This article was also published here.
By Ana P. Santos
There’s something very disconcerting about a grown man calling a penis (his or that of another from his gender), a “bird.”
I have always wondered if it was borne of the classic euphemism “the birds and the bees?” If so, then why is the vagina not called a “bee,” but rather a very prim and straitlaced “flower?”
Growing up in a conservative Catholic country coupled with the Asian trait of being indirect (seen as a mandatory minimum of politesse) have a lot to do with the way we talk about taboo subjects like private parts.
My friend in high school said that when she was a child, her yaya would refer to her vagina as “Fifi.” So she would be summoned when it was time to “wash Fifi” or “change Fifi’s panty.”
Years later, when we were all grown up, another friend told me that she called, actually, no, named her vagina “CheChe.” And just like anyone with an actual name, she would refer to it as a person. So she would tell us, “CheChe needs a wax, we’re going to the beach.”
Not that she could go anywhere without CheChe tagging along, but that’s beside the point.
Other terms have been coined and made popular in pop culture; the vagina now has many monikers like lady garden, vajayjay, and my recently discovered favorite: topiary.
Euphemisms are effective and useful in opening up conversations that would otherwise be difficult to talk about like body parts and sexual health. Conversations about a woman’s own Bermuda Triangle have paved the way for the discussion of female sexual health dysfunctions.
It’s now easier to talk about worrisome things like cervical cancer, icky abnormal discharge, and even to look at one’s vagina to see if anything has gone awry. The latter activity is actually necessary at some point because unlike the male appendage, which is clearly visible, the vagina is an opening, making it difficult to detect abnormalities.
As a writer, I have been made to learn the nuance of words: how they can influence, inform and educate, and in the same vein, how they also have the power to alienate, exclude and confuse.
At the international Conference on HIV and AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP9) in Bali, I was surprised to note there were no discussions on reproductive health. Instead, there were discussions, workshops, forums and plenaries about “sexual health.” At a maternal health conference in Washington, DC it was the same, the topic was termed either sexual reproductive health or sexual health.
Were those two terms different? Sexual health vs reproductive health?
Or was it just a case of you say tomato, I say to-ma-toe?
The study, “The Role of Filipino Men in Family Planning” estimates that about one-fourth of women of reproductive age have an unmet need for family planning. As a result, on the average, women end up having one more child than they had planned for or wanted. “On average, women’s total wanted fertility (2.5) is exceeded by actual total fertility (3.5) by one child, a discrepancy of 40%,” says the report.
Meanwhile, male condom and sterilization accounted for only two percentage points of family planning methods used.
Many other studies support the theory that engaging men and including them in the discussion on sexual health, birth control and birth spacing would make for better informed choices about the shared responsibility of planning births.
Would it make a difference to men if we called the information needed to know about the body “sexual health?” Would they feel more included? Men don’t reproduce; why then would a discussion on reproductive health then include them?
Similarly, members of the LGBT community may not want to reproduce in the traditional way, but still need information on STI prevention, their own sexual health rights and sexual identity. How can their distinct needs be plotted out in the spectrum of “reproductive health?”
Open up the conversation
More confusing in my opinion are the terms “family planning” and “responsible parenthood.” The terms connote a post-marriage solution.
In her 2011 study, Dr Clarissa David of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, revealed that the young, unmarried men surveyed in the study usually use withdrawal as a form of birth control. It is consistent with the earlier study about low usage of condoms, but what was more surprising is that the men actually want to use modern contraception methods but “do not believe them to be among their choices.”
The men believed that birth control pills were only for married couples and that condoms were disrespectful to their partners.
Teen mothers share a similar sentiment. Talk to them about family planning and they will say of course they want it after they’ve had their first child at 16.
The Philippines has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the region with about one-third of pregnancies occurring between the ages of 15-24.
“Birth control is an afterthought. They don’t think ‘family planning’ is for them. At 16, you’re not thinking of having or planning for a family,” Amy Evangelista – Swanepol, executive director of Palawan based NGO “Roots of Health,” told me. Amy and her staff provide sexual health information and services to women, some of whom are teenage mothers.
Unfortunately, at that age, it takes only one unplanned pregnancy to alter a young girl’s life, possibly forever. Chances are she won’t be able to go back to school. Even if the school allowed it, the gossip and disdain would brand her a social outcast. Financial constraints may also limit her options.
The terms “family planning” and “responsible parenthood” exclude young people. It cordons off information and makes it acceptable only to those who are married or already have children.
If only sex had such a qualifier: Not to be had without proper sex education, preferably not from your friends who don’t know any better than you. Or uninformed sex could be hazardous to your health and your future.
What if we opened up the conversation just a bit more and called it for what it is: birth control? Would that make more people aware of what choices are open to them?
What would it be like if we could be clearer and more defined for the sake of better understanding?
Would we be less inhibited to ask properly framed questions that we deserve answers to? Would we feel less excluded from information that we have a right to?
What would it do to our conversations and understanding of sex, sexuality and simply just the way our bodies work if we called a spade, a spade and a penis, a penis? – Rappler.com