A short history of sex in Philippine literature

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Set against the backdrop of Catholic conservatism and a collective hesitation to fully express sexual desire, Philippine literary smut has had awkward beginnings. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Sex fascinates, titillates, and angers — and for those who dare dip into it in the name of literature, it absolutely terrifies. It’s not easy to write about sex. Or even about love. Their primacy for all of us perhaps has undermined many attempts to be true, or to be raw and revealing, about these two things without skirting the boundaries of pornography or mawkishness.

How do you exactly depict the sexual electricity between people without embarrassing yourself? Kerima Polotan once wrote about this very problem in her essay, “Love in Philippine Fiction”:

“The love scene, as anyone who has ever written will tell you, is perhaps the most difficult to write. Authors would really rather do murder, stabbing or shooting or decapitating without mercy, strewing their bloody corpses up and down the pages; or scenes with social meaning: hungry woman, dying child, rich man with fleshy mistress walking by; or the patriotic bit, with flag, rising sun, swelling anthem fished out of the symbol’s bag. The dangers are inherent in so overworked a theme as love — one asterisk too many, one pause too long, one word too wordy, and the result is bathos and pathos. On the other hand, realizing the temptation to overwrite a love scene, the author might decide to approach it with his guard up, and the result is neither bathos and pathos but last night’s hash.”

She is right, of course — but it pays to note that she wrote these observations to tackle the love story as a whole, and not erotica. But she might as well write about sex in Philippine literature with those very words.

Texture - smut.jpg "The love scene, as anyone who has ever written will tell you, is perhaps the most difficult to write," says Kerima Polotan. Illustration by JL JAVIER

In that same essay, Polotan tries to plumb what tradition of writing we have in the Philippines that explored the carnal knowledge of its characters, and starts with Loreto Paras Sulit’s “Laarni — A Dream,” a much-anthologized story which “ended with the hero’s spear quivering in the stairway, Laarni quivering in the house, the [reader] quivering in his seat, while everyone perished beautifully to the immortal words: ‘Thrust your spear and shall not thrust in vain.’” The symbolism is not very subtle, but for the longest time this has been the extent, amusing and quaint as it may strike us now, with which sexuality has been tackled in Philippine fiction in English.

Indeed, most early attempts at depicting sexuality in Philippine literature have been done in the mode of ecstatically wrought metaphor and playful restraint— and perhaps understandably so, given the usual conservatism we ascribe to Filipino society, especially before the 1950s. Perhaps learning from Angela Manalang Gloria’s troubles with “Revolt to Hymen” and Jose Garcia Villa’s similar battles with “Man Songs,” the restraint — and the “quivering” lyricism — was what got the Filipino writer to explore carnality in literature without much backlash.

This is beautifully illustrated by Manuel Arguilla’s “Midsummer.” In this 1933 story, Arguilla gives us the embodiment of youthful Filipino ardor — Manong and Ading under the sultry summer sun in the countryside. Their frank regard for each other’s bodies is nimbly teased out in beautifully rendered paragraphs that “quiver” upon close reading: Here, we get a mention of Ading’s “single bodice instantly [clinging] to her bosom molding the twin hillocks of her breasts warmly brown through the wet cloth,” as well as Manong’s “two parallel ridges of rope-like muscle [in the small of his back sticking] out against [his] wet shirt.”

It’s not easy to write about sex. Or even about love. Their primacy for all of us perhaps has undermined many attempts to be true, or to be raw and revealing, about these two things without skirting the boundaries of pornography or mawkishness.

This is still, for me, the sexiest bit of fiction ever written in English by a Filipino writer — and the knowledge that Arguilla got away with it in 1933 is something to marvel at, especially given the controversy that visited Estrella Alfon two decades later when she published her short story “Fairy Tale for the City,” about a young man who is absolved of his sins by a Catholic priest. In 1955, the Catholic Women’s League took Alfon to court for writing pornography — and the CWL won. (The judge presiding over the case, however, paid the ₱300 fine leveled against Ms. Alfon to prevent her from going to jail.)

