I have a game for you all.
(Don’t worry. No one is judging you. I have a feeling you will be answering partly based off of your own experiences. There won’t be any form of shaming done around here.)
And now for the answers! Starting with #1:
Playing pretend with my Barbie dolls was definitely one of my top pastimes as a kid. Nothing challenged my sense of creativity more than using pogs to line the imaginary walls of my doll’s home or using my Fisher Price record player as a car. My imagination didn’t stop there. Occasionally, it would get pretty heated in Barbie’s house. In particular, I remember my 9-year-old self pressing Barbie and Ken up against each other, twisting and turning their bodies in a crude interpretation of sex. I do not know exactly what prompted me to play with Barbie and Ken in such a manner. My guess is that I observed a similar action from TV or copied my older siblings doing something similar with the dolls.
No matter what the explanation is, I observed images of sex early on in my life.
Growing up, I had many closets to browse through. In middle school, I wore print leggings I borrowed from my 6-year-old cousin before they became a trend. For Picture Day in high school, I once wore a colorful flower print coat I took from my sister’s closet. I simply loved putting outfits together with any clothing I could find in my family’s closets. So when I got a detention in the 9th grade for my bra strap showing from the armhole of my tank top and my dad’s vest, I couldn’t understand what the problem was.
I was sexualized when I was not trying to be sexual.
As aforementioned with my 4th grade experience, I was exposed to some degree about sex at an early age, but in high school, sex became an explicit conversation topic. In the 10th grade, I was hanging out with one of my best friends when she brought up my boyfriend at the time. The two of them had been talking, and it seemed that I was “blue-balling” him. She said, “Why don’t you just have sex with him once?” Did you guess 10th grade for first time having sex? It was actually in 12th grade when I first had sex (with a different boyfriend).
I did not give into the peer pressure to engage in sexual behavior in 10th grade. Regardless, I felt its ubiquity throughout high school from some of my most important interpersonal relationships.
That leaves us with the first time I masturbated.
After 12th grade, I had sex with other people, sometimes doing it safely using condoms or birth control pills and a few times being risky using emergency contraception. I did my own research online and went to Planned Parenthood to get resources on my own. I did all of this before I discovered that I could find pleasure from and for myself. It was not until my 3rd year in college that I masturbated.
Despite my prepubescent perception of sex and the gradual gain of consciousness surrounding my sexuality in high school, it took me much longer to place my pleasure as a priority.
So, why I am picking these particular moments in my life to share?
I am sharing these moments with you now because I want you to see how:
- I observed images of sex early on in my life.
- I was sexualized when I was not trying to be sexual.
- I felt the ubiquitous pressure to be sexual from some of my most important interpersonal relationships.
- It took me forever to learn my pleasure is a priority.
I am sharing these moments with you now because it was not easy to then.
I never had a sex talk from my family before. The closest my mom and I have gotten to talking about sex was when I told her I had been living with my partner and she asked if we shared a bed. That conversation did not go well. The closest my dad and I have gotten to talk about sex are the times when he emphasizes how important it is for me to finish my education while I am still young so that I can get married right after. “It is hard to go to school when you’re older,” he said, “And it’s hard for women to marry when they’re older too.” With my siblings, sex is either an awkward joke or not a topic at all.
At least I could talk about sex with friends? Refer back to my 10th grade experience. Not all the information I received from friends was free from inaccuracy or from judgment. But since high school, it has gotten better. However, I know this may not be the circumstances for everyone and I acknowledge my privilege of—and am forever grateful for—having met empowered individuals from transformative organizations in college.
With large institutions, I am part of the model minority. Asian Americans follow the rules, they get good grades, they have many talents, they do not make any mistakes. Wrong. In fact, Asian Americans engage in HIV risk behaviors at similar levels of other ethnic groups, challenging the idea that Asian Americans are a model minority. From 2004 to 2007, while the API population had the lowest overall prevalence of HIV, it witnessed a 48% increase in cases of HIV/AIDS, the highest percentage increase among the ethnic groups followed by a 29% increase in the Native American population. Additionally, API women are four times more likely than API men to have had an STD by the age of 27. Regardless of the many lived API experiences that challenge the model minority myth, our need for access to sexual health is not being met.
