For the research completing the Master in International Development Studies, Ingrid Gercama explored the online and offline sexual lives of teenage Guatemalan girls. She shows how girls, through social media, create room to explore their sexuality online, where because of conservative and religious norms and values in Guatemalan society, they cannot do so in their offline lives.
In the last decades, the Internet has taken a more and more prominent place in the lives of young people in Guatemala. Many Guatemalan adolescents spend a significant percent of their leisure time in the so-called cabinas publicas, and nowadays, some even have a cell-phone with Internet connection. Youngsters post photos of themselves or their friends on their Facebook and Twitter pages, watch video’s online and are able to access all sorts of information from all over the world. Modern communication like Internet, e-mail and television provides a different image of the world than the often very conservative and traditional Guatemalan culture does. This is especially the case when it comes to sexuality: the Internet is full of sex and websites with sexual content are easily accessible. At the same time, online there seem to be less restrictions on the behavior of girls in regard to their sexuality. I wondered if I could provide new insights on the topic of girls’ sexuality when analyzing the online lives (on Facebook and Twitter) of girls in Guatemala, and analyzing the differences between their online and offline behavior.
In Guatemala conservative and religious ideas and other cultural norms and values about youth sexuality have a restrictive influence on the offline sexual behavior of girls and the way they sees their sexual life. So what norms and values shape a girls’ sexuality and sexual conduct? In Guatemala conservative norms on family life, love and sexuality have been normalized in the day-to-day reality of young people. Most of these ideas have a foundation in Christianity and focus on the idea that the sole purpose of a romantic relationship is to marry and to start a family. Marriage is a holy connection between men and women and sex should not be practiced ni antes ni fuera el matriomonio (not before or outside marriage). Young unmarried adolescents should thus practice abstinence when being romantically engaged. When young people do have sexual relationships they are seen as sinners: it is considered both morally and religiously wrong when adolescents (with an explicit focus on girls) enter their marriage anything other than perfectly virgin.
As already hinted girls need to live up to the idea of being a ‘perfect’ virgin more rigorously then boys. Because of living in a paternalistic and chauvinistic society, boys are considered to be irresponsible and sinful. They can, according to cultural ideas of machismo, not help having the urge to have sex. Girls, therefore, need to make sure that they do ‘not make passes at the boys’ and say no when a boy tries to convince them to have sex with him. Flowing out of the previous point and the idea that women are the ones to guard youth sexuality by saying no, a categorization of girls emerges. Girls can either be ‘good girls’ or a ‘bad girls’: the more promiscuous and sexually active a girl seems, the more likely she is to be labeled a ‘bad girl’. It is extremely difficult to be a ‘good girl’ while at the same time having sex, dressing provocatively or flirting with boys. When a girl gives her boyfriend her virginity, her position as ‘good’ is endangered and she can easily shift from being a ‘good’ virgin to a ‘bad perra’.
Having sex is thus influenced by existing gender roles, values and ideals. As a result, in their daily lives girls are often forbidden to have a boyfriend until they graduate. Parents are afraid that their daughters will become pregnant and therefore not finish their schools and ruin their entire future. Parents believe that informing their daughters on their sexual feelings will make them ‘more promiscuous’ and therefor often do not talk to their daughters about sex or contraceptive use.
Is sexual education then arranged in schools of Guatemala? Because of international pressure, in 2005 the Guatemalan government obligated all high-schools in the country to give moral-free sexual education on contraceptive use and sexual and reproductive health. The Law on Family Planning was enforced in 2009 and is supposed to provide education on and facilitate access to modern birth control methods. However, religious (and also parental) protest complicated the implementation of the process: prominent religious leaders were concerned that education without religious values would lead to ‘permitting’ adolescents to have more ‘free sexual relations as long as they protect themselves’ (Seen in Guatemalan newspaper Noticias Christianas 2009).
As a result, religious leaders even publicly opposed themselves against sexual education and contraceptives because they did not see the ‘word of God’ in the law on family planning. Because Christianity promotes the sanctity of life and family, the use of contraceptives is highly condemned on the ground of being ‘against life’. Moral free and inclusive sexual education on contraceptive use and sexual health and rights is, as a result, virtually non-existed.
The debate on sexual education shows the general tendency of the Guatemalan culture to girls’ sexuality: girls should practice abstinence and need to not be informed about their sexuality. Combine the rejection of girls sexuality with a virtually non-existed national sexual education program and it becomes obvious that girls’ sexuality is a taboo in the Guatemalan society. Guatemalan girls however, like every other adolescents world-wide, are preoccupied with boys, love and often sex. They do not believe that sex is purely for adults and sometimes are sexually active. By interviewing a group of indigenous and ladino girls from 12 tot 18 years old, it became clear that according to them, it is extremely important to be educated on their sexuality, sex in general and contraceptives. The importance of sexual education, that was emphasized in the interviews, showed that the girls believed themselves ready to talk about sex and maybe even practice it. They indicated however, not to be ready to get pregnant and become a parent. The debate about their sexuality should be opened and the girls wanted to become autonomous when it came to making informed decisions on their sexuality. How do girls then create a certain ‘room to maneuver’ when it comes to their sexuality in the Guatemalan adult and male-oriented society?
