Sexualities in Deconstruction
By: Olga Valeria Espinoza, FCAM.
When we talk about sexuality, the power and autonomy of our bodies should not be limited. Sexuality – or better yet, sexualities – are plural, broad, and they constantly challenge us to rediscover our most intimate desires. It also invites us to dismantle the patriarchal beliefs and practices that have been impressed upon us, in order to free ourselves and flow. This process of emancipation (to feel more full, secure and powerful in our enjoyment) would be nearly impossible without feminism and the sisterhood of our friends and allies.
To reflect on this theme, we spoke with two powerful women, Karla Guevara from Colectivo Alejandría (Alejandría Collective) from El Salvador and Clara Alicia Sen from Mujeres Mayas Ajchowen (Ajchowen Mayan Women) from Guatemala, who told us about their experiences and feelings, how they have lived their sexualities, and the difficulties they have faced in accessing sexual and reproductive health services during the pandemic.
FCAM: What taboos and prejudices have you had to deconstruct to connect with the experience of your sexualities, without judgements or guilt?
Karla Guevara (Colectivo Alejandría): People grow up, in some way or another, in a heteronormative home. We are taught which things are for boys and which are for girls; that girls can cry, and boys cannot. I have always said that there should be a deconstruction for both men and women. For example, I always liked to play the mother and the father, and I always liked to be the mother and I would put on dresses, but I had to do that in hiding, because my mother could not see me like that.
I had to deconstruct myself in sentimental and romantic relationships. That is perhaps the part that has been most difficult for me to deconstruct, because I thought that sexual and romantic relationships were for life. I thought I would be the one waiting for a man and that man would change my life, he would be my prince charming.
I also had to deconstruct myself in other ways, for example with LGBTIQ+ pride marches. I saw them as senseless marches and they seemed to me in some ways like a joke for people. I lived in my bubble, though not necessarily with privilege because I did suffer discrimination. I think I was influenced by heteronormativity.
Throughout my childhood I only went to school with men, and when I was in the third grade, I was abused by one of my classmates. I was raped, and I also suffered from bullying and was called a fag. I even had a teacher that once said that in the country, gay people were tied up and hanged. Perhaps at the time I did not understand that this was directed at me, that she was saying it to scare me and to see if I could change. I suffered a lot of violence and I came to normalize it.
It all adds up in you and it strengthens your character, but for many years I neglected my mental health and I always say that that is part of the process of deconstruction. I was in a toxic relationship in which I suffered physical and emotional violence. It took me too long to get out of there, but getting involved in defending human rights and in feminism has helped me to deconstruct myself.
Even among other dissidents, I’m attacked because they tell me that I reinforce binary stereotypes. It’s not that I reinforce the binary stereotype, this is just who I am. For me, how you dress is not an issue related to deconstruction.
Recently I read something by a feminist on Twitter. She said that trans women have privileges because we renounced the privilege bestowed by the patriarchy. No! What a lack of knowledge about trans childhoods! Trans children do not live in humane and decent conditions, quite the contrary. We are attacked and we are more vulnerable precisely because we renounce that privilege that, supposedly, life gave us by virtue of being born with the male sex. But it’s not like that, we suffer a double attack, double discrimination.
Clara Alicia Sen (Mujeres Mayas Ajchowen): As a Mayan woman, I lived in a different context because our culture is very conservative. My mother never told me anything about menstruation, she never told me about the physical changes I would go through. I grew up without knowing much. I didn’t open my eyes until I was at boarding school with the nuns. My classmates told me about menstruation, how the body develops, how it feels. So, when the moment came, I wasn’t too troubled by it. But I think that in some way, this marked my life because even today I ask my mom, “why didn’t you talk to me about those changes and about what it feels like to experience sexual relations?” She would just say, well how was she going to tell me, if that’s how they were raised, that when an adult speaks and you’re a child, you need to step away. They spoke more about those issues when there was a birth or a marriage in the family. I feel like there are still taboos around talking about sexuality in Mayan areas.
FCAM: What did you learn, and from whom did you learn about sexuality?