The border between erotica and pornography

Eroticism — and frankly, sex — has had a troubled history in Philippine publishing indeed. In 1955, Leopoldo Y. Yabes, writing in his preface to his second collection of Filipino short stories in English, acknowledged the matter when he recalled prior criticism dismaying that “there is no sex in the Filipino love story.”

And yet, despite all these, erotic literature has not entirely been abandoned by the most intrepid of Filipino writers, although the attempts at such have been paltry, and have often been accidental. Nick Joaquin penned some stories — “The Summer Solstice” towering above all — that were not ashamed at exploring desire and wanton acts bordering sweet depravity. And yet no Filipino has really made a name for his or herself in the genre — no Anaïs Nin or Henry Miller among us — and nor has there ever been a novel or a short story collection that courted the censor’s ire, damned by local moralists, and read under a blanket with a flashlight in bed, the way we had with “The Carpetbaggers” or “Portnoy’s Complaint.”

Jose Y. Dalisay has puzzled over this lack in one of his columns on the practice of writing: “…Let me observe the perplexing absence of sex […] from traditional fiction in English. Given our birth […] rates, you’d think there was a whole lot of shakin’ going on in these islands — but no, not if all you had to go by were our stories, at least recently, with some young writers invoking the F word every other sentence, as if to make up for some historical imbalance.”

We are not alone, of course, in the confusion of distinctions, which is really an old one, and a subjective one at that — something psychologist Leon G. Seltzer says is “steeped in personal moral, aesthetic, and religious values.” The confusion really rises from the fact that no matter where we come from to define both, there is much overlap between erotica and pornography — and the shadiness of that overlap frightens many writers (and readers), hence both have been eternally swept under the proverbial rug.

In Manuel Arguilla's "Midsummer," we get a mention of Ading’s “single bodice instantly [clinging] to her bosom molding the twin hillocks of her breasts warmly brown through the wet cloth,” as well as Manong’s “two parallel ridges of rope-like muscle [in the small of his back sticking] out against [his] wet shirt.”

Both erotica and pornography are exercises in dealing with the human body, but most subscribe to the belief that what makes erotica stand apart is its insistence on “beauty,” and not just in the anatomical consideration, but also the emotional fireworks that come in the act of making love. Erotica thus is supposed to be a celebration or an evocation of aesthetics.

Seltzer continues: “[U]nlike pornography, [erotica] doesn’t appeal exclusively to our senses or carnal appetites. It also engages our aesthetic sense, our judgment about how this or that figure illustrates an ideal of human beauty …  What finally determines the work’s eroticism is how the artist (or, for that matter, author or composer) approaches their subject.”

Both erotica and pornography, says Seltzer, present the human body in a sexually compelling manner — but the aim of the pornographer is not to help the audience “rejoice in the human form,” as erotica does, but rather to ‘turn on’ the viewer, usually leaving little to the imagination. “The unabashed goal is simple and straightforward: titillation and immediate, intense arousal,” he adds, “or, to put it even more bluntly, an instantaneous stirring of the genitals,” a vision that becomes stale over time, as opposed to erotica, whose ideal is to “transcend its literally provocative subject.”

Seltzer’s last charge with pornography is “capitalism.” “It’s basically 'sex for sale,'” he writes. “Artists pursue eroticism, I think, as they pursue beauty. It may sell, but if their goal is genuinely to transmit what they apprehend as almost ethereal in its beguiling sensuality, then the work’s monetary value must remain a secondary consideration to them. Pornographers, on the other hand, are far less motivated by the desire to faithfully represent what they may (or may not) regard as beautiful or aesthetic. Rather, their undertaking is contrived to ‘produce’ what they believe will turn the largest possible profit.”

smut art2.jpg Both erotica and pornography are exercises in dealing with the human body, but most subscribe to the belief that what makes erotica stand apart is its insistence on "beauty." Illustration by JL JAVIER

The haziness in the give and take in Seltzer’s admittedly admirable attempt at definition — “this but not really this, and that but not really that” — is still very problematic, because so much of what he aims to put in a certain box has since been exploded by artists willing to push the envelope further, or even incinerate it altogether.

