A friend of mine cried when his daughter had her first menstruation, feeling sadness that she was no longer a little girl and would, in a few years, leave home and get married.
But when I asked if he had talked to her about what menstruation means, biologically as well as socially, he smiled sheepishly and said he was leaving it to his wife. And when I asked his wife she too smiled and said she had, “sort of,” and made her daughter skip a step down the stairs (a folk belief to shorten menstrual periods). Then she shrugged her shoulders, “Kids these days, they know more than we do. . . We don’t need to teach them.”
We Filipinos, even the more liberal ones, remain very uncomfortable with the issue of sexuality education. I know people who are totally in favor of family planning and reproductive health services but oppose the reproductive health bill because of the provisions on sexuality education in schools, fearful that this will give young people “funny ideas” and lead to promiscuity. Yet if asked if they are doing any education at home, they will admit that they are not able to handle it.
The problem is that people think the RH bill is meant only for family planning, which they then associate with old-style population education schools with reproductive anatomy, condoms and pills and which anti-RH groups say will be taught in grade school. What the RH bill proposes is sexuality education, taught early, yes, but in an age-appropriate way to deal with human development, relationships, gender roles and responsibilities.
The opposition to early sexuality education also comes from the misconception that before puberty children have no sexuality. Yet the biological facts are clear: the body begins to change as early as the age of 6 or 7, being primed in very subtle but significant ways for approaching puberty. By the time menstruation arrives (or, for males, the first wet dream), the body has already been producing hormones for some time to bring about puberty.
Even more importantly, children at a very early age, again about the age of 6 or 7, are already feeling “attraction,” developing what we call “puppy love.” This can be a classmate, a schoolmate, a teacher, an actor or an actress. I had a secretary whose 7-year-old daughter would squeal in delight (gigil na gigil) watching the rock group F4 with their boyish band players.
Sexual orientation is manifested this early, so a boy may feel attracted to a girl, or to another boy. And don’t think it’s only the effeminate boy who feels same-sex attraction. It can be your totally macho rough-and-tumble boy beginning to feel for other boys, or your Barbie-doll lipstick-loving daughter feeling for another girl.
We dismiss all this puppy love as part of kids’ hero worship, and to a large extent, there is certainly an element of adulation involved. But it is important to keep track of what’s developing in our children and, more importantly, to let them know that they can talk to you about those feelings.
Much of puppy love will be innocent and inconsequential, but there can also be cases when young children are put at risk. We saw this in the recent tragedy in an SM mall in Pampanga, where a 13-year-old boy shot a 16-year old, also male, and then himself. Both died.
I appreciate how mass media didn’t go into a sensational frenzy over this incident, the names of the boys kept confidential, and the coverage being fairly muted. But I suspect the low-key coverage was due in part to the reporters not being able to figure out what was going on, primarily whether there was a gay relationship or not.
The two boys went to their graves with the answers. We will never really know since the families are understandably reluctant to talk about the tragedy.
Clearly, this was a case of a very close same-sex relationship. Was it a homosexual relationship? This is more difficult to answer. Adolescents often go into very intense and intimate same-sex relationships that are not necessarily homosexual. Conversely, there can be homosexual relationships but without sex involved. Which just shows how complicated adolescent sexuality can be.
We have to recognize the challenges children face dealing with gender and sexuality. The physical as well as intense emotional changes begin long before puberty. We cannot leave them to figure out those feelings on their own, or leave them to fend for themselves. Those with “heterosexual” feelings already have it tough, for example, a young boy wondering why he is beginning to like the girl next door whom he used to “hate.” The same applies for a young girl who used to “hate” boys but pines away for that guy living around the corner.
Now imagine the anxieties and troubled feelings when it’s a young boy realizing he has a crush on another male. The film “Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros” captured the poignancy around a baklita (young bakla who cross dresses) feeling puppy love for the neighborhood policeman.
The baklita is actually more fortunate, accepted in the community (often an urban poor area) partly as a jester and partly because people think it’s all innocent fun. Shift to a boy or girl growing up in a middle—or upper—class family, with all its anti-gay prejudice (more because of “what will our neighbors say?”) and stigmatization of homosexuality, and the problems become more complicated.
It’s not surprising that so many young Filipinos—gay or straight—go into secret relationships, fearful that their parents will ground them. And the opportunities for meeting people have now multiplied, through malls, as well as the Internet. The two boys who died in Pampanga were said to have met through Facebook.
I have seen some local anti-RH websites claiming that RH advocates pedophilia, simply because sexuality education will, certainly, discuss those issues. But I will counter the arguments and say that a withholding of sexuality education for our youth will in fact make them more vulnerable to exploitation by adults, whether heterosexual or homosexual.
Young people need to understand what’s going on in their bodies, and minds and hearts. They need, as well, to learn, long before puberty, to understand their bodies, to respect people and to respect themselves, and how they can protect themselves from deception and manipulation, or, more simply, how they will deal with heartbreaks and disappointments. For the boys especially, they have to learn that love and sexuality are not about conquests and possession but about mutual responsibilities.
I might have over-emphasized the trials and tribulations around young love. With the right environment in homes and schools, with supportive parents and teachers, young people will have many happy memories of puppy love and first love.