A Writer on Sexual Health, Part 1

Journalist Ana Santos

Ana’s story

I’m involved in sexual health advancement, especially for women in this country, and I do it in any form that it takes. A long time ago I started out as a sex columnist in a men’s magazine. It was just fun stuff. [For example, when and how to talk dirty to a potential partner.] Men would write in with the kind of question you’d expect, like “how big do you have to be to make a girl come?” But I had more people—mostly women—writing in with very serious questions, like where to get a prescription for a birth control pill from a doctor who wouldn’t be judgmental and ask whether she was married. Or questions about where someone could get tested for sexually transmitted infections.  Or what to do if the condom broke. I didn’t know the answers to these questions, and I thought there must be something wrong if people were bringing them to a sex columnist with no credentials in sexual health. I didn’t even know the term.

Then some of my friends found out that they were HIV positive. That shocked me very much because I’d always thought HIV happened to other people—and not here. What mostly shocked me was my own reaction. I thought that they were going to die. I didn’t know much about at all. So I started reading up on HIV. I needed to understand what it was that my friends may have been going through. Later I realized that I was in a capacity to write about these things. I’m in a capacity to educate and inform people so I should use that real estate [platform] that I have—I mean, all writers have some sort of real estate. My friends were educated, well traveled, and still didn’t know enough to protect themselves or had a false sense of invincibility, and I did too.

So I started writing more about HIV and safer sex. At first I couldn’t figure how to do it without sounding like some hussy. I wanted someone to talk about sex in an informed, honest and non-judgmental manner, and I felt that she didn’t have to be a sex pot to do it. You’ve been in this country long enough to know the ball game, right? And a person can get well-informed just by reading. So I started writing about HIV—in different magazines, for the foreign wires, everywhere that I could. I got in touch with a lot of different people from the development community. Then I got a media scholarship to attend the International Conference on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific. That was in Bali in 2009. And that’s where things really opened up for me. In the international community they were so much more advanced in terms of discussing sexually transmitted infection. None of this bullshit about “how did you get it?” They weren’t disregarding moral beliefs, but they had taken the discussion to a higher plane. That’s where I also came across the phrase “sexual health.” Until then I didn’t know how to put into words what I was doing. I came face to face with the people who were doing it in the international world. I met a lady who’s the operations director for a condom project. Her job is essentially to go around the world de-stigmatizing condoms, so she thinks of events and activities, very creative ways, through theater, through art. And she’s a Filipina born and raised in the U.S. I saw that this was where I wanted to bring the discussion.

So I returned with all this information, and I knew what to do, but I didn’t know how to do it. I got another scholarship to the Asian Institute of Management in Makati for a course on professional blogging and internet marketing. Anton Dias was our teacher. He said, “You should think of a project that you want to do, and I’ll teach you how to take it online and make it into a business for you.” So with the technical know-how, I started Sex and Sensibility.com in January of 2010.

I wanted to talk to young girls in their twenties who are just like me, who were not promiscuous, who were in relationships, who might be experimenting. I wanted to talk to them about sexuality in a positive way and in their language. Girls who were middle-class, who were working. [Remember that this is a highly polarized society.] The other side of the spectrum on reproductive health is the poor, marginalized woman. To me, not being poor and marginalized gives those women a false sense of security. “Oh, that’s just a poor woman’s concern. It’s not mine.”

The battlefield here is the imposed ignorance, right? And the subsequent shame. So I said enough. Girls are going to be asking these questions, even though they’re not going to admit that they’re even having sex or that they want to explore. I think it’s a woman’s own business, but she should know what’s out there and what her options are. I thought an online information portal would be perfect because people could reach out anonymously without worrying that they might be recognized.

But it wasn’t enough, so we started doing sexual health workshops. I sat down with friends from the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) and discussed family planning. We developed a module for a sexual health workshop. My contribution was to spin it in a way that would be more interesting. We put it in a three-part module about safer sex and HIV prevention, which is proper condom use.

The Philippines was one of the first countries to have enacted an HIV-AIDS law, Republic Act 8504. It’s the AIDS Prevention and Control Act. It has stipulations about education, information, your rights when you get tested, you rights if you find out that you’re positive. It stipulated that you were not to be denied a burial, for example, you’re not to be denied certain loans or employment benefits if you are found to be positive. It was one of those really marvelously thought-out laws. We have a number of AIDS-related laws, but people don’t know enough about them. The onus is on you as an individual to uphold your rights according to these laws, so you have to know what they are.