In photography, there has been Robert Mapplethorpe and later Bruce Webber and his ilk. In film, there are Nagisa Oshima and Peque Gallaga and Bernardo Bertolucci, all of whom have dared to shock with their unbridled depiction of sexuality onscreen — and not always going for “beautiful” — and yet one would be mistaken not to consider their works as “art.” (The carefully composed, airbrushed, and rose-tinted centerfolds in “Penthouse,” on the other hand, would readily be called “porn.”)

From ‘bomba’ to Tik-tik: a history of Philippine sex

While we can trace the seeds of Filipino erotica to Arguilla, pornography itself — stark and unadorned — arrived in the Philippines only in 1946 in the form of pornographic magazines imported from the United States. During the 1960s, pornography became accessible to affluent older men — and women — with 8mm film projectors, and during the 1980s through videocassettes; all illegal and clandestinely distributed in local video rental shops and newsstands.

By then, Filipinos learned to produce locally produced fare, and in popular culture, the brazenness of the production got a kind of mainstream acceptance with many soft-core movies that started to appear in the 1970s, beginning with “Uhaw,” which jumpstarted several waves of similar films, including bomba, pene (as in “penetration,” with films complete with scenes featuring actual coitus), ST (or “sex-trip films”), and finally TF (or “titillating films”).

By 2006, the underground Philippine porn industry had become a $1 billion industry, putting the Philippines in eighth place in the worldwide black market for porn, in a tie with Canada and Taiwan. Erotic publications also flourished and died away in a strange but expected paroxysm of interest and disinterest, perhaps pulsating in tandem with the national Catholic guilt. There have been Tik-Tik and Sakdal, among the many magazines that catered to titillation, and finally in 2008, a Filipino edition of Playboy was launched, after similar magazines — FHM, for example — became popular.

These reactions ... are telling of the place sexuality/sensuality has in our literature: a guilt-ridden journey that nonetheless needed to be undertaken.

In the rarified world of literature, Anvil Publishing came out with “Forbidden Fruit: Women Write the Erotic,” edited by Tina Cuyugan in 1992. It became a landmark anthology of erotic fiction and poetry by some of the most acclaimed contemporary Filipina writers, including Lualhati Bautista, Cecilia Manguerra Branard, Joi Barrios, Susan Lara, Ophelia Dimalanta, Marjorie Evasco, Ma. Fatima Lim, Jessica Hagedorn, Marra PL Lanot, and Benilda Santos. The book was designed to give women a new voice regarding their perceptions of the erotic, and to “reveal their delights and desires.”

In her foreword to the book, clinical psychologist Margarita Go-Singco Holmes, who has pioneered in sexual counseling in the Philippines, hailed the works as “an extraordinary act of sharing.” She wrote: “To reflect upon experience is necessary to human growth,” and the authors have thus proven themselves “truly free spirits” in publicly reflecting on private matters such as sexuality and sensuality.

And in her introduction, Cuyugan admitted to the steep editorial considerations the project — the first of its kind in Philippine publishing — demanded: “Many [of the contributors] wondered about the effect on their husbands, fathers, and children. Some worried that their works were too erotic, or not erotic enough. Others were concerned by public reaction and possible misreading of their work.” One contributor, Joi Barrios, admitted that being part of the anthology was “like washing dirty linen in public: it makes you feel guilty.”

These reactions from the very writers contributing to the book are telling of the place sexuality/sensuality has in our literature: a guilt-ridden journey that nonetheless needed to be undertaken. The book, of course, proved to be a success — although there were criticisms that many of the pieces included were not erotic enough. It nevertheless proved to be a watershed.

smut -art3.jpg Something wonderfully cathartic often happens to writers who try to write about sex: writing the forbidden pushes them to reach into parts of themselves that are almost always previously unknown to them, shrouded as they are with complicated uneasiness and even fear. Illustration by JL JAVIER

By 1994, Danton Remoto and J. Neil C. Garcia unleashed the juggernaut that was “Ladlad,” an uncompromising anthology gathering short stories, poems, essays, and plays about the Filipino gay experience — and the contributors proceeded to defy expectations with frank depictions of gay male sexuality. The frankness was part of the design, and the anthology became an unexpected success, and spawned two more volumes: “Ladlad 2” in 1996, and finally “Ladlad 3” in 2007. (A ‘best-of’ anthology, gathering the most popular works from all three books, was released in 2014.)