Girls, as indicated, need to confirm to many social rules when it comes to their offline sexual conduct. What however happens at the social network sites (Facebook, Twitter) of these girls? Do girls behave differently when there are less adults to make them confirm to socially acceptable behavior? Sex, love and relationships are amongst the most debated topics on Twitter and Facebook and girls often post provocative pictures off themselves online. Girls often talk about issues that could certainly could not be discussed in their offline lives (See image 1 & 2). Girls in Quetzaltenango would often post photos of themselves on their social network sites (SNS) posing provocatively and wearing revealing clothes and then ask boys to grade them. Image 3 show examples of how the grading of the girls was actually done: a provocative picture of a girl was posted and all boys were asked to give approval of her bodily features or appearance by giving likes. The girl with the most likes was the prettiest and most popular; and according to me, the girl with most likes often was the one with the most provocative outfit.
Girls that exert this type of behavior offline would most certainly be named a ‘perra’ [slut]. They are supposed to act as ‘good’ girls, as ‘virgins’ and ‘saint like’ in order to be socially valued as women in Latin American societies. Online, however, this kind of behavior was accepted and the dichotomy between bad and good was constantly challenged. Online, girls can ‘play out’ another type of role: ‘the whore’ or the zorra, ‘the bad girl’ whilst still being seen as a ‘good girl’ in the offline society. This is important because it shows that girls can express different behavior in their online lives than in their offline lives and are being judged differently in both. Girls want to be ‘bad girls’ online and ‘good girls’ offline and because of stating this, are debating and striving for a more open gender role categorization. Image 4 illustrates the desired flux of the ‘good’ girl with the ‘bad’ girl image. Girls want a certain opening in the dichotomy of ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’: they want to show that girls can be ‘good’ and at the same time have certain elements of a ‘perra’ without being judged and treated as one.
Also, Internet has been named by the girls in my research as a place where they would turn to in order to look up information about their sexuality. This shows that when girls do not receive education on sexuality or experience freedom to talk about it with their parents or in school, they will start looking at other places to get this information. Jenifer, a 12 year old Ladino girl, told me that the Internet is where she looks up what changes she will have in her adolescence and what precautions she needs to take. The Internet can thus be seen as an area where young people have certain power over their own identity and, at the same time, easy access to different knowledge. This has a positive effect on the fulfillment of their (often secretive) desires and makes them more empowered over their own sexuality.
However, I should not end on a too positive note. Not all behavior is tolerated online, and societal norms and values still have a big influence even on the online behavior of girls. A good example of the boundaries of this freedom of speech is the example of Meely. On 26 July 2012 Meely, a girl from Guatemala City, twittered that she had lost her virginity, causing a general moral riot against herself (See image 5). Many young people scorned Meely for putting ‘private’ information online. Because of the high value of female virginity, this is a socially acceptable reaction of the youngsters. It still is interesting to note, that even though many adolescents in Guatemala lose their virginity before they enter marriage- it is not accepted by peers to talk about this online.
Understanding sex in Latin America: online rebelling and conforming
Making sense of this all: Internet is an interesting medium when it comes to understanding sexuality in Latin America. Often, girls do not agree with the culturally established gender norms and values on their sexuality because they are often not in concordance with their desires and needs. Girls act out behavior in their online lives that they cannot enact in their offline lives. They are empowered by the fact that their Twitter and Facebook accounts are almost adult free and information about sex widely available. In their online lives girls can rebel against or confirm cultural norms and values about their sexuality: girls have the power to make the decision themselves and are less influenced by adults. Guatemalan and other Latin American societies are changing because of modern communication. Let’s hope, for the girls sake, that this change will empower them to make informed and safe decisions about their sexual adventures and romances.
Centro Nacional de Análisis y Documentación Judicial
2005 Ley de Acceso Universal y Equitativo de Servicios de Planificación Familiar y su integración en el Programa Nacional de Salud Reproductiva, http://www.oj.gob.gt/es/QueEsOJ/EstructuraOJ/UnidadesAdministrativas/CentroAnalisisDocumentacionJudicial/cds/CDs%20leyes/2005/pdfs/decretos/D087-2005.pdf.
2009 Evangélicos contre Ley de Planificación en Guatemala: http://www.noticiacristiana.com/sociedad/iglesiaestado/2009/12/evangelicos-contra-ley-de-planificacion-en-guatemala.html
2005 Sex and the Catholic Church in Guatemala. In The Lancet, 366(20), 622-623.