© Edwin Ng 2001
This essay is dedicated to Yvette Ammelia Pereira, whose love, courage and conviction is the inspiration for this work.
New Years Eve 2001 gave me a night to remember as I gathered at the residence of a friend of mine to celebrate and played a game that I was to remember for a long time. In the game of Truth or Dare, a person elected to spin the bottle would have the right to ask any question that he or she so desires. In turn, the person who was the unwitting victim of the bottles spin would have the right to spin the bottle and ask any question of any person that the bottle so chooses to nominate.
Perhaps what shocked me most was the fact that the participants of the game, all ten of us equally represented in terms of gender, dared to ask the most the most embarrassing questions - ignoring the fact that the answers are required to be sexually explicit.
In America, the boys and girls of yesteryear had already been playing the same game and asking the same questions for a long time. The late 1970s witnessed an increasing number of girls saying yes to the question of whether they themselves have had sexual intercourse (Thompson, 1995). Spinning the bottle became an easy tool to confront the sexual experience of their peers and provided boys with the opportunities to classify girls into categories of Good and Bad (Ibid.)
The statistics show the way. Just over a quarter of U.S. girls who turned eighteen between 1967 and 1969 had gone all the way. And [o]ver 50 percent of those who turned eighteen between 1979 and 1981 had (Thompson, 1995:7). If the Singapore experience is anything to go by, the sexual behaviour of our adolescents may be going down the same road. The 1976 statistics showed that of the 141 000 females in the fifteen to nineteen years age group, 3459 got pregnant, or 2.5% approximately (Ratnam, 1979:19). There is reason to believe that the figure could be higher now. In a survey of 5,149 Singapore youths aged between 12 and 19 by Dr Jessica Ball and Mr Kenneth Moselle published two years ago, twenty percent of them had sex by the age of nineteen (The Straits Times, 2000). Virginity, among our youths, is going the way of the bison.
This paper, among other things, examines the sexual experience of our female teenagers as a rite of passage. I interviewed five such women, about their sexual experiences. I chose them specifically because of these experiences. There were some others whom I interviewed but because of their lack of sensuality, I mostly discarded the data. Generally, I let them speak about their experiences freely, often prompting them when they got to the difficult to describe, embarassing parts. For purposes of confidentiality and validity, I have assured all respondents the safety of anonymity (except my key respondent who has no such reservation). As an Asian society, a premium is still placed on the sexual inviolability of the female.
My respondents age range from nineteen to twenty-six. I used age-regressed in-depth interviews to allow them to recall their attitudes, experiences and cognitions as best as they could. For the purposes of classification and convenience, I have arbitrarily designated the age of youth to be between the ages of 14 and 25, closely following some commonly held conventions.
The respondents whom I queried described youth as a phase. Everyone of them differed in their opinions as to the onset of youth or whether a certain age signaled the end of it. What marked that phase or if even they were going through it still or whether it has passed is another grey area. All of them remembered the first time they had sex.
An important reason for the widespread phenomenon of teenage coitus can be traced to the respondents background and the break with tradition following the onset of modernity. The attitudes of our adolescents no longer reflect their parents.
Modernity, as a nation, came too quickly for its citizens. As a result, while the baby boomers during the post-war period struggled with technological change and social restructuring; when the extended family had to be divided up into nuclear units in order to accommodate the expanding population, many of their young who grew up on Western popular culture fed by the mass media, began to quickly assimilate the values and attitudes of the civilizations they admire. Some the popular rhetoric included the myth of romance and the ideology of the perfect mate for life. Presently, with divorce rates on the rise, the adults who now have had children of their own now refuse to let the mistakes of their past affect the present generation. The result is a certain amount of hypocrisy. Yes, they seem to be saying, we may have done it, but our Asian traditions still hold true you, our children cannot do the same (Wong, Aline in Adolescent Sexuality: 1979 edited by Ratnam, S.S.).
In a study commissioned by the then Ministry of Social Affairs in 1979, Aline K. Wong and Eddie C.Y. Kuo (1983) analyzed the patterns and causes of marriage and divorce in Singapore from 1960 to 1978, some twenty to thirty years after the Second World War. 43% of the respondents had known their former spouses for a period of 1-3 years before getting married, while as many as 31% had known their former spouses for less than one year before getting married. 61% claimed they loved their former spouses very much at the time of marriage, while another 24% claimed they loved their former spouses somewhat.
