Sex and the Senate

Should sex be "satisfying?" (Photo by Manuel Andres,

So it was in the “hallowed chamber” of the Philippine Senate on December 17, 2012, while deliberations on the Reproductive Health (RH) bill were still going on, that the senators talked heatedly about sex.

Senator Tito Sotto, who believes that God’s mission for him is to kill the RH bill, introduced 35 amendments. One of these was on the definition of Reproductive Health, which included the phrase “safe and satisfying sex life.” He wanted at first to delete the entire phrase, but then relented and argued instead for the removal of the word “satisfying.” His amendment would then read “…this implies that people are able to have a safe sex life…” 

Sotto’s amendment agitated RH advocates who were watching the proceedings from the gallery. A woman hissed, “Ibalik ang satisfying. Kahit hindi safe, basta satisfying.” (“Return the word ‘satisfying.” Even if it’s not safe, as long as sex is satisfying.’”)

But Sotto contended that the word “satisfying” was not culturally appropriate for Filipinos. “When a true Filipina speaks of reproductive health, she means family, marriage, responsible parenthood, nurturing and rearing her children and [being a] mother.” He implied that “satisfying” was nowhere near a “true Filipina’s” concept and experience of sex. 

Philippine Senator Vicente "Tito" Sotto III argues against the Reproductive Health Bill (Source: Photo by Joseph Vidal)

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, a co-sponsor of the bill, explained to Sotto that this phrase was included in a UN conference and has evolved to be part of international law. 

She then added, “I am a Filipina by birth. I am also a married woman and I insist that whoever is married to me should give me safe and satisfying sex.”

At the 1994 UN International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), 179 countries adopted a breakthrough document on women’s reproductive rights, which acknowledges the empowerment of women as an end in itself and as key to improving the quality of life of everyone. 

Women’s empowerment, however, rests on their ability to control their fertility and to have access to reproductive health services. For the first time, a UN conference on population and development, urged governments to give prime importance to reproductive and sexual health. It is within this context that the phrase “satisfying and safe sex life” got into Chapter 7 of the ICPD Programme of Action. 

This phrase embodies the sexuality and experiences of women around the world. It means much more than orgasms or multiples of it. And it covers much more ground than when or when not to have sex and how frequently or infrequently.  

“Safe and satisfying sex life” could only be possible and meaningful when women are equal to men. Relating to a husband or partner on an equal basis, a woman could say “no” and would not be beaten or raped; she could use any contraceptive of her choice without her husband or partner suspecting her of having an affair or calling her a slut; she could abandon herself to the joys of sex without the fear that it might lead to another pregnancy; and she could demand of her husband or partner that he undergo tests for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. 

Philippine Senators Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Pia Cayetano, co-authors of the Reproductive Health Bill in the Senate (Source:

Outside the confines of intimate partnerships, women’s right to a “safe and satisfying sex life” calls for countries to protect them against rapes and sexual assaults. 

Despite the passage of the landmark Anti-Rape Law of 1997, Filipino women and children continue to get raped. According to the Philippine National Police and the Women’s Crisis and Child Protection Center, from January 2000 to August 2011, some 14,201 cases of rape were recorded (76.6 percent of all crimes of a sexual nature committed against women, including incestuous rape). 

There were scores of attempted rape, and based on their data, there were 28 recorded cases of gang rape from January to June 2011. The Center for Women’s Resources reported that last year the youngest victim of rape was three while the oldest was 86 years old. More than half of the women victims were within the ages of 11 to 20.

But these figures do not include those who refused to go to the police for various reasons:  fear of reprisals; the stigma of coming out as rape victim; the belief that rape could not, and does not, happen between married couples; the ridicule and blame and judgmental lectures women receive when they report rape; and their limited faith in the judicial system. 

Senator Sotto contended that the word ‘satisfying’ was not culturally appropriate for Filipinos.

So when Senator Jinggoy Estrada said, “Di ba pagka magsesex ang isang babae’t lalaki, we assume we will be satisfied?” (“Don’t we assume that when a man and a woman have sex, we will be satisfied?”), critics thought he betrayed cluelessness to what goes on in the real world.

Sex happens, all the time; and when it does, not all of it is consensual, safe, and pleasurable, and this was the point of the entire phrase, Senator Alan Cayetano pointed out: “If you don’t put that in the law and make it clear to the people that they have that right, many of our men will continue to think that their wives do not have the right to refuse. Many of our men will still think that they can rape their wives.” 

Senator Pia Cayetano, the bill’s main author, argued that it is the right of every woman to have a “safe and satisfying sex life” – and everything that this phrase represents. And the Senate voted to keep the phrase in the legislation.

Author Marilen J. Danguilan

Author Marilen J. Danguilan

Marilen J. Danguilan, a medical doctor, was a delegate to the preparatory conference of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development.