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Sex and the Barrio: A Clash of Faith in Latin America
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Buenos Aires—On a cold and rainy evening, some 200 women march through the center of Buenos Aires to raise awareness about sexual violence. Despite the weather, many demonstrators flaunt their femininity in miniskirts and knee-high boots, their bare skin exposed to the chilly winter drizzle. This "Marcha de las Putas" is part of the global SlutWalk movement protesting the idea that women dressed in revealing clothing are asking to get raped. Among the leather and lace that stop traffic along the streets of the South American capital, a topless young woman with pierced nipples and tattoos marches alongside an 8-year-old girl accompanied by her mother and grandmother. The family is carrying a poster that declares in Spanish, "I'm a slut. You're a slut. Your mom's a slut." As the women—and some male supporters—chant slogans affirming their right to decide who they want to sleep with, amused bystanders cheer, leering boys snap photos with camera phones, and elderly women mutter their disapproval.

The SlutWalk protests began last April in Toronto when a police officer told a university class that women should not dress like "sluts" if they don't want to get raped. His comment and the consequent protests have inspired women around the world to organize similar demonstrations. In Latin America, where sexual violence and violence against women are serious problems, there is an urgent need to bring attention to these issues. SlutWalks have swept the region, taking place even in more conservative countries like Nicaragua and Guatemala. In Costa Rica, the SlutWalk in August took on a decidedly anti-Catholic tone, as protesters chanted, "Get your rosaries off our ovaries" and "Jesus loves sluts," in response to a sermon from one of the country's leading Catholic clergymen earlier that month. Women should dress modestly to avoid being "objectified," he observed, adding that the purpose of sex is "fertilization." The clash between traditional and feminist views escalated when the march reached the Metropolitan Cathedral of San José just as the faithful were leaving mass.

Changing Trends

Attitudes toward sex and sexuality are evolving, if slowly, in Latin America. Much of the progress is determined by the vastly divergent power of the Catholic Church across the continent. Despite objection from Catholic officials, same-sex marriage is now legal in Mexico City and Argentina. Abortions are also legal in Mexico's capital. Such progressive legislation speaks to an accelerating secularization, although the cultural shift is far from universal. In many parts of the region, conservative Catholic views on social issues continue to dominate the public and educational discourse, often to the detriment of the region's poorest women and youth.

In Nicaragua, where the church still exerts strong influence, a law prohibits all abortions, including extreme cases such as pregnancies endangering the mother's life or resulting from rape. Since the law was passed in 2006, mothers and doctors alike risk imprisonment if they are suspected of inducing or performing abortions. Although exact numbers are hard to find, dozens of women die of complications arising from the denial of medical procedures, maternal suicides, and illegal abortions.

Hundreds of women flooded the streets of Managua on September 28—the date designated since 1990 as the Day for the Decriminalization of Abortion in Latin America. They carried colorful cardboard butterflies, the symbol of this movement, to show solidarity with the women who have lost their lives as a result of the law. There was a similar protest on October 26, in recognition of the date five years earlier when the law was passed. One organizer, Magaly Quintana, says that in Nicaragua, where maternal mortality costs the lives of 100 women per 100,000 live births every year, a significant percentage could have been saved if emergency abortions were allowed. Maternal mortality could be further reduced with proper family planning, but here, as in much of the region, discussion of sexuality remains largely taboo. Moreover, access to sex education and contraception is limited, and teen pregnancies, sexual violence, and maternal death continue to affect women and their families.

The Catholic Church has historically been a major force in the political and social affairs of the...

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