“Macho Men and Passive Women”

Debunking myths about Latino sexualities

By Marysol Asencio and Katie Acosta
Summer 2007

Any investigation into the many factors that shape Latinos’ sexualities presents significant problems. For a start, the pan-ethnic or supraethnic label of Latino itself can obscure the tremendous diversity found within the population. Latinos include people who have recently arrived and those whose histories of living in what is now the continental U.S. span over 500 years. Many additional factors add to this population’s diversity and complexity, such as national origin, socioeconomic conditions, geographical location, residence status (including citizenship), political histories, racial identification, languages other than Spanish, dialects, sexual orientations, circular migration and level of transnationalism. There are significant ideological conflicts among Latinos as well as within the views of many individuals. There are feminist and non-feminist perspectives. There are democratic and undemocratic stances. There is the subverting of cultural ideologies. Latinos vary in the types of organizations, political affiliations and leaders that they support. These conflicts are not due to assimilation in U.S. society. They exist within communities in Latin America and many have roots not connected to social movements in the United States. In addition, there are personal, internal conflicts
between what Latinos are told by leaders that they should do and what they believe is right for themselves, their families or the community at large. These and other factors are often not taken into account in the majority of studies on Latino sexual behaviors. In recent years, however, we have seen important contributions on certain aspects of Latino sexualities, by a handful of dedicated scholars that need to be recognized and enhanced.

Having set out the many problems with this area of study, let’s try to see what we can know.

Mexican Americans, by virtue of being the largest Latino ethnic group, tend to be the focus of most of the limited research, followed by Puerto Ricans and Cubans—leaving us with even less knowledge about other Latino groups. Moreover, there is a significant population of Latinos who are predominantly or solely Spanish speakers; in many studies, they are excluded because of the language limitations of the researchers or a lack of the resources necessary to engage this population. Therefore, the experiences of recent immigrants or those who are not English-competent are less researched  than those of others. There is also a challenge in effectively translating the norms, concepts and ideas taken from English and applying them to Latino cultures and language groups.

While the HIV/AIDS epidemic has illustrated and propelled the need for social and behavioral research on Latino sexualities, the focus of the research has been limited. The research is focused on health-related concerns and on “at-risk” populations. Thus, there is increased sexuality research on Latino men who have sex with men, because of their heightened hiv risk. Family planning research involving primarily heterosexual Latinas (with few heterosexual males in the samples and rarely
couples) has also been limited in scope and issues addressed. Within the family planning literature, Latinas have been described as not being “effective contraceptors” and as being less likely to use
condoms and contraception than white non-Latinas. They are also described as less knowledgeable and communicative about sexuality. Census data show Latinas are likely to have more children than white non-Latinas. While there is less research on heterosexual Latino males’ use of contraception and sexual decision-making, the current findings tend to show less use of condoms than among white non-Latino males. One has to keep in mind that researchers frame questions in ways that may be extensions of bias and stereotype or may simplify complex sexual dynamics and decision-making. There is also a correlation between poverty and lack of contraceptive use that is based not on cultural issues but on issues of economics, education, health care and information.

One of the most unfortunate problems we have with studies on Latinos is the homogenization and pathologizing of the population. We do not acknowledge the diversity within the population or the
changes in Latino cultures and societies. Instead, we reinforce images of macho men and passive women embedded in strict patriarchal families, images of conservative religious people with undemocratic tendencies and a stagnant culture. These images have been heatedly debated and disputed as not based on consistent evidence. For example, the concept of machismo as a unique and extreme manifestation of Latin American male gender construction has been identified as existing among some groups of Latino men but not others. Also, in studies where Latino males report conservative beliefs and behaviors associated with machismo, the question remains how this is different from that of other ethnic groups including non-Latino whites?

Latinas who have sex with women are usually not studied, since they are invisible within the frameworks of HIV risk and pregnancy concerns. This absence in the literature is particularly problematic because it enables us to ignore the agency that Latinas have over their sexual expression, and promotes stereotypes that desexualize them. Scholarship on Latino men’s homosexuality has received more visibility, in particular with respect to Mexicans. This work has consistently shown that Mexican men who have sex with men often do not identify with the “gay” label. These men reserve the term “gay” for a sexual partner who assumes a female sexual role, which in the social science literature is described as the “passive” or “receptive” partner, and who is perceived to be more effeminate in nature. The “active” or “penetrating” partner does not usually
adopt a gay identity. Scholarship continues to complexify our understanding of these relationships, but it is at least clear that gay identities in Mexican immigrants do not coincide with our general understanding of these identities in the United States. Latin American ideas about what constitutes
a gay identity are often related to broad ideas about femininity and masculinity, not necessarily to those about the sex of one’s partners. Unfortunately, much of the scholarship ignores the need for empirical work on same-sex desires, love and intimacy that go beyond particular sex acts and identities. While the Latino community has been described as more homophobic than the non-Latino
white community, there has been very little research in terms of the level and manifestation of homophobia within each of these communities or how they may be similar or different from each other. Research does show that both communities display homophobia. How issues such as social class, education, age, and country or city of origin influence homophobia needs to be taken into account. There are places in Latin America that are more open and accepting of same-sex sexuality than others. Also, the experiences of Latino families in the United States for generations may differ, with respect to these sexualities, from those of more recent arrivals.

