Posted by: Jae | July 29, 2008

Claiming the Sublime

I first heard it many, many years ago, mid-1990’s, at a Barangay Health Center in Leyte. The doctor was firing off questions to a woman he had just given a checkup to.

“Kailan po kayo huling nagpagamit ng walang proteksyon?” asked the young doctor, in the same matter-of-fact tone he used when he asked her about persistent athritis.

I remember swinging my head to glare at the young doctor, filled with the righteous, uninformed idealism of the young. The doctor ignored me (of course), and waited patiently for the woman to respond. She replied slowly and softly, “halos gabi-gabi po ako ginagamit ng asawa ko, ayaw po niya mag-condom.”

After the woman had left, the doctor pulled me aside and told me, “I know you were offended by the term ‘nagpapagamit’. City girls are often surprised by the term. But in order to be effective I have to learn to speak their language.”

“But..but…but…. the language is so disempowering!” I sputtered back, blazing mad, like the angry fifteen-year-old that I was.

“Things can’t change overnight,” the doctor replied, before walking away to the next patient.

I remember that conversation now, more than ten years later, in the midst of the burning debate on the reproductive health bill. The doctor was right when he said that things can’t change overnight, but what he failed to realize was that there are key forces that actively prevent things from changing — whether overnight or not.  When you, for example, continue to describe sex as the act of a man using a woman, you grant that notion a semblance of legitimacy. When you issue fire-and-brimstone threats to legislators who push for reproductive health, you deprive women of options central to her autonomy and prevent her from claiming her agency.

It’s a different thing altogether, of course, if you throw in the issue of abortion, because then you have two contending rights. Perhaps there would be those who would be of the persuasion that an unborn child does not have rights, but well, I happen to disagree. (This is a personal belief of course, that I don’t foist on other people.) The problem arises when the small-minded lump abortion with contraception into one lootbag of sin and evil and condemn to hell all women who take pills and insist on condoms.

To my mind, that is the crux of the issue of birth control: a woman’s autonomy over her body and the right of a woman to decide how many kids she wants to have, and when. To my mind, this has little to do with population management or economic theory, and everything to do with a woman’s agency.  Depriving women of that right is doing violence to that autonomy.

That was why I was so appalled when GMA, pandering to the all-powerful Catholic Church, brazenly promoted natural family planning in her SONA and claimed that the population rates had actually gone down in the policy environment that eschewed artificial contraception and reproductive health. Mrs. Arroyo should go to the far-flung rural communities and talk to the women there, have them tell her how they cannot refuse their husbands’ sexual advances. She should listen to them talk about  how they would be beaten up if they should so much as suggest a condom and then sit down some more to hear them narrate how they struggle to make ends meet to feed ten children.

I read an article by Sister Pilar Verzosa recently, one of the foremost pro-life campaigners in the Philippines, on how a large population actually translates to an active workforce and many more hands contributing to nation-building. I say that misses the point. if a woman who WANTS ten children is prevented from having ten children by the state, then let’s argue all we want about how a large population is actually good blah blah. Certainly, we must speak against policies in China like the one-child policy. BUT if a woman has ten children, not by choice but by lack of options and because cultural baggage wrought by centuries of Catholic guilt, then no one has the right to talk about nation-building.

I admit that many times, it’s easy for me to forget that many Filipino women don’t have what me or my girl friends take for granted: the capacity to formulate opinions and have these opinions listened to (whether or not they’re agreed with), the ability to cockily look at the world and at life and think to ourselves “I can take you on”, the desire to reach beyond our grasp, knowing that we can and giving notice to the world that WE WILL.  And yes, the pleasure of revelling deeply and richly in our womanhood, exploring even the unexplored terrains of our sexuality, apologizing to no one, claiming the sublime in glorious, glorious ways.

I am lucky, indeed. As are those for whom womanhood is a gift and not a cultural burden. But until the day when no woman describes sex as “nagpapagamit”, our work does not stop.



  1. That’s exactly the reason why everyday I pray that every single one of us in this earth is transformed into a hermaprhodite 🙂

    tingnan natin kung saan mapunta ang population control/family-planning debate-debate na yan!

  2. This then young doctor (now old), must still be out there fostering the same kind of mindset among her patients who – does she not notice – do not want to be referred to as an object for the use of their men.

    God, “nagpapagamit”! They would have perfectly understood if she asked them in ‘cinematical’ terms “Kelan kayo huli nagtalik ng asawa mo?” Corny, pero at least hindi demeaning. Dyos ko, they would have understood if she just asked “kelan kayo huli nag sex” (ng walang proteksyon)!

