry to be regulated, and criminals to be hounded down and imprisoned.

This has not stopped women of privilege from attempting to speak for and past marginalized women, unwittingly contributing to the silencing of their stories. Meryl Streep and other celebrities of #Time’s Up, a breakaway movement from #MeToo that focuses on policy solutions, advocated for the “Nordic Model” of prostitution criminalization, which criminalizes the purchase of sexual services, but not the sale of them. Despite being designed to shift the legal burden of prostitution away from sex workers to the men who buy them, such policies are vehemently opposed by sex workers, according to Amnesty International. It’s not hard to see why- in the Philippine cities where sex tourism is rampant, sex work is an economic necessity for many families.

We cannot expect the methods of privileged women to fully address the oppression of Filipina women on the margins. #MeToo relies on public callouts spread by social media and channelled by traditional media outlets into the mainstream. If your name doesn’t spark instant recognition, who will share your story? If you don’t have access to social media, how will you call out an abusive boss? If news media would rather report on gossip and sordid crime stories, when will the country get a sense of the scale of the problem? The #MeToo movement has seen more success in other developing countries like India, but even there it has been largely limited to the Bollywood scene.

The effectiveness of breaking silence and calling out exploitation is based on whether you can expect people to listen to you on sympathetic terms. The fact that both sexual harassment in the workplace and prostitution are illegal in our country speaks to a fundamental double standard with how we listen to victims of exploitation. If forced to choose between preserving the stability of your livelihood or calling out an exploitative employer, Filipina women with more economic security are offered the sympathy and outrage of the public should they choose to call out the abuse. Filipinas forced into sex work by economic struggles, on the other hand, are punished if they choose to withstand sexual objectification for the sake of their families. It is no surprise that #MeToo has not caught on in our sex industry, or in other fields where the sexual power of women remain in question.

We ought to see that sexual exploitation begins not when a woman accepts an exchange of sex for money or success, but when the exchange is propositioned in the first place. It is the fact of the choice itself that is the problem, rather than the individual responses of the women faced by it. It is an injustice to reward one choice and criminalize the other, when neither the beauty queen nor the sex worker want to be forced to choose in the first place.

Perhaps it’s time again to move the goal post. Or, as written in 2018 by columnist Janice Turner of The Times, “I hope the next step is a movement which unpicks these contradictions, then evolves its response to male power from personal and emotional to structural and political. From #MeToo to #ThemAll.”

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