“He existing research on Latino sexuality predominately focuses on sexual health
risks. In limiting Latino sexuality research to a discussion of health risks, we stifle
any conversation of erotic and sexual pleasure.

Despite increased interest in sexuality as a research area, many aspects of Latino sexualities have been understudied or
completely overlooked, which can have a significant impact of issues ranging from HIV/AIDS to unwanted pregnancies to sexual violence. Research has often overlooked Latinos’ desire, pleasure, intimacy, sexual agency, sexual satisfaction and range of sexual expressions. We need to know more about sexual activities throughout the lifespan, consensual and
nonconsensual sexuality, intimate relationships, sexual and reproductive negotiations, varying sexual expressions, spirituality and sexuality, the effects of illness and disability on sexuality and the cultural processes for interpreting sexuality
and its meanings. We must examine the variety of practices, meanings and contexts for sexual development and decision- making, and learn more about the effect of Latinos’ cultural and social realities in this regard.

Sexuality is an analytical lens, analogous to gender, socioeconomic status and race. We can view a number of broader issues through sexuality, including the larger culture and societal organization. Moreover, we should not depend on a specific crisis like hiv/aids to begin the necessary broad and basic sexuality research that will assist us in determining the best and most humane courses of action for different populations of people. The need for significant research on diverse Latino populations in various areas of sexuality in the face of the growth and diversification of this population will become more and more urgent in the next few decades.

There are few Latino organizations that are working directly with issues of sexuality. While some are working on HIV/AIDS or reproductive rights, the broader aspects of sexuality are not always addressed. There are competing Latino leaders and groups who hold vastly different attitudes and beliefs about what the role of sexuality in Latino families or communities is or should be in public discourses. These groups are supported by various interested constituencies (Latino and non-Latino) within the larger U.S. context. As with other groups, there is sometimes a split between what Latinos
express as their beliefs about sexuality and what they actually do, which provides more reasons for taking into account not just stated attitudes and public opinion but also actual behaviors and practices, and their social contexts and consequences, when making policy.

Most Latinos nominally identify themselves as Christian. The vast majority is Catholic, followed by other Christian denominations, notably evangelical ones. Other Latinos follow non-Christian spiritual traditions. The increasing numbers on Latinos in the United States have implications for the overall population of Catholics and for the percentage of Latinos among Catholics. The Catholic hierarchy’s programs that touch issues of sexuality and reproduction, and consequently the positions embodied in these programs, are likely to have a significant influence on Latinos. Yet we have research that shows that Latinos do not always follow the current teachings of the hierarchy on sexual matters, because of sincere disagreements or because Latinos are unable, given their circumstances, to do what is asked of them. Therefore, while the church plays an important role in the lives of many Latinos, the Catholic hierarchy doesn’t represent all Latinos’ sexual perspectives and behaviors.

Given the diversity of Latino experiences, who speaks for Latino populations? And who is seen and accepted as the legitimate voice for all Latinos? Much too often, only the most conservative elements of Latino sexuality are represented. Thus, the voices of those who are engaged in a comprehensive social justice vision—feminists, sexual minorities and people of differing religious and spiritual perspectives—are silenced as not really representing Latinos. Yet the diversity of Latino perspectives on gender, reproduction, sexuality and a host of other important issues are variously challenging the current power structures within the Latino communities and questioning those who are given the authority to speak for all Latinos.

While research into the sexualities of Latinos can significantly influence Latinos’ well-being and their future, as well as our understanding of Latino experiences, this knowledge will not appear magically. It must be produced by the concerted efforts of advocates, activists and scholars to provide funding streams for research, forums, conferences and other forms of information exchanges among all the constituencies, including the communities they are serving. While not all research on sexualities has direct policy implications, a broader understanding of sexualities among Latinos and other populations will in the long run allow policy makers and society at large to provide empirically grounded, socially equitable, humane solutions for serving this diverse population.

Marysol Asencio and Katie Acosta are affiliated with the Institute for Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at the University of Connecticut. They are engaged in a two-year project funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation to critically assess the state of Latino sexualities research in the United States.

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