Sex and commodification: Students being auctioned in UP Visayas

I wrote this commentary for the Philippine Online Chronicles at the beginning of the month.[1]

Sex has always been intriguing for the young. This is generally true in a country where the conjunction of a Catholic-imposed taboo and corporate mass media indulgence on sexualized images has resulted in a paradoxical interest on the topic among the youth.

This is particularly true in the University of the Philippines Visayas, the Iloilo-based branch of the national university, where the auctioning of freshmen dormers “to the highest bidder” have become controversial.

In recent years, the House Councils of UPV freshmen dormitories Balay Lampirong and Balay Kanlaon have organized income-generating activities that include the auction of residents.

The Balay Lampirong “Bachelors’ Night” is a closed-door activity where male residents are auctioned to the highest bidder. The Balay Kanlaon “BK Night” is a bigger show held in the university covered court that is open for anyone, including campus outsiders, who buy a P30 ticket.

Sex and Commodification

For the organizers and some students, the events are simply ways of generating income and having fun at the same time. First initiated in the year 2006, the auction activities have become a yearly tradition among the residents of the two freshmen dorms.

But in a complaint letter to the UPV administration, UPV Social Sciences Department faculty member Dr. Mary Barby Badayos-Jover, a gender rights advocate, writes that the holding of such activities “borders on child sexual abuse, sexual harassment and outright sexual trafficking.”

A strong charge given the university’s claim of leading efforts in promoting gender sensitivity, its hosting of the office of the regional gender resource center (Ugsad), and its inclusion of a course specifically tackling gender issues in the curriculum.

By being auctioned off to the highest bidder, 16-17 year old students are transformed into commodities or objects that are sold for exchange, in this case in the auction market commenced during the event night. The auctionees are, put simply, commodified.

The auctionees’ exchange value is determined by the amount of money exchanged for their services by the highest bidder. Their use-value consists in their spending 24 hours with the highest bidder who can order them to do what s/he wants within the allotted time.[2]

According to Dr. Badayos-Jover, the auctionees become objects for exchange rather than dignified human beings, where the highest bid amount from a minimum of P250 to a high of P12,000 to claim the auctionee of his/her choice.

Seduction of “Organs without Bodies”

But what is worse is the way this commodification of the auctionees comes side by side with an unmistakeable trend towards sexualisation, wherein their value becomes measured in terms of their sexual attractiveness.

This can be easily seen in this year’s BK Night wherein the auctionees had photos as scantily-clad bodies insinuating various stages of arousal.

Imagine the photos of six girls interspersed with the photos of six boys. Their bodies are cropped off as to hide the eyes and the rest of the face, showing only the mouth, the neck, the chest, and down to the waist where the photo disappears.

The boys are shown topless while the girls are wearing sleeveless shirts. The photo is in grey scale, except for the girls’ lips which are bright red. Some of the mouths are open, as if moaning, panting, or salivating, while that of one girl is biting her lips, as if in the act of seduction.

In these images, the auctionees are reduced to selected body parts like necks, mouths, and nipples that are presented precisely as objects engaged in contortions of ecstasy. The coherence of the body is denied and reduced into organs that are insinuated as instruments of sexual satisfaction.

They are inevitably reduced to organs without bodies.[3] Without any larger background in which their acts can be contextualized, the possibility of these organs performing acts in non-sexual situations is suppressed. The viewer is seduced by a sexually-charged image that invites immediate gratification.

Violence against Women and Children

But for the fact that no complaints of the highest bidders requiring auctionees to engage in sexual services such as lap dancing, stripping, or actual sexual intercourse have been reported, then some can claim that the auction is not outright sexual trafficking.[4]

However, the condition giving the highest bidder the privilege to do what s/he wants with the auctionee in 24 hours certainly gives leeway for such acts. The sexually seductive portrayals of the auctionees in the event’s publicities moreover promote the proliferation of such a discourse.

For UPV-based organization Samahan ng mga Mag-aaral at Kabataang-Kababaihan Chairperson Shelly Dalmacio, this is clearly a form of violence against women and children

That some students did not see anything wrong with the practice and that university administrators have allowed the holding of such activities for a considerable period of time is testament to the hegemony of consumerism and the desensitization of younger generations to heavily sexualized imagery.

As feminist Naomi Wolf observes: “from Playboy to music videos to the blank female torsos in women’s magazines, features obscured and eyes extinguished, they are being imprinted with a sexuality that is mass-produced, deliberately dehumanizing and inhuman.”[5]

A consumerist culture and the endless bombarding of images that show women as sex objects in everyday life and the corporate mass media is undeniably harming the way the sexuality of today’s children and young men and women are being shaped.

With the UPV administration taking action, the complaint may put an end to the auction of students in the coming years. But Dalmacio asserts, UPV still has a long way to go in terms of promoting awareness of gender issues.

 


[1] The idea of the essay was to present how the auctioning of students – a specific cultural tradition in my Alma Mater, in the words of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The German Ideology, is the “expression of the dominant material relationships” as ideas, values, practices, and attitudes via the concepts of feminist Naomi Wolf and Slovenian cultural critic Slavoj Žižek.

The article caused public outrage against the activity. On the other hand, it also generated irate remarks from certain sections from UPV who offered a chockfull of arguments against the essay – “conservative,” “exaggerated,” or “irresponsible journalism” – that eventually all boiled down to the notion that the article should not have been written because it put UPV in a bad light.

The unfortunate idea that the national university should be exempted from a cultural critique or any criticism for that matter embodies a “perverted sense of loyalty” that is contrary to its character as a public institution that is ultimately answerable to the people.

[2] See Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume One (London: Penguin Classics, 1990).

[3] With apologies for the (mis)appropriation of the term to Slavoj Žižek, Organs Without Bodies (New York: Routledge, 2004).

[4] See Ronald Weitzer, Editor, Sex for Sale: Prostitution, Pornography, and the Sex Industry, Second Edition (New York: Routledge, 2010).

[5] Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (New York: Anchor Books, 1991), 162.

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