Archive for the sexuality Category

29 de Marzo: Es una buena idea

Posted in Bolivia, HIV/AIDS, Latin America, reproductive rights, sexuality, women on March 29, 2012 by eugeniadealtura

Compañer@s: This is a good idea.

Today, La Paz’s La Razón reported that, in a recent forum that brought together young people from over 50 different organizations around the country, Bolivia’s youth demanded that individuals under the age of 18 be allowed to access HIV tests without the permission of their parents–and that this testing be free of charge.  This is a good idea.  On the one hand, recent studies reveal that rates of HIV in Bolivia are increasing most rapidly among the under-18 population.  On the other hand, my own research in La Paz and El Alto indicates that few adolescents feel comfortable talking with their parents about their love lives–much less sex, condom use, or STIs.

The demands of Bolivia’s youth, which were articulated at a forum on sexual and reproductive rights organized by the European Union, in addition to other groups, will be presented for government review on April 3–although it is unclear in what form.  At the same time, a municipal law is currently being considered to introduce HIV testing to a greater number of local health care centers, as well as to promote educational campaigns about the disease.

Initiatives such as these are sumamente importante in a country such as Bolivia, where many women reach menarche, and even become pregnant, before they have even learned what a period is.  Social attitudes toward contraception, pregnancy, and courtship in the country are certainly changing, with an increasing proportion of parents speaking with their kids about sex.  However, sexual behaviors may be changing even more rapidly.  A number of medical doctors in Bolivia commented to me during interviews that, over the past 15 years, they have delivered a greater number of babies to adolescent women than ever before.  With kids having sex younger and younger–and yet, still not feeling comfortable speaking with their parents about these experiences–Bolivia’s youth should have the right to take care of themselves.  I sincerely hope that this & other laws allowing minors to access contraceptives and STI testing without parental approval–and to assume control of their sexual and reproductive lives–pass.  It’s the right thing to do.


27 de Agosto: No se necesita receta

Posted in Bolivia, health care, sexuality, United States with tags , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week at Womanist Musings, I’ve written a post on the difference in over-the-counter access to drugs and other items in the U.S. versus Latin America, particularly Bolivia. What inspired the posting?  A visit to a U.S. pharmacy where customers can now purchase vibrating sex toys right off the shelf, without visiting a sex toy store or buying online.  Check out the posting here.

6 de Agosto: Lo que no sabemos nos dañará

Posted in Bolivia, sexuality with tags , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week, UK-based Independent Television News (ITN) reported on Bolivia’s first-ever hosting of the “Miss Transvestite South America” beauty contest.  The contest included male-to-female (MTF) trans contestants from Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, and other South American nations.  Evidently, organizers had a difficult time raising the necessary funds for the event, which nearly prevented it from moving forward, but the contest was saved when the La Paz city government pitched in.  This video—despite carelessly confusing the concepts “trans” and “gay”—shows colorful snippets of the contest, and in one scene, breathtaking views of La Paz, Bolivia.

It strikes me as rather odd that I have chosen to write about this event, and the themes it raises, since I know little of the reality of being trans in Latin America.  But also, I suppose that it is that fact—that we do know so little about trans life in the region, that there is so little visibility around it—that prompts me to write.  This piece, therefore, is designed to spark reflection and elicit your thoughts broadly on sexual diversity in Latin America, rather than teach you something new.

Bolivia, like most countries in Latin America, is marked by machista attitudes that threaten the lives and health of women in general, and people who do not conform to traditional gender/sexual roles and identities, in particular.  This machismo is visible and palpable.  I feel it walking down the street.  I witness it in the way young couples argue in La Paz parks, the men threateningly leaning in to the women’s personal space.

Machismo is also visible, however, in the very way it makes dissent invisible. In Bolivia—where rates of sexual and domestic violence against women top those of other Latin American countries—I have never seen an openly gay couple walking down the street.  Or in a bar.  Or anywhere else.  I do know of a few bars and cafés in La Paz that specifically cater to gays, and there are certainly some activists working for gay rights in the city, but compared to North America or Europe, gay life remains in the shadows.  Like other kinds of dissenters, gays and lesbians are often considered “funny” or downright “crazy.”  As I noted several weeks ago, typical residents of La Paz describe the local feminist group Mujeres Creando as “extreme,” but when pressed to explain this characterization, simply point to the fact that a few of the group’s members are lesbians.

