Sexy in Guatemala, Part 2

(Continued)

When I say that there is no “sexy in Guatemala,” it comes down to all of this. How can a woman have confidence in her sensuality when she is constantly receiving feedback against it? A woman revealing cleavage or wearing a dress, skirt, or shorts above her knees might as well assume there are invisible signs saying “Grab Me” across her chest and bum that only men can see. And of course, if something happens to her, the attitude is that it was her fault because she shouldn’t have been wearing such clothing. And if something happens to her when she was by herself, she “should have known better than to go anywhere alone.”

Because there is so much violence and mistreatment of women, women are not taught that they are free to love their bodies and express their sexuality as it relates to being a woman. Instead, the main form of female validation comes attached with motherhood. Other forms of validation are associated with the onslaught of catcalls when a woman gets attention from dressing in a so-called “sexy” or revealing manner; catcalls can be interpreted as a measure of worth very similar to the way that “likes” on social media photos and posts can affect a young person’s self-esteem. “Attention I receive means that I am being seen.” People want to be seen, to matter, and unfortunately, the sources of this validation sometimes promote a cycle of behavior that emphasizes superficial values and encourages negative behavior.

Coming off of the time I spent in the presence of Pedro, Jeffrey, and Don, I finally put my finger on all the ways I had changed my behavior and appearance while living in Guatemala so I could deflect unwanted attention, but it made me SO mad to realize that I had been suppressing a large part of who I was in order to “blend in” and protect myself. It occurred to me that women in Guatemala do this on a regular basis, so much so that it is now second nature to them to sacrifice their true identities and desires. When I realized all of this, I became irate and defiant all at once, determined to tackle this issue as much as I possibly could in the short amount of time that was remaining in my service term. I became much more assertive, standing taller and acting boldly, even to the degree of dressing in a way that made me feel both feminine and good inside–instead of trying to hide. I started embracing everything feminine and loving all parts of being woman. I didn’t want Guatemala to take that from me, nor did I want the young, kind, intelligent Guatemalan women whom I came to deeply care about to believe that, for safety’s sake, they had to shadow their identities as women and the individuals that they are for the rest of their lives.

I started close and small-scale with the cat callers in the community of San Andrés Sajcabajá, where I lived and worked. As one person, it wouldn’t have been realistic to take on a tourist city like Antigua or Panajachel, but in a small rural town, it was absolutely possible. Every time I got cat-called or whistled at as I was walking down the street, instead of ignoring it like I used to do and like most of the other women in town do, I would turn around and walk up to the group of men where the call came from and asked who had done it. In developing countries like Guatemala, people will do everything possible to avoid confrontation so the way I directly approached these groups was probably a tad bit embarrassing to the young men in the group. (My intention was always to train, not to humiliate.) I didn’t get mad or say anything rude back to the boys (I usually wouldn’t bother with older men), but I did let them know that I wasn’t a dog, or a cat, or any type of animal for that matter, and that I had a name and if they wanted to talk with me in the future, I would prefer that they greet me with a simple “good morning” or “good afternoon” and that they call me “Seño,” which is short for Señorita and means “Ms.”, or that they address me by my name, which I then provided. I also let them know that if they continued to speak to me as if I were an animal, I wouldn’t have a problem regarding them in an equally animal-like tone, even throwing rocks at them the same way they like to throw rocks at the street dogs. I said that ladies prefer to be treated respectfully, and then I wished them a good day and went on my way.

Surprisingly, the boys actually responded to my requests and the cat calls in my direction significantly subsided throughout the town as the cordial greetings replaced them, proving that this behavior was not only a learned behavior, but that these boys were open to guidance–even if it came from a woman.

In addition to that, many of the girls in town with whom I worked or shared friendship even started noticing it. The girls in one of the nutrition courses with cooking classes that I held at my house started asking me if I could teach the boys how to be respectful to them as well. They used to ask me for all sorts of love advice as well (which was funny because I was single for the majority of the time they knew me), but they trusted me enough to listen as I encouraged them to take their time to find a quality catch. Their requests launched me into the most meaningful aspect of my service which was facilitating gender role workshops at their school. It was extremely important because it was something that they ASKED me for, something they were interested in, something that could be sustainable and effect real change.