But there has always been frank — if modulated — sexuality in Philippine literature even before the “Ladlad” books and “Forbidden Fruit.” Leoncio Deriada, Luis Cabalquinto, Elsa Martinez Coscolluela, Bobby Flores Villasis, Ernesto Superal Yee, Erwin Castillo, and many others have churned out stories with passages in them that would make any reader blush.

In 2001, Virgilio Aviado, Ben Cabrera, and Alfred Yuson edited “Eros Pinoy: An Anthology of Contemporary Erotica in Philippine Art and Poetry,” which gathered works from literary and visual artists, all in celebration of the erotic. This was dubbed as “the first ever anthology of poetry and visual art on the theme of erotica, boasting of over 80 artworks and over 70 poems on love and passion from 101 well-known Filipinos, including National Artists Edith Tiempo and Francisco Arcellana for Literature, and Napoleon Abueva, Arturo Luz, Ang Kiukok, and J. Elizalde Navarro for Art.”

And in more recent years, we’ve had Adam David’s graphic story “The Long Weekend,” Siege Malvar’s “Wasakang Wasak,” Eros Atalia’s “Ligo Na U, Lapit Na Me” — and even a one-off Ladies’ Confession Special from FHM Philippines that gathered the explicit short stories of Marguerite Alcarazen de Leon, Karl R. De Mesa, Joseph Nacino, Carljoe Javier, Anna Felicia Sanchez, Lourd Ernest de Veyra, Andrew Paredes, Ramil Digal Gulle, and Norman Wilwayco in 2012. 

The best of literary smut are ultimately tales about loving and about desiring, about being human, about connecting and about losing. Most of all, these are testaments to beautiful heartbreak.

In the steamier side of things, inclusion must be made of the defunct but wildly popular sex columns of Xerex Xaviera (filmmaker and writer Jim Libiran in real life), which used to occupy prominent space in the tabloid Abante Tonite. There are also the overheated e-books of Rose Cuzzion, author of such tomes as “Philippines: Raw Honest Sex,” “Happy Ending,” and “Philippine Girl.”

One particular observation of most of these works suggests a kind of “safety” in the collective, hence a preponderance of erotic works compiled in anthologies, gathering a ready army of contributors that can defuse or distract criticism which could easily be leveled if the books themselves were written by singular authors. (Libiran tellingly hid behind a pseudonym for his column, although that might have been editorial prerogative. And rightfully so: the pen name Xerex Xaviera has a “come on” to it.)

What I’ve learned in writing about sex graphically in “Don’t Tell Anyone” (forthcoming from Anvil, co-authored by Shakira Andrea Sison) is that it was certainly not easy. As serious creative writers first and “literary pornographers” second, we quickly learned that one of the most annoying things about the full depiction of the sex act is tantamount to stopping the narrative, ironically “action that stops the literary action.” And not just mere stoppage: each scene invites the full gravity of carnal knowledge from culture and history — and often the result of such a skirmish is pure awkwardness.

For writers who do try, what results is the treading of a fine balance between accomplishing titillating prose and the need to propel a good story. But something wonderfully cathartic often happens to these writers: writing the forbidden pushes them to reach into parts of themselves that are almost always previously unknown to them, shrouded as they are with complicated uneasiness and even fear. They may endeavor to distill the unease and fear into stories that may unashamedly detail every sort of sexual shenanigans imaginable, but the best of literary smut are ultimately tales about loving and about desiring, about being human, about connecting and about losing. Most of all, these are testaments to beautiful heartbreak.

Should Philippine literature embrace a new and bolder resurgence of sex on the page? It is bound to happen, this relaxation of mores, so Filipino writers might as well make art out of it. Dalisay also called this enterprise “[making] up for some historical imbalance.” So be it.