The Guardian's feminist columnist Jessica Valenti has to be admired for her chutzpah, even if sometimes her execution is a bit messy. In a recent column, for instance, she tackled a topic that has already gotten me into trouble as a writer currently trying to straddle the two Americas (though my Colombian boyfriend gets mad at me for thinking there's more than one): cross-cultural sexuality.
"Of course the French have better sex if our idea of sex is limited to men's ideals," Valenti's headline reads. She proceeds to recount how a French commentator "seems genuinely baffled by the curious coupling of American prudishness and male-centric sex...":
... she worries that any American man she might date would think she was a "slut" based on French norms, and she doesn't understand why American women give unreciprocated blow jobs.
Now, any of you who've ever lived outside your home culture will know both how irresistible and how dangerous such cross-cultural comparisons can be. When, for instance, in a recent column about Shakira I alluded to how living in Colombia has offered me an earth-shattering new view of sexuality, my readers were outraged at what they called my "racial fetishizing."
Those readers certainly had a point. Let me make something clear: I am not Latina, just a Midwestern kid who happened to learn Spanish young, became best friends with a Mexican, studied Latin American politics, and then moved to Colombia to discover the culture I'd spent a decade reading about. I have been in, but not of, Latino culture for many years now.
But cultural fascination and good intentions don't get you off the hook for not understanding your own privilege. I have in the past written about Colombian women for American readers in a way that I believed at the time to be sensitive and progressive, and then, reading my own work translated into Spanish, realized that I sounded like an imperialist gringa cow.
That's why I say these comparisons are dangerous -- we tend to fall back on existing generalizations (i.e., stereotypes) to try to describe our initial cross-cultural experiences, and in doing so make ourselves look like jackasses. And that's a bit how Valenti looked in her column on Tuesday, which she concluded with references to French Women Don't Get Fat and Bringing up Bébé, followed by a sigh of "Merde." How very cosmopolitan of her.
But, still, kudos to Valenti for daring to start the conversation.
We have to stop being scared to talk to each other frankly about how our cultures do sex differently and why. And if we're not prepared to get our feelings hurt or our intentions misunderstood in the process, I fear we'll miss out on each other's insights.
What's it like, for instance, to "fornicate while Latina," as the fantastic writer Erika L. Sánchez put it in a column last year? How does living in an overwhelmingly Catholic family or society shape attitudes about guilt, shame, sex, desire, contraception, porn, motherhood, career? How does living poor affect these same issues? How do these attitudes crystallize into institutions that protect or break down patriarchy? What ways have Latina women developed resistance to these pressures?
Let me offer my two cents (probably not worth much more than that): In my experience of living in Latino communities and dating Latin@s for years now, I've seen sexuality as simultaneously more vilified and more ubiquitous in everyday life. Latin Americans don't just recognize the power of erotic capital but develop and deploy it with gusto. (When I asked my Colombian friend V whether she thought it was anti-feminist for women to use their erotic capital, she simply shot me a withering, why-are-you-so-goddamn-vanilla glare.)
Furthermore, while Latin American beauty culture can feel overwhelming, some women -- my old idol Shakira among them -- argue that feeling sexy can be empowering, subversive, or even a welcome source of social mobility. Latina women, living inside a culture notorious for its machismo, have developed ferocious strategies for resisting, coopting, and subverting the patriarchy that structures their lives. And in many ways I see them as stronger, more powerful, than women who enjoy greater gender equality in other parts of the world.
But that's just my thinking on the matter. I'm sure I still sound like an imperialist cow or perhaps a racial fetishist. So tell me so. I really do want to know.
If we approach such conversations in the spirit of mutual exchange to grow our global movement, our one-dimensional cultural stereotypes will eventually give way to a more nuanced understanding that allows us to expand our collective female wisdom. But that process can't happen unless we start the conversation and are prepared to look like blundering idiots for a little bit.
And for that reason, I welcome Jessica Valenti with me into the cross-cultural clown car.
[This article originally appeared in the digital magazine Role Reboot on May 15, 2014 under the title "Do Latinos Have Better Sex?" Republished here with permission.]