In terms of trans folks, any awareness of their existence in La Paz is limited to comedic representations of men dressed as women, but never accepted as women.  A popular television character in La Paz consists of a light-skinned man dressed as a cholita, or indigenous woman—adopting and exploiting not only female, but indigenous, identity for laughs.  Female-to-male representations are altogether absent in La Paz, perhaps reflecting the cultural and social distance between women and men in Bolivia (ie., a cisman becoming a woman is a step down on the social scale, and easier to pull off than the reverse).  At one meeting of women activists I attended this year in La Paz, the entire concept of trans identity was discussed as if it consisted exclusively of the MTF experience.

My last point signals a glaring reality in Bolivia: that even those of us who are progressive, who work for women’s rights, and are concerned with the welfare and equality of all people, know way too little about the reality of gays, lesbians, and trans folks.  This is probably also true of other realities, such as that of people living with disabilities.  I am, for one, ashamed of my ignorance; however, that ignorance also sparks me to action.  Today, more than ever, I welcome your comments & questions.

10 de Abril: Pedacitos

Posted in Bolivia, sexuality, violence against women with tags , , , , , , , on April 10, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week, some odds and ends from the Bolivian highlands that I hope will spark conversation and debate.

First, yet another Bolivian woman has been killed in Spain. The 34-year-old migrant, known only by the initials M.S.P., was discovered last week in a Marbella hotel room; she had been suffocated to death.  This week, Spanish police found the likely culprit–her one-time boyfriend, a 39-year-old Peruvian man.  As if to chide the dead woman, this article from Madrid’s El País newspaper notes that M.S.P. “had never reported any mistreatment [that she had received], nor solicited assistance from the Municipality of Málaga nor the Andaluz Institute of Women” (all translations mine).

“Cycle of violence” graphic at a local organization working to combat violence against women.

Several weeks ago, in the aftermath of the murder of another Bolivian woman in Spain, I wrote a post on the problem of domestic violence against migrant women and the particular vulnerabilities these women face because of their status as (often illegal) migrants.  Even women living in their countries of birth hesitate to denounce acts of violence.  Sometimes this is due to their (and their children’s) financial dependence upon the perpetrators, or because police do not take the accusations seriously, or for a number of other reasons.  Add to these the social isolation that many migrants suffer and the fear of deportation, and migrant women are even less likely to report (or to be able to report) acts of violence.

Accusations of sexual violence are even more fraught, as women’s behavior and dress are often scrutinized by authorities as supposed “causes” of or “justifications” for male attacks.  In a recent interview, several Bolivian police officials blamed adolescent girls’ drinking for rising rape rates in La Paz’s Max Paredes neighborhood.  This logic ignores the problem of male perpetrators’ sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, drunk or sober.  Even in countries where activists have made significant gains in raising awareness about rape, such as the U.S., many women’s accusations go unheard.  For example, see this case of a Washington, D.C. woman who was refused a rape kit–valuable forensic evidence that could have put her attacker behind bars (thanks to Feministe for reporting on this story).

An educational comic instructing women on how to report acts of violence to authorities.

In lighter–but still somewhat disturbing–news, RadioFMBolivia.Net published an article this week instructing (implicitly only) men to “caress women’s breasts to satisfy your partner more.” Accompanied by a picture of a large-breasted white woman in a seductive pose, the article, written in a woman’s voice, begins as sex advice and ends as soft porn, as the author finally succumbs to memories of an ex-boyfriend’s expert fingers.

Don’t get me wrong–I am all for frank discussions of sexuality in print, on the radio, on T.V., in the classroom, and anywhere and everywhere else.  However, as I have mentioned before, sex is already surrounded by so many unrealistic and negative messages (ie., that most women can achieve orgasm by vaginal penetration alone; that touching yourself during sex means that your partner is inadequate, etc.), that not just any type of press coverage will do.

This article, for example, gives explicit advice to men on what to do and what not to do in playing with a woman’s breasts: “It is not just about putting your hands on the breasts and moving them quickly and clumsily…  Handling a woman’s breasts requires a certain art, it demands patience.”  But whose breasts are we talking about, here?  Any woman’s?  Every woman’s?  “Sex advice” like that provided by this article actually discourages the one thing required for “good” sex–open and honest communication.  Some women may want their partners to handle their breasts “quickly and clumsily.”  Others may prefer a more delicate touch.  Still others may get no sexual stimulation from having their breasts touched.  But this isn’t something that men (or women who sleep with women) can find out from reading this article.  If you want to know how to turn your partner on, you have to talk to her.

