By: Marie Perez, Maga’håga Rising contributor
I never felt more Catholic than the day I started working as an STD/HIV counselor.
On my first day, I shadowed veteran counselors to observe how to talk with clients coming in for STD/HIV tests. Their questions at first seemed invasive: “How many people have you been with in the past three months?” or “What types of sex do you have with your partners? Vaginal? Oral? Any anal?”
My eyes widened along with a few clients new to STD testing, but my coworkers were unfazed. They asked people about their sex life as casually as someone would ask, “How’s your day?”
I kept calm, but on the inside I was concerned. An image of myself, in my virgin-white confirmation gown, with outstretched hands, popped into my head. “Have you had anal sex?,” she asked. It didn’t look right.
I learned about sex growing up from watching movies like American Pie, attending CCD classes stressing abstinence, or eavesdropping on gossip about so-and-so getting pregnant. I talked to my friends about birth control pills, but never about sex itself. And the birds and the bees talk from my parents never happened. We don’t talk about sex. We just don’t.
How could I be “good” and be sexual at the same time? I always believed I couldn’t.
This was a personal journey for me, but perhaps other people raised on Guam and/or who identify with the culture also feel that way too. It’s the karabao in the room, if you will. It’s there but no one will mention it, even with our current status as fifth in the nation for chlamydia.
What if you’re scared you had chlamydia but you couldn’t talk about it? Sa, what would people say about how “dirty” you are, or about how you were raised? As you and I know, people talk.
But the problem with not talking about sex is that some serious health issues may go unresolved. That chlamydia you’re wondering you have can actually be there if you had unprotected sex with someone who has it. If untreated, chlamydia could cause you to develop PID, a condition that can make women infertile.
The questions asked by an STD/HIV counselor seem invasive, but they actually reveal a wealth of information for testers. I quickly learned on the job that every answered question was a step towards helping clients.
The amount of sex partners you had in a certain amount of time gives testers an idea of when you were exposed, crucial after a syphilis diagnosis so we can identify the stage of syphilis you have.
The type of sex you enjoy having tells us what additional tests you may need. Gonorrhea can be contracted through unprotected oral sex, so if you tell us you have oral sex with your partners we might recommend that you undergo an oral swab test.
For the sake of my future clients, I wanted to be the one who created a safe space where my clients would feel comfortable talking about sex.
Yet, how could I ask my clients questions I myself would not want to answer?
My conflicting nature loomed in the back of my mind until one night when I stumbled across an article entitled “The Cult of Virginity” by Maya Alonso in the May/June 2009 GU magazine detailing the Ancient Chamorro institution of the Guma’Ulitao.
The Guma’ Ulitao was a place where boys learned about their sexuality along with other important life skills, such as navigation and craftsmanship. Women were invited from different clans to sexually train bachelors of the Guma’ Ulitao. In my source material, these women were called Ma Ulitao, but Chamorro speakers I know say they were called La’yao. La’yao were often respected and seen as suitable wives. Women and men who left the the Guma’ Ulitao were thought to be more mature and prepared for adulthood and committed relationships a result of their experiences.
Alonso cited Dr. Lawrence Cunningham in his essay “Pre-Christian Chamorro Courtship and Marriage Practices Clash with Jesuit Teachings,” where Cunningham described how mothers and fathers encouraged their daughters to join the bachelors in the Guma’ Ulitao.
According to Cunningham, parents would sing the following verses to their daughters:
Go out young tease and be eaten!
Because now, if you deliver yourself over like an afternoon snack you will be savored.
Because when it is later you will be frustrated in your expectations.
And if you guard yourself, you will regret it.
I smiled reading those verses before I even realized why it made me so happy. Insight sparked within me. I envisioned myself being serenaded on my way to a Guma’ Ulitao along with the Chamorro women that came before me. The image of myself in my white Confirmation dress also popped into my head, but I didn’t see a conflict between the two images.
I felt like my ancestors were telling me it was ok to know that I am a sexual being and to even celebrate that part of me. There always existed a way of thinking where I could be true to my heritage and to myself, but still be aware of my sexuality.
I cherish my Catholic upbringing for getting me to think about the good and the bad in the world, but there always existed a part of my sexuality that I couldn’t even begin to understand because the ease of conversation wasn’t there.
Now I can talk more openly about sex, and as a result, I educate myself and others about how to practice safe sex. The more I learn about sexual health the more I love who I am, and the more I can offer for others who were similarly conflicted.
After lowered glances or nervous giggles from my clients when I ask them questions about their sex life and other lifestyle choices, I witness something amazing happen. They begin to open up, and for some clients we establish the first conversation they have about safe sex.
So Marie, how can I talk to you about sex?
Just ask me about it. Do I do it? Am I planning on doing it? What protection is needed?
Next question please 🙂
Marie Perez counsels and tests clients of the STD/HIV/Viral Hepatitis Program at the Department of Public Health and Social Services as a CDC Investigator. The views expressed in this article are her own personal opinions and experience and are not reflective of the views of any organization
For further reference on Guma’ Ulitao: see “Navigating Personal Wellbeing & Sexuality in CHamoru Communities” by Timmy C. de La Cruz, Phd and Lisa Linda Natividad, PhD. Office of Minority Health Resource Center. 2017.
For more information regarding STDs and testing services check out the following resources: