Let me tell you, choosing to be a Sexuality and Pleasure Educator was not one of the options my Filipino parents wanted. Especially after achieving my Masters in Social Work, they would have wanted me to choose a profession that would guarantee my financial security and safety. They would have been happy with me choosing a more “traditional” line of work in the social work field.
No matter how many times I explain that I’m essentially a health educator who happens to sell adult products, I know that they still struggle. In fact, I’ve seen them struggle to introduce me and my profession to new people. I’ve asked them pointe blank about why they struggle to talk about what I do, and even if they didn’t said it, it’s clear that they hesitate saying the word “sex.”
I don’t know many Filipina/x/o folks who have open and honest conversations with their parents about sex and sexuality. Certainly those types of relationships exist in Filipino culture, but it’s not often the norm. If there’s open conversation, it might be in the form of tsismis or kalokohan. For the most part, they may have relied on whatever minimal sex education was available - if at all - at school or at the doctor.
When I sat down for a discussion about the sex ed we learned with a group of Filipina/x/o-Americans for my Dive Deeper: Seks Series project, it was clear that we were only getting pieces of an already lacking sex education curriculum. What was interesting was that, even without open and honest conversations, we all still learned something about sexuality from our parents.
One participant said that their mom blatantly invalidated factual information by saying that condoms don’t actually work. Others talked about how gender binary norms were enforced without much discussion. Many talked about the unspoken rule that sex was reserved for marriage, or that male relatives were allowed to date at a younger age compared to the women. There was no discussion about pleasure, much less self-pleasure.
Certainly colonization by Catholics followed by Puritans influenced Filipino attitudes about sex and sexuality. Focusing on the sanctity of marriage, upholding the importance of the construct of virginity (that’s right, virginity isn’t an actual physical state), and an unfailing trust in authority figures were the gifts the Spanish bestowed upon us. Then, when the United States took over, they solidified the shame by sharing their ill-informed educational system. During the 1800’s in the US, a Clean Eating Movement led by physicians perpetuated the idea that bland foods would help stifle sinful sexual thoughts and actions like masturbation. Luckily, that concept didn’t arrive in the Philippines to affect Filipino food. But the practice persists that pleasure, especially cis female pleasure, was an afterthought to the potential love and romance of mainly cis heterosexual marriage.
So much of what is passed down between Western cultures and Filipino culture is rooted in status and shame, and their relation to survival. Whether we’re encouraged to pursue a profession or not, our parents want to make sure we are eventually able to care for ourselves. Our successes are their successes, and they want to be able to brag about it. Thus, our status reflects on their status. Whether it be financial, social, or ethnic, status kept our ancestors “comfortable and safe” when we were being colonized, invaded, and dictated upon. I put quotes around that idea since it definitely wasn’t that easy. They fought in whatever way they could, including assimilating to the colonizers culture, to make sure that you’re here now reading this article.
The other side of that coin, of course, is that shame (hiya) is supposed to curb unwanted behavior that could put the family and larger community at risk or in danger. It’s not as effective as we think it would be, and it permeates deep into our core and lingers to affect our mental health. It can lead us to eventually believe that we are not worthy of being “comfortable and safe,” perhaps that we bring any misfortune our own way by being walang hiya. If you act like you’re walang hiya, say by being comfortable in your queer sexuality or proudly expressing your gender nonconformity, it conjures the feeling that you don’t care about the potential consequences, which may include bringing down the status of the family.
I remember the tone that came with those words whenever they were directed at me in a negative way. There was always this feeling of disappointing or disrespecting my parents. That somehow doing something that I equated with courage, individuality, or pleasure was actively harmful to those I cared about. If it makes me happy while it makes my parents miserable, is it worth it?
There’s this sense that you have to choose one or the other and both at the same time in order to stay “comfortable and safe,” in order for you to survive so that your descendants could enjoy posts like this in whatever medium the future holds for them.
The coin that bears status and shame on either side is the currency of our Filipino generational trauma. We now get to choose whether we leave it behind or continue to pass it down.
