Censorship Blues

Inquirer Commentary January 9 & 10, 2000

Early in 1999 Pinoy society’s moral guardians were out in full force trying to stop government from executing the convicted child rapist Leo Echegaray on the grounds that to take his life, no matter how grave his crime, was not only wicked and immoral, it would also not deter would-be rapists from raping. At year’s end, the same people were screaming for Armida Siguion-Reyna’s head and demanding that the citizenry be spared (deprived of) the pleasure of sexy movies because said pleasures are obscene and incite viewers to rape.

In effect, these sanctimonious ones are saying that to prevent the incidence of rape, they would not execute the rapist; instead they would clamp down on media, entertainment, and the arts, and forbid the public exhibition and broadcast of all sexually arousing material. Yes, they would take it out, not on the guilty rapist, but on the innocent public, that’s us, who are all potential rapists daw. Isn’t that pathetic?

In fact, studies do not show any causal relation between pornography and rape. Not even hard-core pornographic films, much less the boldest of Pinoy boldies, can be said to drive adult viewers to commit rape and, columnist Michael Tan is right, it is “not only dishonest but dangerous” of Sonny Alvarez, Manoling Morato, and their cohorts in the religious and showbiz communities to claim such because it leaves the real causes of rape untouched. In fact, sexual crimes are rooted in sexual abuse or (the extreme opposite) in sexual repression in childhood and/or adolescence, not in pornography. In fact, when pornography was legalized in Denmark, the incidence of rape fell.

Maybe the dishonesty is not deliberate. Maybe the likes of Morato and Alvarez are simply ill-informed, or maybe they’re unimpressed by facts, guided as they are by politics and religion, which are matters of trickery and faith. Not surprisingly, their ecumenical chorus line of bishops and priests, pastors and ministers, Ettas and Coneys don’t know, and aren’t behaving, any better. Clearly the dishonesty does not bother them, never mind that it violates their churches’ eighth commandment, the sixth comes first, it’s okay to lie or “bear false witness” when it is to defend against sex. Talk about double standards of morality.

I think they’re simply hysterical, as in, emotionally overwrought, so they’re not thinking straight, much less talking sense. This is what being confronted with sex does to people who are sexually hung-up, repressed by the outdated Christian notion that it is for married couples only, behind closed doors, and that otherwise all sex, including the display and patronage of sex in cinema and television, is evil and leads to hell.

Whether they know it or not, like it or not, ready or not, times have changed,­ yes, even in our basket case of a mental colony. At the very least, we know more about sex than our parents did at our age, thanks to the liberalizing effects of mass media as well as of the sexual revolution that brought AIDS to America and inevitably to our shores, raising sexual consciousness like never before. As a result, moralists worldwide are down to a noisy minority; but of course it doesn’t seem so around here, given how Catholic kuno the majority is and therefore silent, nay, inarticulate, on the joys and intricacies of sex.

Factor in as well the fourteen long years of dictatorship—when the dumbing of the Filipino began, when we let Marcos do all the thinking for us, and we not only lost our critical faculties, we also lost track of and fell behind the rest of the developing thinking world—and no wonder that we have media practitioners who are so behind the times, they can’t see beyond the surface of things and naively mistake the moralist din for the sentiment of the majority. And so, with only sales/ratings in mind, they gleefully religiously relay and echo, without criticism, the concerns of anti-“pornography” advocates about malaswa films, obviously blissfully ignorant, not only of what’s pornography and what’s not, but also of the implications of film censorship on the rest of the media (now, the movies; next, the newspapers? TV? advertising? fashion? the internet?).

And what about the anti-Armida columnist who wants to know why our National Artists and leading academicians and intellectuals are silent on the so-called clamor for censorship. How distressing to need to explain that artists and intellectuals are, first and foremost, free spirits and naturally they’re rooting for Armida’s MTRCB on the matter of classifying rather than censoring films, thereby upholding the democratic freedoms of expression and choice. The last thing any true artist or thinker would abide is censorship.

Even the few newspaper columnists and TV talkshow hosts (among them Kris Aquino, thank Ninoy!) who have spoken up against censorship are hard put defending sex in films and most have such a low opinion of Filipino movies, they won’t even concede that any of it qualifies as art. In a late-night talkshow the hosts asked why bomba movies appeal and why they keep coming back, only to admit at the end of an hour’s talk with some movie directors and movie patrons that they have no answers.

I would refer them to the same US Supreme Court ruling cited by the MTRCB that cautions against censorship of sex in art and literature: “Sex, a great and mysterious motive force in human life, has indisputably been a subject of absorbing interest to mankind through the ages; it is one of the vital problems of human interest and public concern.”

