by Mary Garcia Castro
Family is commonly considered a prominent institution in a young persons’ life, yet in terms of adolescent sexuality, we find that friend networks and school, more so than family, are especially influential in shaping young people’s understandings of their own and others’ sexuality. Despite modernization in Brazil, family and school tend to reproduce gender asymmetries in the sexual division of rights, which does little to empower women within these contexts.
Family tends to be concerned with protecting youth, while youth culture is more concerned with autonomy and interactions with peers. In 2006, my research collaborators and I collected national level survey data, and regional case study data, through focus groups and interviews with Brazilian youth, ages 15 to 29 years old, as well as teachers and parents. We asked young people about their perceptions of sexuality and gender, as influenced by their relationships to family and school. In terms of age at first sex, we found that on average, girls had sexual relations for the first time at age 16, while for boys the age was 14. Girls tended to have sex without the protection of condoms when in a “stable relationship,” and said they would be ashamed to provide condoms, or to ask a stable boyfriend to use a condom. Thirty percent of parents were against government distribution of condoms at school, considering such programs as encouraging their children to have sex.
Paradoxically, 60% of parents said that they don’t know how to handle youth sexuality and prefer that schools address the topic. In conversations with teachers, we found that 40% said they don’t know how to teach on the topic of youth sexuality, despite the materials the Brazilian government distributes to schools on gender equity and sexuality. Sex education is commonly addressed in Biology classes. What is most commonly addressed in school sex education is how to prevent pregnancy and HIV.
In terms of bullying, teachers considered verbal violence against girls, black persons and gay students just “young students joking among themselves,” passing the behavior off as “a family matter [and] not the school’s responsibility.” Yet 65% of the boys and 45% of the girls we talked with described their generation as ahead in terms of their thinking regarding sexuality. Yet while 60% of the girls considered beating or verbally harassing gay or lesbian peers a common form of violence at school, only 30% of the boys considered these acts as violence.
Family was considered trustworthy by 70% of girls and 65% of interviewed boys yet those who described experiencing violence against them within the family identified as gay, or had friends who were gay. In these situations, we found that fathers were described as quite violent, while mothers were tolerant.
Our research shows complex relations between protection and autonomy by gender and generation. Sexually active girls tended to be in traditional romantic relationships and did not question the gender inequality in their own romantic relationships. We found girls described their mothers’ lives as a poor example of female empowerment in the family, and that the girls from this generation were more oriented toward careers than their mothers. Yet the girls did not express concern with their lack of autonomy in their romantic relationships, and were accepting of patriarchal stereotypes, including the notion that men have more sexual urges compared to women.
What improvements should be made to the sex education these youth receive? We argue that more radical approaches within school culture are needed to address issues of sexuality and gender inequality in Brazil. It is not enough to introduce specific debates around politics of identity (race, gender, class, sexual orientation and others). Youth need to learn critical thinking skills and be encouraged to engage in debates among peer groups about such issues. We find that young women have developed more skills for navigating racial diversity, sexuality and reproductive rights, than their young male peers or families or schools, although this varies by location and social class.
Mary Garcia Castro, PhD in Sociology and professor in Graduate Programs on Family in the Contemporary Society and Political Public Policies-Catholic University of Salvador (Universidade Catolica de Salvador)-Salvador, Bahia-Brazil; researcher at the CNPq-Brazil (Conselho Nacional de Pesquisa e Tecnologia) and researcher at the FLACSO-Brazil (Faculty of Latin American Social Sciences). Dr. Castro serves on the editorial board for Gender & Society.