Slutshaming In the Tongan Community

5:55 AMOnce again, in my safe place, I attempted to exhale the disappointment and fatigue that was quickly taking over my ability to drive home. University Avenue connected the Dumbarton Bridge to my apartment the way it always had. However, this moment marked the lonely hour where I no longer considered anything in this small town a connection, but rather a divisive stain of my past.

Twenty minutes prior to this depressing thought, I had gambled with a ghost of my youth to only lose the marbles I’d traded my soul in for. (One thing I should note to you, reader, is how strongly my identity as a young Tongan-East Palo Altoan female plays out in this scene and how powerful delusion is to the mind).

Now, let me elaborate.

A Tongan woman’s virtue is measured by her purity (both physical and spiritual). It is difficult to distinguish whether this belief came before Christianity crossed the seas of Tonga in the late eighteenth century or if the matriarchal ideology birthed with the volcanic eruptions of Tongan indigineity.

What I do know is that my heavy lack of this cultural virtue was the reason why my conservative mother refused to give me a 21st Birthday key which symbolizes morality, virginity and womanhood. I consider my mother a ‘culture-keeper’ in this manner, for it was her assessment coupled with an experiential understanding of Tongan men that makes me question if I will ever be willing and able to uphold the purity of the matriarch.

In high school -before I even landed my first kiss- I was battling thoughts that Tongan men were troubled, and created outlets of rage into their families and unto the young minds of their children. Unconsciously, I was building my Great Wall of China. However, it was as if my Wall was built not to keep people out but to separate my actions from my inner voice.

As most teenagers were doing, I too began to experience with my sexuality. I was fifteen when I had my first kiss and sixteen when I had my first lay with a man much older than me. The time in between these two iconic events placed me into a depressive stimulant of trying to prescribe love onto short-lived nuances and because I could not name my internal conflict therefore not give voice to it, it became an ongoing crusade well into the beginning of my young adult years.  And too much the incoincidence, a majority of these relationships I shared were with young Tongan men.

I would be lying if I said that the Tongan man did not know how to love. That is a stereotype I choose not to perpetuate. It is not the affection that has ever been a concern of mine but rather the commitment to the person whom love is shared and experienced with. This commitment is much larger than the time frame of which the relationship lived in. This commitment bonds itself to both players long after the game is won and the other afflicted.

Loyalty. That’s the word I was looking for. Loyalty is built into friendship and when exercised more often and alongside physical connection, it becomes a powerful tool of communication. And when the relationship succumbs to heartbreak and infidelity, what was once an intimate vow of loyalty has now become a meager mutual endowment. A mutual exchange where both parties acknowledge that I respect you, all that you let me see, and the intimacy we once shared. When this vow is kept, strong friendships are forged. When this respect is not reciprocated and the mutuality broken, we see reputations built off of the ghosts of one’s past. When one deprives the other of that mutual loyalty, they are aiding in the reformation of her Great Wall of China.

5:57 AM I felt the bricks being laid, one by one. My thoughts convoluted by the slut-shaming I had escaped from, by a group of Tongan men who were comfortable enough to express their distaste and perversion towards me as I lay before them, dormantly listening. I am unsure whether it was the hurtful language that was heinous or rather the self-assumption that I was unworthy of a civil defense. As I drove alongside the Four Seasons Hotel back home to my sanctuary, I could not help but mourn the loss of loyalty and how frequently these conversations occur about other Tongan women and the unlikelihood of this being the first time it has happened to and about me.

I am aware that as a sociable Tongan woman in East Palo Alto, – a city that ranks as one of the highest Tongan populations in the country – my reputation has been rooted robustly in my willingness to be vulnerable in many areas of my life, including my sexuality and to that I own and celebrate everyday.

My issue revolves around the principle. Slutshaming in our Tongan diaspora exists and without naming it and placing accountability on those involved, we cannot truly build community. Luckily, the responsibility lies in the hands of both Tongan men and women. All of us have a duty to call each other into a conversation that produces knowledge, but even more so for men. Why is that?

Within our culture, there is a belief that women are to be placed in the highest reverence. Many would assume Tongan society to function as a matriarchal environment however, I would argue that this centric idea further perpetuates misogyny (sexism). I agree that Tongan women are head of household. This is why many of us first-generation Tongan-Americans, men and women alike, position our mothers as a role model. Yet, simply looking at the gender hierarchy through this lens is problematic because it marginalizes the women who are socially perceived to ‘not live up to’ this cultural role of a matriarch. Women such as me, who adorn their sexual proclivities and rebellious natures as a crown of empowerment.

And when Tongan men, who are granted freedom at a young age due to their gender, step into male dominated spaces such as a nightly kava circle or out doing construction work, these social gender groups give agency for these types of conversations to happen. And when they do, more often than not, where does the accountability come in? Who suffers more from the verbal torment? The woman who is publicly shamed for acting out her humanness or the man owns responsibility of reducing a woman down to the biological functions of her body? Who is really winning here?

Without this addressed, I cannot fully commit to the work I’ve been assigned. Without actively engaging in a conversation with my Tongan male peers, I have chosen to perpetuate the problem and prolong a positive solution.

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