Sex Education in the Philippines
Comic Failure of Language
Dr. Godofredo U. Stuart
As language, Filipino is very expressive and illustrative. I often marvel at its descriptive powers, a single word that will need half a dozen or more English words to describe: umaampiyas. Or words that wax poetic: takip-silim, agaw dilim, bukang liwayway. It's a language that lends to the Pinoys' penchant and delight for word play, never at a loss in coining words that become mainstream: trapos, epal, promdi. Its vowel-rich words lend to the staccato and cadence of Rap music. But when it comes to the language of sex, the vernacular fails—dreadfully—and looks to English for rescue.
The failure is widespread—in schools, in media, and homes. A failure that is both comic and stupid.
Comic. . . because the language exists. There are Tagalog words for almost all English sex words—words for sexual organs and sexual activity. Yet, this small volume of words has failed to make it to mainstream, suffering expurgation by educational guidelines and censorship by the church. We suffer the unrelenting inculcation that the words are vulgar, bastos, and have no place in the setting of decent conversation and education. In the milieu of archaic prudishness, consequent of our colonial past, the sex words find continuing exclusion, relegated to fringe vernacular.
While sex education is commendably started in late elementary school, the difficulty with the vernacular is also revealed early on. A sixth-grader described to me his first school lesson on sex education, replete with poster illustrations of reproductive organs, unabashedly reciting his recalling of them: uterus, ovary, fallopian tubes, vagina, and penis. All in English. When the teacher was asked for Tagalog words for the female reproductive organs, none were given. For the penis, she said: Bird.
Talk Radio has similar difficulties. A guest speaker grappled with words as she lectured on sexually transmitted diseases and its modes of transmission. She was so relieved to be rescued from her discomfort when the host reassured her it was alright to use the words—oral sex. Not once in the 30-minute show was a the vernacular used to describe a body part, although the talk was delivered mostly in Tagalog, turning to English whenever use for a vernacular sex word presented itself.
When the powers-that-be decreed Filipino to be the language of instruction, the chapter on sex-words was torn off the books, replaced by a short list of sanitized words that would serve the generic needs for both sexes. Ari —meaning property or personal property—is used to refer to both male and female organs; all inclusive, for penis, prepuce, vagina, labia, clitoris. Titi and puki are never used in the classrooms of sex education. If students are heard using the words outside of the classroom—it's handcuffs and off to the principal's office.
The mainstream absence of the sex words in vernacular is widespread. Schools, doctors offices, television, print, and homes. Parents never use the words with their children. It's ari, if ever. Never puki, kiki, or titi. Well, sometimes, they use pipi, when talking to children. My mother used pititing and chichay —on a rare occasion of incredulity on my misbehavior—for penis and vagina, respectively.
For teachers, likewise, it's taboo. When asked about the absence of vernacular in sex education, they say bastos pakingan. And some add, baka pagmulan pa nang masama—like gateway words that might push innocent minds into the dark and evil world of sexual curiosity. On one occasion, the absurdity was magnified when I said the word "utong," while I argued for the use of vernacular for body parts. The word elicited a loud and boisterous laugh, with a light-hearted reprimand that the word is never never ever used in public. Why, I asked. Again, bastos, ha ha ha. Of course, I argued that utong is Tagalog for nipple, for which there is no other alternative vernacular word.
The "kabastusan" label is compounded when some vernacular sex words are used to express anger or annoyance: Hindut mo! or Titi mo! Or Supot! Likewise, some sex words become comic expletives when startled, especially by womenfolk: Ay, puki! Ay, titi mo! But, it's the context of use that makes it vulgar, not the word.
Teachers add to the comedy of failure with their sex-education modules in English. In a sex education class for first year high school girls, they were unable to use the vernacular words titi or puki, thinking it bastos, yet found nothing vulgar in teaching the girls how to place condoms using a small Wilkins' bottle as penile model, while they task the students, in the spirit of seeming broad-mindedness, to create songs to illustrate and express their sex awareness. Here's what one student came up with, presented in class to the giggling delight of classmates, sang to the tune of "Ang Bango-bango nang Bulaklak." Of course, with no use of a vernacular sex word.
Bubuka-buka ang vagina
So stupid. . . to allow so rich and capable a language to yield to the dictates of the church, politics, and antiquated prudishness that collectively conspire to push the vernacular language of sex to the fringe. Decades of subservience to the guardians of speech have led us to believe that these words are bastos, socially unacceptable, expunging it from the vocabulary of education and social commentary. Still, the sex words exist in the vernacular—familiar, descriptive, exact—but alas, relegated to snickering and whispered chitchat, green jokes, and testosterone-fueled and drunken male chatter.
The words exist in the anonymous ribald poetry of childhood:
Sapatos ni Siyon.
Some of our medicinal plants have been given common names that reek sexuality:
Puki-reyna (Pukingan, Blue pea vine, Clitorea ternatea)
Kantutan (Stink vine, Paederia foetida)
Utong (Mickey mouse plant, Solanum mammosum)
Lamon-babae (True club moss, Lycopodium cernuum)
Even the ancient language of alibata, long before our Tagalog, had sex words: bisong or kuragong for titi (penis), kwakdop for kiki (vagina), and hanag-hanag for kantutan (sexual intercourse).
A few years ago,when the Vagina Monologues visited the Philippines, the vagina word became verbal news fodder. I thought. . . hmm. . . vagina? . . . on prime time news? Hmm. . .a new door opening for sexual awareness? Maybe soon, the spoken vernacular will join in the sexual revolution. . . You wish.
And the church? Its teachings are bible-based. Sex is a modern word and does not exist in the bible. The biblical euphemism for sexual intercourse is "to know." The church, most likely, more than any other institution, through centuries of colonial rule, contributed most to the inculcation of vulgarity to the vernacular sex words and its removal from mainstream use. If left to its Catholic druthers we will continue the generic use of ari to refer to the sex organs of both sexes, for the next 100 years, if not longer. Certainly it should not be allowed to contribute to the discourse of this very secular concern.
The list/table below is a 101 on Tagalog sex words, a small collection of vernacular words consigned to the fringe of language.
Some of the sex words, like titi and puki, should replace penis, birdie, and vagina—English words too often used in elementary and high school sex education. Utong, bayag, supot and tuli are common, specific, precise and without vernacular substitutes, and should belong to the set of "early permissible words." And while many of the other vernacular sexwords do not belong in elementary and high school sex education classrooms, certainly, they should be acceptable in the setting of medical consultations and lectures, adult sex education, and the intimate atmosphere of conversation with friends.
So, boys and girls, it is time to take the vernacular of sex words from fringe to mainstream. The so-called vulgarity is a conspiracy of church and a sorry perpetuation of colonial prudishness. Uttering the words is not a sin. It might get you frowns and condescending stares, but there's no need for a confessional visit.
While you read through the list, say it out loud—ten, twenty times—to batter and attenuate that brain center of colonial prudishness. Better still, do it with your friends. As you do that, you might blush, get your ears red, and giggle, but that's all right, it's the start of a journey into familiarity. And perhaps, sooner than later, you might find yourself comfortable in saying titi instead of bird.
|by Godofredo U. Stuart Jr., MD November 2013|
by Godofredo U. Stuart Jr., MD