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Scholars say bolitas widely used as 'secret weapon' of Pinoy seamen

August 10, 2013 3:58pm
Magellan's chronicler Pigafetta first noticed that the island natives unabashedly wore penis implants as a mark of masculinity, and perhaps a magnet for sex partners.

Centuries later, these often painful accessories for sexual enhancement are still widely worn by Filipino sailors, according to foreign scholars who have studied the culture and behavior of the lonely men of various nationalities who man the world's commercial maritime fleets.

Months at sea are broken only by short stops at port cities where sex workers give them brief respite from their loneliness. The bolitas reportedly make the Filipino seafarers popular with prostitutes, especially in Brazil.

Labor sociologist Steve McKay of the University of California, Santa Cruz interviewed dozens of Filipino sailors while doing his research on board their cargo ships and found that the little stone or plastic balls the size of M&Ms inserted into the skin of penises gave his research subjects confidence and a heightened sense of virility.

One interviewee told McKay: "Filipino seamen are famous for them... that's why they [women in ports] like us, that's why they keep asking for us. When they hear that Filipinos are coming, they're happy."

In one of the few surveys on the practice, done in 1999, 180, or 57 percent, of 314 seamen interviewed at the port of Manila admitted they had them.

McKay's research was reported in a new online article in The Atlantic, along with the more recent findings of Norwegian anthropologist Gunnar Lamvik, who said that sailors he spoke with considered the implants their "secret weapon" in compensating for small penis size.

Modern bolitas, notes McKay, can also be made from broken tiles, toothbrushes, and even plastic chopsticks.

On a typical ship, one of the crew boils the material until sterilized, and then performs the "operation:" he makes a small incision in the penis and slides the material just beneath the skin.

The locations on the penis vary, along with the number of implants. McKay recalled a conversation with one of the shipmates, "I have a friend at home, you know what his nickname is? Seven.”

Penis pins and sex rings

The practice of penis implants was widespread across Southeast Asia in ancient times. In the Philippines, researchers have established that these were present in various forms from the Visayas to southern Luzon. In the Visayas, pins made of gold, ivory, or brass were inserted in young boys through their penis heads, according to research by the pre-eminent historian of pre-colonial Philippines, William Henry Scott.

As the boys grew older, these pins would be decorated and they would later fasten bluntly spiked rings for the stimulation of their sex partners.

"These ornaments required manipulation by the woman herself to insert," wrote Scott in Barangay, his master work on 16th century Philippine ethnography, "and could not be withdrawn until the male organ was completely relaxed."

Scott added that there were as many as 30 different kinds to "cater to a lady's choice."

Pellets, or bolitas, were implanted in men in Cebu, Surigao, and mountain communities around Laguna de Bay.

The practice has disappeared in most Asian countries, but it apparently thrives in the Philippines. Anecdotal evidence suggests that non-sailors also wear them.

There is little research on modern-day uses of bolitas, but Filipino seamen provided convenient cohorts for researchers who assert that there are sociological reasons for their use in a globalized economy.

Coping mechanism

The ancient practice in a modern setting, according to one theory, helps Filipino seafarers cope with the insecurity of working in an industry where they can easily be displaced and their countrymen are rarely in senior positions. Filipino captains on foreign vessels are relatively few, with most Pinoy sailors on lower rungs of the occupational ladder. The work is also gruelling and lonely.

The perception of sexual prowess, induced by their "secret weapon," is part of their self-branding, according to the labor sociologist McKay. The branding includes adventurousness, creative troubleshooting with machines, and a knack for telling animated stories about their skills.

 "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,'" a Filipino officer told McKay, as quoted in The Atlantic. "But Filipinos somehow will get it working again. They'll make a new part or fix one."

Giving satisfaction to temporary sex partners is a great source of pride. McKay noted that for these seafarers, the approval of Brazilian sex workers was enough for them to brave the pain and risk of infection from inserting foreign objects into their skin.

Part of the Filipino sailor's reputation among the women they meet at ports is not only sexual but romantic. The seamen in the study like to think they make sex workers feel like people – like women – rather than objects for sale.

One Filipino officer told McKay: "'The women prefer Filipinos because we treat them nice, not like other nationalities."

"They 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."

Romance and sexual satisfaction are often reciprocated, making the long desolate journeys at sea in between the encounters more bearable. Vida Cruz/ Howie Severino, GMA News
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