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Op:Ed: How liking my sexual abuse as a kid sheds light on the importance of sex education for youth

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Trigger warning – sexual harassment, child sex abuse, trauma.

My childhood 

I remember my childhood the way a Monarch butterfly remembers the warm air of Central Mexico. The afternoons I spent perched upon my neighbor’s guava tree; pecking on its fruit was my only occupation. I remember the rolling beads of sweat on my back induced by the mid-afternoon tropical sun, the thrill of playing Tumbang Preso with my playmates, guarding a tin can from being toppled by the other players. The laughter imprinted in my mind as I watched my friend who had fallen off the tire swing because I had pushed a little too hard. 

I grew up poor, but I was not raised poorly. My family lived in a makeshift, bamboo-walled house constructed by my dad within my step-grandfather’s property. My uncle, who lived with my step-grandfather, ran an assortment of businesses where they made fried garlic chips, fried peanuts, and brownies. 

Sawali, a weaved bamboo mat that my dad used used to build the walls of our home.
Lazada.com Sawali, a weaved bamboo mat that my dad used to build the walls of our home.

But what happened on the outside is only half of the story. On some afternoons, when all of my playmates were still on their mandatory siestas, and when the sun was just too hot to bear, I would go over to my uncle’s room that he shared with his older brother. I went there because they had air conditioning which was very rare and luxurious in my neighborhood.

Things were fine, at least in the beginning. One afternoon, when I went to my uncle’s room to catch a break from the blistering Filipino heat, I nonchalantly opened the door expecting to see my uncle sleeping. Instead, he was on the bed, awake, with his shorts pulled down. He was pleasuring himself. 

I was around 7 or 9 at that time, but I already knew what he was doing. Having a neighborhood where your playmates’ ages range from 3 to sixteen means you can get a wide range of information from different age groups, and that includes topics like sex.

These calendars are hanged everywhere, from the local eatery to the nipa huts of my neighbors.
White Castle Calendars like these are hanged everywhere, from the local eatery to the nipa huts of my neighbors.

There was also constant exposure to sex through the media, like in the teleseryes that included explicit or suggestive content. Then there were the sexy promotional calendars that liquor companies distributed every year, as well as the displays of pirated DVDs where porn was mixed in with the regular movies that you could easily see on a walk to the wet market. Sex was inescapable.

These are stalls of under-regulated pirated DVD vendors that I grew up with.
Sidney Snoech Stalls of pirated DVD at the wet market.

Even as a kid, I mostly understood sex and pleasuring oneself. It was never the birds and the bees for me. I always knew adults did these things for love and pleasure. That’s why when I saw my uncle touching himself, it didn’t scare me. I just stood by the door and watched him. He didn’t stop; he let me watch him. Then he got up, pulled me to him, and asked me to do it with him. He went on and touched me, and I let him do it. 

After that day, I came back to do it again because I found it fun and exciting. I knew I was not supposed to be doing what I was doing with my uncle – I didn’t know why, but I understood that it must be kept as a secret. Eventually, his older brother did it to me too, as well as some of their workers whom they housed on the same property. It only stopped when my family and I had to move.

Wisdom comes with pain 

Looking back, I wonder why I didn’t feel violated by what my uncle did to me. Why did I like it? Why did I conflate my uncle’s attention with love and pleasure? And why, when I turned 18 and finally realized that what had happened to me was abuse, did I not feel the tell-tale signs of trauma?

As difficult as it is to admit this as an adult, being abused by my uncle just didn’t bother me as a child. In fact, the sexual abuse didn’t bother me until I started meeting and reading about the experiences of other people who went through sexual abuse.

Even then, I was bothered less by the molestation and more by the fact that I was not bothered by being molested… at all. This made me feel abnormal. I felt crazy. I asked myself “what was wrong with me?”

What is trauma? 

To understand more about my own experience, I had a conversation with Dr. Edward Durgan, a psychiatrist specializing in trauma. He characterized trauma as “a challenge or an assault on the psychic structure of the person. It can be through physical trauma or sexual trauma.” 

“So was my experience traumatic?” I asked. Drugan responded “if you didn’t experience it as traumatic, that’s really what counts,” He further explained, “if it’s not an assault or violent, you might argue that is an inappropriate sexualization, but not traumatic.” 

Am I normal?

I asked Durgan if my case was normal. “If you’re asking whether it’s normal,” he explained, “it could be argued that it’s a relative question. Normalcy refers to the behavior of a group, in the technical sense. If it’s normal for that region or community, then you can say it’s normal. And then you have families. Sometimes it is normal in families but not normal in the culture where that family exists.” 

“Anytime you’re asking if something sexual is normal it’s really hard to say, because we dont really know what sexual habits people have,” Dr. Durgan pointed out, “Due to social stigma and social customs, it’s often kept private.” Data verifies Dr. Durgan’s words. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 80% of sexual abuse is underreported.

