The Strange Sexual Quirk of Filipino Seafarers

How the pressures of the shipping industry have shaped everything about this maritime culture. Right down to their penile implants.
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The Philippines is a top supplier of seafarers (Wikimedia Commons)

When Norwegian anthropologist Gunnar Lamvik first began living in Iloilo city, a seafaring haven in the southern Philippines, he sensed he wasn't getting the richest and most detailed information about the shipping experience from interviews with his neighbors, who were home on two-month vacations from 10 months at sea. To crack the cultural mystery of any total institution, you have to go inside, he reasoned. "If you [want] a feeling of a seafarer's life, you have to be at sea with them when they are open," said Lamvik, who now studies how cultural differences affect occupational safety at a Norway-based think-tank called SINTEF. "It's important to be on board for some time, and build trust. That's the crucial thing to do."

This 'secret weapon of the Filipinos,' as a second mate phrased it, has therefore obviously something to do, with the fact that 'the Filipinos are so small, and the Brazilian women are so big' as another second mate put it.

For the next three years, he was on and off ships, floating with his subjects from port to port and trying to make that connection. 

At a raucous karaoke crew member party somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean, it began to happen. He belted out the lyrics to "House of the Rising Sun." Then, he insisted on singing it again. "That was a real ice breaker," he said. 

It was in this type of loose, booze-flowing setting that he learned the most about the lives of his shipmates. And soon, conversations turned to perhaps the most fascinating part of the Filipino seafaring identity, the little-known and barely studied sexual practice of "bolitas," or little balls.

Many Filipino sailors make small incisions in their penises and slide tiny plastic or stone balls -- the size of M&M's -- underneath the skin in order to enhance sexual pleasure for prostitutes and other women they encounter in port cities, especially in Rio de Janeiro. "This 'secret weapon of the Filipinos,' as a second mate phrased it, has therefore obviously something to do," Lamvik wrote in his thesis, "'with the fact that 'the Filipinos are so small, and the Brazilian women are so big' as another second mate put it." 

According to University of California, Santa Cruz labor sociologist Steve McKay, who traveled extensively on container ships with Filipino crews in 2005 for his research on the masculine identity in the shipping market, raw materials for the bolitas can range from tiles to plastic chopsticks or toothbrushes. A designated crew member boils them in hot water to sterilize them, and then performs the procedure. There are also different preferred locations for insertion. Some have one on top or bottom, and others have both. One shipmate told McKay that others have four, one on top and bottom and on both sides, "like the sign of the cross." Another said: "I have a friend at home, you know what his nickname is?" McKay recalled. "Seven." 

The practice is unique to Southeast Asia and dates back to at least the 16th century, though no one is sure if it has been continuous. Italian scholar Antonio Pigafetta accompanied Ferdinand Magellan and his crew on their explorations and journaled about a similar behavior in what is currently southern Philippines and Borneo. Apparently, it was also practiced in Thailand and Indonesia, but vanished from the historical record in the mid-17th century, when men bowed to the pressures of Islam and Christianity.

Mckay was shocked to learn that it still existed in what, based on his extensive conversations with Filipino seafarers, seemed like great numbers. In the extremely limited body of academic literature on this topic, there aren't many numbers. One 1999 study found that out of 314 randomly selected Filipino seamen in the port of Manila, 180, or 57 percent, said they had them.

According to McKay's interviews, danger of infection and resulting pain seemed to be worth their reception by droves of Brazilian prostitutes. According to one of his papers, one shipmate told him: "'Filipino seaman are famous for them...that's why they [women in port] like us, why they keep asking for us,'" he said. "'When they hear that Filipinos are coming, they're happy.'"

***

The Philippines provides more seafarers to the global labor market than any other country in the world, accounting for approximately a fifth of 1.2 million maritime workers. The number of Filipinos currently living on vessels is roughly 240,000. It's as if every person in the entire city of Orlando woke up, drove to Miami, and signed contracts to ship out on cruiseliners. 

The industry has not always employed Filipino crew members in these numbers. In the 1960s, only 2,000 Filipinos worked in international waters. But after the oil crisis of the 1970s placed financial pressure on the industry and a shift in maritime regulations allowed ships to hire workers from countries with lower wages, companies set out to reduce labor costs. According to Lamvik, the Filipinos emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s as the most qualified option for the mostly European-owned businesses. "They are fluent in English, they are Christians, and they accepted cheaper pay," said Lamvik, whose grandfather and great-grandfather both worked on Norwegian ships. The Filipinos also had a built-in nautical legacy, according to McKay. From the 16th through the 19th century, Filipinos were ordered into servitude on Spanish galleons, and in the 1800s, they helped man American whaling ships.

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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