Weapons of Mass Distraction: Harnessing the Appeal of Sex Scandals Against Political Opposition
FEU Public Policy Center
June 07, 2022
Every so often, Filipino politicians and government officials become involved in sexual improprieties. Prior to the internet age, the public became aware of these gaffes through rumors and mass media. Implicated male government officials were usually involved in extramarital affairs. But at times the public has been scandalized by the heinous nature of the offenses. Then Calauan (Laguna) Mayor Antonio Sanchez was convicted for the rape and murder of a University of the Philippines, Los Baños, coed, while former Zamboanga del Norte Congressman Romeo Jaloslos was convicted for statutory rape and acts of lasciviousness involving an 11-year-old girl.
More recently, the outing of sexual dalliances has gone beyond exposé. Advancements in video production technology and widespread access to the internet have given rise to “sex scandal” as a commodity: an audio-video recording of sexual content that is distributed through the internet. When combined with politics, sex scandals have become tools for character assassination and public distraction.
Filipinos and sex scandals
The increased accessibility of video capture devices has given additional meaning to the term sex scandal. In the Philippines, sex scandals often come in the form of video recordings taken from a voyeuristic viewpoint using handheld devices. These recordings, which are not necessarily authentic, go viral once disseminated to the public. They then become allegations about sexual activity that violate norms and expectations. In the last two decades, “sex scandals” in the Philippines tended to involve prominent personalities, students from prestigious schools, and employees of established companies. Some have been localized and associated with certain towns and provinces in the country.
From 2004 to present, the search query “sex scandal” has been the most popular in the Philippines, leading other countries in terms of share to total Google searches made. The next four countries trail far behind with their respective shares to total ranging from nine to 25 times less than the Philippines’.
On a full year basis, the Philippines is consistently ranked first in terms of interest by region. At the same time, the search query “pinay sex scandal” and variations of it (e.g., sex scandal pinay) are consistently among the top 25 related queries.
While popular sex scandals usually feature showbusiness personalities, public officials have also been linked to them. Based on Google search data available from 2006, there have been three instances wherein government officials’ alleged indiscretions drew public attention. In 2012, users searched for “doj sex scandal” after video recordings of a Quezon City prosecutor’s extramarital sexual activities were made public. In 2014, videos of Camarines Norte Governor Edgardo Tallado’s extramarital sexual activities and nude photos of his mistress circulated online. In 2016, users searched “leila de lima sex scandal” after a former aide of Senator De Lima claimed to have seen a sex video of the senator.
The 2012 “doj sex scandal” and the 2014 “tallado sex scandal” demonstrate how sexual dalliances have moved past rumors and news reports to circulated videos and photos of the personalities involved while engaged in intimate acts. Online forums have facilitated discussion of the issue as well as access to the recordings. One of the top results of a Google search of the 2012 episode is a thread hosted by a popular car forum. Social media platforms have also been utilized for discussion and circulation. Photos of the governor’s alleged mistress first spread through social media platform Facebook.
In 2015, five individuals were sued for posting photos that insinuate that the governor had an extra-marital affair. According to the governor, these individuals were political allies and dependents of rival political families. In 2016, five persons were arrested after showing the alleged sex video in the LED screen of a van parked in the public market. They were identified as employees of the governor’s former political party. Following the brouhaha, the governor was expelled from his political party and women’s groups called for his ouster during protests held at the provincial capitol. Despite the ruckus and subsequent suspension for disgraceful and immoral conduct, the governor reconciled with his wife and managed to win the 2016 and 2019 gubernatorial elections.
Unlike most amorous improprieties involving male politicians, the 2016 “leila de lima sex scandal” embroiled its eponym, a lady senator. Allegations of a sex video featuring her first came out in 2014 during her confirmation hearing as Justice Secretary. Senator de Lima countered that the alleged video was fake, and the controversy did not gain traction. The issue resurfaced in 2016 following remarks made by President Rodrigo Duterte on several occasions, alleging that she received drug money to fund her campaign through her driver and former lover, Ronnie Dayan.
The image below suggests that interest in the sex scandal coincides with key events in the 2016 investigations. Interest peaked in mid-August when President Duterte accused Senator de Lima of funding her campaign using drug money and revealed the existence of the alleged sex videos. Towards the end of September 2016, former DOJ Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre and former House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez supported the public display of the alleged videos during the ongoing investigations. In the first week of October, a former aide of Senator de Lima confirmed the existence of the video and claimed to have seen it. Like the 2009 sexcapades of a male doctor with an actress and doctor turned actress, illicit improprieties gain further traction when government devotes resources and attention to the issue.
Political opponents of Senator de Lima argued that the public viewing of the sex video during the investigation would help establish Dayan’s authority to receive drug money on behalf of the senator. Women legislators opposed it, correctly pointing out that the videos had nothing to do with the investigation.