“We don’t really know how normal or abnormal it is. It’s almost impossible to say, but I would guess [it’s]… certainly outside of tradition, at least, for the United States,” Durgan clarified. 

ABC News recently reported that the Philippines is a hotspot for online child sexual exploitation. The age of consent in the Philippines was just changed from 12 to 16 in an attempt to protect minors from sexual abuse. Meanwhile in the United States, the federal age of consent is 18. Durgan also added, “In many ways, you’re talking about cultural morals or ethics when you talk about age of consent and in terms of sexual activity. It [sex] generally comes, in many societies, after pubecence or puberty. We have a general notion, and we have what society says is normal. But oftentimes when research is done, the assumptions are often proven wrong because sexuality is a highly personal thing.”

Psychological resilience: What does this all mean?

So does me liking my sexual abuse have anything do with the sex culture in the Phillipines? No, it doesn’t. Durgan is not saying that in the Philippines child molestation is normal. What he is saying is that the culture and the environment that surrounds a person can influence an individual’s experience and reaction to trauma: “The same event can be traumatic for one person and not traumatic for another. In a sense, it’s relative and perspectival.”

Durgan further clarified that an individual’s psychological resilience is influenced by many factors. “It has to do with biology and genetics, early childhood experiences, character development, your early family of origin,and also the individual decisions that you have made in your life and how you have dealt with adversity and experiences you might have been through. A person grows more tolerance to potential violence if they survive through often other violent episodes and come out with resilience and adapt.”

The intersection of culture and trauma

Recently I had a conversation with some of my colleagues at The Seattle Collegian about a cultural event in my country. Every Lenten season, hundreds of men in my province, whom we call magdarame (penitents) , have their backs incised with either broken glass or razor blades. They walk on the streets barefoot under the 100-degree sun as they whip themselves with burilyos tied at the end of a whip. The magdarames make this pilgrimage to repent for their sins.

My neighborhood comes to life everytime this happens. The rattling of their whips were the chirping of the birds in the morning, and the sight of blood was my breakfast. The smell of iron lingered as blood splattered and stuck to the walls and roads. The blood stains would stay on these surfaces until the rain washed it away. 

My colleagues’ reactions to this were not pleasant. One even decribed it as “fucked up,” but from my cultural perspective, even though I am not religious, I view this as a sacred and traditional cultural practice and as completely normal. This can also be seen with the date Sept. 11. In the Philippines, this is just another sunny day, while in the United States, it is remembered as a national traumatic experience. 

The importance of sex education

If you’re reading this, you are finding out about this story at the same time as my parents. I never blamed my parents for this experience. We were poor. They both had to work more than twelve hours a day to provide for us. They left us with people whom they thought they could trust, and I never really told them what my uncle did to me because I didn’t feel the need to. I never felt bad or ashamed of what happened to me. I still don’t.

My early exposure to sex might have built my psychological resilience and saved me from the trauma of sexual abuse, but it was not enough to save me from the abuse itself. Yes, I enjoyed it, but that doesn’t mean it should have happened.

While writing this, I was afraid of other people using my experience as an argument to not have sex education available to younger kids, which is a topic that is still highly debated in many countries, including the United States.  

For example, victim blaming is still an issue that occurs due to misinformation. Oftentimes, teen moms are blamed for being too promiscuous or rebellious, when in fact the story goes much deeper. 

Most early pregnancy occurs in an undereducated population, which are, most of the time, impoverished. The Commission on Population and Development (POPCOM) in the Philippines  has reported that in 2021 pregnancies from 10 to 14 years old had risen. The situation has gotten so bad that the Socioeconomic Planning Secretary and POPCOM Chair, Ernesto M. Pernia has declared the teen pregnancy situation in the Philippines a “national social emergency.”   

Comprehensive sex education for young people could save many children from having to experience sexual exploitation, early pregnancy, or situations similar to mine.

A study by the University of Washington found that teens who received comprehensive sex education were 60 percent less likely to experience teenage pregnancy or impregnate someone, than those who did not.

Another study published by Journal of Adolescent Health pointed out that comprehensive sex education also widens the world view of an individual. Teens who received comprehensive sex education improved social networking with their peers and partners. In addition, results from the study showed that teens that took comprehensive sex education had a better understanding with topics concerning minority groups, like the LGBTQ+ community.

I think my experience is actually a perfect example of why sex education should be available to young individuals. If only someone would have explained to me what really sex was at that age, and why I shouldn’t be doing it with older people, things could have been different.

Juan Miguel Jocom, or Juanita Banana as his friends call him, is an Editorial Board member at the Seattle Collegian, where he focuses on writing about the experience of immigrant students at Seattle Central College. A documentarian, he hopes to create videos that will showcase the chaos and glory of humans.

As a Seattle local, he’s an aspiring granola boy, who enjoys rock climbing and jumping off cliffs. His recent documentary, Welcome to the Neighborhood, was an official selected entry for the 2021 SCOOP film fest.

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