11 September 2017

A discussion of subversive fame and sex positive space in the Philippines with Joyen Santos

The Wicked Bitch of the East, Black Unicorn, Queen of Manila Underground – Joyen Santos is Manila’s beacon of erotica. An incongruent singularity within the conservative urban sprawl of nearly 13 million, and yet a completely congruent declaration of contemporary Filipino culture. Appropriately, Joyen is full of singularities - from the rare quality of having humility of character to announcing to a room of students that she wants to make the Philippines kinky, and publicizing herself as “the first and only-practicing rope bondage dominatrix in the country”. Kink is on the rise and Joyen is its binding momentum. Ironically, though, the movement is not her’s, in fact, it's no one’s. Her alien Filipina approach to beauty, sex and art combined with a tenacious work ethic has quietly provided her with social carte blanche, while empowering the maturation of Manila’s alternative community. 

Joyen and I met up at DULO in Poblacion to chat about her role in conservative Filipino society, and the contemporary kink/sex positive spaces she provides to her rapidly growing audience; Filipino millennials. 

Interview and shoot done in DULO
4988 P. Guanzon St., Poblacion, Makati
Words by Hannah Beck & Photography by Zaldine Alvaro

How did you arrive at your current role in conservative Filipino society as the “first and only-practicing rope bondage dominatrix in the country”?

By accident. It was on my bucket list - Japanese rope bondage. I have a tendency to live under a rock. I didn’t know of the social implications of rope bondage. I didn’t know it was taboo. I didn’t know it was sexual. Because, you know… I look at it, it doesn’t seem sexual to me. Its bondage, but there's no penetration. It didn’t occur to me that there were a lot of implications. When I started doing it back then… people started gravitating towards me: “Can you exhibit your work?” I actually started as a fine art photographer, and then people were asking me to perform what I photograph. Then that was more successful than my photographs. It's really accidental. I didn’t grow up and one day decide, “I think I’ll take my clothes off for a living,” and apparently, I’m very good at it and I’m proud that I am. I never planned any of that. I never planned to be the face of the alternative scenes in Manila. It just happened. Luck. There's a lot of luck involved. There's a lot of proper timing. 

Your personality too. Talking to people; they want to be able to engage with ease with somebody like you. Especially in a conservative society – sex is scary. It's not spoken about, and then to have somebody who is very open, with a big smile and very beautiful...

Exactly. To make things accessible to conservative Filipinos, but mind you, Filipinos are some of the wildest creatures behind closed doors. It's just that nobody ever talks about it. But to me it's common sense to want to have great sex. To want to have certain kinks in my armor if you know what I mean. I just happen to be very open with it so…

It’s really dope how your interest in Japanese rope bondage ended up being so welcome; an open invitation to do things – You began by showing people your art, and then you began to have a very publicized presence. That's very interesting, especially in regard to having a sex positive role here.

Lord knows we need it. We need it.

It's funny you say that, because when I first came here to DULO to see you perform for Burlesque PH, I saw the spoken word and erotic comedy troupe, Deus Sex Machina perform a skit about a married couple afraid, or ashamed I guess, to have sex, and… well… I… I had no idea…

Welcome to Asia.

I had just met you earlier that day when I participated as your “bunny” during String Theory, your rope-bondage workshop, and then that evening I saw this skit. I thought the two were such contrasting insights into sexuality in the Philippines. So, is this common amongst married couples?

So, I have this, sort of, Facebook live talk show, an informal talk show, where people comment or send me messages asking questions about sex, relationships, love, BDSM, everything in-between. And I get questions – they’re mostly from the Filipino audience – like, “Will I get pregnant if I swallow semen?” Or, men who do not know what happens during menstruation. Or, “Does orgasming too much cause women to go crazy?” 

Oh… I see… so then, what does sex ed look like in the Philippines?

What's sex ed?!?!?! Haha! I’m not the authority when it comes to sex education – disclaimer right there. Although, I am studying to be a sex educator in the realm of the things that I do: BDSM, sex and body image positivity. We have… I guess I could explain the extremes to you — I went to an all girls catholic school — we have the powerpoint presentation featuring what happens: a photo of this STD, this STD…

Oh! To scare you!

Yes! Scare you! Don’t have sex! This will happen! But more and more there are people who advocate sex ed, but nobody really sees one solid, consistent figure who is there, accessible and reliable.

I was researching sex education in the Philippines – there is one NGO here that sets out to educate very young girls about their bodies and birth control – the woman being interviewed stated that so many young girls are having children, and that someone needs to tell them that when you start to menstruate you can have a baby. You can be 13 and have a baby, and that is very common.

Yes, again, that is very common. There are a couple of NGOs, but again they are few and far between – maybe the Red Whistle, Love Yourself. I work with… it's not an official partnership, but they have been my clinic for the longest time, and they are called the Family Planning Organization of the Philippines (FPOP) and they have implants in the arm that you can get for PHP 5,000 to US$100 denomination. The last time I checked, they implant it in you for free.

Yes, that was the organization. During the interview the woman was checking young girls arms.

