When Boys Grow Up

by Joy Icayan

Pbb_new_logo The Philippine local version of Big Brother, Pinoy Big Brother, featured the cringe-worthy circumcision of an eighteen year old Filipino Italian boy. Perhaps less cringe-worthy, although quite fascinating was the other housemates’ (and audience’s) shock that they were living in a house with an uncircumcised teen, and then the support, thinly veiled in condescension, for the boy undergoing the procedure. Circumcision is a primary ritual for Filipino boys, normally done before the child enters high school. The endurance of pain becomes symbolic for entry into manhood and the boy’s readiness to engage in sex.

This ritual is succeeded with the loss of virginity and subsequent sexual conquests, rituals of brotherhood and friendships, courtship and marriage. Missing one of these often leads to ridicule from peers. In the same fashion, boys who eschew sexual relations with girls or women are derided as either being homosexuals or being torpe, a term for male shyness which usually translates to being a sissy.

Rituals are defined by intersections of the institutions of the Catholic Church, the family and the school. Catholic education, prevalent especially in private schools set stringent rules on behaviors and future roles. The story of Adam and Eve poses the traditional view of man’s greatest failure—a woman, as a sort of moral warning. My generation and those who came before us grew up with specialized home education activities for boys and girls, with boys doing carpentry and woodwork and girls doing knitting, cooking and cleaning. Local metaphors regarding home often illustrate perceptions of men versus women. Until recently textbooks defined fathers as the ‘haligi ng tahanan’ (foundations of the home) and mothers as ‘ilaw ng tahanan’ (light of the home). Mothers are expected to provide warmth and nurturance, but it is the fathers’ role to keep the family as a whole.

Over the past few decades, the influx of information and widening of cultural barriers has also served to introduce attitudes to a country much criticized for having a colonial mentality. In Pico Iyer’s article on the Philippines, which he titled Born in the USA, he elucidates the Filipino tendency to adopt anything American, and mostly succeeding in the realm of entertainment. While Filipino historians and social scientists would disagree, and with valid reason, Iyer presents a striking argument which at least rings true for the casual observer—one need only see Filipino adaptations of reality tv shows, songs, actors—Tom Cruise of the Philippines etc, and the desire for an American accent to understand that this dream can be quite prevalent. Western influences have changed notions of masculinity too, primarily to the urban population shifting focus to different notions of equality, consumerism, and vanity. Urban Filipino men have become more comfortable with dating, as opposed to the traditional concept of courtship where a man woos a woman during a certain period and is either accepted or rejected. When before he would be criticized for not getting married at a certain age, now he is freer to explore opportunities that comes with being a bachelor; in fact he faces criticism for getting married too early or for marrying as a virgin, before he goes out and explores the world of women. My journalist friend echoes Iyer’s sentiment that much of these come from popular culture, pushed by ideals of consumerism, modeled by Barney of How I Met Your Mother, the image of the Mafia man with the hot babes and so on and so forth. Masculinity becomes a language of possessing, defined by trends, or symbols of possession such as red cars or women.

And while globalization pushes men to go out and see the world, Philippine society has been less willing to let go of its women. In many ways, the image of the woman is still dichotomized to being good or bad, as virgin or whore. During the 70s-80s, following Spanish Catholic tradition, it was customary to name a child Maria after the Virgin Mary, perhaps reflective of parents’ expectations. In a sort of The Bachelor adaptation in local television, one female contestant had to back out because her parents called and told her to leave. While globalization has brought on economic opportunities for women, working mothers face constant criticism over relegating roles of childrearing to others, best exemplified in melodramatic movies featuring overseas Filipino working mothers and the rift this brings to their families. Women are to be heard, of course, that’s gender equality, but the men decide, the men lead. I had a colleague once tell me that I was now of the proper age to find a man I can submit to. When I asked if this was some Biblical bondage system I may have missed in my readings of human sexuality, he looked at me, first with confusion, then with stark disappointment that suggested perhaps I needed a man to slap me back into consciousness.

Men’s relationships with women (and among themselves) constantly move within these factors, and often they are pulled in separate routes by traditional rules and the modern day expectations. Even modes of pleasure are constantly negotiated between the two worlds. When Playboy Philippines launched in 2008, the editor in chief was quick to tell the excited public that they would be featuring ’anything under the sun of interest to men’. Well except for female nudity. Frontal nudity or images of genitalia would upset the Church and other civil groups. “Maybe just one nipple,” said the editor in chief.

Boys grow up into a myriad of contradictions—reared in a system that teaches them to dominate and then constantly punished for it. Limited conceptions of man, as dominator, heartbreaker or protector propagated by theorists, feminists, limits discussion itself. Men do not talk of the abuse they may suffer when the perpetrators are women, except to make fun of it. Scars from fist fights are badges of honor, but to sustain injury, physical or emotional, from a woman (and there is enough data to show it happens) just makes you a joke.

Ultimately the stories are personal, and would strike too close to home to anyone—stories of friends who would rather overwork themselves than let their wives help out in breadwinning, the wonderful sensitive man who erupts in anger every time he feels he’s losing control, boys who fall in love for the wrong girls whom they would rather lose than take home to present to their families. Men’s issues in so many ways run parallel to those of women, shrouded in a similar language of shame. In my high school a month or so after graduation, in a sort of American-Pie tradition, the boys in class once decided to lose their virginities together, in a gaudy club about fifteen minutes from our school. How did it go, I asked my friend later, wondering if congrats was the right thing to say, or whether it would be appropriate to erupt in self-righteous anger. He merely said he didn’t quite get the whole thing. It was perfunctory, the woman smelled of cheap cologne, and it was over in a few minutes. They went out for beer after and compared notes. Everyone said it was awesome, that they were off to college and off to see the world so maybe it was awesome too for him, he just couldn’t figure it out yet. Perhaps he had missed something.

With thanks to Ivy Jean Vibar, my journalist friend and roommate, who may actually not agree with this article. Also, to male colleagues in human rights work: Bernie Larin, Jay Azucena, Jerbert Briola, Egay Cabalitan.


Iyer, P. (1988). Born in the USA, VIdeo Night in Kathmandu. New York: Knopf.

Philippine Playboy won’t show full nudity