Latina Immigrant Women Sexuality: An Interdisciplinary Literature Review and Critique

How do Latina women reconcile their sexuality with their cultural roles? What are the ways in which some aspects of migration may affect Latinas’ sexual behavior?

In a quest to answer these questions, I analyzed multiple works from the disciplines of sociology, public health, and psychology concerning the sexuality of Latina immigrant women within urban settings. I initially sought answers from my own experience as a Latina who grew up in South Chicago. After reading Erotic Journeys by Gloria Gonzalez-Lopez, I realized I had based my questions on assumptions of acculturation — the process through which immigrant individuals assimilate into the dominant culture — which not all Latinas go through. Gonzalez-Lopez’s book takes an intersectional approach to the sexuality of Mexican Latina immigrants living in urban communities by taking into account every part of their socioeconomic background. She highlights two of the main academic approaches to sexuality: the transnational model and the model of assimilation/sexual acculturation. The first is a sociological approach used to compare the way in which women learn to discuss sexuality within their friends and families in their native countries versus across the border. The latter is a psychological approach that attributes Latinas’ sexual behaviors and attitudes to the phenomenon of acculturation. I used her sociological arguments and theories as the basis of this review in three aspects of the topic that stood out in all works: sexual health and prevention, the naturalization of sexuality as a family affair.

The purpose of this literature review is to outline the theories applied to the study of Latina immigrant sexuality, how they are applied, and how these theories may either help or hinder the advancement of Latina women. One of the main considerations I took when reviewing each publication was whether the authors practiced intersectional methods. Hazel Carby (1992) argues that given women of color have historically been defined as less than human, race and gender are two constructs which cannot be paralleled because they require different analysis. The ways in which women of color are oppressed require different analytical processes (than those of white women); for example, men of color cannot dominate women in the same way as white males because of racism. Therefore, it’s important that when social scientists analyze Latina sexuality they take social discourses — ways in which power, social practices, and other forces dictate how a society creates knowledge — into consideration. Discourses of race, religion, and gender play a huge part in my topic.

Sexual Health and Prevention

Gloria Gonzalez-Lopez points out that the immigration plight of Latinas is an underwhelming experience when looking at their new mental, physical and sexual health outlook in the US. First, the process of migration takes a toll in their health. Sandra Catalina Ochoa highlights stages of migration in which Latinas become more vulnerable to STIs such as leaving their country, the migration journey, and living a in a new place (Ochoa and Sampalis 2014). Each part of the journey poses different risks; for example, traveling from one country to another makes women have to stop in transit stations where their likelihood of being sexually assaulted triples. Then they face unfavorable statistics as soon as they start their lives in the US with nearly double the rate of cervical cancer as white women (Lechuga, 2016).

Gonzalez-Lopez finds that socioeconomic background shapes Latinas’ views of AIDS (and other sexually transmitted diseases such as HPV), and therefore shapes how they perceive how safe they are from STIs. Within married, low-income Latina immigrants, their acceptance of their gender inequality leads them to accept the perception of safety from their partners as a safeguard (Gonzalez-Lopez, 2005, p 145). Some women reported they had faith in their husbands to use protection if they ever cheated, therefore giving themselves a sense of protection. It’s easy to see how these perceived notions of safety from STDs can lead to what researchers call “ethnic disparities”, such as the disproportionately high rate of cervical cancer among Latinas. Academics in the field of public health aim to understand more than just the socioeconomic context of what leads to ethnic disparities in sexual health by analyzing the barriers of HPV vaccine uptake (Lechuga 2014) and the family and cultural influences on cervical cancer screening (Madhivanan 2016).

Julia Lechuga employs psychological health behavior theory in order to analyze the survey results of Latina mothers who were asked about their knowledge of HPV, the HPV vaccine, and their notions about vaccinating their underage daughters. The health belief model (HBM) of psychological health behavior states that the perceived severity of a disease and accompanying notions are what primarily influence people’s course of prevention. The theory of planned behavior (TPB) compliments the HBM by incorporating the influence of norms by significant others (Lechuga 2014, p. 174). Though the HBM is a widely recognized theory of public health, it is insufficient at describing Latina sexual health behaviors of prevention because it would not explain how some Latina immigrant women are fully aware of the consequences of certain diseases yet choose to not vaccinate against them. Purdina Madhivanan (2016) employs the PEN-3 theoretical framework, which takes into account cultural identity, relationships and expectations, and cultural empowerment. When these concepts are analyzed together, the make up a more contextualized view of health decision making (p. 712).