The last part of our workshop module deals with stigma and discrimination. The whole module is about better understanding, which is how you break that stigma. So for the last year we’ve been doing the module in universities and offices. I would love to do it in a high school, but the schools have asked me to limit the audience to students eighteen years of age and above. They’re concerned about what the parents are going to say. I would love to talk to a younger group because experimentation and exploration doesn’t start at eighteen. Some of them are already pregnant at eighteen. But you know what the temperature is in this country when it comes to sex and anything related to it. I have found allies in certain multinational companies that actually have gender and diversity groups, so they are mandated to come up with such information, activities or talks.

I also do self-esteem workshops for girls. The girl who gets pregnant is not the stereotype of the loose girl who can’t wait to pull up her skirt. She’s actually a very nice girl who just didn’t want to say no because she was in love, right? I think we should fix that notion of what love should be. It’s not all about surrender. It should be primarily about the person herself. You can’t talk to a girl about sex in terms of “do this” and “do that.” You have to talk to her about the emotional side of it. I would start with her feelings about herself. If you’ve got a high level of self-esteem, if you just even have dreams for yourself, if you’ve got a certain level of ambition and you see yourself as achieving certain things, you’re going to do whatever you can to protect your path to that dream. I start by saying, “Let’s talk about you. Have you taken the time to think about what your dreams are, what your talents are and where you can bring that?”

I don’t think we have enough of that for the girls. The Filipina is one of the most hard-working women I’ve ever seen. She will work, and she will do what she’s told. She will be self‑sacrificing and brave. But I don’t see enough women who dream for themselves and maybe take a different path apart from the regular one here. I don’t see many ambitious Filipinas, and I think that’s because ambition is still thought to be bad. It doesn’t have to be. When you know that you can achieve certain things, you’re not going to let some guy tell you, “Oh, I don’t have a condom, but love me anyway.” Then put all the responsibility on you and take off later on. If you have a certain level of ambition, you’re not going to do that because you’re protecting yourself.

But the environment here is not conducive to looking out for yourself. Babies are blessings. Girls will tell you, “No, God meant for me to become pregnant.” I’m sure you’ve heard that also. I have a foreign friend who just moved to the country, she got into conversation with some very young girls who were working in a department store. She was shocked that a number of them had babies, and that’s why they were working. The babies were in the province being taken care of by the grandparents. The girls were dreaming of going abroad. She wanted to tell them it wasn’t God’s will for them to have unprotected sex, that they needed to take control over their own lives.

You know that argument that babies are a blessing. I’m not going to contest that, and I don’t need to. But I think the proper mindset should be, “Yes, babies are a blessing, and that’s exactly why you need to be deserving of them, which means being able to clothe them, feed them and educate them and give them a better life than you had yourself.”

It’s not just a poor woman’s issue. The very middle-class girls have the same problem. That’s why we wanted to target them, because these are the girls that already have access to education. [Also English and computers.] Sometimes a girl winds up pregnant, and because they’re a middle-class family it just throws the whole budget, all the finances, out of whack. Now she’s deprived of the chance to go back to school and study, where she would have been able to go to school, finish school, get a job, maximize her potential, find out what her other talents are.

At the end of the day, you need money. Then you can do that for yourself. Just because you’re poor or middle-class now, come on, you can work, you can get money and acquire other skills so that you can improve yourself. It’s just frustrating, because the Filipina is one of the most hard-working women. She’s ready to do just about anything. If you give her a baby, she’s going to fight tooth and nail to give that baby a life. But what about her? She also needs a quality of life, she needs to be educated as well as have educated children.

My niece was fourteen when she gave birth. Earlier, my mother and I were arguing. I said, “Mom, do you know that she’s pregnant?” — “No, of course not. She’s only 13.” — I said, “Mom, she’s pregnant. I’m telling you.” – Then later my mom said she’d visited her and her baby. My mother didn’t know how to express what she felt. My niece was going to school. For about a year after the baby was born, she was still able to go to school, but then she had to drop out because there was nobody else to take care of the baby. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Beautiful girl, young, her future ahead of her, gets pregnant. There’s a boyfriend. She’s still with the same guy. But I think there’s a proper time and place for all of that.