Sociologist considers Latina sexual identity

Lorena Garcia, assistant professor of sociology, interviewed more than 40 young Laintas and their mothers for her new book.

Don’t paint Latina girls and their sexual lives with a broad brush. That’s the message a UIC sociologist hopes to convey in a new book.

Respect Yourself, Protect Yourself: Latina Girls and Sexual Identity, (New York University Press, 2012) describes young Latinas’ sexual experiences, how they learn about safe sex and how they go about practicing it.

The book’s title is a slogan many of the interviewees encounter in their daily lives and try to live by, but it has a different meaning for each individual, says author Lorena Garcia, assistant professor of sociology.

“It’s also about getting respect in terms of a more empowered position, given the gender inequalities they face in relationships,” Garcia said.

“They see their sexuality, or sexual behavior, or being able to protect themselves, as a way to resist stereotypes. The girls didn’t necessarily see that being sexually active was incompatible with being educationally successful.”

Garcia, who conducted the two-year study through a partnership with four community organizations in Chicago, details findings from interviews with more than 40 young Latinas and their mothers. The girls, ages 13 to 18, identified themselves as sexually active and did not have children.

Readers will learn that in addition to Latinas taking an assertive approach to their sexual health, they’re having discussions with their mothers about sexuality and safe sex practices — which contradicts an assumption that this population is culturally silent on the subject of sex.

“When we hear about Latino youth and sexual experiences, we often assume they are not talking to their parents about sex,” said Garcia.

“It might not be the formal lessons we think of when we sit down and have a conversation, but mothers were talking to their daughters about their sexual respect.”

Generational and cultural messages, often based on how their parents grew up in Mexico and Puerto Rico, influence young women’s sexuality, Garcia said, as do messages in broader society.

Online resources, and conversations with trusted friends and adults, often provide the girls with assistance in their attempts to navigate safe-sex lessons.

Latina girls develop specific strategies to communicate to partners about taking precautions, such as heterosexual girls drawing on notions of masculinity, Garcia said.

“For example, if a young woman wanted her partner to get condoms, she would say, ‘A real man would go get condoms.'”

The mothers’ feedback provided valuable insight into how they make sense of their daughters’ emerging sexuality, Garcia said, while observing the girls at the community centers allowed Garcia to witness peer interaction and see moments about safe sex surface in everyday interactions.

The book also includes the girls’ opinions of school-based sex education, which they deemed “marginal” or “tied to stereotypes of Latino culture, such as lack of parental communication or Latino boys’ machismo.”

Garcia sees many opportunities for improved parental and community involvement.

“If we are committed to offering young people guidance on how to navigate the adolescent sexual landscape they find themselves in, then we need to better understand how they currently experience it, paying attention to their decision making and the meanings they assign to their sexuality and sexual practices,” she said.

bflood@uic.edu

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