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Socialization in Puerto Rico (Baumgartner, 1994 [p182-90])[1] is “gendered” from birth. “Two or three year old toddlers are asked about their “girl-friends” and are made aware of their sexuality through jokes and observations on the desirability of girls, which will seem out of context for an outside observer who does not understand the “macho” personality being enforced. Machismo develops in boys on the basis of the encouragement of their mothers as well as fathers and friends[2]. Little girls are less encouraged to have “boy-friends”. Instead, they are constantly reminded of their beauty, the need to maintain pleasing looks and demeanor, to keep their legs together when sitting, […] to never say a “bad” word” […]”. The vulva is covered since birth, the penis may be bare until age 7 years (Mintz, 1956:p384, 285)[3]. Parents would pull a two-year-old’s penis, and inquire for its function. The answer would be, “For the women!” Thus the parents try to instill a macho concept, along with the double standard, from early age[4]. “After about the age of five years, boys are no longer subject to the sexual joking, teasing, and play of their parents. This kind of play apparently ends abruptly, and one cannot but wonder at the psychological effects of this”. Manners (1956:p146)[5] notes: “It is a common practice to stimulate the child erotically by fondling or kissing his genitals- teaching him how “to milk the cow” or “put the car in gear” ”. Stycos (1955:p42)[6]: “The most striking manifestation of attempts to inculcate machismo occurs in the adult adulation of the infantile penis. By praising and calling a great deal of attention to the penis, the parent can communicate to the child the literal or symbolic value of the male organ”. Seda (1956:p291)[7] notes: “The masculinity of the boy child is a matter of considerable interest, and parents and friends may play with the boy’s genitals until he is around seven years old”. Further, “[v]arious sexual aberrations and masturbation were reported among young boys”, and adolescents would have homosexual congregations in the fields, with girls in their thoughts. Children must not talk or joke about sex in the presence of adults lest they be considered badly reared. Adult sexual talk is overheard and adult intercourse is observed. At pubescence, boys collect in gangs in which sexual joking becomes “open and articulate, often aggressively homosexual, and aimed at insulting the listener”; unlike girls, the author adds. Girls, in whom sex as such is “deemphasized and hidden” from birth to the start of puberty, are educated sexually by their mother, and experience a restriction of their mobility at puberty. Boys have their first sexual experience with prostitutes (Manners, p147). One study[8] among 953 persons (aged 15 to 40, about 33% female) revealed the ambiguity with which sex education is viewed in Puerto Rico.


Catholics overwhelmingly (N=547) thought the home was responsible for sex education; 103 respondents named the school, 5 the Church, and 96 nobody. Montesinos and Preciado (1997)[9] stated that “[a]s a result of marianismo [[10]], the Church’s opposition, and the reluctance of society and families to acknowledge female sexuality openly, many girls experience their menarche with no formal education about it, and although males are expected to have their first sexual experience before marriage, they do not receive formal education either. Obviously, neither females nor males have any knowledge about the health implications of various sexual practices (Burgos and Diaz-Perez 1985)[11]. There are no systems or district-wide sexuality education programs […]”. “Childhood sexual rehearsal play and sexual exploration no doubt occur in private as they do in many other cultures, but there are no statistics or information on their incidence or extent”.


The above image is solidified by similar accounts. Lewis[12] found “danger of seduction by stepfathers, sexual rivalry between sisters, between mother and daughters [and] male children erotically stimulated by their mothers and by other members of the family”. Padilla[13] reported parents and others regularly masturbating the infant’s penis. Fernández-Marina[14] found that a Puerto Rican father frequently, “wishing to show off his son as a macho completo (complete he-man), will play with the infant’s penis” (p82). Green[15] describes a rural lower class pattern in which “[g]irls are not evaluated as highly as boys: economically they are not as valuable for agriculture, and they bear a lower status generally. While some sex knowledge is obvious is such crowded housing, the boys learn first-hand outside the home what the girls learn only through gossip” (p37).


Some valuable female autobiographical material was collected by Villanueva (1997)[16]. Girls, who are to become “señioritas” at menarche, are restricted in sex information[17], and they would be discouraged to play sexually ([p45, 58]). However, others mention satisfactory experiments ([p45, 53, 57]). The atmosphere fits well into the general attitude against premarital intercourse. Landy (1959 [1965])[18] further deals extensively with childhood sexuality (p107-13, 159-61, 201-2, 236-7). Gender differences are noted in modesty training. Boys’ sex organs are joked about, playfully carressed grabbed in combination with playful castration threats (although the latter was found to be on the decline) (p108). Masturbation is rigidly counteracted by both parents; parents, fathers more than mothers, deny masturbation in their children, but note it in other people’s children. Both parents state they never get questions on sex. In comparison to data on the US[19], pressure for modesty rules, restrictiveness against masturbation and against mutual sex play were significantly higher for the Puerto Rico sample (p202). Sexual allusions towards dolls were rare (p161).


