Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

LATIN AMERICA: The Traditional Model of Masculinity or ‘Machismo’

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Apr 3 2003 (IPS) - According to the code of the true Latin American ”macho”, a real man is tough, independent, aggressive, dominant, sexually experienced, competitive and emotionally cool.

”Men don’t cry, they can’t grow up clinging to their mother’s skirts, they never turn down a come-on from a woman, they don’t touch each other, and their world is the street, not the home,” Rogelio Cabrera, a 42-year-old Cuban professional, told IPS.

But Cabrera admitted in private that he ”helps” his wife out and does some of the cleaning and cooking, ”as long as the neighbours aren’t watching.” When asked whether he would acknowledge that in public, he replied ”not in your wildest dreams.”

A similar ”machista” cultural script can be found, with slight variations, throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, according to a study carried out by the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO) among male adolescents in nine countries.

”Becoming Men: The Social Construction of Masculinity among Adolescents and its Risks” is the title of the study conducted in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico and Nicaragua.

The traditional Latin American concept of masculinity is defined as a set of norms that govern the different spheres of daily life, which are not biologically determined, but rather ”historical, cultural, psycho-social and interpersonal” in nature, according to the report.

The study was presented at the 16th World Congress on Sexology, which drew more than 1,000 experts from a wide range of disciplines and representatives of international bodies to Havana in mid-March.

The cultural identity of ”men is built on a relationship of ‘opposition’ to women, and they must prove themselves to be men in the eyes of their peers,” said one of the authors of the study, Chilean psychiatrist Rodrigo Aguirre.

Men in Latin America and the Caribbean feel unrelenting pressure to achieve and demonstrate consistent masculinity in all spheres of their lives.

For example, the status a young man achieves when he can boast of sexual conquests is often more important than the feelings involved in a relationship with a woman, said Aguirre.

”Machismo” is generally equated with traits like bravado, sexual prowess, protecting one’s honour and a willingness to face danger, according to PAHO experts.

The traditional model of masculinity that predominates in the region is one that ”subordinates any biomedical or epidemiological risk to the greater danger: ‘Not being a man’, or the equivalent, according to that model, being a ‘maricon’ (faggot or pansy),” said Aguirre.

Thus, according to the authors of the study, the ”machista” code of behaviour often has negative consequences for men’s health, and rigid gender stereotypes put males in a vulnerable position starting in childhood.

High-risk or ”problematic behaviour in the sphere of health, such as violence, risk of infection by HIV (the AIDS virus), addictions, teenage fatherhood,” unprotected sex and promiscuity can arise from the traditional ”machista” model of masculinity.

Cultural norms indicate – with variations depending on the country – that men must ”never say no” to temptations on the street, which exposes many adolescents to damage from tobacco, alcohol and drugs.

The script also justifies the use of violence – even against women – as a masculine form of channeling emotions or frustrations. In addition, ”machistas” scorn any attention to personal care, such as visits to a doctor, as a sign of weakness.

Many men regard visiting a doctor as a failure to live up to the prescribed code of stoicism. That reluctance, coupled with other norms governing masculinity, leads to an increase in the number of men who tend to engage in unprotected sexual activity, and hence an increase in vulnerability to the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

PAHO estimates that the health burden for men is 26 percent higher than for women in Latin America and the Caribbean, with the difference mainly associated with the social construction of masculinity.

Nevertheless, the PAHO study found ”fissures” in the predominant image of masculinity, which are ”potential factors of change,” although they have not yet taken shape as alternative cultural models, said Aguirre.

The researchers found, for example, notions that question traditional concepts, such as ”women can also take the initiative” and ”relationships are not only sexual, but sentimental as well.”

In Aguirre’s view, campaigns for reproductive health and prevention of AIDS and other STDs have been ineffective up to now because they were based on concepts that run counter to the way male adolescents see the world.

It is necessary for out-reach efforts to be ”based on the process of the construction of the masculine identity, and not only on high-risk behaviours,” while ”taking advantage of the fissures being produced” to introduce new approaches, said the PAHO consultant.

Along those lines, research carried out among male students at the Faculty of Medical Sciences in Pinar del Río, 150 kms from the Cuban capital, found that discussing and reflecting on gender roles can lead to conceptual changes among men regarding what is appropriate masculine behaviour.

”After using different techniques, the young men recognised that it was ok to cry or feel affection. But what they would not yield an inch on was anything that could remotely associate them with homosexuality,” Cuban psychologist Beatriz Hernández, the lead author of the Pinar del Río study, commented to IPS.

”If you set blindfolded men and women loose in a room, they love to reach out and touch each other, but the situation is totally different when it is just men: they don’t even want to take a single step,” she said.

Men are ”dominant people dominated by their dominion,” Hernández summed up. They experience ”a constant struggle to prove to other men and to women that they are not gay,” pressure ”that can cause them psychological damage,” she noted.

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