The thing about sexual harassment is that it feeds on silence. Perpetrators bask in it while it cloaks its victims in its heaviness, masking their mouths, keeping them afraid. Made worse is that institutions that victims can turn to — the police, the government, and most especially schools — rarely act in their interest. There are few statistics available as to the prevalence of sexual harassment in universities in the Philippines because they don’t get reported out of fear or shame. On the rare occasion that they are reported, the consequences are often ugly.
Last week, a viral post by a young man named Geo Celestino made the rounds on Facebook, narrating the story of how his sister, a third year fine arts student in the University of Santo Tomas (UST), was bullied by UST’s Social Welfare and Development Board (SWDB).
According to Celestino, his sister tweeted a photo of the fifth year engineering student who harassed her while sleeping in a UV Express on the way home. She posted on Twitter to warn other female commuters. The male student reported her Twitter post to the SWDB, and after a long string of back-and-forths, she retracted her statement, and was made to apologize to the male student. Her brother took to social media when he saw the “Notice of Resolution” that the Celestinos’ parents had to sign as a conclusion of the issue.
Five days later, the University of Santo Tomas released an official statement in their Facebook page:UST’s response came a little too late, and is tepid at best. It defends the outcome of the case, and therefore defends the perpetrator of the crime.
When asked why Yssa Celestino did not report the crime, she told her brother that she worried that she would not be a credible witness to the crime against her. “What if I was only imagining this? What if hindi maniwala sa’kin mga kasama ko dito sa UV express?” she said. “What if mapahiya lang ako? What if hindi naman pala sinasadya ni Kuya na hipuan ako, na baka inaantok lang din siya?”
Many universities in the Philippines have yet to fulfill their promise of being a safe haven for all its students. It’s important for UST and other universities to show that accountability and justice will always prevail under their purvey — in this case, what do they do to protect their students from unwanted sexual advances, especially from other students or members of the school? What safeguards do students have against their harassers, when the institution itself hardly has the structure to protect their welfare?
The truth is, as can be gleaned from the UST official statement, universities can be more concerned with prevention than protection. Take the Stanford University rape case involving Brock Turner early last year. Stanford’s harass.stanford.edu seems to be more concerned with putting the burden on women to stop their harassment. When you ask Stanford University what you can do to stop sexual harassment, they’ll say: “If you can, tell the person to stop” or “Send a written message to your harasser.” Under which header do we find Stanford addressing men to stop sexually harassing women and members of the LGBTQ+ community?
It’s important for UST and other universities to show that accountability and justice will always prevail under their purvey — in this case, what do they do to protect their students from unwanted sexual advances, especially from other students or members of the school?
Somehow the universal narrative about sexual harassment lacks the language to talk to men about just not doing it. Men should know that they must not sexually harass. The truth is, it never occurs to them that way. Their actions have damaging consequences on others. They have been raised to believe that power is their currency, but women are not objects that their power can buy. So in the narrative where they are the heroes, it is their conquests that matter, their needs that need to be fulfilled. When the one place where that kind of dangerous thinking must be corrected — the school — does nothing to stop it, we must be steadfast in opposing such attitudes.
The only way to prevent sexual harassment is to teach men to recognize the problem, and that the problem starts with them. The disenfranchised (women, the LGBTQ+ community) throughout the ages have so tirelessly fought to exist in all senses that men do, yet men seem almost immune to this message, only hearing blame and saying “not all men!” or “But we’re already equal!” The story of women deserving power, equality, humanity, and the most basic right to exist without being harassed is continually silenced, unless individuals and institutions stop telling us what to wear, to not sleep in public transport in order to avoid sexual harassment.
We have a long way to go before on-campus sexual harassment is finally addressed by schools, and as proven by the case in UST, giving voice to the problem is the first step towards mobilizing communities. For those who are victims of harassment and to their allies, it is time to talk and claim space together.
And for the schools and institutions that refuse to acknowledge the problem, it’s no longer the time to stay invisible. Now that the stories are being told, it’s high time for them to realize that they are also characters in it. There have been those before who have taken the burden of women’s liberation against harassment. School is a hallowed place of learning for a reason — maybe it’s time that they learn a new lesson this time around.
Photo from Unsplash