Colombia: Catching Up With its Past
By: Chez Shadman
Colombia’s sexual history existed far before the country even received its name. In fact, the religion and machismo that seem to permeate through Colombian culture today are a far cry from the pre-Colombian era during which the region’s indigenous people practiced a more open and free form of sexuality—one that would make even the most sexually progressive countries today cower in shame.
But before one even tries to understand the sexual customs of modern-day Colombia, it is necessary to understand the different cultures of the past that have combined to form the rich culture of modern-day Colombia—that is, Spanish, African and Indian cultures.
With the Spanish culture came the diverse and contradictory mixture of sensuality and eroticism with the more repressive Catholic religion. The African culture embodied the region with a natural and accepting look at sexuality, eroticism and sexual vigor. But perhaps most interesting is the history of the region’s own indigenous cultures, the majority of which embraced sexuality to the utmost.
Studies of both indigenous art and the accounts of the first colonizers in the 16th century have shown that the inhabitants of pre-colonial Colombia engaged in everything from masturbation to bestiality.
Among the more sexually open tribes were the Quimbayas from the central Andes. Both the male and female members were incredibly sexually active. The Muiscas engaged in copious amounts of premarital sex with no repercussions. The Pantagoros tribe accepted infidelity as a natural way of life. Fertility festivals were also very common among these groups, during which members would engage in all sorts of debauchery and have liberal sexual relations.
Incest was quite the norm for the Liles people from the Valle, where marriage to sisters and nieces was the norm. And homosexuality seemed to pervade the Noanamas and the Taso tribes where sex with women was only for reproductive purposes!
Apart from sexual practices, there were indigenous tribes who adopted narrow-minded views of sexuality and engaged in more unusual, and at times, cruel behavior. The Pijaos, for example, condoned the murder of any woman who wasn’t considered a virgin on her wedding night. Any unfaithful Pijaos woman would be given to the single men of the village for sexual purposes, after which she would be buried waste-deep and whipped to death.
But it is within the culture of the Lanches tribe of the Boyacá region that perhaps the most bizarre ritual would take place. If a woman had five consecutive boys, the youngest would be raised as a female and married off to a male!
When the conquistadors arrived in the mid 1500s, their interest in the region’s Indian women, coupled with the sexual open-mindedness of the majority of the aboriginal people, made interracial marriages quite popular. Today, anyone can see how prevalent these interracial marriages were, considering 58 percent of the country’s population is mestizo Spanish/Amerindians and beyond that, 14 percent are mulatto black/Caucasian.
Today, Colombia is more than a mixture of Spanish, African and Indian influences. Machismo plays a predominant role in Colombian society and Catholicism still persists, despite its declining influence. Women have been gaining more rights and freedom within the past three decades, but still much has to be done in order for them to gain even the slightest semblance of equality.
Abortion is illegal in Colombia, and there are an estimated 300,000 illegal abortions being conducted in the country annually. And despite public support for sex education in schools, the Colombian government still considers the parents to be the best providers of such information. According to studies, however, it is estimated that one in every 10 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 14 has had sexual relations. By 18 years of age, the estimate grows to seven out of 10.
A 1995 study conducted by Profamilia found 17 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 19 were mothers. Many factors contribute to teenage pregnancy, including socioeconomic status, level of education, earlier onset of puberty, and geographical location (urban or rural). While Colombian youth are aware of and use contraception, usage rates aren’t as high as in other countries, such as Germany or Iceland. In fact, according to Profamilia, for every six women using birth control, only one man uses a condom. Such sobering statistics make sex education in schools not only important, but necessary.
The waning influence of the Catholic Church has allowed for more progressive attitudes making way for sexuality to flourish. As a result, more and more people are seeing sex education, for example, as less of a taboo. Another example of the country’s divergence from the rigid values of Catholicism is the legalization of divorce toward the end of the 20th century.
In fact, studies show that the church is losing 200 practitioners daily and for every 100 people who consider themselves Catholic, only an average of 15 people attend mass.
Apart from divorce and decreased attendance of church, attitudes toward sex have also changed as a result of Catholicism’s weakening influence on the Colombian people. More adults are engaging in premarital sex. By the age of 18, 72 percent of males and 40 percent of females have had intercourse. Most sexually active adolescents and adults cite love as the motivating factor in their sexual relationships. This should come as no surprise since much of Colombian’s artistic culture surrounds notions of love and romance (music, soap operas, movies, etc.).
Masturbation is still considered the action of crazy people by a majority of the country, but the number of people who are adopting a more healthy outlook on the act is growing. In fact, in a 1988 study by Bardugo & Seguro, it was found that among adults over the age of 60, single women masturbated with more frequency than single men.
In a country with such fire and passion, it only makes sense that sexuality should permeate the air. While it seems that Colombian people are shifting their mentalities for the better, their move away from the more “traditional” roles of men and women as well as the influence of a strict and repressive religion is just beginning. Certainly a complete regression to the ways of their ancestors is not necessary, and in fact, quite unrealistic. However, steps toward acknowledging their sexually liberal past as well as the rich cultures that have defined the country of Colombia for centuries are definitely crucial for the development of a culture that embraces its sexuality the way it does its food, music and art.