(Not) Talking “HIV/AIDS” in the Philippines

By Health Team on Sun, 01 December 2013

Written by Susann Roth, Senior Social Development Specialist

Many of the Filipinos, I have gotten to know over the last 8 years, say that their love lives are strongly influenced by their passionate, emotional culture and Catholic up-bringing. 

This combination makes open communication about HIV/AIDS, and reproductive health, difficult. In schools, sexual reproductive health is hardly discussed while exposure to information about sexual transmitted diseases (STDs) is extremely limited and is not a topic talked about at home. 

Sex tourists to the Philippines have described the country as “Thailand 30 years ago” with condoms seldom requested by sex partners and commercial sex workers treating clients more as “boyfriends for the night” than as customers. Studies show that less than 15% percent of men (hetero and homosexual study group) use condoms and this may reflect the romanticized view of sex and love which my Filipino friends have described. 

Amongst men having sex with men, relationships in the Filipino context also differ from those in western society, where partners tend to speak more openly about their HIV status and their interest in casual sex. 

In general there is reluctance amongst sexually active couples in the Philippines to talk about intimate issues. Most partners don’t discuss HIV/AIDS or STDs, nor do they talk about their sexual fears, or about promiscuity.  (Manila has been ranked the third most promiscuous city in Asia after Bangkok and Tokyo).

On top of these factors, HIV/AIDS is not a “hot” topic any more amongst young people. Many say that in high-risk groups’ ―such as men having sex with men― exposure to health information is close to zero, especially in provincial areas. Risk behavior also increases with social media, which provides online meeting sites for casual sex, allowing discreet and easy opportunities for encounters. This is especially the case for those who are not open about their homosexuality because of still persisting stigma and social norms. 

Outside some relatively small communities, homosexuality is still not openly acknowledged or lived. This increases the chances of high-risk behavior and decreases the ability to feel comfortable about accessing medical services.

In chatting with men who sex with men, many tell me that for most casual sexual encounters there is an expectation that “the other one (partner)” brings the condoms. Buying them publicly in convenience stores or smaller household ‘Sari Sari’ stores causes feelings of embarrassment and anxiety. 

The lack of communication about condoms, and the challenges to purchase them directly impact use. Studies showed that among the strongest factors determining whether condoms are used during sex are three prior behaviors:

  • Ease of buying condoms
  • Willingness to carry condoms
  • Willingness to discuss condom use with the sexual partners

Changing this behavior requires widespread social marketing of condoms, information sharing, and education on reproductive health early on in school. 

It also means empowering everybody to talk about HIV/AIDS and other STDs as a legitimate health issue.