Here’s the thing. In a more connected world, where cultures are constantly exchanging ideas and information, we are now more equipped with access to knowledge about sexuality and pleasure. We are no longer bound by “traditional” ways of being, doing, and loving. We deserve to do more than survive to be “comfortable and safe.”
We deserve to thrive and flourish as complete humans, and that includes the ability to be comfortable and safe in our sexuality and pleasure. Pleasure is your human right, it’s yours to revel in, it’s yours to revolutionize everything.
How do you do it? How do you break down all the negative messaging you might have received throughout your life? How do you reclaim sexuality and pleasure that’s been suppressed for generations? Here are steps that are a common part of my practice.
1. Come from a place of compassion and curiosity.
Our internal monologue is a monster that’s made up of all the different comments from our Nanays, Titas, Lolas, and other caring adults who influenced us. Even if they say it’s coming from a place of caring, if it’s hurtful to you, then your hurt matters. You don’t have to diminish that so that they can maintain their “comfortable and safe.” You do, however, have to get out of your “comfortable and safe” to face that monster, and approach it with kindness throughout this process.
2. Identify the negative messaging.
Were you told that something bad would happen or that sexual activity is only reserved for marriage and procreation? Were you discouraged from wearing certain types of clothes that go against cis-heteronormativity? Do you feel guilt or shame whenever you engage in pleasurable activities, especially if it’s sexual? Those are examples of negative messaging.
3. Question the negative messaging.
Where did it come from? Who gave you those messages? Why do they believe it and why do you believe it? Does it serve a purpose? Is it rooted in white supremacy, misogyny, or capitalism? Does it deserve to take up space in your mind?
4. Relearn any misinformation and keep asking questions.
This one can take some time, especially since more questions might pop up. Would you be surprised to learn that the focus on purity and virginity has some racist roots? Or that that majority of folks with vulvas need clitoral stimulation in order to orgasm? Or that the indigenous Filipino cultures revered and respected non-binary folks as spiritual guides and dieties?
What do you know about your sexual pleasure? What do you know about relationships, consent, and boundaries? What do you know about your body? What feels good and what doesn’t? Do you know what the words are for clitoris or penis in your regional dialect? Are you comfortable with saying those words? It’s okay to not be, as there are years of shame to break down. Remember, being able to properly name our body parts in all the languages we speak - like vulva or pekpek, and hand or kamay - is a big step in being able to reclaim our sexuality within our cultural context.
5. Acknowledge missteps and strive to do better.
You may have said or done things that have discouraged others from accessing their pleasure. Information moves quickly, and misinformation seems to move even quicker. Maybe you weren’t fully educated about an aspect of sexuality, or because it was also how you felt at the time. You may make more mistakes in the process of relearning. Hopefully, others aren’t hurt in the process, and if there are, you have an opportunity to acknowledge where you went wrong and actively work to not make the same mistake again.
6. Enjoy exploring pleasure.
Pleasure is supposed to be fun, but it’s also an important part of self-care. Do you want to explore masturbation? Or different positions with a partner? Or introducing pleasure products like adult toys? You don’t have to rush into anything you’re not ready for. You get to decide when, where, with whom, and how. Being open doesn’t mean not having boundaries. Anyone or anything that doesn’t align with your pleasure does not have to take up space in your life.
To make any change is in no way an easy process, as healing is a constant practice. The generational trauma of all this survival still exists even as we become more aware of what we’re worth. Even more, survival is certainly still a real factor, especially when white supremacy, transphobia, misogyny and xenophobia continues to exist. Part of the work is changing the status quo of oppression, and hopefully finding pleasure in that. Part of the work is harnessing your joy, your creativity, your pleasures in a way that changes the story for you and your descendants.
Some days will be easier than others, and it will continue to evolve as information changes. As generational trauma is a deep wound, it will take time and self-acceptance to become secure in your sexuality and pleasure. It will take more compassion and curiosity than what you may not have been allowed to experience as a younger person.
The truth is that generational trauma steeped in status and shame doesn’t serve you as it is a tool of oppression that keeps you in survival mode. You can acknowledge its existence, while also recognizing that you are owed and deserve something better. Claim it, practice it, own it. You are deserving of a lifetime and more of flourishing in the abundance of your pleasure.
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