After years of being oblivious to amnesia (1) induced by simultaneous opposing forces to both sexualize (2) and desexualize me, I am trying to remember. With help from decolonial thinkers and scholars, I now recognize that I have been living the past 20+ years receiving mixed messages from everyone, be it from an institutional level, interpersonal level, or internalized level. I recall the times my siblings called me a “hoochie” for wearing clothes that rode above mid-thigh, the times walking down the sidewalk when men told me “You’re too pretty to not smile,” the times playing “Never Have I Ever” and hoping to be neither the most nor the least sexually experienced, the times when I felt awkward to ask him to put on a condom. I remember the moments when I should have been real with myself and with others rather than feel ashamed and conflicted.
Ironically, despite the messages that bombarded me from all directions on a daily basis, my sexual health was never truly talked about out in the open. At many moments in my life, I felt like my sexual health was something I had to figure out on my own. Menstruation, anatomy, sex—whether solo or with partner(s), etc. I had to seek the answers to my own questions without really knowing where to start. I could not go to my family and sometimes my peers (and as a young adult, where was I going to find help from people if they were not where I spent most of my time, that is, school and home?) because being candid about my sexual health was a stigma. When I spoke up about my sexual health, I encountered “Awkward” or “TMI (Too Much Information).” My attempts at starting conversations were brushed off while leaving me embarrassed. Along with the embarrassment, I became conditioned to be silent about my sexual health. As an adult, when I now choose to not be silenced, I consequently feel my character and integrity defined entirely by the “immorality” of my definition of being sexually healthy.
For the sake of the holistic health of Pinays, we—and I am referring to mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, health care professionals, educators, Pinays ourselves—need to stop denying the reality that Pinays are going to encounter moments where they are pressured, knowingly or unknowingly, to be sexual beings (or objects). One study found that young API women who were more acculturated were four times more likely than those who were less acculturated to have sexual experience. In another study, lesbian and bisexual API women were two to three times more likely than exclusively heterosexual women to engage in HIV risk behaviors. We need to stop thinking that Pinays will remain María Clara (3) virgins until marriage and realize that they need to be given comprehensive, non-judgmental sexual health education so that when the time comes, they can make their own smart, safe decisions.
Request for Readers
In what ways were you sexualized or desexualized without your consent? Please share your experiences with your sexual health in the Comments section or start a conversation with me at email@example.com. We’ve only heard about some of mine, but my experiences are not the only Pinay experiences. This universe is made up of too many beautiful individuals for their truths to not be heard.
To Sampaguita Girl: Thank you for asking me to write a post and thank you for putting light to this phenomenon of being simultaneously sexualized and desexualized as a Pinay. Writing this post has been both challenging and rewarding in ways I cannot fully express.
To all the Pinays out there: John Rechy, a gay/queer Chicano novelist, once wrote, “Truth changes with new memories. We do not move into the past, we bring it forward with new life.” I believe that you all have the courage to recall the past and, when you do, the strength to see it as a validation of your right to self-expression of your body and soul. You are not alone in this struggle. Find community. Call back the past and discover the truths that ground you on this earth.
(1) Amnesia, in this article, is defined as “forgetting, whether voluntary or involuntary, due to trauma.”
(2) Google Image search “pinay” or find the definition on Urban Dictionary. Now, do the same for “pinoy.”
(3) María Clara is the love interest of protagonist in José Rizal’s Noli Me Tángere. She represents the ideal Pilipina woman: dainty, graceful, charming, demure. In Queering Mestizaje: Transculturation and Performance, Alicia Arrizón describes María Clara as an example of the “colonial legacy of Filipino culture.”