Ash* spent months lurking on the “alterverse,” a sexual twilight zone on Twitter where Filipino men and women openly discuss their sex lives, before she dropped her first photograph. It was a simple one with her shirt unbuttoned, her bra exposed underneath. She did it in response to a thread encouraging newcomers to post their photos.
“Shoutout to alter girl newbies!! Reply here your nudes (quality content or not) so we can follow you,” said the tweet.
There are 56 replies to that thread, a glorious cascade of diverse female bodies in various states of undress. Fair or dark-skinned, slim or chubby, small or big-boobed, the list of juxtapositions goes on. One thing is clear: all of these women are in control of how they are presenting themselves.
“Support alter girls for body positivity,” said one of the replies.
“Keep slaying sisters,” said another.
“I was nervous and anxious back then but the mere fact that there were also other new alter accounts who dropped their pics gave me courage,” Ash told VICE. She said she joined the community because she craved a sexual outlet but didn’t want to engage in casual sex.
On the “alterverse,” one may freely, anonymously share and act out parts of themselves that they otherwise wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so in real life.
It’s a curious niche to stumble upon on a platform as public as Twitter, especially since its brazen sexuality runs counter to the Philippines’ culture of Catholic conservatism. The influence of the church runs deep in the Philippines, from its opposition to same-sex marriage to the limiting roles it assigns women, and its potentially damaging policies towards family planning. For better or worse, the growth of the “alterverse,” also informally dubbed as the “alter community” or “alter world” by Filipinos, appears to be a direct result of these conservative norms.
“Alter” initially began as a haven for the LGBTQ community, according to multiple sources VICE spoke to. It was a place where people in and out of the closet felt safe enough to be honest about their sexuality and identity—an alternate place with alternate selves. But over the last few years, the community has expanded to attract a larger pool of people who have caught wind of this bubble and are eager to experiment and explore.
In a country that has long policed women’s bodies, it has become one way to reclaim power and present themselves on their own terms.
When scrolling through this corner of the platform, a dizzying stream of body parts jumps out. All types of shapes and curves proudly displayed—boobs, butts, penises, and vaginas—the faces they’re attached to carefully cropped out or artfully obstructed.
“I'm super different in real life,” Aphrodite*, another user new to the community, told VICE. “I wanna keep both my identities separate. I can’t show myself to others because I come from a religious family.”
Unlike Ash, Aphrodite doesn’t have photos of herself on her account. But, in addition to the usual stream-of-consciousness that pervades everybody’s Twitter, every now and then she’ll retweet clips of revealing photos from others, or straight-up sex. This, too, is a common element among alter accounts. Twitter is significantly more liberal in their handling of explicit material than, say, Facebook and Instagram. It has, therefore, become a better incubator for these communities and this kind of content.
The interactions between alter accounts can run the gamut from friendly and celebratory to lustful. One user might playfully tweet something along the lines of, “why am I not having sex right now?” and another will answer the call with an emphatic “ON THE WAY.” Or one user might upload an evocative photograph with a few strategically-placed emojis and another will reply, “cruuuush” or “sis, this is gorgeous. I stan.” For Ash, it’s been refreshing to find like-minded people.
“People are really welcoming here. It’s not just about getting horny,” she said. “You get to talk about topics that aren’t as accepted since the Philippines is not a liberated country. [We discuss] sexuality, sex, relationships, but also some wholesome topics too.”
In fact, it was the politically and socially-aware tweets from another user that piqued Ash’s curiosity about the alterverse. Eventually, she witnessed the confidence gained from posting about their bodies, regardless of size, and it helped her to feel empowered. “Plus, add to the fact that there are really people [here] who would appreciate you for that,” she said.
“I have received messages from women who said my posts made them feel comfortable about their own bodies,” echoed Lea*, a user who has been around for two years.
“For me alter is an important platform for women to reclaim their bodies. When we post photos of our bodies, we are called sluts. However, the media can post photos of our bodies and sexualize us. It’s about time we reclaim that.”