Karla Guevara (Colectivo Alejandría): I’ve always said that I learned from the trans movement. The movement liberates you, while society excludes you and living outside of the struggle and of the movement puts you in an even more vulnerable situation. Before entering the movement, I didn’t live in my sexuality one hundred percent, I was always very inhibited in my sexual relations, I always liked having the lights off, in complete darkness. I think that was part of the shame I felt about my body. I didn’t love myself, I didn’t love my body, and I didn’t love anything inside of myself.
Sometimes, when I had plans to see someone to have an sexual encounter, I had to go shaved, made up, as dressed up as possible, as if I was becoming some kind of prize for that person who probably didn’t deserve it because they didn’t even show up.
The trans movement taught me to love my sexuality, to love each part of my body. I learned that if someone didn’t love me as I am, then they can go to hell. Before, when I suffered contempt for being a trans woman, I felt traumatized. The majority of men thought that I was a cis woman and when I confessed that I was a trans woman, they treated me with contempt, they would leave, and they would even block me on social media or say a bunch of things to me. I lived with constant depression. Nevertheless, when I heard other trans women talk about living their sexuality, my way of seeing things changed. Now I live my sexuality to the max, without prejudices, taboos, or anything.
Clara Alicia Sen (Mujeres Mayas Ajchowen): You begin to get oriented with your friends. The majority of the young women I went to school with were indigenous. We would sit and talk about what we felt, about sexual attraction and what we liked about boys. There were some classmates of mine that were bolder and knew everything, they had everything clear about how to have sexual relations, about how it felt.
We also talked about that famous myth that if you do not arrive at marriage a virgin, your life will go badly and you’re impure. This idea represented a lot of suffering for us, because men were looking for virginity in a woman. Obviously, as you go on in life and you mature, you start to learn a little more. But in my family, no one helped me with that. My whole family is very conservative.
In my culture, it is hard for them to share those things. Furthermore, I think that I only began to learn how it all worked once I experienced it. I held onto that taboo, I felt impure. That is why I am so thankful to my group (Mujeres Mayas Ajchowen) and to the theater, that we have all found each other. That’s the only way I could get rid of that fear and feel freer because before, even with kids of my own, I felt like, if I did this or that, it was bad. Everything was bad, everything was a sin.
Religion has a lot to do with it. Religion is complicated because if you go to church, they always say that women have to be pure, that women shouldn’t go out, a bunch of things. So, that inhibits you and it becomes a weight upon our bodies. That is why I insist on thanking the theater group. We have a play that talks about machismo, the invasion of our bodies and feeling guilty about our sexuality. That play, both for myself and my friends, made us break with those fears and has helped us to heal.
FCAM: How do you understand the autonomy of your bodies, and how did you achieve that autonomy? What things have you had work on in yourselves in order to live your sexuality with autonomy and recognition?
Karla Guevara (Colectivo Alejandría): Part of my sexuality was the process of guilt. Since I was little, they ingrained in me a belief in God, and as an adult woman, I’m a believer. Nevertheless, I said to myself, “how is it possible that the God they taught me about, would come and tell me that I wasn’t born like this, with my gender identity?” Along the way I have not been lost for a single moment, because for as long as I’ve been able to reason I have felt like a woman. I always felt a physical and emotional attraction to men, it was never any different. So, I say, my siblings were created “heterosexual” and I was made like this, why? This made me feel guilty about having sex with men. I also believed that my relationships didn’t work out because I was sinning, because I should have been living with a woman. I do not believe in that God that they taught me of, I don’t think that God wants me to be depressed. And now I am a happy, content trans woman that makes decisions about her body, about who can and who cannot have access to it, and I do not allow it to be mistreated.
Clara Alicia Sen (Mujeres Mayas Ajchowen): Theater and art have been powerful tools to overcome these stereotypes, as much for myself as for the whole group, being able to share with other people. Almost nobody wants to talk about sexuality, I don’t know if this is only in my culture or other cultures as well, but it’s hard to talk about. It’s a very rare occasion that you would sit comfortably and talk with someone, with a friend, about these issues. I have some friends that have supported me, and they say, “let yourself go, you’re the owner of your body, you decide what to do with it.” Our grandmothers and our mothers did not talk about that. It wasn’t until recently that my mother talked to me and she told me not to get married again, that marriage was complicated and if I wanted to have something with someone, that was okay, it was fine. She’s started to understand. Now I compare myself with the Clara Alicia of the past and there is no shame, there is no fear, I’ve overcome that thanks to my friends and allies.
