The Boston-based monthly The Atlantic is purportedly one of the most intelligent and erudite US magazines that refuse to succumb to the dumbing-down-for-the-market direction of American journalism in the last decade.
I’m a big fan of The Atlantic myself. However, I’m starting to suspect that editors of this very cultured US magazine don’t like Filipinos very much. Painful as it is, the magazine often hits the nail right on the head.
When the US press was euphoric over and even mythologizing the fall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, the magazine in 1987 threw very cold water on us with James Fallows’ “Damaged Culture, ” obviously a play on the very pejorative term “damaged goods”. Fallows’ basic message: Hey Filipinos, it’s not Marcos that’s your problem; it’s your culture.
And then just when investment analysts were raving about the Philippines as Asia’s newest emerging tiger (it seems so long ago, but was only last year), The Atlantic is a killjoy with its piece last May: “The Grim Reality Behind the Philippines Economic Growth.” Its subtitle is its succinct summary: “The country is being heralded as the new Asian success story, but only an elite reap new rewards.”
The Atlantic article on bolitas
You won’t guess what the latest Atlantic story on the Philippines is, which nearly made me fall off my seat.
The title in its August issue: “The Strange Sexual Quirk of Filipino Seafarers” by Ryan Jacobs, a respected writer from the irreverent Mother Jones magazine, also my favorite. The blurb: “How the pressures of the shipping industry have shaped everything about this maritime culture. Right down to their penile implants.”
I’m not sure if The Atlantic is ridiculing, sincerely admiring, or finding anthropologically interesting, this exotic sexual practice the article says is popular among Filipino seafarers. The lengthy (1,550 words) article explains what this is:
“Many Filipino sailors make small incisions in their penises and slide tiny plastic or stone balls—the size of M&M’s—underneath the skin in order to enhance sexual pleasure for prostitutes and other women they encounter in port cities, especially in Rio de Janeiro. “
Bolitas, these small balls are called, the Spanish diminutive for balls. The practice seems to be so exotic—or esoteric—that there isn’t even an entry in Wikipedia for bolitas of the sexual kind. I’ve read references though that it is a pre-Hispanic practice common in Southeast Asia, introduced by Arab traders, and suppressed so much by Catholic friars that they’ve been erased form our cultural history. (Pre-Hispanic residents of these islands, as well as throughout Southeast Asia were, according to some historians, very promiscuous and even put sexual prowess as a valued quality.)
The last time I’ve heard of bolitas was in my high-school years, when my classmates just getting their first doses of testosterone would be so obsessed with sex that they’d boast about how much they knew about the most secret sexual practices and devices, among which was the bolitas.
But the bolitas I knew then were those bizarre items sold in a seedy area near Chinatown by hawkers on the sidewalk, such as weirdly-designed (innovatively-designed?) condoms that supposedly enhanced the enjoyment of one’s sexual partner. Bolitas were small balls cleverly attached to a special kind of condoms, either dangling from or embedded on the prophylactic. There were tales though of performers in live sex shows who did have the bolitas, The Atlantic described. But it didn’t cross anyone’s mind to even dream of having these.
It would be the erudite The Atlantic that would educate me on this not-so-rare practice among Filipinos, at least those of our sea faring “modern-day heroes. I tried hard to suppress my mirror neurons as I read The Atlantic’s piece:
“According to University of California, Santa Cruz labor sociologist Steve McKay who traveled extensively on container ships with Filipino crews in 2005 . . . raw materials for the bolitas can range from tiles to plastic chopsticks or toothbrushes. A designated crewmember boils them in hot water to sterilize them, and then performs the procedure. There are also different preferred locations for insertion. Some have one on top or bottom, and others have both. One shipmate told McKay that others have four, one on top and bottom and on both sides, “like the sign of the cross.”
Being Filipino, I cringed though why bolitas were popular among Filipino sailors:
“(The) danger of infection and resulting pain seemed to be worth their reception by droves of Brazilian prostitutes. According to one of his papers, one shipmate told him: “‘Filipino seaman are famous for them . . . that’s why they [women in port] like us, why they keep asking for us,’” he said. “‘When they hear that Filipinos are coming, they’re happy.’”
I even got a bit angry when I realized—I hope you do too, dear reader—what the author was not just referring to Filipinos’ height when he wrote:
“This ‘secret weapon of the Filipinos,’ as a second mate phrased it, has therefore obviously something to do,” Lamvik wrote in his thesis, “‘with the fact that ‘the Filipinos are so small, and the Brazilian women are so big’ as another second mate put it.”
But of course, being an intellectual magazine, The Atlantic article explained something profound about this rare Filipino sexual quirk.
“(B)olitas is more than just a physical oddity adopted for the benefit of port women. It’s an important element of the Filipinos’ larger battle to assert their masculinity and compensate in a rivalry that they can’t always win aboard the ship. “It’s part of that competition that starts in the labor market that then bleeds over into culture,” McKay said. “They are dealing with how others see them.”
After reporting as if Filipino sailors were some tribe in deep Africa with such distinctive sexual practices, the author though turns around to imply that actually, all these means that Filipinos are kind and have a deep respect for women, which is the reason why they use bolitas:
“Filipino sailors take a sort of Pretty Woman tack in their relationships with prostitutes, treating them as more than mere objects in a sexual marketplace—and above all, the Filipinos think, treating them better than other sailors do. As one Filipino officer told McKay: “The women prefer Filipinos because we treat them nice, not like other nationalities,” he said. “[Sailors from other countries] think because they pay, they can treat them badly . . . But Filipinos—we treat them like girlfriends. We pay too, but we’re nice, we smile, we even court them. That’s what makes the Filipino special. We’re romantic.”
That is, it’s more fun with Filipinos with bolitas.