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I grew close with the small group of young women who came to house for nutrition courses and cooking classes. We discussed almost every topic in our time together and over shared meals. From left: Manuela, Juana, me, Angee and her daughter Alexandra, and Maria Jose.

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These young women (Manuela, Angela, Juana, and MaJo) felt very comfortable in my home and were the group of girls constantly consulting me for love advice and requesting that I teach the boys how to respect them.

First Round of Workshops at Magisterio

My work at Magisterio, the institute for teachers in training in San Andrés, had actually begun in the fall of 2012. Peace Corps had trained all PCVs to educate about HIV/AIDS and encouraged us to seek opportunities to run the workshops within our communities. The workshop booklets we had were already in Spanish and came complete with enough activities (and materials) to run a 4-hour interactive training session–although we would usually cut some activities to keep it within a two and a half hour time slot. The average age range for students at Magisterio was 16-21 so it was the perfect group to educate about HIV/AIDS. In addition, there were actually four documented persons [among a total municipal population of 30,000 spread throughout 69 villages] living with HIV/AIDS in the municipality of San Andrés, which was relatively isolated in comparison to other municipalities of Guatemala being that there was not even a paved road to the main town. In the case that a viral epidemic of any sort took off, it could be catastrophic amongst an isolated population which is why it was particularly imperative to teach about HIV/AIDS–what it is, how it works, how it spreads, and how to prevent contracting it.

One afternoon as I was walking down the street in town, I passed a teenage girl, Mayli, whom I had just met the week prior through another friend. I knew she attended Magisterio so I asked her if she and her peers had ever received any HIV/AIDS training at school. She replied, “No, but what we really need is to learn how to prevent pregnancy.” Bingo. I requested that she introduce me to the director of Magisterio, Don Tono, so I could ask for permission to teach. Not only was Don Tono overjoyed to have a Peace Corps Volunteer teach at his school (it turns out he interacted with an English-teaching PCV when he was a child in the department of San Marcos, where he is from), but he pretty much gave me free reign of the place, telling me, “This is your house, do whatever you want.” Immediately after that, I began teaching SexEd workshops to the students, explaining the anatomy and physiology of the male/female reproductive systems, introducing different methods of family planning, and covering material from the HIV/AIDS workshop.

The classes at Magisterio were divided into 10 sections, each of which had anywhere from 20 to 40 male and female students (depending on the grade level and section) and totaled about 300 students school wide. When I first got into the classrooms, I asked the students to raise their hands if they had ever received any lessons about “the birds and the bees” prior to me entering the school. Only about three or four students per class raised their hands. Considering that about 25% of the ~300 students were already married and/or had children, it seemed odd that most of them had never been exposed to SexEd and family planning so I asked them why they thought that was the case. They said that their parents think that if they don’t talk about sex with their kids, it will prevent their kids from becoming sexually active so soon. The students also speculated that some of the reasons could be that sex is a taboo topic which makes it embarrassing or uncomfortable for their parents to discuss, or that their parents hadn’t received enough education about it themselves or were taught different methods. In any case, for the majority of students, the workshops I taught were the first time they had received formal education around the topic (and I was happy that I could really put my biology background into use for this!).

When the school year came to an end, Don Tono asked me to come back when school started again because the students loved the workshops and wanted more. It was during that school break that some of the girls I knew made the request that I teach the boys how to respect the girls. Based on that request, I modified the SexEd workshop and expanded it into a 3-workshop series covering gender role stereotypes, responsible sexuality, and family planning/reproductive health.

