In Manila, nothing titillates the media the way sex does.
While corrupt politicians and their kin still make the headlines (for instance, when the President's husband brokered a controversial billion dollar broadband deal and the Sandiganbayan, a special court which tries corrupt public officials, gave the country its first ever "big fish" by actually convicting a former President for plunder), nothing grabs local media's instant attention quite like the matter of sex.
Featuring prominently in the news recently was the furor over a Senator who trumped up support for an "Anti-Pornography Bill," by focusing on a site called "Boy Bastos" (literally, "Lewd or Vulgar Boy").
In a matter of days, other politicians followed suit. The Manila Mayor rounded up police to conduct raids in the city, this time picking up sidewalk vendors who were selling a variety of "sex" toys and gadgets (lighters with pictures of naked women, laser pointers which projected images of nudity, and goat's eyelashes, supposedly worn around the penis to enhance sexual stimulation). While current obscenity (and censorship) laws do not cover materials outside that of print and video – one of the things the draft bills on pornography seeks to amend – the police insisted that they were going to file charges against the vendors for possession of and sale of "pornographic material."
A few years ago, another Senator picked on what she labeled "cybersex cafes," arresting the managers of an internet café with private rooms where women allegedly earned over fifty thousand pesos a month on average, by working the pornography websites and conducting broadcasts for their "clients." While no formal charges could be filed against the women under the law, they were detained in a government shelter and had to secure legal representation before they were allowed to go home.
The instant public furor over pornography (also prostitution) is an age-old media narrative that usually presents a number of challenges to advocates of sexual and reproductive rights.
On one hand, in the Philippines, coming in defense of anybody in the "sex industry" is nothing short of a public relations nightmare. Yet on another significant level, silence in the face of growing prohibitionist tendencies of the state, specifically with regard to matters sexual, presents missed opportunities and impending dangers.
Feminists like Frances Olsen have long presented this conundrum as the conflict between "sexual freedom" and "women's equality," in the context of "liberalism."
The local media's coverage of pornography is a perfect case in point. While both ‘"sexual freedom" and "women's equality" are positive values in rights rhetoric, in social contexts like the Philippines where "women's sexual freedom" is not affirmed (and even often stigmatized), the actual divide is more likely the male double standard.
Thus, here it isn't a surprise that the champions of "sexual liberation" are those who welcome women's exploitation, and even those who unabashedly proclaim the consumption of pornography as the standard of manhood.
Unfortunately, a variety of healthy and affirming views (and practices) on matters "sexual" are rarely heard. Avoiding the controversy might seem the easier choice now for the reproductive health advocate. After all, why get entangled in yet another web, not of our own making, in this case, the contest over "sexual morality."
What should be pointed out though is how in the scheme of things, the dominant voices engaged in what passes for the debate over "sexual morality" are often on the same side of the fence regarding sexual stereotypes, and united in sexism. Their only difference lies in defining the powers and duties of the state regarding such matters.
While media needs to address this propensity to cover sex as black and white, sexual and reproductive health advocates ought to pitch in by giving media something new to talk about.