This sense of community is invaluable. Many women in the alter world admit that their upbringing prevents them from being open about their desires and curiosities. Women are constantly being told what their bodies should look like and are shamed for sharing too much, too little, too often, or not at all. But on “alter,” they can play by their own rules and are welcomed for it. They can be as crass, as horny, as explicit, and as powerful as they’d like to be.
Pornhub’s 2018 statistics reveal that not only does the country have the highest percentage of women watching pornography—a full 10 percentage points higher than the United States, the country with the site’s greatest number of visitors—the female audience has in fact increased by 3 percent since 2017. And yet, female sexuality remains largely unacknowledged in the Philippines.
Sex education has also not equipped most Filipinos with the proper tools. The Philippines’ teen pregnancy rate, for one, is rising at a time when it is declining globally. The country is also within the grips of an HIV epidemic—the fastest growth rate in the Asia Pacific. Condom use continues to be low because of remaining stigma.
The burden has fallen on various local communities to self-educate. According to Lea, accounts such as hers get plenty of private questions about contraceptive use and managing one’s sex life. Outside the alterverse, new organizations such as Now Open have taken it upon themselves to fill in these gaps in knowledge and provide a space for discourse.
All this isn’t to say that “alter” is a perfect place to carry out these conversations. Its relatively lax policies—the thing about Twitter that makes it conducive for these communities—is the very same thing that also makes it dangerous. Interactions between accounts, both public and private, can get abusive: an increasing risk as more and more people who are not necessarily in it for the safe space, but for the community's content. Now, some groups in the alterverse are closing ranks, out of fear of outsiders. Various users are flagging other accounts who are saving photographs and uploading them on private Facebook groups or porn sites. A 2018 report by Esquire Philippines also exposed the presence of child pornography on Filipino Twitter and how easily those posts could get lost within the alterverse’s tags.
“I think getting anxious about getting leaked outside is what scares me the most. Although I’m taking proper precautions just to avoid that,” Ash said.
When she first started, other users shared a list of do’s and dont’s to safely operate in this space. Tips included: “avoid using popular hashtags to prevent malicious lurkers from finding your content,” or “feel free to block anybody who isn’t respecting your terms.”
At its worst, alter can be damaging to one’s safety and security. At its best, it can be liberating.
There’s a long way to go towards building a society that truly celebrates sex and body positivity. But the increasing mainstream acceptance of formerly taboo topics such as erotic art, BDSM, and anal sex, are indications that attitudes towards sex are changing in the country, albeit at a crawl.
“The usual images [Filipinos are given of women] would be the Madonna or the whore. That’s the binary,” explained Marie Aubrey Villaceran, the Deputy Director for Research and Publication at the UP Center for Women’s and Gender Studies. So much so that the Philippines has developed a genre of films and television series specifically about wives and mistresses.
Villaceran continued: “But that binary was created by a patriarchal system that would see women as either only good mothers or objects that can be used for sexual pleasure. But we know, of course, that it’s not entirely like that at all. And our bodies are more than just reproductive vessels, or kind of, a sight for contestation and control.”
The challenge, according to Villaceran, is to eventually break free from this binary and acknowledge the other ways in which women can exist. And so, while she worries about the potential security and psychological risks that come with being vulnerable on the alter world, she concedes that, through their rejection of societal norms, their act of rebellion, it, too, can be a source of empowerment.
“I'm 100 percent a virgin and [just] wanted to explore things,” said Yannie*, another alter newbie.
When she entered the fray this June, she found that navigating this world’s rules of engagement came easily to her. It was almost like a performance. Eventually, she too started posting her own explicit content—close-ups of her bare breasts or short clips of her masturbating. She exchanged nudes with fellow alter accounts and parried unwanted advances.
“Easy peasy,” she said. “Actually, if a man can do it, why not a woman? We are in the era of sexuality. Equality and equity.”
* Names have been changed to protect the women, as per their request
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.