Comedian and actor Vhong Navarro has surrendered himself to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) after Taguig authorities issued two warrants of arrest yesterday, Sept. 19.
One arrest warrant was for an acts of lascviousness case and the second was for a rape case, both of which were filed by model and stylist Deniece Cornejo, who accused the actor of rape in 2014.
The Court of Appeals (CA) overturned the Department of Justice’s previous dismissals of Cornejo’s case in 2018 and 2020 last July 21, citing that it was erroneous to dismiss her petitions “on the ground that her statements in the complaint-affidavits are inconsistent and incredible,” according to Inquirer. The CA then ordered the Taguig City Prosecutor to file charges of rape and acts of lasciviousness against the actor.
In 2014, Cornejo accused Navarro of two counts of rape “by sexual intercourse and by sexual assault,” with two separate incidents on Jan. 17 and 22 of that year.
Cornejo’s claim was that after the first incident, the actor visited her again at her condo on Jan. 22 supposedly to apologize for what happened. As a precaution, she informed her friends to come visit her as well. Instead of apologizing, the actor assaulted her again, and her friends came up to the condo and did a citizen’s arrest, which was the reason for his beaten up state.
Navarro’s narrative was that Cornejo and her friends were trying to extort him and forced him into a false rape confession, and that was why he was beaten up.
It was his narrative that the media ultimately picked up. Case in point: an article from 2014 that focuses on the timeline of “Vhong’s mauling in Deniece’s condo.” Or another article that collected memes made by netizens from that time, most of which were different variations of the same theme: an ominous condo, and Navarro the unsuspecting victim.
At all turns, we saw how society prioritizes the well-being of the accused and how it blames the victim.
In February 2014, the DOJ dismissed Cornejo’s bid to reschedule a probe for Navarro’s case against her because she was seeking to get a temporary protection order (TPO) against him and the hearing for that would come on the same day. Meanwhile, the “panel earlier excused Navarro from attending today’s hearing after he went to the DOJ last week to sign and subscribe to his affidavits against Cornejo, et al. He was also given a copy of her rape complaint against him.”
That same month, the court dismissed her petition for a TPO because she and Navarro did not have a relationship. His lawyer explained that “ang TPO, sa ilalim ng probisyon ng VAWC [Violence Against Women and their Children Act], ay nagbibigay proteksiyon para sa mga babaeng biktima ng pang-aabuso ng kanilang relasyon [mag-asawa o magkasintahan]… Base sa inihaing TPO, ang tanging binanggit na relasyon umano ni Deniece kay Vhong ay ang kaharasan na ginawa ng actor-host,” according to PEP.
The VAWC law includes someone who the “person has or had a dating or sexual relationship” with, and if we’re to take her own client’s word, then they did have a sexual relationship, with him claiming that the model performed oral sex on him. It’s a catch-22: In order for Cornejo to be protected, she has to agree with Navarro’s narrative. (Which brings me to ask: Why don’t TPOs cover alleged abusers you don’t have a relationship with?)
When her first rape complaint was dismissed in April 2014, it was because her neighbors did not hear her assault and she had dinner after. The resolution stated that “it is extremely difficult to comprehend how such scenario of shouting, struggling, and running to the lobby of the [condominium] could have escaped the ears of the people in the neighboring units” and that “her actuation after the tormenting experience, when she admitted going out for dinner with friends, is to a certain degree incredible as it is contrary to human frailty.”
In the second dismissal, it was apparently because her friends were smiling in a CCTV footage of the elevator of which you can barely see their features. Aside from that, she had gone about her day “normally” after the first incident and had invited Navarro to her condo still. Said Taguig City Assistant Prosecutor Patrick Noel de Dios, who dismissed her case, “She appeared to be normal in going about her daily activities. No changes in behavior or attitude were observed…If indeed the complainant was raped Jan. 17 or 18, why would she still invite the respondent on Jan. 22 to her condominium?”
In 2017, for the DOJ’s dismissal of the third complaint, it was because she “changed her story each time,” with each time referring to each complaint. It also reiterated de Dios’ same point, which was that she did not have the demeanor of someone who had just been raped. The following year, the DOJ dismissed her petition to review her prior ruling again because of inaccuracies.
In all those years, her cases were not permitted to go to trial. However, Navarro’s were, with him filing cases of coercion and illegal detention. In 2014, Navarro accused Cornejo and her friends of illegal detention due to the citizen’s arrest, and she and her friends were arrested due to that. After Cornejo spent months in jail, she was granted bail over insufficient evidence in Navarro’s serious illegal detention case against her.
In 2018, the same year the DOJ dismissed her petition, Cornejo was convicted for Navarro’s case of coercion. In that case, he stated that Cornejo and her friends forced him on Jan. 22 to sign a police blotter “falsely admitting” that he raped her. The police officer who was present during the signing testified that Navarro was not coerced.
Cornejo is not the only one to publicly accuse Vhong Navarro of sexual assault. At least two other women have come forward. One was research analyst, paralegal, and former pageant queen Roxanne Acosta Cabanero who accused him of raping her in 2010. Another was an unnamed lesbian stunt double who alleged that he forced her to perform oral sex on him.
