Reimagining Latina Youth Sexualities

When I am asked about my research by people outside my profession, I am often cagey. I may say I study “sexual and reproductive health and rights” or perhaps, if I’m feeling bold, I’ll say “teenage sexualities.” Both are true, of course, but my work focuses specifically on Latina girls’ sexualities: how they are regulated – at school, at home, at the doctor’s office – and how Latina girls manage such regulation in their daily lives. The fact that I tend to frame my primary area of research in gender-neutral and color-blind terms speaks volumes about why I study what I do and why I strongly believe that “we” – as a society – need to rethink how we make sense of teenage girls in general and Latina teens in particular.

Nearly three decades ago, Michelle Fine argued that adolescent girls’ sexualities are regulated through a variety of discourses. These include concerns about their potential victimization by predatory men and negative consequences of engaging in “sex” (i.e., penis-in-vagina intercourse), namely teenage pregnancy. These anxieties about teenage girls’ sexualities are clearly still with us today (see here and here and here). A quick look at the structure and content of such anxieties indicate that how and why “we” worry about teenage girls varies quite a bit depending on which girls we’re talking about. And while the effects of these discourses on girls (as well as boys – see Pascoe) have been documented by scholars such as Lorena Garcia and Deborah Tolman, I was interested in how they may show up in the health care setting.

I conducted interviews with health care providers working in Latino-serving community clinics because I was interested in how the providers themselves made sense of the Latina teenagers to whom they provide sexual and reproductive health care services. What I found is that the providers had a hard time imagining their Latina teen patients in any other way than as “at-risk” for teenage pregnancy. What this meant in practice was that they focused their attention on trying to prevent this possible outcome among their female teen patients, leading them to neglect any other dimension of Latina girls’ developing sexualities. Why does this matter? As Deborah Tolman notes, when girls are taught to fear sex, to characterize sex as only penis-in-vagina intercourse, to silence their desires, and to not feel entitled to say no OR to say yes to sex, girls are placed at a disadvantage – especially when they have relationships with boys.

Based on my research findings as well as those of other scholars, I advocate that health care providers adopt a more holistic approach to Latina youth sexualities beyond an exclusive focus on teenage pregnancy prevention. By reimagining Latina girls’ sexualities in ways that are more positive and empowering, providers might help facilitate the development of Latina teen girls’ sexual subjectivities – their capacity to make active, informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive lives – while simultaneously disrupting the narrow frames that reduce young Latinas to always already “at-risk” girls.

By Emily S. Mann on her article, “Regulating Latina Youth Sexualities through Community Health Care Centers: Discourses and Practices of Sexual Citizenship,” published in the October 2013 issue of Gender & Society. 

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