For every couple that divorced, there are perhaps many more that are unhappy or whose relationship are showing signs of strain. A probable reason why they stayed on in their marriage could be to keep up a good public image, since the divorcee tag still carries a certain stigma. Many also chose to remain together for the sake of the children. Whatever the reason, one trend is clear. While parents favour freedom in choice of marriage partner and courtship, they do not want their children to start too young or engage in intercourse before marriage. Their own failed marriages are a warning to the next generation.
The adolescent years have long been constructed as a period of liminality. The media, parental frustrations and inexplicable behaviour on the part of urban adolescents all lead to the successful observation that adolescents usually begin a period of willful rebellion. A secondary science textbook written by a well-known local science teacher by the name of Lam Peng Kwan reports that at adolescence, teenagers experience a change in their bodies due the increased production of hormones. Some of these changes included hair in the pubic regions, enlarged genitals as well as the frequent outbreak of pimples. In an Asian society, such changes in physiology are avoided in conversational topics, as adults are embarrassed discussing these changes with their growing charges. Reading their reticence as accusation for shameful behaviour for which they were not guilty of in the same place, these adolescents also regard their bodies as shameful. References to these changes only crop up in crude jokes and in those unfortunate victims whose bodies undergo a more accelerated change than the general population of teenagers.
This creates a sense of waiting to be, since the teenage years are not given a lawfulness of their own. As students they were taught that physical changes marked the phase adults called adolescence, but these adults refused to acknowledge openly that they have different needs from children. Parents tend to ignore the emotional, social and psychological changes that teenagers face. Kate complains that everything from tuition, to which school to go to, to what profession in life to take up ahs been arranged neatly for her.
They treat me like a thing. If I dont like my tuition teacher, too bad, tough luck. Live with it.
Hence the reason why my respondents were unable to pinpoint the exact date of entry into neither adolescence nor its exit. Most of them go through life not knowing what role to play. Their parents ignorance and indifference has created a state of emotional and psychological liminality for them. Certain arbitrary markers, designed by adults for their convenience, are used instead. These markers for entry into adulthood include the time the teenager completes his or her education enters the workforce.
Parents of adolescents who have had sex are not likely to accept coitus as a prerequisite for adult status. The outcome, once they obtain knowledge of their childrens sexual exploits, would be a stern reprimand or a hiding.
My key respondent, Ammelia, provides an insight into the life of a young girl who did not undertake the conventional mode of education, career and marriage while growing up in Singapore. Ammelias parents are devout Catholics.
My father goes to Church every Sunday. He knows more of the faith than me. My mother sort of knows less, but she does the extra stuff, like going to prayer meetings, rosary devotions and so on.
Ammelia does not consider herself to be particularly religious. However, she possesses a modified sense of religiosity.
I miss Sunday Mass sometimes and I dont know the Churchs teaching very well, nor follow all of it particularly the sex part.
Her first sexual encounter was at the tender age of 14.
I was curious and blinded by the disillusionment of love. His name was Ah Heng and he was older than I was, how old I dont know. We were introduced by friends to each other. The thought that we were breaking the law (of statutory rape) did not cross our minds then.
Did your parents find out? If they did, how did they react?
My mother found out because she read my diary. Then she gave me a really good 'rotan' (Malay for caning)
Did it make you feel grown up having sex? How did it feel?
I felt dirty, used. As I lay, I had a vision of Mother Mary. She was so sad so sad.
In your opinion, what does it mean to be an adult?
To be able to take care of my baby, be independent, knowing that I can still carry on with my life even if I dont have someone by my side.
After her first sexual encounter, she went on to have five more. Although she had more than twenty boyfriends during her adolescence, she claimed she only had intercourse with the four whom she really liked. As a girl of mixed Indian and Peranakan parentage, she was considered beautiful and received a lot of attention from boys. At one point in time, she had relationships with seven boys simultaneously. On a wimp, she dropped all of them at one go. Two of them cried before her when she broke the news.
I felt really bad then. I didnt know I meant so much to both of them.
After a string of failed relationships, she prayed to God that she might find someone whom she truly loved. She met Andy, a school drop-out much older than she was, who made his living from the streets, including peddling drugs. Ammelia began to believe that she had finally met that special someone she could love, and started sexual relations with him. When her parents found out, she ran away from home to stay with him. After a while she became homesick, but Andy refused to let her return home. He abused her physically and locked her up whenever he left the flat.