Gender Role Stereotype Workshops

The gender role stereotype workshop was powerful in that I played the role of the facilitator while the students basically taught each other. I led an icebreaker in each section where we stood in a circle and each person had to say their name followed by “I am a man/woman because I have [blank] or I like [blank].” We had the obvious physical differences that drew giggles when identified, but there were also examples such as “I am a man because I play soccer/work in the fields/like the color blue/etc.” as well as “I am a woman because I like to cook/I spend time with my friends/I wear jewelry/etc.” At the end of the icebreaker, we identified that, yes, some of the things listed–mostly physical differences–DO distinguish one gender from the other. However, likes and dislikes or activity preferences are often based on personality and are not necessarily a factor that determines whether a person is a male or female. Some girls like to play soccer or say blue is their favorite color, and there are men who love to cook or who wear bracelets, rings, necklaces, etc. The takeaway points from this activity were to demonstrate 1) how easily we categorize gender differences, 2) how those assumptions create stereotypes, 3) that, yes, there ARE different physical traits and capabilities between women and men, but 4) that every individual has a unique personality, and 5) that all women and men should have equal rights, freedoms, and opportunities. This activity paved the way for a productive session.

After introducing the concept of stereotypes and how they can lead to the mistreatment of one group or another, I broke the students into four groups–two boys-only and two girls-only groups. One boy group and one girl group each worked separately on making a poster of what came to mind when I said, “What is a man or what does it mean to be a man?” And the other boy group and girl group worked separately on their poster of “what is a woman or what does it mean to be a woman?” Each group subsequently presented their posters to the class, showing both men’s and women’s perspectives on the opposite gender as well as their own. I was delighted with the results of this activity because it was eye-opening for the students to see that men and women really do think differently, and it also stirred up a lot of controversy about gender role stereotypes which forced the students to have a discussion about it, understand it better, and seek productive solutions.

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A boys’ group presenting their version of “What is a woman?”

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At Magisterio, the girls’ poster presentation of “What is a woman?”

The poster presentations were fascinating in that the boy groups usually depicted their man or woman as a drawing, focusing on the physical aspects of the gender, accentuating the man’s big muscles and the woman’s boobs in particular. In contrast, the girl group posters usually involved a collection of descriptive words and phrases; in the case that they did draw pictures, their woman was in a dress or skirt and top and their man was clothed, as well, with no extra attention given to his biceps. This exercise showed a significant difference in how 16- to 21-year-old boys versus girls have different trains of thought: the boys placed more importance on physical attributes while the girls focused on behaviors that elicited an emotional response. The students basically demonstrated to each other and themselves how very differently the genders tend to operate–all I did was ask them to make a poster.

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The boys’ poster presentation of “What is a man?” Note the inflated muscles!

While both the girls and boys described their own gender as intelligent and unique, there were some differences in perspective of the opposite gender. When the boys used descriptive words for their “woman” poster, they were generally very positive and along the lines of “mother, homemaker, nurturing, caring, beautiful, has a big heart.” In contrast, the majority of the the girls’ posters for a “man” mentioned “father, protector, strong” along with “liars, cheaters, unfaithful, and womanizers.” This is when things got interesting. The fact that all those negative connotations immediately came to women’s minds when describing a man was very telling of the societal standards. I vividly remember one section of students where this situation highly offended the boys in the classroom and the tension in the room was so high that I seriously thought it was going to break out into a full-blown gender war. But it didn’t. In fact, it was the perfect lead-in to tackling the gender role stereotypes that created the situation in the first place.

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A girl group presenting their descriptions of “What is a man?” Notice the thorough analysis that took up two posters. Funny how the girls’ groups each used two posters for their presentations while the boys’ groups used only one poster each. A raw example of how differently men and women think!

We identified how stereotypes are born as well as what some of the dangers of acting on them are. Many of the boys felt that it was unfair that the girls labeled them as unfaithful, lazy, lying womanizers; they claimed that they were honest and hardworking and that they had never cheated on a girlfriend. We discussed how “a few bad apples can ruin the whole barrel” and that the actions of just a few people in the group can create a reputation for the entire group, sometimes eliciting unfair judgments toward those who haven’t done anything to deserve them. It rang true for both sides–the boys and the girls. And in that safe space during the workshop, both sides spoke up and had an open conversation about how they feel when one side or the other makes generalizations about their gender. It was neat for me to witness the healing and growth that took place while the students worked through their frustrations and misunderstandings revolving around gender stereotypes–it seemed almost as if I were guiding couples’ therapy sessions!