Wolf (1952)[20] offered an insight to three subcultures. In Manicaboa, information about sex is readily accessible, there is no attempt to hide the facts of life from small children, and no privacy in sexual relations. “There is however little discussion of sex and joking about it, except for a short period among adolescent boys when they feel themselves unobserved by adults (p414). In Barrio Poyal, “[a] boy’s sexuality is emphasized when he is a baby; he may be teased by having his penis pulled playfully, and is asked such questions as, “What’s it for?” ”. Boys go nude, girls always wear panties (cf. Stycos, 1955:p45-6, relating that mothers find nude boys look more pretty than nude girls. Boys and girls are kept apart for every man, no matter how young, represents a danger to women, no matter how small). “Sex play is frequent among small children, but ceases abruptly around the age of five; sex is de-emphasized from then on, and sexual joking and teasing of boys is discontinued. […] Until puberty, boys […] engage in much sexual joking, often of a homosexual nature. The girl’s sexuality is not overtly emphasized until she reaches puberty” (p420, 421). Among the San Josémiddle-class (p431),


“[g]irls learn at an early age that their sexuality must be valued and hidden. […] Masturbation in girls appears to be frequent and to go unreprimanded, but masturbation by boys is usually noticed by the mother and stopped by scolding or by diverting their attention. Yet women of this class often tease boys sexually up to the age of two or three, by jocularly kissing or handling their genitals. Little girls are rarely teased in the same way. Boys frequently have had sexual experience with prostitutes by the time they are fifteen, while premarital relations involving girls of the same class are extremely rare […]. Parents carefully guard their own sex relations from their children, and many girls of this group have no adequate sexual knowledge before they marry. Their first sexual contact is often traumatic. Similarly, many girls have no knowledge of menstruation before its first onset, though older sisters sometimes inform younger sisters about it”.


According to a study by O’neill (1990)[21], seventeen percent of male students and 17% of female students reported childhood sexual experiences that were classified as child sexual abuse on the same age discrepancy criteria used by Finkelhor (1979).


Padilla (1958)[22]:


“The games of girls are different from those of boys, and this is another device used to keep boys and girls separated. Some games, like baseball, are for boys of all ages, but it is preferred that whatever the game, individuals attach themselves to persons their own age for recreation and play. Hispanos who have grown up in Eastville, however, do not generally follow these rules. Among them are those who openly maintain that there is nothing bad about girls and boys playing together, nor about people of different ages, particularly adults, engaging together in games in the street. “What is bad and dangerous”, said Gloria Pima, a woman who grew up in Eastville, “is that children are not taught the facts of life at home”. She was commenting on why she allows her daughters, ten and eleven, to count boys among their friends”.


“Since little girls are expected to grow into demure and virtuous women, they are also supposed to be innocent and ignorant of the physiological processes connected with sex and sexual behavior. They are supposed to be feminine in the sense of being coquettish, yet are to refrain from using their feminine charms to attract men, unless they are addressing themselves to a suitor who has parental approval. As she is supposed to be modest, a little girl is to have her body, and particularly her genitals, covered. Only women—her mother, sisters, or close friends of her mother—can bathe and change her. As an infant in her crib, the tiny girl is covered with a small sheet or other clothing when her diapers are removed. The genitals of the baby boy, on the other hand, are more likely to be displayed. His chest, like that of the baby girl, may be covered for protection against cold, but adults and older brothers and sisters are likely to tease and play with his genitals, kissing them and remarking on their size, commenting that he is a machito (real little male) or a machote (real he-man). A baby girl less than a year old may be slapped on the hands if she touches her genitals, but a boy can play with his until he is four or five. When the little girl starts to walk and to be toilet-trained, she is told that she should not take her panties off in front of others and that she is not to go around without them. But it is quite usual to see a boy of three or four going about the house pantless. After this age, however, boys are encouraged to cover up in front of strangers and the women of the house [[23]]. They are called “fresh” and told they should be ashamed of letting women see them in order to train them to wear pants” (p185-6) “Well before a girl is five, she is taught that her chest is to be kept covered, for girls do not show their bodies. A girl is not to let men or boys touch her, nor is she to sit on their laps unless they are her father or her brothers. In turn, the men of her family are to stop caressing and fondling her as they did when she was a baby and starting to walk”.


Although a girl is introduced to maternal tasks at an early age,


“[…] she is not supposed to know about sex or even about her own physiological development. Menstruation will take her by surprise, unless she has acquired some notions about it from friends in school or has overheard her father or mother or adult women at home speaking about sex. When she begins to menstruate, she becomes señorita (virgin), and the watch on her is intensified. While her brothers become more free as they grow up, more restrictions are placed on the girl (for example, she can no longer go to camp or Friendly Town once she is señorita), for she must protect her virginity” (p188).


