As defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infects cells of the immune system and destroys or impairs their function, causing the eventual deterioration of the system. It can be transmitted in various ways: unprotected sexual intercourse and/or oral sex with an infected person; transfusion of contaminated blood; sharing of sharp objects and instruments; or between an infected mother and her child during the stages of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding.
HIV can evolve to a much more advanced stage of infection—acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), which is the state of acquiring any of the 20 or more HIV-related infections or those causing severe immunodeficiency.
In the Philippines, an HIV epidemic is spreading throughout metropolitan areas, as noted by UNAIDS, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and the Department of Health (DOH). DOH stated that HIV in our country is one of the fastest growing in the world, mainly targeting males who have sex with males. Majority of patients age from 25 to 34, skewing toward a younger demographic.
Too little too late?
In 2018, WHO addressed the alarming rate of HIV/AIDS infection in the Philippines, while the Philippine National AIDS Council reported that approximately 32 people get infected by HIV daily. This statistic, in reality, is an undercount, only representing those who went and had themselves tested.
The Philippine government opted to address such high rates by allowing minors to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases and infections without parental consent and by revamping sex education curricula. But is this solution enough?
In AIDS and HIV prevention, the “ABC” strategy is normally taught as “Abstinence, Be faithful, and use a Condom”. This was a modification from the “abstinence-only” practice, which studies have shown to be an overwhelming failure. The ABC strategy is a compromise between Christian sentimentality and acknowledging that people—young adults and teenagers especially—have sex. Despite that, in various commercials produced for DOH, ABC is altered to mean “Abstinence, Be faithful, and get Checked,” revealing a lingering allergy our media has toward the mention of sex.
Sex is a topic widely acknowledged but rarely discussed. The prevalence of sexuality in our media, popular culture, and political discourse shows how widespread it is, at least in familiarity. Contrasting this is a heritage of hushed tones stemming from a conservative Christian morality and a branding of sex as taboo, indecent, and bastos. But for all the titillation, there is little serious discourse to be found about the social and medical implications our current relationship with sex has. The lack of discussion has led to much avoidable misery, including the current HIV epidemic.
Moreover, the government and the Church have a long and tangled history when it comes to legislation and law enforcement. The Church still holds immense cultural power and has been able to spearhead action, despite secularization being enshrined in the constitution. This has given the Church a notable degree of influence in shaping opinions of most Filipinos, and one particularly visceral case can be seen in the way sex, sexuality, and bodily autonomy have been discussed within the Reproductive Health Law.
From our peers
In an online interview conducted by The LaSallian among students in the University, Alison* sums up the responses, affirming that sex “has always been a difficult topic in the Philippines because of our religious background,” most especially for women, she mentions, due to the long-established patriarchal systems in society. “Growing up in a Catholic school has taught me to feel shame whenever I talk about my own sexuality; without the proper sex education, it became more difficult to even get trustworthy and reliable advice on the topic,” she further airs out.
Apart from Alison’s insights, there was unanimous agreement on the importance of the awareness of safe sex, sexual kinks, and consent among the respondents. It is important to be educated not just about the clinical, heterosexual aspect of sex, but to acknowledge the entire spectrum of sexual experience, as Jane* notes. “I think the problem is people refuse to acknowledge that discussion [about] these topics are relevant and needed. Instead, people stick to their ‘beliefs’ and ‘values’ [that] teach how to repress sexual energy,” she states. Jane claims that this mindset would not resolve the current problems about the discussion of sex, “When students know what’s at stake (pregnancies, HIV, STDs), they are more careful and selective of the instances they have sex.”
This epidemic didn’t come from nowhere. DOH, Reuters, UNAIDS, and other organizations were raising concerns about its possibility as early as 2010. However, due in part to an unwillingness to discuss sex, these problems have been pushed aside until infection rates have exploded, with the number of diagnosed individuals increasing every year by an average of 21 percent. Now, condom prices have dropped and infomercials have been made to acknowledge the existence of the HIV—a begrudging step, but it’s only the first.
Sex talk can be messy. It’s bastos to some, but if we fail to have straightforward, honest discussions about what it is, disgust will be the least of our worries.
*Names with asterisks (*) are pseudonyms