Following that topic, I would pick a male volunteer to come to the front of the room so we could run through a reverse “cat calling” situation where I got to be the cat caller, sitting in a chair at the front of the room, and the boy had to walk back and forth across the room in front of me each time as I made whistling and “ch-ch” sounds at him (like the ones boys make toward women in the streets) and hollered things like, “I love you, baby,” “Hola, sexy,” and “Ow! Qué guapo” as I smacked my lips and looked him up and down. Every time we did this activity, the class was in stitches laughing their butts off. When I finally gave the brave volunteer reprieve from passing back and forth in front of me, I would ask him to share how he felt about me completely objectifying him. The volunteer often commented that he didn’t want to walk in front of me anymore or that it felt really weird that I was whistling at him–finally being able to relate to how girls feel when they walk down the street. That was a great opportunity to open the floor up for the girls in the room to share more of their experiences getting cat-called. We then discussed everything from why the boys do it to what other ways boys and girls can speak to each other and get each others’ attention in respectful ways.

To conclude the workshop, we summarized the differences between men and women and decided as a class that both genders are pretty awesome and each brings unique contributions to society. Instead of having men and women in competition with one another and working against each other, they should instead support their differences, highlighting them even, and appreciate how men and women complement each other. I suggested that they think of what they could achieve by putting their skill sets together instead of trying to bring each other down–and that gender roles in society are NOT still what they had been for years. I wrapped up the workshop by reminding them to find look for ways to respectfully communicate so they can break down the ingrained stereotypes, one person at a time.

These gender role workshops were absolutely magical to me. The students didn’t really get the opportunity to talk about these issues in a constructive manner anywhere else which was a bummer because they had so much to say and shared so many good ideas. They were totally engrossed in these workshops. I wish I had more time to facilitate projects that came from the kids. They were hungry for information and exploration of these topics.

Responsible Sexuality Workshops

The next workshop topic in the series, responsible sexuality, perfectly piggy-backed onto the gender role workshops because the students were already primed to be on an equal playing field. “Responsible sexuality” was based on the idea that a person’s sexuality is linked very closely to his or her identity as a person and that each individual–male or female–has both a right and an obligation to make responsible decisions accounting for both the pros and cons of engaging in sexual activity. I emphasized the fact that all people develop at their own paces and that no one should be rushed into having to make these big decisions before they are ready to.

My aim for this round of workshops was to influence the students (in their late teenage and young adult years) to to view sex as a natural part of being human, to encourage them to regard it as a gift that is best when it is respected and appreciated, and to give them some necessary tools to be able to protect themselves and their futures and actually plan when they are ready to have children as opposed to being surprised by an unplanned pregnancy. In that age group, especially in that rural society where people often marry while they are still teenagers, sexual activity is on the rise. In my opinion, you can either treat them like children, pretending they are not doing anything and tell them not to do anything…OR…you can treat them like adults, educate them, and transfer the responsibility into their hands. The latter approach was met with attentive, participatory, curious and eager-to-learn young people. (Well, let’s be real…I was talking about sex–of course they were paying attention!)

One activity we did was to have an open discussion about the pros and cons of sex. Some of the “pros” that the students came up with were the following: it feels good, it is a means to have children and grow a family, it is an expression of love for one’s spouse/partner, it can be a stress release, and it is fun. Everyone was excited to discuss these positive aspects in a safe space where they wouldn’t be judged or ridiculed for admitting that they believed that sex was a good thing. Using this topic as a launching point, I pointed out that in life when there exists a possibility of attaining great pleasure by doing a specific activity, there is often also a significant cost and therefore implied responsibility associated with that activity. The greater the risk, the greater the reward.

Naturally from that point, the discussion shifted to listing off the “cons” of sex which included the following: unplanned pregnancies, transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, sexual abuse/violence/rape, and broken hearts. Taking some of those things a step further highlighted a secondary negative effect which was the financial burden that having a child or requiring medical treatment could place on the couple and their families if they were not properly prepared to take it on. Knowing that I would be taking a deeper dive with the students into family planning and reproductive health in the third workshop, I guided this particular discussion toward the exploration and analysis of the other two major “cons” listed, starting with broken hearts.