Alvarez (1988)[24]:


“By being closely watched and kept away from men, daughters were externally protected from the perils of their gender. They were left to discover for themselves, however, the nature of their own sexuality. This left many unprepared for later sexual encounters in their relationship: Lucila: Yo no tenía idea de nada. Para mejor decirte yo creía que las mujeres parían por el ombligo. Y ésa es la ignorancia más grande…. I knew nothing. To be more precise I thought that women gave birth through their belly button, and that is truly ignorance. And how was one to open that belly button and take the baby out? Imagine what can result from ignorance and the way one is brought up. And God forbid that some boy should touch you, because “I’ll beat you up”. But they wouldn’t tell you why; then you don’t know any better. That’s why the father of my kids took me for a fool all those years. I didn’t know any better. Imagine, he probably was saying to himself: “I brought her from the docks untouched. With her I can do what I want because she doesn’t know nothing from nothing”. In the process of cultural transmission, old ways get replicated, reformulated, or transformed in the lives of individual families. Doña Lucila and doña Eulalia employed quite divergent strategies and approaches in the socialization of their own daughters. Lucila, for example has learned from her own experience that a strict and repressive family has subjected her to the perils of living in fear and ignorance. She in turn seeks to empower her own daughters by creating a more open and supportive family environment. She presents herself as their friend to whom they can come fo help with any problem. She explains to them that they do have choices in life (for example, that they don’t have to marry the first man that they meet) but that they also have responsibilities to family and home”.


Irizarry (1993)[25] compared adolescent reproductive behaviour of Puerto Rican women in New York and Puerto Rico. Findings from 1982 / 1985 studies “suggest that a higher proportion of unmarried Puerto Rican teenage women in New York had had sexual intercourse than adolescents in Puerto Rico”].


In an interesting paper, Lucca and Pacheco (1986)[26] present data on the sexological content of  bathroom wall graffiti in 10 Puerto Ricanelementary schools, messages and drawings presumed to be manufactured by children aged 6 to 11. “Sexual” content categories occupied a fourth position in girls’ bathrooms (15%) and a third position in boys’ (27%; p469).




Additional refs.:


·        Comas-Diaz (1995)[27]

·        Fontes (1992, 1993)[28]; Asencio (1999)[29]

·        Moya, R. de (2004) La proteccion del menor frente a la obscenidad en el Derecho puertorriqueno: Protegemos la obscenidad o salvaguardamos la ninez? Rev Derecho Puertorriqueno 43,1:1-20

·        Villarruel (1998)[30] examined sexual norms and attitudes of 49 Puerto Rican and Mexican-American girls aged 10-15 year old, together with 21 of their mothers.

·        http://www.interpol.int/Public/Children/SexualAbuse/NationalLaws/csaPortoRico.asp






Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. VolumeI. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology

Last revised: Dec 2004


[1] Baumgartner, J. M. (1994) Challanged Manliness: A Social and Symbolic Perspective on Sexuality and Divorce in Puerto Rico. Diss., University of Michigan

[2] Bejin, A. & Guadilla, N. G. (1984) Sept theses erronées sur le machisme latino-americain, Cah Int Sociol 31, 76:21-8. For more on Puerto Rican maschismo and virginity complex, see Fernandez-Mendez, Eu. (1955) La familia Puertorriquena de hoy: Como la ve el antropologo social, Pedagog Rio Piedras 3,2:35-51

[3] Mintz, S. W. (1956) Cañamelar: the subculture of a rural sugar plantation proletariat, in Steward, H. J. (Ed.) The People of Puerto Rico. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, p314-417. Cf. Mintz, S. W. (1951) Cañamelar: The Contemporary Culture of a Rural Puerto Rican Proletariat. Unpubl. PhD Diss, ColumbiaUniversity. Ch. 6, p42. Quoted by Stycos (1955:p42). “A two-year-old boy will be asked, “What is it for?” while an adult pulls at his penis; and sometimes the child will answer, “For women”. Such a child is called malo (bad) or even malcria’o (badly brought up), but actually the terms are used with some measure of approval”.