I was heartbroken. I went on my knees and prayed. God, how could You give me someone and then take him away when I have just started to love him?
She ran away at the first opportunity she could, but on returning home, she found that her father refused to speak to her. Her father had never spoken to her since.
At least if he scolded me I would have felt better. But he just ignored me. So I felt guilty for a long time.
The third person whom Ammelia had sexual relations with was also coincidentally named Andy. A Caucasian American, he was here in Singapore for further education. His family, she claims, was wealthy but he could not tolerate the control they exercised over him. Coming to Singapore was therefore an invigorating breath of fresh air for Andy, who took no time at all in experimenting in drugs, as well as importing them for sale in Singapore.
It was a perfect relationship except that Andy was married. The marriage was shotgun, having been forced into it by his parents after they found out that he had impregnated his girlfriend. Andy promised to divorce his wife and marry Ammelia.
He was really sweet. And he listened to what I had to say about adultery and showed him the Ten Commandments in the Bible, instead of laughing at me like what the rest usually do. I would feel responsible for the breakup of his marriage if I said yes.
Andy returned to America after his studies and Ammelia did not hear from him again.
At seventeen, she graduated from St. Hildas Secondary School with only a single GCE O Level pass. Finding that she had no aptitude for studies, she discontinued her education and found a job as a receptionist. For two years, she stumbled along one relationship after another until she met William, a Malaysian working as a factory supervisor in Singapore. William was five years older than she was.
She began living with William after a short period of courtship, returning to her home only on weekends to visit her mother. Both of them had intercourse on a regular basis without any form of contraceptive but it was still a shock to her when she missed her period.
I kept waiting and waiting and became very scared. Angie (a family friend) was with me when I used the pregnancy test kit. At first the colour wasnt very clear so we went down to Guardian get a second box.
Cold fear became stark reality.
The second time I tested there was no doubt that I was pregnant. The colour was so clear blue. I cannot help but cried.
She clung on to whatever strand of faith that remained in her of God. For weeks, she was in denial.
God loves me so much. I cannot believe that He would actually do this to me.
Up until the very last month of her pregnancy she still could not really believe that she was expecting. Nonetheless, there were other pressing matters to take care of. For instance, her mother.
When I told her over the phone, she kept telling me to abort it. She kept telling me that my father has a weak heart and that he would surely flare up and die and then she would have to take care of the baby and me as well.
This particularly shocked Ammelia since she considered her mother a devout Catholic and therefore would not advocate abortion. Moreover, she considered it her moral as well as religious duty to keep the child. When she made the call, she expected her mother to support her. Anxious about the future of her daughter, Ammelias mother accompanied her to her first visit to the gynecologist.
When I finished the consultation, she asked me why Im out so fast? She thought that I had gone to flush the baby out.
Her mother finally relented when she realized that Ammelia was not going to abort the baby, but she insisted that Ammelia and William get married. However, William was then on a work permit. Under the law, an alien on a work permit attempting to marry a citizen would be extradited from Singapore. The tragic day for William to leave was a few days after Christmas.
I felt so alone. The only time when I really needed someone to be with me I had nobody.
All this while, Ammelias father was not aware of her impending delivery. While William was in Singapore, she could still hide her slowly expanding belly, since she went back only during the weekends. Her aunt, who was also her godmother, took her in for the remainder of her term. Her mother also visited her everyday to ensure that she was taken care of. When she could no longer hide the fact that she was pregnant, she did not even return home on the weekends for fear her father would find out.
At the end of the term, she had a very difficult pregnancy. But it was a fitting answer to her prayers. Before her delivery, she prayed for a difficult labour, that she might atone for her sins.
My mother cried looking at me giving birth. I held the sides of the bed so tightly that my knuckles turned white, the pain was too much.
The doctor did not prescribe any pain-killers as he believed that the pain is part and parcel of the joy of delivery. To prolong her agony, she had to hold back the baby until her vulva was sufficiently dilated. When Angelia was finally born, Ammelia only had strength for a glance before she fainted. The following morning, when she looked at her newborn, she asked the nurse,
SHEs so big. How did she come out of me?
The nurse merely laughed.
