SINGAPORE — For the third time in a day, the physician patiently listened to another tale of a childless marriage from a distressed wife.
"We've tried every night for two years," said the primary school teacher. "What's wrong with me?"
A physical examination revealed the same condition thwarting the previous patients--virginity.
Unable to learn about sex from parents, spouses, teachers or books, increasing numbers of women are turning to Singapore's version of America's sex guru, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, to exorcise their nuptial nightmares.
Dr. Vytialingam Atputharajah, a graying, 47-year-old obstetrician-gynecologist who never tires of answering questions, confronts a traditional Asian upbringing that stifles sexual queries, an education system that ignores the how-tos and tough censorship laws banning risque films, books and even magazines such as Playboy.
Although women enter Atputharajah's office with woes of intimate encounters wracked with confusion and frustration, they usually leave smiling.
"Sex is a topic surrounded by myth, taboo and awe," Atputharajah said. "Inquiries about sexual activities are either met with suspicion, hostility, evasiveness or embarrassed responses."
"A lot of the problems arise because of misinformation and sheer ignorance," said the father of two sons. "Couples don't know where to put what. Many men grope in the dark."
After 13 years of medical practice, Atputharajah sharpened his counseling skills in the University of Minnesota sexuality program and read books by such outspoken American sexologists as Westheimer.
The questions he hears start with the basics.
"Not knowing where the vagina is, pain during sexual intercourse because of lack of foreplay and non-consummation" are among the most common problems brought to Atputharajah at Kandang Kerbau Hospital, Singapore's largest medical facility for women.
Reverting to slang for those who are not familiar with the technical names of the sex organs, Atputharajah explains intercourse and reassures embarrassed women that they are not alone in their naivete.
"Each patient thinks she is the only one whose marriage has not been consummated after years," Atputharajah said. He said that in a culture that discourages self-examination, there are many women unfamiliar with their own bodies and anatomy.
"I tell them to go home and conceive," Atputharajah said cheerfully. "That's the best part. The problems are so easy to solve."
The accounts of fetishes and group sex that Dr. Ruth commonly fields are beyond Atputharajah's normal queries.
'How to Begin'
"We're dealing with how to begin," he said.
Such ignorance has left feminists alarmed. "How are our young people going to learn about AIDS prevention if they are not aware of the fundamentals of sex?" asked Zaibun Siraj, a founder of the Assn. of Women for Action and Research. "How will they know what to do with a condom if no one tells them? The lack of awareness is appalling."
Many women are referred to Atputharajah by other clinics and private physicians uncomfortable with discussing sexual intimacies.
Any given day, the corridor outside his office is lined with frazzled wives, some pestered by in-laws anxious for a grandchild and others wondering if such practices as oral sex are deviant.
While no research has been done on the number of marriages affected by sexual woes, officials are alarmed that 97 percent of the marriages annulled last year were on the grounds of non-consummation. The number of couples who had their marriages voided hit 337, a record high, compared with 244 in 1983.
Atputharajah's clients come from wide educational backgrounds and hold positions ranging from secretaries and housewives to executives and accountants.
"In the Singapore scene, human sexuality research and treatment of sexual dysfunctions are in an infantile state," Atputharajah said, adding that local publications dealing with the subject "hardly exist." He said, "To compound this is the ignorance and discomfort of professionals.
"If the woman is more Westernized than her husband, she'll shy away from teaching him anything out of fear he'll think of her as a bad girl," he added.
Contrary to the popular belief that Asian females don't want to discuss sexual matters, Atputharajah found that "they are relieved at finally finding someone knowledgeable to talk with."
Even a candid explanation and description of the female sexual organs is occasionally not enough.
Clears Up Doubt
"Sometimes, a woman fails to locate her vagina despite my description and self-examination when she goes home," Atputharajah said. When she returns the following day, still unsure, Atputharajah clears up any doubt by showing her with the aid of a mirror.
In some case, he thinks, husbands use their wives to get answers to their own questions.