[4] Cf. Stycos, J. M. (1952) Family and Fertility in Puerto Rico, Am Sociol Rev 17,5:572-80, at p574; Duerr, H. P. (1988) Nacktheit und Scham. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp. Vol. 1 of Der Mythos vom Zivilizationprocess. 2nd ed., p207-8, 209

[5] Manners, R. A. (1956) Tabara: subcultures of a Tobacco and mixed crops Municipality, in Steward, J. H. et al. (Eds.) The People of Puerto Rico. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, p93-170

[6] Stycos, J. M. (1955) Family and Fertility in Puerto Rico. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press

[7] Seda, E. P. (1956) Nocorá: the subculture of workers on a government-owned sugar plantation, in Steward, J. H. et al. (Eds.) The People of Puerto Rico. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, p265-313

[8] Rivero, E. B. (1975) Educacion sexual en Puerto Rico, Rev Cienc Soc 19,2:167-91

[9] Montesinos, L. & Preciado, J. (1997) Puerto Rico, in Francoeur, R. T. (Ed.) The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality. New York: Continuum, Vol. 3. Quoted from the online edition

[10] The model of the obedient and docile female.

[11] Burgos, N. M., & Diaz-Perez. Y. I. (1985) La Sexualidad: Analisis Exploratorio en la Cultura Puertoriquena. Puerto Rico: Centro de Investigaciones Sociales

[12] Lewis, O. (1965) La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty San Juan and New York. New York: Vintage Books, p.xxvi. From the 1968 Panther edition (p30): “There is a remarkable franknes and openness about sex, and little effort is made to hide the facts of life from children. Although the children in the Ríos family have many problems, they do not suffer from parental secrecy and dishonesty about sex. The male children are erotically stimulated by their mothers and by other members of the family, who take a pride in the child’s every erection as an indication of his virility and machismo. Masturbation is generally not punished. In the Rícos family early sexual experience for boys and girls is accepted as almost inevitable, even though ideally mothers are supposed to keep their young daughters under control”.

[13] Padilla, E. N. (1951) Nocora: An Agrarian Reform Sugar Community in Puerto Rico. Unpubl. PhD Diss., Columbia University. Ch.8, p3. Cited by DeMause (1991) and by quoted by Stycos (1955:p42): “Parents and their friends may play with the genitals of baby boys until the child is about seven years old. The size of the boys’ genitals is talked about as an index of his potential masculinity”.

[14] Fernández-Marina, R. (1961) The Puerto Rican syndrome: its dynamics and cultural determinants, Psychiatry 24:79-82

[15] Green, H. B. (1960)Comparison of nurturance and independence training in Jamaica and PuertoRico, with consideration of the resulting personality structure and transplanted social patterns,J Soc Psychol 51:27-63

[16] Villanueva, M. I. M. (1997) The Social Construction of Sexuality: Personal Meanings, Perceptions of Sexual Experience, and Females’ Sexuality in Puerto Rico. Dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

[17] Cf. Baumgartner (1994:p313), op.cit.

[18] Landy, D. (1959) Tropical Childhood. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press

[19] Maccoby (1954:p382-4), op.cit.

[20] Wolf, K. R. (1952) Growing up and its price in three Puerto Rico sub-cultures, Psychiatry 15:401-33

[21] O’neill, M. R. (1990) Puerto Rican and New England College Students' Reports of Childhood Sexual Abuse and Sexual Experiences: A Comparison Study. Diss., University Of Massachusetts

[22] Padilla, E. (1958) Up from Puerto Rico. New York: Columbia University Press

[23] Cf. Rainwater, L. (1964) Marital Sexuality in Four Cultures of Poverty, J Marr & Fam 26,4:457-66

[24] Alvarez, C. (1988) El Hilo Que Nos Une/ The thread that binds us: becoming a Puerto Rican woman, Oral Hist Rev 16:29-40

[25] Irizarry, J. (1993) A comparison of adolescent reproductive behavior of Puerto Rican women in New York and Puerto Rico, DAI 53(11-B): 5668

[26] Lucca, N. & Pacheco, A. M. (1986) Children's graffiti: Visual communication from a developmental perspective, J Genet Psychol 147,4:465-79

[27] Comas-Diaz, L. (1995) Puerto Ricans and sexual child abuse, in Fontes, L. A. (Ed.) Sexual Abuse in Nine North American Cultures: Treatment and Prevention. Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Sage Publications, Inc; Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Sage Publications, Inc., p31-66

[28] Fontes, L. A. (1992) Considering culture and oppression in child sex abuse: Puerto Ricans in the United States, DAI 53(6-A):1797; and Fontes, L. A. (1993) Disclosures of sexual abuse by Puerto Rican children: Oppression and cultural barriers, J Child Sex Abuse 2,1:21-35. Fontes argues that cultural factors inhibiting disclosure of child sexual abuse include childrearing practices, the value placed on virginity, and taboos against discussing sex.

[29] Asencio, M. W. (1999) Machos and sluts: gender, sexuality, and violence among a cohort of Puerto Rican adolescents, Med Anthropol Quart, NS 13,1:107-26

[30] Villarruel, A. M. (1998)Cultural influences on the sexual attitudes, beliefs, and norms of young Latina adolescents,J Soc Pediatr Nurses 3,2: 69-79