Being that we were having an open discussion, comments and opinions were encouraged from both the boys and the girls. I distinctly remember how one boy’s comment that he just likes to “get in and get out” caused a big stir in the class. He was vocal about it, surprising both the girls as well as many of the boys in the class, but it was a perfect example of how boys and girls are wired differently. Many of the girls were offended by this guy’s comment, and shared their perspective of how much love and emotion is associated with their idea of intimacy. We continued this exploration of emotions and noted that it does seem that girls get attached more easily than boys when they start dating someone, and they get especially heartbroken when they give a piece of their heart to someone who moves on quickly which can lead to distrust in all men, or the creation of stereotypes due to one bad experience. The challenge I put forth for the students regarding the emotional realm was to really take their time getting to know someone before they made decisions to have a physical relationship; broken hearts can last a lot longer than one expects and all the sweet talking in the world from an “in-n-outer” isn’t worth the time it would take to heal.

Launching from that point, it was easy to start talking about consent and how everyone has rights to make their own sexual decisions for themselves. Due largely in part to Guatemala’s long history of machismo and male domination in various other forms, boys are conditioned to believe that it is their right to dominate women. They are encouraged to go out and “conquer” by whatever method of force or persuasion they can come up with. The definition of rape as the developed world understands it is practically a joke in Guatemala because the definition itself implies that a woman has a say in the matter. Rape occurs often in Guatemala, and while most women feel violated, they do not know to call it for what it is. Just the act of speaking up or making an allegation could put a woman’s safety at risk so most women choose to bear the psychological burden on their own, hoping that nothing bad happens to them again.

Silence is an effective and powerful way to give permission to continue the behavior which is why we focused so much on the importance of speaking up during the workshop. We touched on violence and the psychological impact of sexual assault and rape, as well as the fact that rape can exist within a marriage. A common belief is that once a man marries a woman, he has full rights to her body. While marriage is a sacred private bond between two people, it doesn’t mean that one spouse has any fewer human rights than the other. For most of these students, this was the first time they had even heard of some of these concepts or learned about the legal system and equal rights.

I was so grateful to have a platform within those workshops to educate this group of young people. During the process and through discussion, questions, activities, and group presentations, I actually learned more about these students and their belief systems than I realized existed. These students were bright, curious, motivated, and innovative. In addition to the girls really taking a stand for themselves, the boys were participating and asking tons of questions. This gave me so much hope because it showed that these boys wanted guidance and were open to being taught by me, by the girls, and by each other; they weren’t necessarily stuck to the habits that generations before them had integrated into the community. Once I realized that, I started targeting the boys and picking out the young leaders–the ones who naturally held the most influence over their peers–to let them know that their peers look up to them and that they could really set into motion whatever behavior change they wanted to see in their community. The respectful way that just a couple boys treat the girls (and vice versa) could shift the standard and the tone of male/female relationships for the entire community.

To close out this workshop, we went back to the list of pros and cons of sexual activity and created a third list of “action items” that would account for all the concerns. In order to reinforce the idea of responsibility, I emphasized that each person has CHOICES to make. The obvious, neutral method to avoid everything related to sex is abstinence: if you are not ready for the responsibility, then choose NOT to engage. (Of course, this method could not work for everyone because about a third of the students were already married and had children of their own.) Other things to consider were birth control (available at the Health Center), STI checks and prevention measures (also available at the Health Center), taking the time to get to know someone, maintaining respect within the partnership, and ensuring that consent exists (and is heard) from both sides before moving forward. That is a lot to do!! But the take home point was that these young people now had knowledge and tools to make responsible decisions and if at any point if they were not willing to take on the full responsibility, then the best choice would be to refrain from sexual activity.

Family Planning & Reproductive Health Workshops

The design of the third round of workshops was focused mainly on family planning so we started it with the icebreaker activity (that I had used with my women’s groups) of two or three families racing back and forth to retrieve beans from a bowl and transport them via spoon to “feed” their children. Because there were so many students, we always had enough people to have three “families” participate so it got really competitive and they howled with laughter and teased the bean-racing “parent” when the “severely undernourished” children were pronounced dead due to starvation. The economic impact of having children made a lot of sense to these students.