Unlike the 2012 and 2014 incidents, which exposed infidelity, the 2016 sex scandal only served as a tool for political crucifixion. It was employed in conjunction with attempts to silence a vocal critic of the Duterte Administration. Prior to the reemergence of the alleged sex videos, Senator de Lima had initiated a probe on extrajudicial killings in relation to the government’s war on drugs. This triggered counter allegations of her involvement in the illegal drug trade, which eventually led to her ouster as Chairperson of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights and her imprisonment. Just recently, key witnesses have recanted their statements, confessing that they had been coerced to issue incriminatory affidavits against the senator.
Sex scandals have also been employed to distract the public and political opposition during this year’s campaign. With barely a month left in the campaign period, links to alleged sex videos of Vice President Leni Robredo’s eldest daughter circulated online. Instead of focusing on public policy issues, attention and resources were spent on fabricated issues that did not contribute to political discourse.
References to her alleged sex scandal have also dragged down Senator de Lima’s reelection bid and her call for justice. In a review of tweets (excluding replies) mentioning “Leila de Lima” from the official start of the campaign period to 30 April 2022, she has been repeatedly shamed and portrayed as a promiscuous woman. Years after the alleged sex scandal, which Senator de Lima has denied, critics continue to use sexually charged images (e.g., a spliced photo of Senator de Lima with a male celebrity involved in a sex scandal and an edited photo of Senator de Lima in intimate apparel) and to bash her in social media.
The Internet remembers
Perhaps, the best example of the enduring nature of attacks on women’s sexuality is the “Joenel” meme. During the hearing conducted by the House Committee on Justice, Joenel Sanchez, a former aide of Senator de Lima, demonstrated how Senator de Lima would call him. This drew laughter from those present in the hearing after he used what lawmakers would refer to as “a sweet tone.” While the incident seemed innocent, it has become a meme that reinforced attempts to portray Senator de Lima as a promiscuous woman. It has also been used to mislead the public and imply that Senator de Lima also had a relationship with her former aide. While she has denied this over and over, individuals continue to believe and use this false claim in tweets against her.
The usual tactics: clickbait titles and twisted statements
If one crosschecked links to alleged sex videos of both Senator de Lima and Aika Robredo, it leads to random pornographic videos whose titles have been changed to include the names of the targeted individuals. The use of clickbait titles seems like standard practice for videos containing disinformation. Its spread could have been mitigated if social media platforms and streaming services take a more proactive stance in verifying the contents of the videos and if these match the title.
Despite the official statement denying the existence of a sex video featuring Aika Robredo, several social media accounts insist that Robredo admitted to the existence of a sex video and referenced her tweet in 2016. In 2016, Robredo tweeted “It was me in the video” as part of the #everywoman social media campaign, which condemned plans to screen the alleged sex videos of Senator de Lima during the investigations.
The experiences of Senator Leila de Lima and Aika Robredo demonstrate the use of sex scandal as a political tool. Unlike its traditional function of exposing behavior that goes against norms, sex scandals in the political arena can be used to target specific individuals to achieve underhanded goals. In the case of Senator de Lima, the sex scandal was brought up under the pretext of establishing supposed links with illegal drug trade. Instead of proving her involvement in illegal drugs, the sex scandal tarnished her reputation and shamed her. In the case of Aika Robredo, the sex scandal was used to distract the public from the important issues of the campaign, such as that the leading presidential and vice-presidential candidates chose not to appear in public debates. Furthermore, the deliberate attempt to focus on a specific body part contributes to the continued objectification of women.
When sex scandals involving political personalities are founded on disinformation, they are no different from gossip and mudslinging. These practices divert the public’s attention and steer it away from issues of the moment. More insidiously, they exploit a reprehensible mindset that considers it all right to shame women “to keep them in place,” subservient to men. Indeed, this tactic has been deployed by actors supportive of the so-called “machismo populism” of the current administration.
Sex and Philippine society
The crucifixion of Senator de Lima is made possible by embedded values and beliefs in society that prejudice women. The Filipino public remains tolerant and forgiving of men involved in sexual affairs. This extends to our choice of leaders, having elected two Presidents (Estrada and Duterte) who have openly admitted their extramarital affairs. Furthermore, the public treats lightly the obnoxious treatment of women – downplaying it as playfulness, natural male behavior (boys will be boys), or locker room talk.
Indeed, this was on full display during a campaign sortie in 2016. Duterte narrated a rape and murder incident involving an Australian missionary during his term as Davao City mayor. As the sitting mayor, Duterte inspected the dead body. He said, the Australian missionary looked like a beautiful Hollywood celebrity and the criminals had taken turns raping the victim. Duterte stated that the rape incident angered him but also quipped that the mayor (referring to himself) should have been first in line. This drew laughter and cheers from the crowd – disturbing behavior that good society cannot and must not tolerate.
Microaggressions against women committed by government and its officials reinforce public prejudice against women and their sexuality. It is the responsibility of government and its officials to nurture a just and kind society. The public has every right to be outraged and demand better from its leaders.
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