Male seafarers as victims of sexual harassment

By: ATTY. DENNIS GORECHO - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | February 02,2021 - 08:00 AM

Male seafarers can be the subject of sexual harassment while working on board the vessel entitling them to moral damages. Sexual harassment can happen to anyone and everyone.

The Supreme Court stressed in the case of Richard Toliongco vs. Anglo Eastern Crew Mgt. (G.R. No. 231748, July 8, 2020) that sexual harassment must be recognized as a risk faced by our seafarers and which should not be merely seen as a gender issue, rather it is a power issue.

The seafarer was employed as messman. The seafarer claimed that when he served dinner to the Chief Officer, the latter demanded that he masturbate and perform oral sex on him. He resisted and left the room. That same night, the chief officer called for him again, and, repeated the sexual advances. On the second attempt, he also resisted and managed to escape.

He filed a complaint the following day for physical abuse and sexual abuse under alcohol intake against the Chief Officer before the Captain. The chief officer threatened to kill him upon learning of the complaint. The seafarer was later repatriated to the Philippines.

Several months later, he filed a complaint for constructive dismissal, sexual harassment and maltreatment with prayer for the payment of disability benefits, damages and attorney’s fees claiming that he is rendered permanently and totally disabled due to his post-traumatic stress disorder caused by his unfortunate experience onboard the vessel. The court, however, denied the claim for disability benefits  because the pieces of evidence submitted are not sufficient to convince the Court that he has been rendered permanently and totally disabled.

Nevertheless, the Court ruled that since a wrongful act was committed against the seafarer due to the sexual harassment he suffered  at the hands of  the chief officer, he is entitled to the income for the  unexpired portion of the contract, moral damages of P100,000,00, exemplary damages, and attorney’s fee.

The Supreme Court underscored that victims of sexual abuse usually take time before reporting to the proper authorities, more so if they are male as society has made it hard for male victims of sexual harassment to come out and report.

“Our society has often depicted women as being the weaker sex, and the only victims of sexual harassment. It is high-time that this notion is corrected. To consider women as the weaker sex is discriminatory. To think that only women can be victims of sexual harassment is discriminatory against men who have suffered the same plight; men who have been victimized by sexual predators,” the Court said.

Seafarers are exposed to various forms of discrimination, exploitation, sexual harassment, and violence, which may partly be attributed to the confined space on board vessels.

The isolated nature of the ship can increase opportunities for sexual harassment and violence, and can also amplify their negative consequences.

Sexual harassment may take the form of sexist remarks, sexual advances or sex-related behavior. It is a reflection of the power relations between individuals involved where, in most instances, the harasser is an officer occupying a higher rank than the seafarer.

The Court cited  a separate opinion in Garcia v. Drilon, (712 Phil 44, 2013) which recognized  the existence of violence against men and the underreporting of such incidents.

The Court said that “social and cultural expectations on masculinity and male dominance urge men to keep quiet about being a victim, adding to the unique experience of male victims of domestic abuse. This leads to latent depression among boys and men. In a sense, patriarchy while privileging men, also victimizes them”

“There is now more space to believe that portraying only women as victims will not always promote gender equality before the law. It sometimes aggravates the gap by conceding that women have always been dominated by men. In doing so, it renders empowered women invisible; or, in some cases, that men as human beings can also become victims”, the Court added.

The Court further stressed that “it may be said that violence in the context of intimate relationships should not be seen and encrusted as a gender issue, rather it is a power issue. Thus, when laws are not gender-neutral, male victims of domestic violence may also suffer from double victimization first by their abusers and second by the judicial system. 

Incidentally, focusing on women as the victims entrenches some level of heteronormativity. It is blind to the possibility that, whatever moral positions are taken by those who are dominant, in reality intimate relationships can also happen between men.”

At its core, sexual harassment is not an issue of gender but an issue of power.

Atty. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the  Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan  law offices. For comments, email [email protected], or call 09175025808 or 09088665786)

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