PEN 3 Health behavior cultural model

Both studies address the need for more comprehensive research of Latino populations. Lechuga proposed the heterogeneous nature of the Latino population as the reason for mixed findings about sexual health decision making. Underserved Latinas in urban diverse communities are found to have lower knowledge about HPV whereas other studies conclude the opposite when the research looks into different locations or economic classes. However, the acculturation model still comes up in her research: “More acculturated Latinas report more knowledge about HPV and the vaccine” (Lechuga et al 2016, p. 174). “Acculturation” can be ascribed any meaning by social scientists, and they typically assume Latina immigrants do away with their own cultural beliefs and adopt new ones which is not always the case. Whereas, Madhivanan conducted focus group discussions with Latina immigrants in Miami Dade County and approached intersectionality by accounting for study subjects’ nationalities because “Latino is a complex construction that describes a person currently living in the United States of Spanish speaking heritage from more than 30 countries” (Madhivanana et al 2016, p. 716). She also notes that different Hispanic communities across different regions may develop different cancer screening preventive behaviors depending on the availability of public medical aid (p. 711).

Study subjects across the publications I reviewed expressed fear over promiscuity which affected their sexually preventive behaviors. The main part of Lechuga’s discussion concerns the way in which Latina immigrant mothers take parenting norms into consideration when making choices about vaccinating their daughters against HPV. She found that 53% expressed they were worried their daughters would become sexually active after vaccination. Study subjects also expressed the concern over being labeled as sexually promiscuous by significant others (family and friends) if they received a pap smear from a male gynecologist (Madhivanana et al 2016). Gonzalez-Lopez argues that promiscuity is “labeled as a sexual danger associated with modernity and urban life” among Mexican immigrants (p. 234). Ultimately, to achieve a better status of sexual health for Latina immigrants it’s necessary to change the negative perceptions of promiscuity and thus of women who choose to have multiple partners. But these perceptions are rooted in ideologies of sexuality as a family affair.

The Naturalization of Sexuality as a Public/Family Affair

One of the markers of Latina sexuality according to Gonzalez-Lopez is sex and its consequences turned into a public and family affair. The biggest line of evidence has to do with coercive marriages because of the way “pregnancy makes sex visible” (Gonzalez-Lopez p. 102). The characteristics of family as an institution are evident by dictating principles of masculinity (p. 103) — men marry women that they impregnate in order to not deviate from proper family morals. Furthermore, response to intercourse out of wedlock differs vastly across genders. Latina women are more likely to be forced to marry the first man they have sexual intercourse with, even when it’s a non-consensual, and/or a less pleasurable sexual encounter. The naturalization of these institutional family norms is strongest in families within urban settings. Urban settings expose people to “less rigid gender prescriptions,” a wider variety of sexual discourses, and socially progressive groups (such as Catholic pro-choice groups) (p. 99). Also, a “personal anonymity” allows immigrants to engage in their sexuality without preoccupation. Urban women receive more sexual education by their parents, but oftentimes this education is used to guilt women (p 99). Women who grow up in rural settings are protected from coercive marriages by stricter views of sexuality (specifically virginity), because they have far less opportunities outside of marriage to achieve economic stability (p 111).

Moreover, the nature of paternal property rights is engrained in Mexican Latinas’ views of sexuality due to the colonial history of Latin America. When Latina women deviate from the normal sexuality discourse, their decisions turned into public rejection by their families — particularly their fathers, the head of the family, who have a higher power relationship than mothers because of the father’s ability to remove their economic support from their daughters. The gendered nature of this construct is evident in the language that Latina women use when talking about losing their virginity: breaking the trust of the mother but “defrauding” the father (115). Laurel Richardson argues in Gender Stereotyping in the English Language that everyone is exposed to the language of the dominant culture within a place, and analysis of the language can tell a great deal about the rooted attitudes about men and women. When Latina women describe their sexual experiences, they feel guilt at having “defrauded” their fathers: “I started to cry and felt so ashamed of myself. And I felt also ashamed because había defraudado a mi mamá [I had defrauded my mother]. My father, fortunately, had died three years earlier . . . because if he had been alive I do not think I would have done it (p. 102)”. A woman named Fernanda in Gonzalez-Lopez’s study had felt that she had cheated her mother, and the death of her father had made it possible for her to possess her own sexuality (p. 102). The literal meaning of defraudar is to illegally obtain money from someone by deception. So within the Spanish language, for women to take ownership of their own bodies and having chosen to act upon their sexualities is seen as taking their father’s property. Gonzalez-Lopez thus underscores how the archaic patriarchal notion of paternal property rights is still present in the Spanish language, and it continues to oppress Latina immigrant women by making their sexuality inherently public to their families. Deviation from cultural norms results in public shaming and guilt.

Stigma however, does not just come about from deviating from sexual norms for Latina women within their families — it comes from society at large, which categorizes Latina women as sexually available and exotic women. The naturalization of their sexuality as a public affair has contributed to the stereotype of the Latina submissive housewife — who cooks, cleans, raises children and satisfies their man sexually. Women of color suffer from what Patricia Hill Collins calls “sexualized racism”, the ways in which sexual stereotypes of people of color arise. She argues that black women and other women of color are victims of the racialization of promiscuity. In the predominantly Christian United States, sensuality, expressiveness and spirituality linked to bodies of color were deemed sinful and deviant, and therefore used as a justification of racism and sexual violence (Collins 2005). When Latina immigrant women move to the US, they meet with clashing dominant discourses of their sexuality: the sensual Latina temptress derived from Americans’ notions of Latinas’ promiscuity, and their own Catholic cult of virginity.

Media representations of Latina women are racially sexualized

I elucidate on this class of ideologies in the next section, but this was a recurring theme in an ethnographical study of Latina immigrant women living in New York City with severe mental illnesses (Collins et al, 2008). The notion of being labeled as “locas” (crazies) by their community carried with it various associations: sexual promiscuity, worthlessness, and the impossibility of ever being a “pure, decent woman”, as dictated by the Catholic church. Mentally ill Latinas face their sexuality not only being made as a public family affair, but as a demonized part of their identities to be avoided at all costs by the rest of their community.

Virginity

Gonzalez-Lopez argues Latinas form their own notions about virginity, influenced from norms dictated from gender dynamics, religion, and colonial history, etc. She states: “Virginity has complex social meanings that go beyond those usually considered by academic and popular writings on the subject” (p. 38). Popular writings usually refer to the cult of virginity, which is dictated by the Catholic church. The church gives meaning to virginity as the only way in which women can remain “sacred and pure” and a woman who is not a virgin is “sinful and impure”. These meanings are naturally sexist and therefore help to uphold the patriarchal nature of the church. Yet Latinas rebel against this notion in their own unique ways, therefore they attribute their own meanings which is nearly always influenced by their intersecting backgrounds. One of the studied meanings that dominates is virginity as capital; which is used by women, as a socially subordinate group, to improve and maximize their life conditions and opportunities (p 73). In their native countries, Latina women face gender discourses that make it basically impossible for them to get out of their birth homes and achieve their own livelihoods. Being a virgin means retaining a value which men find attractive when picking out a woman for marriage, the only means for women to change their circumstances. When women are raped, they are deprived of this capital, and thus deprived of opportunities for economic stability as well.

Once Latina women migrate however, virginity begins to take on a meaning of collective performance through which various entities (family, friends, church, etc.) work together to enforce its moral high value. There’s a perception that there’s an obligation to remain a virgin until marriage held collectively by Latina women. To deviate from this collective performance means to be chastised and held accountable and stigmatized. This meaning matters because the way in which virginity is collectively held through social norms also dictates health behaviors. “Attribution to sexual behavior” is a cultural barrier that keeps Latinas from having pap smears at all ages, though particularly critical to young women who are virgins (Madhivanan 2016). In the Collins study (2008), mentally ill Latina women who were virgins cited refraining from getting medical help even after realizing they had significant symptoms because of fear of being labeled as a “woman of the street” by their community. “Women of the street” are women who are mentally ill and unable to economically sustain themselves other than with sex work or panhandling. The fact that these women were afraid of being labeled as something so far from their present reality (economically and socially stable) due to their illness speaks to the potential nefarious impact of socially upholding the value of virginity in a community.

Jane the Virgin explores cultural and personal notions of virginity, including that of collective performance

Conclusion

More academics across different disciplines are beginning to employ intersectional theory into their research, and coming to realize how outdated and insufficient the model of acculturation is. Latinas’ sexual health behaviors are related to their socioeconomic backgrounds and notions rooted in European colonial history still impede Latina women from achieving a sexual health status as that of their white counterparts. Cinthia Lopez-Gozalez’s book is one of the most comprehensive works of Mexican immigrant sexuality, but I would have liked to analyze books that delve into other Latin-American cultures. Ultimately I hope that this literature review will shed light into the present state of research of Latina sexuality, and will entice students and future academics into doing research that advances the Latina immigrant community.

REFERENCES

Collins, Pamela Y., Von Unger, Hella, & Armbister, Adria. (2008). Church ladies, good girls, and locas: Stigma and the intersection of gender, ethnicity, mental illness, and sexuality in relation to HIV risk. Social Science and Medicine, 67(4), 389–397. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2008.03.013

Gonzalez-Lopez, Gloria. (2005). Erotic Journeys: Mexican Immigrants and their Sex Lives. London England: University of California Press. DOI: 10.1007/s10903–014–0139-z

Lechuga, Julia. (2015). HPV Vaccine Awareness, Barriers, Intentions, and Uptake in Latina Women. Journal of Immigrant Minority Health, 18(1), 173–180.

Madhivanan, Purnima. (2015). Family and cultural influences on cervical cancer screening among immigrant Latinas in Miami Dade County, USA. Culture, Health, and Sexuality, 18(6), 710–730. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13691058.2015.1116125

Ochoa, Sandra Catalina, & Sampalis, John. (2014). Risk perception and vulnerability to STIs and HIV/AIDS among immigrant Latin-American women in Canada. Culture, Health, and Sexuality, 16(4), 412–425. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13691058.2014.884632