Sex & Relationships

Fornicating While Latina: Why I Was Deeply Ashamed of Sex and How I Got Over It

I've worked through the sex shame imposed by my traditional Mexican upbringing.

Like many women, I've been sexualized since before I really knew what sex was. The honking, leering and whistling began when I was about 11 years old, and it happened almost everywhere in my Mexican working-class neighborhood. On a few occasions, men followed me in their cars, and as my heart thumped in my chest, I prayed they wouldn't come out and hurt me.

These men didn't care I was only a child. It didn't matter that I didn't even have breasts yet. It didn't matter that half my face was engulfed by gigantic glasses (bifocals, mind you). I hadn't even menstruated yet, and I was so dumb and innocent I still thought a penis was covered with hair. I was a nerdy kid who read fat novels, loved "Saturday Night Live" and hid her pudgy body with gigantic band T-shirts.

But to these men I was already a sexual object.

Every Mexican kid I knew grew up watching “Sabado Gigante," a game show in which a pervy old host (who somehow hasn't aged since I was five) would ogle the crap out of the scantily clad models. Our parents also watched Telemundo or Univision where the news was delivered by women dressed like high-class hookers. In mainstream American media, I rarely ever saw a Latina who wasn't hyper-sexualized, and not much has changed since then.

Sex was everywhere, and yet many of us were taught that that sex was dirty and sinful. I never even noticed these contradictions until many years later.

In high school, I was anguished everytime I had a sexual encounter. Even dry-humping sent me into a spiral of shame. I was convinced that letting a boy touch my boob made me a slut. When I told my therapist that I was overwhelmed with guilt when I engaged in any sort of sexual activity, she didn't seem to understand the deeply seated shame of a Mexican childhood. She kept asking me why I felt this way and I had no idea how to respond.

When I was a senior, my mom found a condom in my pocket when she was doing laundry. She was so angry, I seriously contemplated running away from home. How could I face her after that? By having sex, I had betrayed her. I had always been a bad Mexican daughter, but this really broke her heart. In her eyes, I'd soon be knocked up like so many girls in my community. It didn't matter that I was having safe sex. I was ruined.

Thanks to the Catholic Church, Mexican sexual attitudes and behaviors are strongly influenced by marianismo, the model of the obedient and docile woman. We are to emulate the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, and sacrifice our own needs for the sake of our husband and children. If you're not a saint, you're a whore. There was no in-between. By Mexican standards, I was an outspoken selfish slut.

One of the most popular Mexican insults is hijo/a de le chingada, which translates to son or daughter of a fucked mother. In the essay "The Sons of La Malinche," Octavio Paz writes, “Who is the Chingada? Above all, she is the Mother. Not a Mother of flesh and blood but a mythical figure. The Chingada is one of the Mexican representations of Maternity, like La Llorona or the 'long-suffering Mexican mother' we celebrate on the tenth of May.”

In traditional Mexican culture, sex is one of the worst things that can happen to a young woman.  Though the numerous creeps in my community freely sexualized me and my peers, girls who had sex, dressed sexy, or even socialized with boys were often called pirujas, putas and cualquieras. Men were rarely implicated.

I've been actively undoing this repressive inculcation throughout most of my adult life, analyzing all the contradictions and nuances. Though I've identified as a feminist since I was a young girl, the ideology wasn't enough to protect me from the shame I felt surrounding sex for most of my life. Even in college, when I felt like an independent and empowered young woman, the vestiges of guilt still gnawed at me when I engaged in casual sex. Though I objectively knew I was in charge of my own body and could do what I pleased, part of me still felt dirty.

I constantly think about my adolescence, and sometimes I still feel overwhelmed with anger. This painful time in my life is an obsession I return to again and again in my writing. Why haven't I gotten over it? Why can't I just move on with my life now that I'm a grown-ass sexually liberated woman?

It took me many years to be able to understand my childhood, my culture and my mother, a woman who carried her old-school Mexican values with her when she crossed the border in the late '70s. My mother and I probably fought on a daily basis throughout my teenage years. I was a smart-ass Americanized daughter who didn't respect her rules. I dressed funny and wanted to be left alone. My sexuality frightened her.

It wasn't until I was older that I began to realize she was simply doing her best. Where she grew up, a girl who had sex before marriage was used goods no one would want. In a place with no educational or professional opportunities, getting married was as good as it got. My mother wanted to protect me, though in doing so, she pushed me further and further away.

Last year, I became a sex columnist at the Latina edition of Cosmo magazine. When the editor offered me the gig, she said she liked my honesty and sass and thought I would give good advice. I had always written about sex in my poetry, but never for a mainstream publication. And though I have compensated for a shame-filled childhood by being a perpetually shameless adult, there was a small part of me that felt a little panicked. What would people think?

When I told my parents, they were completely unfazed. In fact, they wanted to celebrate my new role. For a while, my mom carried the magazine everywhere to show the world my column. The issue was even sent to our hometown in Mexico and made its rounds throughout my large extended family. To my surprise, everyone was delighted even though I was encouraging women to use vibrators and have one-night stands. Perhaps our old-fashioned mothers, aunts and grandmothers are changing along with us.

Through my sex writing, one of my goals has been to become a sex cheerleader for Latinas like me. I know so many women still trying to unpack all of their cultural baggage, women who can't have sex without being stung with guilt. Maybe our mothers and grandmothers couldn't, but we can exist outside the binaries now. We don't have to let the world decide who we will be. Call me romantic, call me sentimental, but I think we can wage revolution with our bodies.

Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and freelance writer living in Chicago.