Sexy movies appeal and bold movies keep coming back because we are not only thinking creatures, we are also sexual creatures, endlessly fascinated and drawn by (once awakened to) the pleasures and pains of sex. And why not? Sex is the natural in us, and, like nature, it has a way of intruding, erupting, into consciousness, whether we’re up to it or not. In the words of my favorite (anti-feminist) feminist intellectual and art critic Camille Paglia (Sexual Personae, 1995): “Sex is the point of contact between man and nature, where morality and good intentions fall to primitive urges.”

Society is precisely our defense against nature and its excesses and while society’s guardians cannot be faulted for being paranoid about sex, they can and must be faulted for insulting our intelligence (threatening horny ones with hellfire and eternal damnation when AIDS, syphilis, gonorrhea as well as unwanted pregnancies are more frightening) and denying us Pinoy adults the option to confront and learn about our sexual nature both through sex education and exposure to the arts, the better to make sense of and come to terms with the whole (and not just fractions) of our selves.

Sex education in school and “parental guidance” at home are crucial, not just for the facts (as opposed to the myths) of it, but also for passing on a sense of control over the sexual urge (mind over matter) and a sense of it as creative energy that can be harnessed and channeled to enhance other aspects of the personality and other activities of the body-mind.

But even all that would not be enough, dry data never are. “Wet and wild” (as a ’60s softdrink commercial went) is more like it, and other than from first-hand experience, we can only get a sense of that kind of sex from the arts, cinema in particular, which comes closest, literally, to the flesh, visually capturing sex’s passion and convulsions for our delectation, turning us all into voyeurs and affirming the universality of our sexualcondition. It’s normal to be horny.

The question for the MTRCB and the film industry is where to draw the line between the bold and the pornographic. It used to be easy to tell one from the other: in bold films the sex was secondary, occasional and subordinate to the story; in porno it’s all nudity and sex with no story worth remarking. But now we have stories about sex that justify more sex than usual and so verge on the pornographic yet sizzle with social relevance—these are the ones that keep the MTRCB on its toes and drive the moralists really crazy. Again, I think the latter’s fears are unfounded.

As long as we stay away from pornography and as long as we strictly enforce the “For Adults Only” rule for bold movies, I think that generally there is little danger of these films inciting civilized viewers to rape. No doubt some adults walk out of the moviehouse feeling hot and hoping for some real exchange of fluids with a significant other as soon as, but I think it is just as true that the very experience of being turned on by sexy scenes can be pleasure enough, a kind of pleasure that peaks with the hottest sequence and declines, or is resolved, along with the storyline. By movie’s end, it can all be just food for the imagination, filed away with other reference images that inform one’s private sex life, for retrieval at the appropriate or opportune time.

Pinoy cinema may not measure up to Hollywood standards but that is not to say that our films do not serve the same ends or are socially irrelevant productions and do not qualify as art. To my mind, every movie, bold and not-bold, is a work of art, the product of creative thought and technology, and whether it’s worthwhile or not, successful or not, is a matter of taste, which is diverse and inconstant, and not for any one person or agency to dictate.

But I do agree with film critics who deplore the mediocrity of Pinoy films. Mostly I find the stories wanting in depth and vision, and trailers promising more than they deliver. Some of the “super-bold” movies that so scandalized the noisy minority were more boring than shocking and none of them, to my mind, deserved a second viewing, not even just for the erotic scenes (unlike Peque Gallaga’s Scorpio Nights). Nonetheless, they have a place, as we all (“moral terrorists,” as Carlitos Siguion-Reyna calls them, included) have a place, in the scheme of things, if only as reflections of a process of transition from censorship to self-regulation.

If Armida and the MTRCB can be faulted for anything, it would be for failing to anticipate, one, that the film industry would, after so much repression, first test the limits of liberalization—thus quickly progressing from Scorpio Nights 2 to Sutla, stopping only when the moral terrorists’ howl peaked to hysterical heights—and two, that theater owners and video pirates would think of profits first and children last.

Filmmakers will just have to be more creative in using the space, no matter how limited, that Armida has opened up for them. Limits, financial or “moral,” aren’t necessarily dead ends; they can also push artists to look elsewhere, change course, go deeper, beyond appearances (there’s more to sex, and life, than meets the eye), and still manage to appeal to the market.

To Armida’s credit, she has survived the crisis with aplomb, giving in a little here and there without giving up the cause. To the film industry’s credit, producers and directors have cut down on the sex, even if reluctantly, which is as it should be. The Moon in Scorpio, sign of sex, death, and rebirth, on the first day of Y2K presages more sex rather than less. No doubt the new millennium will see filmmakers continuing to test the limits of the MTRCB (Armida or not), and the Board continuing to debate on where to draw the line between “enough” sex and “too much” sex, and the moral terrorists continuing to harass us all.