February 14, 2019
Photo: TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images
Blink, but don’t miss it: HIV-AIDS infection rates are soaring in the Philippines. In the wake of the 30th World AIDS Day (which HAPI celebrated by joining Quezon City’s annual pride march) and the recent passage of the Philippine HIV and AIDS Policy Act, I’ve been eagerly reading up on the global progress we’ve made in the fight to overcome AIDS — a disease that Madonna, a prolific AIDS advocate, once deemed “the greatest tragedy of the 20th century”.
Surprisingly, we’re slowly winning the war worldwide, with the annual number of new infections steadily declining and the global AIDS mortality rate dropping to 21st-century lows.
But the global picture doesn’t necessarily reflect the local reality. In the Philippines, our home turf, the statistics tell a darker story. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV-AIDS (UNAIDS) estimates that 68,000 Filipinos were living with the disease by the end of 2017. According to the Philippine National AIDS Council (PNAC), as many as 32 people were testing positive for HIV every day in 2018, up from 22 in 2015, 13 in 2013, and 2 in 2008.
It took less than a decade for things to get this bad. Since 2009, the Philippines went from a low-HIV-risk, low incidence country into the one with the fastest-growing HIV epidemic in the Asia-Pacific region. PNAC warns that a projected 197,000 more Filipinos will test positive for the disease within the next decade. We’re in the red, and that isn’t good.
Sex-Positivity in the Age of Worry
As a sex-positive millennial, I felt a mixture of fear and anger when I first read these numbers. Fear, because I know how sexually active my generation is, and I’d rather not see anyone in my social circle contract the disease.
But I’m also afraid because of how desperately uninformed millennials and Generation Z are about HIV-AIDS. The first time I had an unapologetically promiscuous friend (who’s bisexual) ask me what HIV is and how it gets transmitted, we joked over his naïvety. Later, when I had four other sexually-active friends (of varying sexual orientations, one of them a girl) ask me similar questions, the joke wasn’t funny any longer.
It isn’t just my personal social circle. In 2015, the Department of Health (DoH) found that 67% of the then-number of Filipinos living with AIDS fell between the ages of 15 and 24, and that of all the Filipinos in this demographic, only 17% understood what HIV is and how it spreads.
There’s every reason, in other words, to be worried that millennials’ and Gen-Z’s reckless sexual exploits are putting them in harm’s way.
The Infuriating Paradox
Now to be fair, testing positive for HIV in 2019 isn’t the death sentence it used to be: antiretroviral therapy (ART) has gotten so advanced that HIV-positive people taking properly prescribed medication can not only live out their lives normally, they can become non-contagious altogether (so long as they get their viral load down to undetectable levels).
But even as the DoH offers ART for free, the threat remains real because of people’s unwillingness to apply for it: according to DoH’s 2017 data, 67% of HIV-positive Pinoys refused to take the treatment in fear that they may get “outed” as sexually-active. (Dwell on that logic for a moment: “I’d rather die than be known as a sexual creature.”)
At the time, the DoH practically pleaded with these Filipinos to put their health first over their shame. We still don’t know how many of them may have already perished for not listening.
Which is why, in addition to fear, I also felt angry with the whole situation.
If Philippine culture can be so conservative as to not only paint non-marital and homosexual intercourse as sinful, but a source of such shame that a lot of “transgressors” would prefer to die silently than be exposed for it, isn’t it fair to say that that culture is toxic?
To be bluntly realistic, sex has never required God’s permission. (For that to be true, you’d need God to exist in the first place, and well, logic says he doesn’t.) Sex is really just sex. At worst, it can be a pretty underwhelming thirty seconds. At best, it’s the full glory of the human touch; love justified through flesh.
By all medical accounts, sex is healthy, cathartic (endorphins act as natural painkillers!), and supremely recreational. But above all, it’s human. Sex not only gave us life, it’s been known to enrich it, period.
To deny the benefits of sex to humanity, then, is to betray the essence of humanism altogether.
Sex-negativity: hypocrisy in a new dress
So why is the Philippines still so afraid of sex? Why did it take decades to introduce sex-ed into our classrooms? Why aren’t more Filipino parents sitting their teens down and tackling sex’s reality, its perils and joys? Why aren’t there sex awareness drives directly targeted at teenagers?
Photo: TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images
You could say that this is just due to the Philippines’ traditional values, but the fact is that we’re in the midst of a HIV crisis, and past a certain point, it just gets difficult to distinguish “traditionalism” from downright irresponsibility.
It wasn’t that long ago when the Department of Education (DepEd), caving in to pressure from parents, rejected a proposal by the DoH to partner up and supervise the distribution of free condoms in senior high schools nationwide.