It should be noted that in 2014, Deniece Cornejo was a 22-year-old student and Vhong Navarro was 37 years old and had already been famous for over a decade. They first met in 2011 when she was 19.
Model Kat Alano alluded to Navarro’s arrest with two tweets after the news broke out, with the first tweet saying, “Finally a glimpse of justice.” In the second tweet, she writes, “Keep using God’s name to proclaim innocence. God saw you rape us,” and uses the #rhymeswithwrong hashtag.
In 2014, Kat Alano came out as a rape survivor and has become a vocal figure on fighting rape culture since, penning an open letter in 2015 to then-Department of Justice head Leila de Lima about her rapist, a public figure who she did not name, being set free. In 2020, during the height of #HijaAko, she talked about her experience using the hashtag #rhymeswithwrong.
How should you behave?
The dismissals of Cornejo’s case hinge in part on myths of how a rape survivor should behave. Because she had dinner, because she was using the elevator like normal, that shows she was not raped. But how should a rape survivor behave after rape? How should she act in the elevator days after? Can anyone tell me what the appropriate demeanor is for that?
Trauma shows itself in different ways. “Not all survivors of sexual violence are the same, nor will any act of sexual violence affect two people in the same way. There is no wrong or right way to feel or react. As the body and mind process the devastation of sexual violence, many different emotions, behaviors, and physical responses appear and disappear and may reappear,” states the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs.
There is no one singular, unifying way that survivors react after assault. There is no such thing as “normal behavior” after it. Survivors all have different coping mechanisms—some may be avoidant, while some may be overly emotional after the fact. This is true of all traumatic events, not just of sexual assault. Let’s look at a common stereotype of natural disaster victims in the Philippines: Why is it that we can accept that survivors of deadly typhoons can still put on a brave face and laugh, but we can’t do the same for a rape survivor?
Cornejo herself admitted that there were inaccuracies to her prior complaints, but that was due to trauma and confusion. To that, the court said that it was a “sorry excuse” and that having friends and a lawyer belied her being “helpless.”
Admitting that trauma and confusion due to rape has caused you to slip up on the details of your assault is not infantilizing yourself. That’s just an acknowledgment of what trauma does. It can affect your memory, making it unreliable on the details. No amount of support from your friends and your lawyer after the fact is going to stop trauma from kicking in. Anyone who’s ever dealt with a traumatic event or helped someone who did knows that. To say that having friends supporting you means you cannot be traumatized enough to be bad at details is operating on a fundamental misunderstanding of trauma.
As Harvard Medical School consultant instructor James Hopper, Ph.D. wrote for Time Magazine, “it is not reasonable to expect a trauma survivor—whether a rape victim, a police officer or a soldier—to recall traumatic events the way they would recall their wedding day. They will remember some aspects of the experience in exquisitely painful detail. Indeed, they may spend decades trying to forget them. They will remember other aspects not at all, or only in jumbled and confused fragments. Such is the nature of terrifying experiences, and it is a nature that we cannot ignore.”
Sexual assault is an unnatural, traumatic event. There is no rational response to an irrational event. The way a sexual assault survivor recounts her assault may seem atypical and not normal and goes against “common sense” understanding of events. But in fact, as Lori Haskell and Melanie Randall write in “The Impact of Trauma on Adult Sexual Assault Victims,” “What might appear to be an ‘inconsistency’ in the way a victim reacts, or tells her story, may actually be a typical, predictable, and normal way of responding to life-threatening events and coping with traumatic experiences. Many responses that seem inexplicable to those who are unfamiliar with normal trauma responses can be appreciated by understanding the brain’s way of coping with and processing overwhelming psychological events.”
The legal proceedings have shown such a fundamental misunderstanding of rape, period. One argument Navarro’s attorney makes was that he did not rape her on Jan. 17 because he left voluntarily. But someone leaving voluntarily doesn’t mean he didn’t rape her. Cornejo saying that he left when she asked him to does not mean that the assault did not happen prior to that. There are many instances of sexual assault in which the instigator does not believe that what they did was rape or even violent. It’s entirely possible for someone to commit the act and then casually leave after.
Or what about a survivor allowing her alleged rapist into her home? It happens. As “The Impact of Trauma on Adult Sexual Assault Victims” notes, it’s unrealistic to expect that all survivors “discontinue contact with the person who has been inappropriate sexually or who has assaulted them.” There’s a myriad of reasons why a survivor would potentially do that. You can’t dictate how a survivor should behave or react. You can’t expect their actions to conform to what you think is logical either.
But for what it’s worth, Cornejo has stated numerous times that she let him in again because he said he wanted to apologize. For many survivors, hearing an apology is enough for them. And she did show precaution by asking a friend to go to her place just in case.
Both the media—traditional and social—and the court feasted on Cornejo. She has endured so much victim-blaming and character assaults from both places. She even had to publicly deny that she was an escort—as if sex workers aren’t vulnerable to rape.
However, the unfortunate reality is that women are more likely to be believed if they are “chaste and respectable,” according to a 2010 journal article on gendered victim stereotypes in New Criminal Law Review. In other words, if they can paint you as an unscrupulous, impure woman, then it’s easy for the court and the media to dismiss you and turn your pain into a farce.
And as we’ve seen recently, both places are all too happy with pushing the image of the lying victim.