Saturday, September 11, 2010

“I clean, I cook, I iron….and so what?”

There is a fascinating social campaign against machismo as seen through dozens of billboards and advertisements on the sides of buses throughout Quito. One poster shows a man with children in the background stating such things as above. I’ve also seen one that says, “My wife makes more money than me, and so what?” Underneath these statements in large red letters it states, “Ecuador, move on from machismo—machismo is violence.” The first time I saw these ad campaigns I was shocked and filled with glee. One of the challenges of living in this country, (and I’m sure other in Latin American countries) is trying to earn the respect I’m accustomed to in the United States. Perhaps I have particularly high standards because I went to a women’s college (Barnard College in New York City) and study gender in Latin America for my doctorate.

Perhaps my investigation on sex work makes me especially sensitive to this topic, in which I’m exposed to some of the most horrific stories about men who beat their wives, clients who treat the women badly, etc. etc. Many feminists who study sex work feel that prostitution itself equals violence against women, a view I’m opposed to. Rather, I try to respect and accept what these women themselves tell me—that they do not feel like victims. They feel as if they have chosen the best employment available to them. Does it mean they like it? Of course not. I haven’t met anyone who enjoys working as a prostitute. But, I have met plenty of women who feel empowered that they can be single mothers and support their household without a man.

Indeed, I believe it’s the sex workers’ stories of pain and suffering that make me prone to identifying machismo at every moment. Just the double standard that exists around prostitution shows the potency of machismo here—no one ever judges the clients who visit prostitutes, despite the fact that most are married men. Instead, the “immortality” of the situation falls on the prostitute, they’re the ones who must carry the burden of their profession. In fact, I’ve seen the same male residents who are most vocal against prostitution in neighborhood meetings enter the hotel with a sex worker. It blows my mind to see such hypocrisy. Sex in any form, context, with whomever, is totally acceptable for men. Quito is still such a traditional city, heavily influenced by the church, that there is much pressure to always be a “good girl” (i.e. be a faithful spouse, never sleep around). It is frowned upon for young unmarried women to be promiscuous (perhaps the same in the United States, to a lesser degree).

Anyway, the machismo I have experienced personally is rather benign. Much of it could be labeled gallantry which at times, is a trait I wish more North American men value. For example, men accompany me to my bus or taxi when I’m out—it would be unheard of for a woman to walk alone anywhere. Part of that is entirely logical given the dangers in Quito. Sometimes I enjoy this backside of machismo, opening doors for me, paying for drinks because it’s expected—I won’t deny it, there are benefits to being a woman here in receiving this “special treatment” that I’m not accustomed to. However, sometimes cultural clashes erupt between myself and men here. They don’t understand why I go off by myself or feel comfortable being alone in general. I was raised by liberal parents who gave me my space and independence. I rarely answered to anyone. Here as a woman, you have less independence—I don’t envy my Ecuadorian women friends who have to answer to their fathers and their boyfriends about their whereabouts several times a day.

Things are changing in the younger generations. I have plenty of male friends who I would never label as macho. Most of them are from the upper class and have traveled or lived outside of Ecuador. They have been exposed to different types of gender interactions and live in a world where their mothers don’t cook their every meal. They even live in their own apartments and cook/clean for themselves, which is a big step in itself. In earlier generations men and women both went from their parents’ house to marriage and living as husband and wife. In my opinion, machismo starts with the mothers here. Ironic, but true. They don’t let their sons lift a finger and baby them to no end. Their sons are their little princes. Perhaps they focus so much on their sons because their husbands don’t provide them with the emotional support they need. These grown sons expect the same treatment when they get married. As such the cycle continues. This is just my own personal theory, I have done no investigative work to support this—simple observations. (That’s the glory of blogs, no footnotes needed).

Anyway, every time I see these anti-machismo ad campaigns I’m filled with hope and joy. Ecuador still has one of the highest domestic violence rates of the region, but at least someone realizes, at an institutional level, that machismo needs to be addressed. These campaigns make it crystal clear that machismo does indeed exist in Ecuador and that it’s no longer socially acceptable. What was once a social norm is now being challenged….change is in the future and it’s exhilarating.

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