Wendy Hua on Sexuality in Santiago

By: Wendy Hua

September 15, 2010

Some of my most memorable experiences from Santiago were afternoons spent with my film partner, scouring the city for interesting compositions and content for our sexuality-themed short film. The public representations and reflections we came across of the most private of desires were at times thought-provoking, at times ridiculous, and at times heart-rending. Together, they illuminated some interesting aspects of the city’s relationship with the diverse and often controversial subject of sexuality.

From adult stores ironically located on Saint’s Street brazenly displaying their products for all the world to see, to endless couples canoodling in public, I was shocked at how obvious and unabashed some people and parts of the city seemed to be. Once in a while adults with children in tow would walk past storefronts of lingerie-clad mannequins suggestively posed with accessories—I never saw them shield their children’s eyes or hurry them along, and on multiple occasions, they would stop to window-shop as their children patiently waited alongside.

We filmed kioskos, mom-and-pop type news and magazine stands located all around the city, which collaged topless women next to children’s magazine covers of Finding Nemo, and we faced glares from bouncers outside of cafés con piernas. Cafés con piernas are a strange phenomenon in Santiago; to find them just go downtown and listen for the reggaeton blasting from behind darkened windows. Inside, waitresses in bikinis serve patrons coffee; from across the street, all we could see besides dark glass were neon billboards advertising the half-naked women promised inside and an occasional hand furtively pulling the café door closed. Apparently cafés con piernas are so iconic in Santiago that my film professor initially hesitated when my partner and I proposed including them in our project—he said they were quite cliché, but relented since our idea was to show sexuality in the city as an outsider would see it. From that perspective, Santiago was unavoidably fresh, strange, and fascinating.

Not only did my Chilean film partner know the city well, but he also helped place some of what we saw into context. He showed me the comical entrance of a museum located on the periphery of Santiago’s old government center, the historic central square of Plaza de Armas. A sign pointed to the National Pre-Columbian Chilean Art Museum and a library, and directly next to it, flashing lights of explicit ads ushered visitors to stay for a feature film at the pornographic theater just steps away. Perhaps it would have been difficult for anyone to not notice the absurdity of the arrangement, but at the same time, he barely seemed to register other occurrences.

For example, like any other Chilean, he never seemed to think anything of the ubiquitous extreme-Chilean-PDA: making out inches from unlucky strangers on public transportation, on sidewalks, on the lawn in between college classes, and while rolling down every single available hill. To say that Chileans are conservative with being affectionate in public would be akin to claiming that Chileans rarely eat bread: that is, he laughed when I told him I hadn’t met one Chilean not obsessed with bread, but the very next day he exclaimed that after paying attention to what he ate throughout the day, he realized he had eaten close to 10 rolls of bread in one day.

My American friends from the study abroad program and I tried to come up with hypotheses regarding why Chileans feel it is necessary to be attached to each others’ faces in public at all times—perhaps it results from not having privacy anyways, as most Chileans live with their families until marriage, or maybe it is a show of rebellion against their parents. However, when we realized that older couples kiss just as enthusiastically in public too, we came to think that perhaps family dynamics have been so influential that younger, more repressed Chileans have grown up into older PDA lovers, and showing one’s affection in public has now become an irrefutable part of the culture.

Although it was interesting to see the frequent instances of overt commercialized sexuality and how open some people were, just as revealing was what people chose to keep hidden. During the height of student government campaigning season at La Catolica, campuses were covered in swaths of colorful flyers, each color belonging to a different faction. Traditionally, each campaign ticket is comprised of students with high-profile names, and the student body will more or less be familiar with candidates’ families and backgrounds just by looking their last names.

One progressive student group tried to showcase their diversity: they highlighted several party members on posters, each person sharing some of their experiences. They had one poster different from all the rest: this particular poster simply said "Soy gay," "I’m gay," and showed the silhouette of a boy’s back. I imagine this must have made a statement, since we searched the entire main campus, and the only other place I found reference to homosexuality was scribbled in the girls’ bathrooms: a singular call for like-minded girls in one bathroom, and in another, a whole mass of conversations, hidden in the shadow of a ledge. Some people complained, some drew stick figures of girls holding hands, and one person asked, “Where are all the lesbians at La Catolica?” Someone replied, “Repressed and with boyfriends, like me.”

Although what we saw was certainly biased by the fact that we attended a Catholic university, Chilean students at La Catolica generally regarded it to be a relatively diverse, top-notch educational institution. La Chile, La Catolica’s public, liberal counterpart, seemed more open, offering classes discussing sexuality; however, considering its openness, some Hoyas and I were surprised to be shown a PowerPoint one day in economics class, of all places, about various STDs. The presentation showed photos of infected genitalia and patiently explained STD by STD, and it was a part of an initiative in La Chile to educate students on sexual health. Chilean students solemnly listened, wide-eyed, but we struggled to refrain from snickering: after all, we were being given a crash-course in sex ed in college, and most of the students around us were already seniors.

Overall, it seemed like easily visible displays of sexuality were relatively mainstream, and garish more often than not. Revealing ads of white women were common enough to be casually overlooked, while representations of sexual and racial minorities were glaringly missing. What we saw seemed more or less to be a visual reflection of the interactions I had with my own host family and their various comments about the subject, as well as their allowances and rules.

For example, when I first arrived in Chile, same-sex marriage was frequently in the news because Argentina had just legalized it, and the first same-sex couple to marry there was actually Chilean. My host mother said that she wished gay people would just be together if they wanted to but not be so public about their feelings, as it was wrong and against God’s wishes. My host father would often ask me if I had an Asian pololo, an Asian boyfriend; he said that in Chile, it was popular for Asians to date amongst themselves and for Arabs to date amongst themselves, etc. My family there identified as Catholic but didn’t attend usually attend Mass, as is common in Chile, and in most ways, they didn’t seem very conservative—without any prompting, they told me that the secret of a great marriage was great sex, and my adult sister’s boyfriend was allowed to stay over as frequently as he liked. The only times I heard sex being critiqued, and God in general being mentioned, was in the context of homosexuality.

What then, was the cause of the discrepancy in the ways sexuality was approached? A classmate from Spain told me, after watching clips from our video, that Chile reminded her of Spain 20 years ago: on the surface, Chile seemed sexually liberated, albeit in a forced and slightly artificial way. The bikini-clad hostesses of low-quality daytime TV shows and awkward revealing ads found in top newspapers were reminiscent of a time when people were trying to work around sexual repression, and now that Spanish society was more open, such overt sexuality had mostly disappeared. In Chile, attitudes seem like a tug-of-war between various influences. On one hand, younger Chileans have grown up in an era of more freedom, after Pinochet’s downfall in 1990. Combined with the country’s economic prosperity and the spread of an internet culture, increasingly liberal attitudes are little surprise. On the other hand, Chile is still a largely Catholic country, and tradition is hard, and often slow, to change. Racial tensions are visible in Santiago at large, so it should only make sense that they be reflected by a dearth of interracial dating.

Yes, Santiago is undergoing changes, but perhaps society’s approach to sexuality is a reflection of its growing pains. There is more freedom and diversity now than under the dictatorship, but Chile simply hasn’t had enough time and experience to gracefully transition from its cracked, adolescent voice to its future confident, mature self.

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