URBANA - A University of Illinois researcher advises caution when trying to characterize gender roles and sexual behavior among this country's Latino adolescents and young adults.
"When a recent documentary about U.S. Latinos featured two teen mothers in a 90-minute program, the Latino students in my classes thought it was an unbalanced portrayal of their community—and they were right!" said Marcela Raffaelli, a U of I professor of human and community development and co-author of a recently published chapter on Latino teen sexuality.
National surveys do show that Latino young people as a group are less likely than their non-Latino peers to use condoms and birth control and are more likely to become pregnant and have a child. But these statistics hide a much more complicated picture, she said.
For one thing, Latinos represent more than 20 different groups, and they live in very different situations in the United States.
"For example, Cuban immigrants who moved to the United States when Castro came to power tended to be very wealthy, and they created an entrepreneurial, successful enclave in Miami. Compare them with Central American immigrants who may be refugees from a civil war in the 1980s. Language, religion, and some aspects of culture are apt to be the same, but socioeconomic status is probably very different, and that's a big predictor of early sexual activity and teen pregnancy," Raffaelli said.
When you adjust for socioeconomic status and other demographic factors, the difference in adolescent sexual behavior between Latinos and other groups largely disappears.
Attempts to understand sexuality among Latino teens are also complicated in that researchers don't have the data to draw conclusions about how cultural factors influence sexuality. "People talk a lot about Latino culture and sexuality, but they typically don't measure cultural variables, such as adherence to cultural norms and attitudes, in their studies," she said.
So what do we know about Latino sexuality and risk taking among teenagers? For one thing, no one really knows how much the traditional gender role attributes of machismo and marianismo—idealizing the Virgin Mary—actually influence today's Latino adolescents.
"In traditional Latin cultures, machismo dictates that men be virile and strong and provide for their family. In the United States, when we say macho, often we mean someone's a male chauvinist, but in most Latin cultures, this idea encompasses such positive behavior as being responsible for your family and taking care of your household," she said.
The female ideal of marianismo includes being self-sacrificing, pure, and silent. But the researcher emphasized that few studies have tried to measure the extent to which Latinos adhere to these traditional gender roles and whether cultural beliefs are linked to sexual behavior.
"Also, most research on Latino gender roles and sexuality doesn't take into account that Latin cultures have changed tremendously over the last 20 years as a result of globalization, migration, and changing norms," she added.
Immigrant status also plays a role in teens' sexual risk taking. "For first-generation Latinos, recent immigration seems to be a protective factor. Families tend to bring the practices they had in their home country, and over time there's a shift as they become acculturated. For girls, being an immigrant is protective because Latin American countries are typically more conservative about sexuality than the United States is," she said.
For boys, the opposite pattern may be true because in many Latin American countries men have more freedom to explore their sexuality. In the United States, they might shift to a more conservative pattern, she said.
Scholars in multiple disciplines have described a pattern called the "immigrant paradox" in which immigrants have better outcomes than their U.S.-born counterparts despite their more challenging situations.
"First-generation teens do better in school, get into less trouble, have fewer early pregnancies, and so on, but by the second or third generation, that protective effect dissipates. A lot of immigrant families have tremendous optimism. They think, our life here is difficult, but we're here to improve our children's chances and, besides, things may be worse back home," she said.
"By the third generation, things often look very different—maybe because of discrimination, bad schools, or socioeconomic factors," she said.
Raffaelli said that she and other researchers are working to update what is known about American Latino families. "Cultural ideals provide general guidelines, but we need recent research to tell us whether people believe in these ideals and how much those beliefs affect behavior," she said.
Raffaeli and co-author Maria I. Iturbide of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln wrote the chapter "Sexuality and Sexual Risk Behaviors Among Latino Adolescents and Young Adults" for the Handbook of U.S. Latino Psychology.