Articles like this one reinforce the idea that sex is something that you are either “good at” or you are not; that there are a set of objective skills that you can pick up and that will work just as well on one partner as on another, and that if you have to ask your partner what she wants, you are somehow inadequate.  I’m not saying this article is totally useless–the soft porn aspect may turn your crank.  But let’s keep porn, porn, and toss out the “one-size-fits-all” sex advice.

Finally, this week Bolivians voted in local (departmental and municipal) elections.  The Andean Information Network has done a superb job summing up the results, so I will not attempt to replicate that here.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.

16 de Febrero: Del silencio a los juguetes sexuales

Posted in Bolivia, Press, sexuality with tags , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

Somewhat surprisingly, two articles came out in the “Society” section of La Paz’s La Razón newspaper yesterday focusing on sex toys.  In a country where so many individuals report such difficulty in talking about the “life-and-death” aspects of sex–such as pregnancy and STI prevention–it struck me as amusing to run into these articles, which focus explicitly on the pleasurable aspects of sex.  The articles review the top-selling sex toys for different cities and offer advice to couples who are thinking about using them.  (Evidently, in Santa Cruz, couples prefer penis-pumps that temporarily lengthen the penis, while in La Paz, people prefer vibrators and “new and unusual” toys.)

In some ways, I suppose it isn’t all that surprising to encounter these articles in the La Paz press. Like any newspaper, La Razón clearly hopes to titillate and shock its readers–this sort of reporting sells papers.  What is less surprising about these articles, however, are their more subtle aspects, which reveal distinctly conservative messages about the “appropriate” use of sex toys.  The first of these articles provides an overview of types of sex toys and their sale across the country, while the second offers “expert” opinions on negotiating sex-toy use within couples.  (All translations are my own.)

The title of the first article, “Novel sex toys most seduce people from La Paz,” is probably sort of a jab at cruceños–people from Santa Cruz, who are in cultural and political rivalry with local paceños.  This article adopts a sort of cavalier attitude toward the topic of sex toys, one that (probably erroneously) assumes that its readers are already on the up-and-up, and are simply curious to learn what toys are favored by the inhabitants of Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, and other cities.  The reporter informs us that some of the latest and greatest sex toys are imported from the U.S. (like everything late-and-great, right?); that young people are more nervous to approach sex shops than adults, and that proper hygiene is essential in the use of these devices.

Actually, all the information in this article is useful, and can probably only do good in getting paceños to talk about sex and pleasure.  A glaring omission in this article, however, is any discussion of masturbatory sex toys for solo use.  These are sex toys than men and women may use while alone, in part to pleasure themselves, but also in part, to learn about their own sexual desires and fantasies–information that they can later share with their partners.  The moral of this article is that sexuality and sexual pleasure are to be shared with partners, but not to be explored alone.

Somewhat ironically, the second article, entitled, “The use of sexual products should be mutually agreed upon,” is accompanied by this picture:

This “latex vagina in the form of a vampire mouth” is probably often used by men for solo acts of masturbation.  (I can’t resist pointing out the somewhat disturbing correlation between a vampire-mouth vagina–ie. blood-sucking, life-sucking, generally perilous–and some men’s fears of female sexuality as emasculating and as a “trap” for the unsuspecting bachelor.)

Despite the picture of the masturbation sleeve, this article also ignores the possibility of solo sex-toy use.  In fact, the entire article focuses on the advice of “experts” to speak openly with our partners about the use of toys.  In general, this seems like very good advice.  However, the experts quoted here offer so many warnings about the potentially terrible reactions of our partners to our own interest in sex toys, that their advice is hardly encouraging.

The opening line reads, “The use of a sex toy to fulfill the sexual fantasies of a couple should be the result of mutual agreement, so that humiliation and disgust do not result.”  One Puerto Rican sexologist asserts that the use of sex toys “‘is not the result of a mental disturbance.'”  (Well, I didn’t really think it was, until you said that…)  Bolivian sexologist José Luis Harb remarks, “‘As long as it is mutually agreed upon, that it doesn’t hurt any third party, that there is harmony in the couple, and that it does not generate any dysrhythmia, it is okay.”  Yikes!

Even the proprietor of one of the local sex shops was merely lukewarm in his recommendation of sex-toy use: “The use of sex toys can help couples enjoy [sex] more, of course, assuming that the other person agrees with this and that no one gets upset.”  In the closing paragraph of the article, a final expert warns, “the use of sex toys can become a problem when one person becomes humiliated or hurt due to their partner’s use of a sex toy without his or her consent.”  So, who’s up for using sex toys now?  Anyone??

