Let’s Talk about Sex: Health Education in the Rural Dominican Republic

Rachel Weinstock
March 2, 2016

Liceo CientíficoIn learning the Spanish language, I have always turned to music to gain new vocabulary and practice my pronunciation. How perfect, then, that I find myself in the Dominican Republic as a PiLA fellow. The DR, after all, is the birthplace of so much popular Latin music. In the home of bachata, merengue and tembo, it is impossible to walk down the street, go to the grocery store, wake up in the morning without hearing someone blasting that damn Romeo Santos song that you’ve been hearing non-stop since arriving. On the school bus, the kids plead with the bus driver to blast the radio, and they sing those bachata love songs with more gusto and passion than the bacheteros themselves. They know every word to every one of these songs. I love to sing along to them too.

Music is powerful here, not only in volume, but also in message. Early on, a friend told me that Dominicans love “doble sentido” in their music: double-entendre. I then began to listen for it, rethinking lines like “A mí que me importa/ eso da pa' to'/ eso no se rompe” — “It doesn’t matter, it’s good for everything, it won’t break,” lyrics referring to the female sexual anatomy.

The messages go beyond hyper-sexualization. Indeed, some of the most popular music blatantly objectifies women. Some lyrics verge on violence, while other catchy tunes distract from outright threats of sexual assault: “No te asombres/ Si una noche/ Entro a tu cuarto y nuevamente te hago mía” — “Don’t be surprised if one night I enter your room and make you mine again.”

The voices of pop culture blast messages of hyper-sexualization and hyper-masculinity. It seems that everyone wants to talk about sex. But what kind of conversations are we having?

One of my major tasks as a PiLA fellow at El Liceo Científico Dr. Miguel Canela Lázaro is to organize the annual sex education workshops. This is an important part of any high school curriculum, yet it is highly charged in a country where 25% of young women have had a child by 18 years of age. This number is astounding, considering that adolescent fertility rates of most other Caribbean countries are barely half that of the DR’s.

Study after study has shown that abstinence-only education is ineffective in preventing teen pregnancy and promoting safe sex practices. Hence the need for a comprehensive sexual education (CSE) program. CSE covers information on all types of contraception, lessons on gender equality, and LGBTQ rights. Since it seems that popular music informs the social and sexual lives of teens, CSE is especially relevant here. Even so, as I began my research and planning, the school’s director cautioned me about the potential community response to this curriculum in our schools.

Despite statistics supporting the value of CSE for teenagers, its incorporation into a public high school is not supported by all community members. Curriculum design and implementation is complicated by the deeply-held conservative religious values and beliefs of students and community members. In this social and political climate, for example, Catholic activists recently lobbied fervently against a bill that would legalize abortion in cases of rape, incest, and extreme birth defects.

I have discussed issues surrounding sexuality with co-workers, parents, community members, and students in an array of gendered contexts. Like one hit song emphasizes, women are called “chapiadoras” if they enter into sexual relations in order to improve their economic prospects. Paradoxically, this behavior is popularly condemned even as it is perpetuated by the limited economic and social opportunities afforded most women. Early marriage to a much older man may be a young woman’s most viable escape from a tension-filled family home (as explained to me by my soccer teammate, a newlywed 14–year-old). Personal motivations to engage in sexual behavior can only be fully understood when examined in social-political context, one that often runs counter to religious directives and public health efforts that counsel the delay of sex and marriage.

Of course, themes and images of female objectification and hyper-sexuality are not unique to Dominican music; they are symptomatic of global media trends that sensationalize sex. Still, listening critically to popular Dominican music illuminates social tensions around sexuality. Ideally, young women and men are expected to follow the teachings of their parents and religious authorities: to “save” themselves until marriage, cherish monogamy, honor the reproductive function of sexuality, and sustain the traditional heterosexual family structure.

In actuality, women face a daily barrage of cultural messages and socioeconomic pressures to enter into multiple relationships to improve their economic prospects, undercutting the cultivation of normative familial structures valued in popular belief. According to the previously cited World Bank report, 51 percent of Dominican women ages 15 and up participate in the labor force, but low female income and the prevalence of female-headed households perpetuate women’s precarious socioeconomic status, and thus, the vulnerability of the lives of Dominican women and children.Liceo Científico

Trying to create a culturally relevant sex ed curriculum that is sensitive to the conservative values of the community is an enormous challenge. I am learning in a hands-on fashion just how difficult it can be to implement scientifically informed health interventions in socially appropriate ways. I see how deeply influential the subtle — and not-so-subtle — cultural norms and tensions play out in the complex historical and international context of Dominican daily life. I’m looking to foster a different kind of conversation to address the paradox in which school children belt out popular songs with overt sexual themes, while adults anxiously avoid forthright conversations about sexual health.

Songs Referenced

Eso da’pa’to’--Marino Castellanos

Eres mía--Romeo Santos

Chapi chapi--Farruko con Messiah