The Strange Sexual Quirk of Filipino Seafarers

Still, many Filipinos are hyper-aware of their own potential displacement. Other low-wage countries, including India, South Korea, and Indonesia, apply for the same jobs. For that reason, McKay argues, the Filipinos have set out to differentiate themselves from crew members of other nationalities. 

The special brand the Filipinos have fashioned for themselves revolves around an adventurous spirit, creative troubleshooting with machines, and an eloquent way of communicating the stories they tell about their skills. Onboard and in ports across the world, they weave tales to mark their territory. In one of McKay's papers, he writes about a Filipino captain who gave him a pitch about the handiness of his nationality's sailors, especially when things go awry. "The Filipino, he can fix anything ... Other nationalities, if they see there are no spare parts, they will say, 'okay, that's it, we'll wait 'til we're in port,'" the man told McKay. "But Filipinos somehow will get it working again. They'll make a new part or fix one." A third mate provided a sense of the way adventure fits into the Filipino's occupational identity:

This is a man's job ['barako talaga'].... You are away from your family, you are in the middle of the sea and you see nothing but the sea and the sky for one month. ... If you want adventure, seafaring is your type of job. But given the heavy work, loneliness and the waves, seafaring is really a difficult job....Most land-based jobs are safe, [but] when a seaman boards a ship, one foot is already in the grave.

But their awareness of ready replacements has also made Filipino crew members insecure and hesitant. Industry insiders and other international crew members have interpreted this caution as effeminate, and a signal that they are good disciplined "followers," according to McKay, but not necessarily natural leaders. That notion, he believes, has stunted their upward mobility. In the mid-1970s, 90 percent of Filipinos working on ships served as lower-level crew members, and 10 percent had junior-level officer jobs. Thirty years later in 2005, those numbers had only shifted slightly: 73 percent were still serving in lower-level roles, 19 percent had clinched junior officer titles, and only 8 percent were at the senior level. Filipino captains are still uncommon.

Viewed in this context, bolitas 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." 

Apparently, the port competition is one that they feel they can win, and not just because of 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 the 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.'" 

The shipping life -- one of constant movement and bleak surroundings -- is, at its core, a job of danger, boredom, and whim. Bolitas and the experiences Filipino seafarers have with them can be a welcome diversion. But it also represents a sort of social gamesmanship, a way to add some confidence to an otherwise unpredictable life. Amid the uncertainties of the maritime labor market, augmenting one's masculinity -- literally -- is at least one sure-fire way to stand out.

Presented by

Ryan Jacobs is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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