Sexuality and Gender in Chile

Valparaiso, Chile.
Valparaiso, Chile.

This blog entry was written during my first few weeks studying abroad in Chile. I was just testing the waters at the time and had yet to immerse myself in the culture.

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“What does your name signal to others?” my professor asks her estadounidense students (or gringos, as we are fondly referred to) during my first class here in Chile. When analyzing my own name, I point to the possible social, ethnic, national, and class connotations of my name. It doesn’t cross my mind to address my sex or gender. That is, that my name signals to others that I identify as a woman and that others will interact with me accordingly. However, as I have come to realize in my short time in South America, one’s gender is incredibly salient and, to a certain extent, forms the parameters for one’s behavior in society. Moreover, it has caused me to think deeply about the role gender plays in my daily life in the United States.

Although I have only been in Valparaíso for two weeks, I have already noticed marked differences between my familiar North American culture and that of Chile. While I quickly adjusted to the more relaxed pace of life and the friendly atmosphere, I have had more difficulty dealing with such disparities in gender relations – one of the essential underpinnings of society here.

During our orientation, the women in our group were told not to wear shorts, despite the almost eighty-degree weather, for fear of being catcalled on the street. According to the orientation advisors, men on the streets regularly “tirar piropos,” or catcall women, especially gringas. I have found that this is the case regardless of what one wears. Although I fully intended to address the comments head-on, we were also advised to submit to the comments without confronting the “jotes” or catcallers at all as this could potentially exacerbate the situation. Growing up in the States (Texas, to be specific), I always felt comfortable being assertive and speaking up for myself. So, I was taken aback by being told to emulate the archetypal submissive woman, a role I am not accustomed to playing.

In discussing the matter with a Chilean young man, he agreed with the orientation advisors, but said that when he studied abroad in the United States, several female friends of his encountered the same problem in the States. Of course women are subject to catcalling in the United States. Likewise, men of both cultures are flooded with media that insist on a definition of masculinity that involves overt heterosexuality, domination and, occasionally, even violence. My conversation with the Chilean man served to remind me that these issues are not specific to any country or region, but, rather, are universal, albeit to varying degrees and manifest themselves in various ways.

Much of Chilean society is rooted in presumed gender differences and the supposed heterosexuality of all its members. For example, to my very devout Catholic host mother, it is perfectly acceptable for me to go out with female friends and spend the night at their houses, if I so choose. However, doing the same with a male is strictly forbidden – as is having a male in our house for any length of time. My host sister, who is my age, must abide by the same rules. The underlying intention is to regulate the sexual activity of young adults, presumably who are all interested in sex and are all exclusively attracted to members of the opposite sex. These rules, therefore, make less sense when applied to the asexual, gay, and bisexual members of my study abroad group. Ultimately, many of these individuals have decided not to come out to their host families as they worry how the families will respond, given the rigid cultural norms regarding gender and sexuality.

I hope that through my experiences here in Chile throughout the next five months I can more fully analyze and appreciate the culture of my own country as well as that of my new home. Additionally, I hope to make at least a small impact on my friends and family here through open discussion and an intention to learn and grow personally as well.

Born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, Jennifer Tubbs is a senior in the SFS studying Regional and Comparative Studies with a focus on human rights in Latin America at Georgetown University. During spring 2014, Jennifer studied abroad in Valparaíso, Chile at La Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso. She is very interested in the rights of indigenous populations in Latin America and thoroughly enjoyed hiking, swimming, and biking throughout the Andean region. 

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