FCAM: Why is it critical from a feminist perspective to reclaim the right to and the experience of pleasure, as a political dimension of our sexuality?
Karla Guevara (Colectivo Alejandría): Feminism has come along to break those barriers that the patriarchy has ingrained in us. The patriarchy has taught us that women should be 90-60-90; that women should always have our hair done, we should always be nicely made up, we should wear dresses and heels – because we look better in heels – etc. And I tell them: look, women are diverse and the problem, even within the trans movement, is that there is pressure. The same patriarchy has wanted to teach us what it means to be a woman. Breaking those paradigms as a trans woman is difficult.
Feminism doesn’t have the same capacities as the patriarchy in terms of economic and political power. Nevertheless, here we are, we are criticized because we are breaking things, we are criticized because we ask for abortion. Feminism has taught us precisely that social deconstruction and to understand sexuality in a different way. That is why I like to see movements that promote love for fat bodies, the queer movement, because with those movements we are giving the patriarchy a slap in the face. We are saying that it is possible to live another way and with a more abundant sexuality, and feminism should embrace those movements.
FCAM: Karla, what can you tell us about hypersexuality in trans women? From your point of view, what causes this hypersexuality? How is it experienced?
Karla Guevara (Colectivo Alejandría): There are various aspects of this to take into account: one, what the patriarchy tells us about what it is to be the “perfect woman.” What does this imply? It implies that the majority of trans women are forced – and I say forced because, in some way, we all fall into this – to seek out plastic surgeries, and that contributes to hypersexuality.
So, men see a trans woman with huge breasts, trans women often have to undergo application of biopolymers to give themselves large hips and butts. All of that affects their bodies. We have cases of trans women that have died from thromboembolism or others whose bodies have been destroyed. That is one part of hypersexuality into which trans women often fall, because it is also part of the social exclusion that we experience. Without access to the labor market, we are left with doing sex work. In this sense, the patriarchy does to trans women’s bodies what it does to cis women’s bodies: they make us compete over who has the best body.
Men also seek out trans women to fulfill the fantasies that they cannot carry out in their homes due to the lack of trust, but feminism can also provide them with that deconstruction. They are not honest with their partners and that leads them to not enjoy their sexuality together. That is part of the hypersexuality that trans women experience, because they have placed us in their imaginations precisely to satisfy them.
FCAM: Taking into account the fragile health systems that we have in the region and the inclination to provide services to certain populations with certain privileges, how is the population faring with the lack of attention in the health system? What problems have been accentuated? How is this structural fragility and the focus on the emergency accentuating problems related to sexual health?
Karla Guevara (Colectivo Alejandría): There has been a prevalence of HIV in this quarantine. Trans women have not stopped working because of COVID-19 and a lot of prices have gone up. For example, three condoms are costing two dollars, and a trans woman in a day’s work might have four, five or six sexual encounters. They do not have $200 to invest every month in condoms. During the pandemic, it has been difficult for us to offer condoms and HIV testing, or testing of other sexually transmitted infections. But looking beyond sexuality, and the issue of health in general, other diseases are not getting attention.
Clara Alicia Sen (Mujeres Mayas Ajchowen): The health system in Guatemala has collapsed. Something that I’ve learned from my counterparts is that there has been an increase in physical and sexual violence during quarantine, which they are experiencing in their own contexts and in their own homes. Allies have told me that women are experiencing more abuse because they are spending more time with their families and husbands. It is worth nothing that women are very afraid to speak up and report out of fear of retaliation, and also because we are taught to be quiet and submissive.
The health system is only focused on the pandemic, you cannot go and file a report because if it is not about COVID-19 they won’t assist you. It is so difficult here for them to be able to look out for the population’s sexual and reproductive health. We also always have disadvantages at the judicial level with the Public Ministry: if you file a report for harassment or sexual abuse, your case just stalls, there is no follow up and it just stays there. So, I feel like women are always at a disadvantage with this machista system.