When Ammelias mother brought Angelia home, her father did not have a reaction as was previously feared. He had suspected all along that his daughter was carrying a child. After the hospital stay, Ammelia returned home for the first time in six months and was suitably relieved to find that her father was very much taken by her newborn. Even the auntie who was expected to stir up trouble was so mesmerized by the infant that she forgot her role.
At the baptism of Angelia, Ammelia threw her arms around her father and begged for his forgiveness. She cried.
Even though he still did not say anything to me then, I knew by playing with my baby that he was forgiving me. He was being good to me through my baby.
The road ahead for her is still hard. She managed to survive through having instant noodle lunches and scrimping what money was left over at the end of the month. She had only visited William once in Malaysia with her baby. After that visit, the calls got less and less, until eventually William started seeing another woman. For herself, she met Kelvin, a thirty-two year old running an advertising company. Prior to meeting him, she promised herself that she was only going to have sex with the person that she was going to marry. However, she assumed sexual relations with him shortly after accepting him as a steady boyfriend.
Why I keep having sex is because its hard not to justify my initial experience. I always felt that if you did it with the right person then it would feel great. And I give in a lot, but not so much after my pregnancy and we use condoms.
Ammelias story is not a typical case where the female necessarily keeps the baby after conception. [T]he incidence of abortions among teenage girls is on an upward trend (Ratnam 1979:40), from the 1138 abortions in 1976 to about 5000 abortions a year now. From her story I gathered that the reasons for her having sex was not to pass off as an adult. It was more a personal decision to love and be loved. To be sure, there was always the courtship ritual, but the culminating sex act did not amount to an automatic entry into adulthood for her. For her as well as my other respondents, it was either love, curiosity or both. This is congruent with the survey by the Planned Parenthood Association of Singapore.
Nor was there any liminality in the period preceding coition, or after. While their parents may view their childrens teenage years as a transitional period into adulthood, this view was not shared by the young ladies themselves. One of them, whom I will name as Dell, sees adolescence as a legitimate phase, with its attendant troubles and inconveniences. They do not see themselves as waiting to be adults, although the distinction tends to blur after a certain age or stage. This could happen when they start working or finish junior college.
While coition in itself may not amount to a fully-fledged rite, when combined with pregnancy and subsequent birth, could be a potent catalyst for maturity. During her term, Ammelia was a mother-to-be. Moreover, she was separated from her immediate family, as if by compulsion. This was certainly a period in which she felt lost, confused and displaced while waiting to give birth. After delivery, she had to take care of a baby without much support from her boyfriend, since he was in another country. Her mother presses her constantly for money to feed the baby. All this combined to make her grow up very fast. If the conditions for adulthood means to take care of another person and oneself, she seems to be fulfilling it.
She was not the only person to feel that the adult status meant independence and responsibility. All of my five respondents echoed similar views.
Liminality is the realm of primitive hypothesis, where there is a certain freedom to juggle with the factors of existence (Turner, 1964). So too did Ammelia take time to contemplate her life. Issues like her babys education and upbringing was constantly on her mind. Now when she loses her farecard, she would fret.
After her pregnancy, Ammelia was once again reunited with her family. Moreover, motherhood is recognised institution in urban society. Certain responsibilities are associated with its role. Therefore, adolescent pregnancy seen to its fullest term, may be considered as a legitimate rite of passage.
The results differ from women to women. I know of two other teenagers who did not leave the home after they became pregnant. The confusion and the loneliness may be there but they had social support in the form of their families. However, having a baby effects perhaps a bigger change than just the physical, it changes the entire mindset of the young unwed mother, preparing her for a role that she knows will receive little if any societal approval.
The difference between local teenage females, and their American counterparts, is the fact that the American girls tend to look upon the sex act as a means of validating their adulthood (Wolf, 1997). The first act of coitus must be well-timed, too early and you will be branded a slut. Too late and the boys tend to regard you as a nun, too frozen for lunch. It is an initiation into the world of the adult in which sex is freely chosen and acted upon and socially validated by their peers as having joined the ranks of the grown-ups.
I started with the original hypothesis that coitus could
be a stepping stone to adulthood for our young women. I stand corrected. Pregnancy
for our young unwed mothers tend to be more initiating than merely the sex act.
I realized also the vulnerability of our young women. Too often they have been
lured by the promises of love and attention from their boyfriends. Not so often
do they realize that they make one mistake only to make another, in order that
they might not spoil the sanctity and beauty of that image of true love that
is carried in their hearts and minds.