After some good laughs, I started the workshop by taking a deep dive into the anatomy and physiology of the male and female reproductive systems so that the students gained a better understanding of reproductive cycles and how easily pregnancy can occur. I made posters to illustrate reproductive parts and explain their function. They laughed some more when I compared the uterus to being a nice, cushy bed for a baby and one boy even joked that it was like a sofa and the babies just hang out watching soccer on their in-womb sofas during pregnancies! Creative.

In discussing the ovulation cycle and the probability of pregnancy, we compared the odds. Female bodies release one egg about once a month which is fertile for a window of 24-48 hours; they are of reproductive age from puberty until menopause, so on average for about 35 years, give or take. Male bodies, on the other hand, can produce millions of sperm per release which can live anywhere from 3 to 7 days inside the female body; in addition, after puberty, males do not lose their ability to produce sperm so there is no cutoff age for reproductive capabilities. After doing the math here, it becomes clear that a released egg is totally outnumbered by sperm and will no doubt end up fertilized if the timing is right.

Furthermore, in the days leading up to ovulation, hormones in the female body surge, not only creating a strong sexual desire in the female, but also alerting males that a particular female body is ready to make a baby. I explained that this is a completely natural thing and part of the cycle of life and then pointed out that it is evident throughout the town with the “chuchos” as well as the street cats. I asked if they all could cite a time when they heard a cat howling throughout the night, then I attributed it to her hormones and joked that she was calling out to her feline lovers. I also mentioned the occasions when they see a single female street dog being followed around by seven or eight male chuchos with their tongues hanging out, explaining that when a female dog is in heat, her body emits hormones that attract the males. I joked with the classes, saying that it’s not really fair to the ladies when our hormones betray us like that…but all the more important to take pre-cautionary measures!! Now that they were aware of this, they could understand that sometimes hormones influence us to act in ways that we would not normally choose, and they could look out for it and make a plan to guard themselves from the “attack of the hormones.”

The biology lesson set the stage for introducing the various methods of family planning. I used materials provided by the local Health Center to explain various methods, including how they work, how often they need to be implemented, and what some possible side effects are. First and foremost, we talked about abstinence again (just don’t do it), however, that was not a fair method to encourage for the married students so we continued down the list, covering birth control pills, the shot, IUDs, condoms, and even having one’s tubes tied in both males and females. We discussed how each couple may have a different preference on which method they use, especially depending on timing and whether they had already had children or not, but that it is important for men to be involved in this process as well because it is a shared responsibility. Our activity for this section was walking through the steps of how to appropriately use and dispose of a condom and using materials from the Health Center to implement the “condom demonstration.”

We briefly touched on other reproductive health topics such as PAP smears for ladies and the possibility of contracting sexually transmitted infections/diseases, but I referred them to the Health Center for any concerns in those departments. The Health Centers in Guatemala are actually extremely resourceful and provide plenty of free services to the people, but most people don’t realize that. I encouraged the students to consult the Health Center, which was a mere five blocks from the school, for further information and to use their resources, such as free condoms and other birth control methods, in order to maintain optimal health and opportunity for themselves

—–

Bottom line, FEAR trumps the possibility of “sexy” in almost every situation because it undermines true confidence. I recently saw a speech that Ashton Kutcher gave during which he stated, “Sexy is being being smart, being thoughtful, and being generous.” I like how he framed it as it takes the focus off of physicality. However, in a place like Guatemala where fear and violence dominate society, even being smart, thoughtful, and generous could run a risk for an individual.

Guatemala breeds some of the strongest women a person could ever meet. These women come up with so many coping mechanisms for the adversity they face, and they keep on moving. Sadly, some of these coping mechanisms include trying to gain favor with men by attempting to keep other women from being successful, but on a positive note, they also ban together in tight-knit women’s groups to protect each other. Any “blame the woman” society inevitably results in extremely resilient women who have learned to set aside their pride or their own needs in order to survive.