The problem with them, and the reason I want to partner with them is because they have no social media presence. And we’re the social media capital of the world! But with any organization or individual, there is always some aspect lacking… so I thought that I could bring presence to them.

Your publicized sex-positive role seems to be something of a phenomenon. What are the broader cultural circumstances that have shaped your existence and kinky pursuits? 

The main influence in my life has to be Japanese Culture. I come from a traditional, average Filipino family, and that being said – I focused on school, I didn’t hang out with friends, and I had no boyfriend. I could only watch TV during the weekends. Asian – purely traditional, conservative Asian upbringing, as we know it. And some of the things I got to spend a lot of time with during my free time when I was younger were Japanese shows, culture, anime – which are probably the reasons why I chose to practice Japanese style rope bondage and discipline that comes with it, you know? It's a huge influence. I didn’t get to spend so much time with people when I was younger. So, I have this stubborn attitude towards things. I’m used to being on my own and making decisions on my own. I tend to be dense – not so receptive of other people’s opinions in both good and bad ways, although when they have a special place in my life, you know, that's when I start listening. But yeah, I was very sheltered, and when I finally got out into the world it seemed like I was an alien. Its weird. Because I’m stubborn, I have a shield against all of the naysayers – and there are a lot. I have the stamina to carry on despite being called a "glorified prostitute". So, there's that… it's still an Asian country after all. There's a discipline I instill in my work. At the same time there's the pursuit in looking good despite all of the hardships that has to go into studying a craft – performing a craft. I guess it's a very Japanese mindset, heavy huge influence. 

Where's the kink? Again, going back to the Japanese; they are capable of making anything kinky. It's a trait that I particularly admire. I mean who would have known that tentacles were sexual (From Japanese Hentai shows.)?! And they have a history – the wood block print of a woman getting cunnilingus from an octopus! How did you think of that?! There's so much creativity in the pent-up Japanese culture. It just comes out in so many ways, no pun intended. It's amazing. I love the rigidity. You know, they look good, nice and fixed, but on the side they’re having sex with an octopus!

Within fifteen minutes of meeting you during String Theory you said, “I want to make the Philippines kinky”. I thought it was such a huge thing to say because in a way it was so singular; just you, alone saying that. It sounded crazy, but also really rad. What does that statement mean to you?

I guess it means a lot of things. Things I already covered – showcasing and education. There's that to putting the Philippines on the map as a kink destination. All of these things combined. The Philippines is at a Renaissance. I’ve been feeling it since last year. There are so many people who are getting into all sorts of art, not just me, all sorts of shit. And, the audience is receptive to it; they’re hungry for it. I have a number of friends who keep coming into the country just for that. The scene is blooming. It comes from a lot of angles when I say, “I want to make the Philippines kinky”. It's all of that.

I watched the FHM piece “The Anatomy of a Burlesque Babe” where you state, “I think that this year, 2016, Manila has grown to be more aware and appreciative of the dark arts”. Do you think that 2017 is maintaining?

Yeah. Maintaining. Growing. Maintaining, definitely. We were able to start a lot of things, a lot of institutions last year. One of which was burlesque. We founded Manila’s first ever Kink Karnival last year, it's a convention type event with vendors who sell kinky paraphernalia and performances for one entire day. It's the first time anything like that has ever happened in Manila. And this year its happening again – October 14th. It's about maintaining. A lot of stuff happened last year during the retrograde, all the crazies went out. Now, it's just about following up with that great start and keeping it consistent.


And more people are coming out?

Oh yeah. And mostly kids. Like millennials. Early 20s. You went to the BDSM ball, you probably saw there were so many kids.

Yeah, there were a lot of millennials.

Yeah! That's my audience!

In Manila it’s very apparent that millennials are the ones pushing a lot of the changes. Of course, this is a global phenomenon. We are so loud. Millennials have a very particular set of standards, even for their own curiosity. And they don’t care if no one likes it.

Very stubborn. It's a good and bad thing. I can see why the older generation doesn’t like us. But we are very progressive, especially in the art scene. 

It's really rad that you are providing sex positive spaces…

That's how I like to think about it.

It sounds as though your pursuits don’t necessarily directly have to do with any sexual repression from your community and broader conservative Filipino culture… 

Well, I’m a very… if you cast all of the layers aside, all the smoke and mirrors, I’m a very simple person, and I like to do one thing. Again this is reference to the ideal Japanese craftsman, he does one thing everyday. There really isn’t any grand cause to why I do what I do. These are side effects. These are welcome side effects that through doing what I do I get to empower people to be ok to admit that they want good sex, ok with admitting that they are ok with their body. These are welcome ripples. But if you were to ask me, it's really… I was in the right place at the right time. And I am capable of doing things, I am honored to do these things. I am honored to be the face of the underground. I am honored to be a tool – a beacon. I am not really the expert when it comes to these things. What I am good at is showing how good these things could be, could look like. And things that they could stand for. I am able to empower people – that's their thing, it's their thing to have a cause, to fight for a cause. I’m happy to do that. I am able to connect people. I am able to connect the expert to the learner. Like the people who need birth control. I’m able to connect them. That's my role. I provide opportunities for people to connect. That's what I do. That's what I love to do. I introduce. I open the door.


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