This story is part of a wider editorial series. Coming Out and Falling In Love is about the queering of our relationships with others, and the self. This month, we look at Asian attitudes to sex and porn, dating in the digital era, experiences of LGBTQ communities, unconventional relationships and most importantly, self-love. Read similar stories here.
For Aya Garganera, "happily ever after" means growing old surrounded by 50 dogs. “I’m still open to the idea of having a family and stuff, but I’m also happy to grow old alone,” she said, laughing, but dead serious about her plan for the future.
It’s a sentiment you’d expect to hear from a middle-aged woman who’s had enough of bad relationships. Not a tattooed 27-year-old video editor like Aya, who has never had a boyfriend. Ever.
While Gen-X romantic comedies (and most chick lit before them) would have you believe that singledom is the single worst thing that could befall a woman, more millennials around the world are actually thriving solo. In the United States, a 2019 survey found that over half of those between the ages of 18 and 34 do not have romantic partners. In Japan, 28 percent of men and 30 percent of women in higher education have never even been on a date, according to a 2017 study.
Sex in both countries isn’t so hot either. Citing a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The Atlantic wrote that the percentage of American high school students who have had sex dropped from 54 percent in 1991 to 40 percent in 2017. The same goes for Japan, where a 2015 study found that a quarter of Japanese people aged 18 to 39 have never had sex. (Note, though, that the study only looked at heterosexual intercourse).
But what’s truly surprising here, is seeing this trend extend to the Philippines, which is a country that still holds the nuclear family in high regard. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), there was a 10.6 percent decrease in marriages in 2017 compared to 2008. In 2015, the government agency said that there has been a "continuous decline" in marriages. As the underlying reasons seem somewhat unclear, we asked some Filipino women why they’ve never been in a relationship.
Aya is proudly “NBSB,” Filipino slang for “No Boyfriend Since Birth,” a term used to make fun of single women.
“It's just a fact of what I am … I've had no boyfriend since birth. [It’s a] description, that's all. I never take it as something negative,” Aya told VICE during brunch one recent Saturday morning.
Beside her were Jacques Manuntag, 28, and Maki Bajit, 26, two other straight Filipino women who have never had boyfriends. None of them can point to a specific reason why. It’s just the way it’s happened, so far.
Jacques helps run her family’s food business and describes herself as outgoing. “When I'm at parties, I do strike up conversations [even with strangers],” she said. She’s close friends with many guys and has a laundry list of casual crushes, but they’ve never evolved into anything more.
Maki, a legal assistant in an international organisation, is also comfortable around men, considering herself as “one of the boys,” but does not go beyond the “friend zone.” She started seeing someone regularly for the first time a few months ago but never committed. The guy has since moved to study abroad and now Maki is back to single living.
“It’s taking me so long to commit because it’s scary to make a mistake. And it's my first relationship, so I'm taking it slow,” she explained. “Super slow so that if something happens, [if] someone changes their mind … I wouldn’t be too attached.”
Unlike Jacques and Maki, Aya attended an all-girls school and said she grew up without much interaction with boys. She dated a few guys in college, but they were always one-offs.
“I don't know how to take it to the next level. So I'm just waiting for something to happen and then, it never does, so I just move on,” she said.
None of the women seemed bothered by their status and admitted that dating is just not on the top of their list.
“[Relationships] are hard to sustain if you’re empowered, busy, and have a lot of priorities,” Athena Presto, a sociologist from the University of the Philippines, told VICE.
“If you only have limited time and you have priorities and you feel like it’s OK to, you know, suspend dating for a while, why not?”
All three women agreed that they have a more passive outlook on finding “the one.”
“I just believe that if it's gonna happen, it will,” Jacques said. “I’m not gonna hide myself from it. I still make an effort to hang out with friends, at least be seen — you never know, he might just be out there — but it's not something that I actively think about.”
For Maki, a boyfriend is just one less thing to worry about.
“Why complicate life? You don't need it,” she said. “You can survive without it, so it’s OK.”
Aya also does not see the value of being in a relationship at this point in her life. “I don't think [a boyfriend] is going to do anything for me,” she said. But if she ever does get into a relationship, she said she’s got one non-negotiable: don’t rely on her for anything.
She’s sick of guys putting up a front, saying that they make their own money and can “take care of” women, when they don’t actually have anything to bring to the table.
“[I want] someone who can be self-sustaining,” Aya said. “We'll have each other for support but then when it comes to actual survival and the day to day, he [should be able] to do it on his own.”
“Hopefully someone who’s smarter than me too,” she added.
Having higher standards is typical of young, educated women, Presto said. “If you’re an empowered woman, there would be a lot less people who will impress [you].”
The expectation is just as high on themselves, if not more. Success in one’s career is the most important and financial stability is a requirement before committing.
“On the plane, they tell you to put the mask on yourself first, and then to the kid,” Aya said. “I feel like taking care of myself first, and then maybe I can start to help.”
The Philippines is a matriarchal society and ranks as one of the highest in the world when it comes to gender equality in the workforce, but oftentimes, their jobs (teacher, cook, designer, etc.), still fall under the feminine stereotype. The country’s toxic “macho culture” still elevates the father as the “head of the family,” even when women are increasingly the breadwinners.
For Presto, the “empowered career woman” movement only really became popular in the late 2000s. With the rise of the internet, Filipino women were suddenly exposed to ideas that challenged the norm.
“We have a lot of media personalities, we have a lot of influencers telling young women to empower themselves, to love themselves,” she said. “[They tell them] that you don’t need a boyfriend just to feel that you’re worthy.”
The decision to not date is, in fact, a sign of empowerment — a sort of middle finger to older generations who expect them to be wives, and to faux feminists who equate freedom with promiscuity.
“Being a liberated person is commonly, unfortunately, 'misconceptualised' as someone very open to relationships, but that’s not what it is,” Presto said. “So if you’ve never had a boyfriend because it’s really your choice and you wholeheartedly know that no one forced you, that’s good.”
However, the idea of women putting themselves first also depends on social class. Most of those who feel empowered enough to say no to romantic relationships are educated, middle-class women in urban areas.
“If you look at dating in terms of Filipino culture nationwide, they’re still stuck with the fact that dating should be a prelude to a relationship,” Presto said.
She grew up in a lower socioeconomic class in the province but moved to Manila for college and observed that most of her friends growing up were already married with children.
“Those women who have choices are the women who were able to get a good education and the women who can stand by themselves,” she said. “If you’re a woman who didn’t go to school … and you’re not well-versed with all of these conversations happening … you’d still think that it’s normal to have to get married at the age of 25.”
During brunch, the three women admitted that they are not immune to feeling lonely about being single. Maki sometimes thinks about how her conservative Christian upbringing could have contributed to her views on relationships, giving her unrealistic expectations for a “righteous” man. Jacques, on the other hand, said that she still wants to have kids in the future and is afraid that her proverbial biological clock is running out.
Still, for them, these are usually just passing emotions.
“You can’t avoid feeling lonely,” Aya said. “But then, empowerment is greater than loneliness.”