By not having the freedom and rights that I was used to having in the USA, I really learned to value them, and I had never learned to really appreciate men until I lived in Guatemala. I used to think that I was so independent and could “do it all myself” even if something were typically a man’s job. In Guatemala, however, I came to recognize how important men really are to partnership, to community, and to effecting change. I realized that we can shout, “Women power” and “Si se puede!” all day long, but in a male-dominated society, women aren’t going anywhere unless there are strong, supportive men on board with them. I think back on some of my favorite men in Guatemala, admiring what they have done for their communities and praising the examples they set with their quiet strength and unforced influence. Don Tono at the school, my brilliant friends Acisclo and Hansel in San Andrés, and my boyfriend Sergio were each so different and yet so extremely caring about their families and other beneficial causes in their communities. These men taught me how to let a man be a man, how to appreciate their natural tendencies to lead and to protect what is important to them.

Women’s empowerment is one of the biggest social movements around the world right now. It is inspiring to see the progressive changes in many global societies; some countries, like Guatemala, are a little behind other countries, but the seeds have been planted and change is happening. Women’s empowerment affects more than just women; its impact on men is just as great. In fact, I would venture that men are some of the most important players in these changes so we cannot leave the men behind as women move into powerful positions and embrace equal opportunities that are now available to them.

As a single, American woman living in a small rural town in Guatemala, there were two main things that I stood for in my service, besides filling the role as a health promoter. The first was to firmly support the notion that women have voices of their own as well as the rights to use them. Women can speak up for and defend themselves–it is not absolutely necessary to have a man around in order to have an identity. The second thing–which was for both men and women, boys and girls–was to encourage each person to identify and laud their personality strengths, to embrace those things about themselves, and to protect them. Each person is an individual whose unique talents and abilities can contribute to the betterment of the whole community. It’s okay to be different. Men and women leaders can step up into any role and effect small, but pivotal changes. While I was a living, breathing demonstration of all of this, I graciously recognize that I learned more from both the women and men in Guatemala than I could ever possibly teach or show them myself. (Most PCVs express a similar sentiment.)

In conclusion, sexy is as sexy does and everyone’s interpretation of the term will be different. To me, sexy means being comfortable in your own skin and embracing the man or woman that you are–deeply loving and respecting that person. While this chapter has been a reflection of the conditions in Guatemalan society that prevent “sexiness” from having a solid existence and a brainstorm of how-to’s for bringin’ sexy to Guatemala, the concepts and action items apply to communities all around the world, even in the USA. The absence of “sexy” is startling because it indicates fear, insecurity, or oppression of some sort. The kind of world I want to live in is one where people are free to express themselves and women feel safe when they are walking down the street in the presence of men they do not know.

How do we get to that point where everyone can be sexy? By talking about it, educating people, and enlisting men. (Men can be sexy, too!) With all the gender role changes associated with the women’s empowerment movement, men want to be a part of it just as much as women do and they want to learn how to navigate the changes without sacrificing their purposes, forgetting their identities, or losing their power. Let’s move forward together and be open to interdependence instead of making it a competition between the sexes. Both genders bring so much to the table!

Ultimately through education, fear can be dispelled. Sexuality is an integral part of each person’s identity and doesn’t need to be feared or suppressed, but appreciated and respected. Education around the topic empowers people to think and take responsibility for themselves and could even lead to a reduction in related harassment and violence, such as assault, rape, and abuse as well as domestic violence. I was lucky that I got to take advantage of the opportunity to ignite conversation and be the person empowering teenagers, young adults, and women to recognize and utilize their rights to choose their identities and paths. But this is a conversation in which we can all participate if we are open to engaging in the opportunities that pop up all around us with relatives, coworkers, students, and friends.

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Same little girl from last chapter. In her great big smile, I see that she feels happy, safe, and free. It is possible to spread this kind of joy around the world!

Here’s to bringin’ sexy back!
Alexandra

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Common Peace Corps Acronyms

PC = Peace Corps (sounds like "peese kor")
PCT = Peace Corps Trainee
PCV = Peace Corps Volunteer
PST = Pre-Service Training
ET = Early Termination
COS = Close of Service
NGO = Non-Governmental Organization
HH = Healthy Homes, the PC program I am in.
YD = Youth Development, the other program in my training group.

Disclaimer

Anything that is written or views expressed on this blog are mine personally and do not represent the Peace Corps or the United States government.
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