When Education Secretary Leonor Briones announced the DepEd’s decision at one of its national seminar-workshops, the crowd in attendance actually broke out in cheers.
Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto was infamously vocal with his opposition to the DoH’s proposal, going so far as to publicly threaten to block then-Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial from her confirmation at the Commission on Appointments if she didn’t drop the plan.
Sotto judged the idea of free condom distribution to students as “insensitive” to our conservative culture and suggested that the DoH should instead embark on an “effective information campaign on moral values.”
Here, the DepEd and Sotto epitomise the prevailing sentiment among most baby boomer and Generation-X Filipinos: that sex talk is reserved for adults. That teenagers can’t take initiative with their sex lives early. That deferring to Catholic teachings about abstinence and matrimony is a good enough solution to the AIDS and teenage pregnancy crises.
It’s a passive, almost tone-deaf mentality that basically amounts to this: “Just tell your kids to not have sex! They’re not allowed to have sex ’til marriage anyway, so why teach them about it now?”
…which appears to be a valid argument, except humans will find a way to have sex, anyway. We’re sexual by nature, and you only need a brief look at history to see that suppressing human sexuality has caused us nothing but misery.
When young adults and teenagers who are exploring sex for the first time find the fun, pleasure, and emotional benefits in it — and none of the depravity Catholicism alleged — they won’t likely abstain from it. Human nature will always trump religious dogma, regardless of the depth of your indoctrination.
Then there’s obviously the fact that making marriage the base requirement for sex disenfranchises same-sex couples and people who aren’t looking to get married at all, so the notion is just facile from the get-go.
Unfortunately, conservatives in legislative seats of power like Sotto refuse to accept these additional facets of the issue, which is how proactive action plans like free, supervised condom distribution to senior high-schoolers manage to get shot down. Never mind the fact that European countries like Germany and Switzerland found success with preventative programs like this decades ago, or that 2 in every 3 new AIDS infections in the Philippines are in the 15-24 age bracket, or that local teenage pregnancy rates are also on the rise. No, teenagers shouldn’t be given access to protection and contraception because “oh, they’ve no right to be sexual, anyway.”
Next thing you know, they won’t hand AFP recruits a gun until they’ve stepped on a battlefield.
The Silver Lining
Luckily, things aren’t entirely bleak for us. Since “Condomgate” burst through the national conversation in late 2016, we’ve managed to pass the Philippine HIV and AIDS Policy Act, amending and repealing the Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998.
Photo: Darren Langit/Rappler
The DepEd, following the DoH’s advice, has also since integrated a new Comprehensive Sex Education policy into the basic elementary and high school curriculum — it has its limits, but is nevertheless a welcome development in the fight for sexual awareness.
Legislators like Risa Hontiveros and Kaka Bag-ao who successfully campaigned for the HIV and AIDS Policy Act now turn their efforts to drafts like the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE) Equality Bill, which will hopefully help foster more empathy in the long run for the LGBTQ+ community, the minority most affected by HIV-AIDS.
Meanwhile, more and more HIV testing sites and clinics are sprouting throughout the country — not just Metro Manila — widening the reach of free medication, support, and visibility.
And of course, as the younger generation of Filipinos begin to skew towards more liberal ways of thinking, they’ll be inclined to educate themselves on the plight of minorities like the LGBTQ+ community, leading to more allies down the line.
But in spite of all this progress, there’s still work to be done.
The Reproductive Health Act was a boon upon its passage in 2012, but revisions by the Supreme Court took away some of its teeth. Pundits maintain that the Philippine HIV-AIDS crisis will persist into the next decade. The Catholic Church, chiefly responsible for the latter two mishaps, still holds sway over 80% of the Filipino population.
As humanists, our duty now isn’t to just do good for its own sake, but to enlighten people on the merits of medical science and sociology, and to encourage secular thinking on matters like sexual health. Now more than ever, our proactivity can save lives.
But we have to be more upfront about it. Let’s put up more HIV awareness billboards. Let’s lobby for an expanded sex-ed policy. Let’s get people to listen.
I long to see a country rid of AIDS, but even if I were to hear my friends and family discuss sex with a better level of conscience and consciousness, I’ll consider that a major victory unto itself. However, that time is still a ways off.
Until then, let’s work towards it. Let’s fight ignorance together.
Sherwin Dane Zauro C. Haro (“Shane”) studies Communication Arts at the University of Santo Tomas. He has experience as a student journalist, host, and junior news anchor. If he had a religion, it would be “Madonna”. His favorite narcotic is love. He wants to learn French soon.