  3. Ako….ok lang magpagamit.

  4. jordan – mas gusto ko ang very quaint na “nagtabi”

    levy – parang kinilig naman ako dun. JOKE. hahaha.

  5. miss Prissy (see earlier blog 😉 ) — bakit ka “kinilig” ??! wtf?!

    ayan… isang comment lang ni Papi Levy, biglang gumuho ang mga argumento laban sa terminong “pagpapagamit” 😦

    pagtibayin mo ang reputasyon ng mga Prissy sa mundo! anuverz.

  6. hahahaha. you know me, im all talk. little miss prudy-prissy.

  7. isang week ko na inisip magsulat on this issue.pero nasulat mo na lahat ng gusto ko sabihin.salamat.

  8. may bugbog man o wala, kung ayaw mo pero pinagbigyan mo pa rin, hindi ba nagpapagamit ang tawag dun?

  9. what i don’t understand is the fact that these women allow themselves to be trampled. cultural upbringing or not, it’s a matter of common sense. unprotected sex means more mouths to feed. the more mouths to feed, the harder it is to make ends meet. ther more difficult it is for them to leave their husbands who beat them to a pulp. even if contraception isn’t highly regarded as “morally-sound”, how about the fact that ten babies will be born into poverty? isn’t that more morally absurd? i could go on and on all day and i could sound like an elitist who stereotypes, but the absurdity of the mindset is making me so angry.

  10. syempre, you’d expect a seminarian to be biased on the Church’s ruling on contraceptives. hehehe… preachy na ito so…

    there’s a point here that will never be mentioned in any argument regarding contraceptives. pero eto, try reading anything about the theology of the body ni John Paul II and Ratzinger’s document, Evengelium Vitae and you’ll see how the Church’s stand actually makes sense. It’s quite a commitment to read these two documents (they’re quite looong) but you’ll see how the Popes themselves would cringe at the term, “nagpagamit.”

    una, the term “unprotected” sex, diba sexist language din yun? as if women are to be protected from anything coming from men. pangalawa, diba hate language din yun? as if having a baby is a threat to the life of the couple.

    now, i really have nothing against your article. medyo nagrereact lang ako kung paanong ang poverty eh maiiwasan kung kokontrolin ang population.

    katulad ng, if some claims that condoms should be given to the poor people to curb poverty, are we saying then that one’s economic status determines his right to a child? are we then proposing in the future to just simply abort some babies just because their parents are poor? why not simply advocate genocide to third world countries, para kumonti na ang mahirap sa mundo?

    poverty isn’t simply about population. it’s a standard of life. even rich countries have their share of poor people. we don’t eliminate poverty by eliminating the poor. We treat poverty by improving the standard of living of the poor. It’s the government’s job to provide for the poor, not to treat them as a mere inconvenience to the state.

    I don’t know if i make sense. my dad just recently died and i’m still grieving. i don’t want to comment talaga sa blogs. but there’s something about this that peeves me a bit. para bang laging kasalanan ng Simbahan kung bakit nagsisiping ang mag-asawa eh sa totoo lang, nasa isip kaya talaga nila ang turo ng Simbahan nung nagaganap ang lahat? not even a hint of Catholic “guilt” in there. the “guilt” begins only kapag nagbuntis na ang babae. ang totoo nyan, walang population boom na mangyayari kung talagang nasusunod ang turo ng Simbahan about parental and marital responsibility. pero ang naha-highlight sa media, kapricho lang ng Simbahan ang anti-contraceptive stand na yan. pasensya na ha. preachy talaga ito. you may delete this comment if you feel like doing so. i really won’t mind.

  11. hazel -im sure you feel very strongly about this, kaso we cant assume that the things we know and take for granted from our (more) privileged vantage point are known in the rural areas. 🙂

    bro utoy – why did you think i would delete your comment, grabe ka naman. and i dont think it’s preachy at all. sometimes the most prudent course of action is to agree to disagree. i wont be able to make you change your mind; and likewise, it might be hard for you to change mine. let me just say, however, that i completely agree with you that “poverty isnt simply about population.” like you, i HATE the idea of treating people as inconveniences to the state and children as burdens. thats why i look at reproductive health as an issue NOT of population control but of a woman’s autonomy over her body and her life. and thats where our opinion will most likely diverge.

    alam ko pong magkasalungat tayo ng opinyon, bro. utoy, at nauunawaan ko po kung saan kayo nanggagaling. i know there are issues where we can work together (like agrarian reform), and i’d like to think that our points of unities are greater than our differences.

    salamat po. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: