Friday, November 5, 2010

A few meters of loving space

Sunday Inquirer Magazine/FEATURES/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

WHEN I asked her how couples can be intimate in such a congested setting, the slum 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 visit us and see how we lived.” I was then doing the mini-biography (her odyssey, actually) of this spunky but consumptive slum woman. We were chatting in the “privacy” of her small Tondo home where about 20 members of her family 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 dweller’s private lives but only after we had discussed their food, their wages, their dilapidated homes, their religious faith, their 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, while she lay awake, she would feel movements and hear muted sounds. She was familiar with these things. “Alam ko na kung ano yun. Naiintindihan ko,” she said rather solemnly.
Researchers on people’s sex live have become commonplace but most of them, it seems, are conducted among the middle and upper classes. The results of these researches 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 that 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. They had gone at 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-minded citizens.

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 houses in the Malate slums. The place, measuring about five by 15 feet, is divided by a curtain. At night 11 people (the couple, the six children and in-laws) sleep in this cramped space. There is only one bed that is too small for two, 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, and never at night. “Mabilisan lang. Pag umakyat ang mga bata napipigilan pa.” Even in the daytime, there is no way the couple can hide from anyone who happens to climb the ladder and enter the narrow door. So husband and wife are always on their guard and have to have their outer garments on just in case. “Wala nang romansa-romansa, basta makaraos lang, pero hindi naman bitin. Nerbiyos lang ho yung madalian.” No post coital conversation either, as in the movies. “Pagkatapos wala nang paguusap. Tayo kaagad.” They can hear the children playing downstairs.

Yolanda admits to having been 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. Yolanda wouldn’t have wanted that anyway, so after the sixth child she had a tubal ligation. It has been sex without worry twice weekly since then.

“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.

Carlito Martes, 38, and wife Teresita, 37, have been married 18 years. They have six children, aged 18 to two. Laking Maynila, the couple started married life with an elopement. They now live in the Leveriza slums. Carlito works as a mason, Teresita as a laundry woman. She is a member of Alay Kapwa, a community cooperative.

The family’s abode, 20 square meters, hardly gives anyone privacy. And with so many children around, the couple had to make a papag practically in mid-air, a “mezzanine” that functioned as their bed. For some reason that papag had to be removed. “Walang papag, dieta,” quips Carlito, adding that sometimes they forget to have sex. “Nakakalimutan na rin.” Once a month is how regular it is and because there’s no more papag they have to have sex in a rush – “baka may magising.” When he’s had some drinks, then “doon ko lang ginagalaw.” Besides the fact that there’s hardly enough space, fancy positions are out for another reason. “Pang-prostitute lang daw yun,” Teresita quotes Carlito.

“I used an IUD (intraurine device) for nine years,” Teresita reveals. But twice she had infections because of it. She resorted to the pill, but after experiencing dizzy spells she stopped taking it. After nine years she gave birth again – to twins.

“We’ve never had a time to go out and by ourselves,” complains Teresita.

“Mabubuhay ka ba ng puro ganun,” Maria Cabello repeatedly points her finger downward, “kung ang tiyan ay kukulo-kulo?” Maria is a housewife whose husband Diosdado works as a photographer in the Manila Zoo which is a short distance from the Cabello home. He charges P20 per shot, P10 of which goes to him, the other P10 to the laboratory men. (The shy husband made himself unavailable for the interview saying he had to go to work.) The Cabellos, both in their late 30s, have four children aged 16 to 11. Neither parent finished high school.

The Cabello home is small, but it is quite neat and clean and is a lot better than their neighbors’ as they have some space and a few trees around them. Maria and Diosdado also have a little private corner to themselves.

Because the couple could not afford more children, Maria took the pill, but after some time she developed cysts and bleeding. She switched to injections and bled every week. Vasectomy was out of the question as the Cabellos erroneously believe it is hazardous to health. The ever-sacrificing wife says, “Hindi na baleng ako ang magkadeperensiya, huwag lang ang mister ko.” The couple has, since, then, used either the rhythm or the withdrawal method.

“Paghindi siya napagbigyan sa gabi,” says Maria of her husband, “maniningil sa araw.” Pagkakataon naman, e,” Diosdado would insist, “because the children are not around.” At night, the couple has to wait for the children to be fast asleep.

Sometimes, Maria says, their bodies are just too tired for anything. “Pata na ang katawan sa kakatrabaho.” But when Diosdado makes kalabit and Maria is not up to it, she psyches herself up so she can enjoy sex too. Otherwise she says she’ll have a hard time. “Mahihirapan din ako kung hindi dudulas.” They are always ready for their private moments to be disturbed. “Lagi kang handa baka may magbukas ng ilaw. It really all depends on the mood. Thirty minutes is long enough.”

There’s never any time or place to discuss sex. Maria says they can’t even argue about it openly so they end up fighting about other things. One thing Maria knows – she can make her husband forget about beer or alcohol with a promise of good sex. “But no,” she clarifies. “I’ll never do what the prostitutes do.”

Over in Ermita where many squatters live, a pregnancy counseling center has been put up by pro-lifers who promote natural family planning (NFP). (The center gives counseling services to pregnant women with problems as well as to those who want to know more about birth control options, be they artificial or natural.)

May Belgica, NFP trainor, has invited two women from the Adriatico slums to share something about their sex life. The women, Fe A. and Vicenta B. are in their 30s. Fe is heavy with her third child while Vicenta has an only daughter who’s entering her teens. Fe and Vicenta are used to talking openly about their sex life because they’ve had many discussions about sex, anatomy and family planning with many other women in their community. Vicenta is, in fact, an NFP counselor.

“Oh, they talk about their orgasms quite openly in group discussions,” says Sister Pilar Versoza, a Good Shepherd nun who also works at the center. “Some of them would even admit that they’ve never had one in all their many years of married life.” But thanks to women’s talakayan many women have become more familiar with their bodies and their needs.

For example they once discussed the case of a woman whose first husband was a wife beater but who, even his wife would concede, was a satisfying lover. Another complained that her husband would just mount her without any display of affection, no kisses whatsoever because he felt it wasn’t proper. “What!!!” the women rose in protest and lectured the poor woman on her right to satisfying sex. If they could only get hold of the husband…

Fe admits she knew nothing about making babies when she eloped. She remembers being teased by her husband’s kin the night of the elopement with “Naku lagot ka.” She didn’t know what the ribbing was all about. She says she never learned about sex in school because she didn’t even reach high school. She remembers her sister getting spanked simply because she uttered the word pek-pek.

But while Fe has become conversant about sex, she admits that she is never one to ask her husband for it. Although their house is not all that spacious for intimacies, Fe says, the children aren’t a worry because they are very young and are always sound asleep at night. Her husband, she adds with a giggle, has fixed the loose floor boards so they won’t make any noise.

Vicenta butts is to say that since her daughter is almost a teenager, a partition was put in the tiny house to give her some privacy. And her parents more freedom. Vicenta claims it’s always her husband who gives her a nudge. (“Ma, gusto ko,” or “lumalakad ang kamay.”) Although Vicente knows it’s all right for women to take on an aggressive role, she can’t really ask for it verbally, she can only make him feel she wants it. Sometimes when they want to make love during daytime and their daughter is around, her husband gives the daughter money and she runs off to buy herself something.

“When we do it it’s showtime talaga!” exclaims the irrepressible Vicenta. "At saka ayoko ng walang foreplay,” she adds. Night or early morning suits them fine. They take off everything because they have their little house to themselves. Many of their neighbors do not have that luxury.

Vicenta is happy with her husband, a Muslim, who she says respects and allows her to practice her Christian beliefs and who has no intention of taking any more wives. Staffers at the counseling center attest to the wholesome relationship between Vicenta and her husband.

Most of these slum women interviewed admit they know little about sex before they married. “Now our children learn these things in school,” they say. But do they discuss sex with their children? Almost all of them answer no – because the children never ask and these mothers are not inclined to bring up the topic either.

Maria Cabello says she sometimes sees her children reading tabloids which have advice columns that tackle sex in very graphic terms. She wonders about the effects of such reading matter on her growing kids. Sometimes in these tabloids the subject of sex goes side by side with a lot of violence.

On sex and violence, Dr. Michael Tan, a medical anthropologist who teaches Sex and Culture at the University of the Philippines, has some interesting views. Low-income males, he says, tend to link the sex act with dominance and violence. “You will notice this in their language. Like they’ll say, binabanatan when they refer to the sexual act. That seems to indicate low regard for women.”

Low-income males tend to marry early, says Tan, and like the average Filipino male, they think they are the best lovers in the world. “It is a big blow for them to be baog. They are the locus of control. Males openly boast about their sexual abilities and their endurance. They are a study in contradiction. They are moralistic about women who stray and yet they’ll be boasting about their practices na kasing laswa.” Peeping toms, common in depressed areas, are men.

Tan says that poor young women, who, early on, have been lured to sex-for-pay tend to later justify their getting stuck in prostitution with “naggamit na, tuloy-tuloy na.” Sociologist F. Landa Jocano, in his book "Slum as a Way of Life", made the same observation 15 years ago.

Most low-income women still think of their role in the sex act as a passive one. And so they say “Ginamit ako” or “Ginalaw ako ng mister ko.” (The Filipino word for sexual intercourse is pagtatalik, pagsisiping or pagniniig. The six-letter word is considered vulgar.) Many women also think it is never for them to initiate lovemaking. Ironically, in birth control, it is their bodies that must carry the gadgets, take in the drugs and submit to surgery. As if child-bearing – getting pregnant, giving birth, suckling the baby – are not difficult enough.

It seems the urban poor have fewer hang-ups and scruples about sex, never mind if it is far from the romantic, idealized thing that they wish it to be. But they can joke about it all. How they laugh about the rich bored women who spend money on vaginal tightening. “Landscaping,” they guffaw.

In slum areas there is very little that people can hide from one another. The walls have ears, the walls have holes. (Incidentally, there was this billboard in Quiapo which advertised a movie entitled "May Butas sa Dingding".) It’s all part of life. Sometimes when there are community meetings during daytime and it takes so long for some people to get out of their lean-tos, a leader would yell from the street, “Hoy, bunutin muna niyo yan!” A flustered couple would come out and find themselves being ribbed with, “Baun na baun ba?” followed by lusty laughter. Among the poor, sex, like hunger, is part of their common everyday lot.

Sunday Inquirer Magazine,
November 26, 1990