Thursday, October 14, 2010

The sex life of the urban poor (1)

TWO DECADES ago, I did a feature story for the Sunday Inquirer Magazine on the sex life of the urban poor, titled “A few meters of loving space.” It was based on my interviews with couples living in blighted, depressed areas of Manila. The story was illustrated by Inquirer cartoonist Jess Abrera (done in semi-abstract, okay?).

There was a debate at that time on family planning methods and reproductive health. Today, several millions of babies later, the debate rages again. In this context, I bring out compressed excerpts (for just two columns instead of three) from that feature for your enlightenment, if not for your entertainment:

When I asked her how couples can be intimate in such a congested setting, the woman gave out a throaty laugh. “Ah, wala nang pa-tumbling-tumbling pa. Deretso na kaagad para makaraos.” She sounded almost casual.

“You know,” she added, “you are the second person to ask me that. The first one was a Belgian woman who came to see how we lived.”

After she had unraveled her personal life, we talked about urban congestion and its effects on people. Of course I had to inquire about the slum dwellers’ private lives but only after we had discussed their food and wages, their dilapidated homes, their religious faith and political views, their coping abilities, even their toilet habits.

Some nights, the woman said, when every single one in her multi-family household was at home, their two-story patchwork structure would be packed to the corners with steaming horizontal bodies in deep slumber. In the heat of the night, when she lay awake, she would feel movements and hear muted sounds. “Alam ko na kung ano yun. Naiintindihan ko,” she said rather solemnly.

Studies on people’s sex life have become commonplace but most of them, it seems, are conducted among the middle and upper classes. The studies’ results are published in expensive publications for these same classes to lap up, for they see in these glossies a reflection of their bedroom lives, their fatal attractions, their forbidden romances, even their gynecology.

Who cares what the poor do? The way the idea of sex has been glamorously and expensively packaged (as in the glossy girlie mags, the ads, the movies), it is as if only the haves make love while the have-nots merely copulate. Sex and the poor are oftentimes discussed only in the context of prostitution, child abuse and such worries as population explosion. But despite the constraints of space, time and privacy, the poor also generally live normal and vigorous sex lives. Whatever quirks and pathologies they have could not be any worse than those of their well-to-do counterparts.

I tried to find research literature on the poor’s sexual habits or something closely related to the topic but there was none, so I decided to go down to the slums and ask around. What at first I thought would be a voyeuristic undertaking yielded no-holds-barred discussions with very open and articulate interviewees. No euphemisms—they call a spade a spade, a penis a penis.

The first and last time Joel and Yolanda Lapena had a very private moment to themselves was when they attended, with some other poor couples, a three-day marriage encounter seminar in Taytay a few years ago on the invitation of a nun. The encounter, the Lapena couple says, was “honeymoon talaga.” But more important to them was that they had time to talk intimately to each other. “We even wrote letters to each other,” a beaming Yolanda reports. A non-physical dimension and a spiritual communion with each other were, to them, new and exhilarating.

Married for almost 15 years, the 34-year-old Lapenas have six children aged 14 to eight (that means one baby every year). “Sa bunso na kami kinasal,” reveals Yolanda who adds that they were married in mass wedding rites sponsored by civic groups.

Joel works as a taxi washer while Yolanda has her hands full just taking care of the family. Joel earns P20 for every taxi he washes. On a good day he can earn P100. Home to the family is the second floor of a creaky house squeezed between two rundown structures in the Malate slums. The place, measuring about five by 15 feet is divided by a curtain. At night the couple, the six children and several in-laws sleep in this cramped space. There is only one bed, so the rest have to sleep on the floor.

So how and when did Joel and Yolanda make those six children? “Panakaw-nakaw lang pag-walang tao,” says Joel. Never at night. “Mabilisan lang. Pag umakyat ang mga bata napipigilan pa.” Even in the daytime, there is no way the couple can hide if someone happens to climb the ladder and enter the narrow door. So husband and wife are always on their guard and have their outer garments on just in case. “Wala nang romansa-romansa, basta makaraos lang, pero hindi naman bitin. Nerbiyos lang ho yung madalian. Pagkatapos wala nang paguusap. Tayo kaagad.” They can hear the children playing downstairs.

Yolanda admits to being so fertile. “Mahagisan lang daw ng briefs o malakdawan buntis na.” Several times she tried the pill but she developed rashes and had difficulty breathing. Although Joel worried about her, he never considered vasectomy. So after the sixth child Yolanda had a tubal ligation. It has been sex without worry twice weekly since then, she says.

“Maligo ka na,” is Joel’s way of inviting his wife. She has never been one to ask for it, Yolanda admits. “Minulat kaming malayo sa lalaki,” she reasons.

(To be continued)