This article uses a tactic that is typical of some conservative sectors around the world–of supposedly providing “information” about sex, while masking this “information” in fear and shame.  Recently, a Bolivian friend remarked that the sexual education he received in his conservative high school consisted of being shown the films Kids and Trainspotting without any accompanying discussion or debate.  Like abstinence-only education, these tactics do not have the effects of creating sex-positive cultures or reducing teen pregnancy or abortion rates.  Instead, they incite feelings of fear and shame and force sex into the closet, where open discussions of birth control, sex toys, and STI prevention become impossible.  So, thanks, La Razón, for your hip and racey articles on sex toys–and for effectively scaring me out of using them.

Sex-positive resources:

24 de Enero: ¿Qué quiere decir ‘extremo’?

Posted in Bolivia, sexuality with tags , , , , , , , on January 24, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

Over the time that I have spent conducting research on women and gender in Bolivia, I have had the opportunity speak with scores of activists in the local feminist community, representing a variety of different organizations.  Some of these organizations work on sexual and reproductive rights; many aim to reduce violence against women; others focus on increasing women’s political participation; still others target a specific demographic, such as campesina or indigenous women.  Many of these organizations work on a combination of issues.

Since I first set foot in La Paz in January 1999, countless individuals–feminists and not-so-feminists, taxi drivers and newspaper vendors, restauranteurs and health care providers–have informed me in hushed tones that the organization Mujeres Creando is the “most extreme” of La Paz’s feminist groups.  (See

But why “extreme”?  What exactly does “extreme” mean in this context?  The home of Mujeres Creando–a sizable building on 20 de Octubre street, called Virgen de los Deseos–houses a health-food restaurant, a hostel for visitors, a small shop and bookstore, a public shower, a low-cost clinic, and childcare for its guests.  The organization holds seminars and workshops on a variety of themes, offers literacy classes, publishes magazines and books, and maintains a radio station, Radio Deseo 103.3 FM. None of these activities seem exactly “out of control.”  Perhaps so many describe Mujeres Creando as “extreme” because of their raucous street performances, where women occasionally appear in their underwear?  Or because they dare to call Bolivia’s popular indigenous president, Evo Morales, machista?  (A recent protest circulated pamphlets imagining what Evo’s life would have been like had he been born a woman.  An accompanying graffiti read, “No saldrá Eva de la costilla de Evo,” or, “Eva will not emerge from Evo’s rib.”)  Or maybe the organization seems extreme because one of its founders sports an unusual haircut and dark eye makeup–María Galindo often shaves one side of her head.

Eventually, I gave up guessing why so many paceñas refer to Mujeres Creando as the “most extreme” of the local feminist organizations, and simply asked.  The response, after much hemming and hawing, usually read like this: “Well, you know, they make women’s issues about being lesbian;” or, “They’re always so public about being lesbians;” or, “They just don’t like men at all.”

It is true that some of Mujeres Creando‘s current and former leadership is lesbian-identified.  The organization was originally founded by María Galindo and her then-partner Julieta Paredes.  After the couple split, Galindo continued as a central figure in Mujeres Creando, while Paredes moved into other areas of feminist activism.  So, those are the facts.

And the fallacies?  The manias, the myths, the “extremeness”?  It seems that, to your average paceña–even to some feminist activist paceñas–the mere existence of a couple of women organizers who do not have sex with men (and who have sex with women) is so unthinkable, that it makes the entire organization “extreme.”  Extreme, meaning = unreasonable, not representative of “real” women’s concerns, and perhaps, dismissible.

Recently, on my way up to El Alto, the trufi in which I was traveling passed the following graffiti:

“You have to be brave to be a fag.  Mujeres Creando.”

Mujeres Creando‘s graffiti are often full of puns, word games, and double entendres, and this one is no exception.  In a country where maricón, like fag in the U.S., is often used to describe an “unmanly man”–the opposite, perhaps, of a brave man–the organization points out a definite reality: that actually, one DOES have to be brave to be a fag.  Gays, lesbians, transgendered, and gender-queers around the world face discrimination and violence, making the act of being open and out one of bravery and defiance.

However, as I read this, another thought occurred to me: perhaps this phrase also expresses the reality that Mujeres Creando and its members–gay and straight–face daily.  Perhaps in Bolivia, where being gay–or even being part of an organization whose leadership is gay–means being labeled as “extreme” (again, = unreasonable, dismissible), you DO have to be brave.  You have to be brave to be out: as a fag, as a feminist, and even, as a woman.