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Machismo Sexual Identity

Text Box: The night before her wedding, a girl kneels down to pray. She prays for 3 things:
"Dear God, please make my husband faithful to me.
"Dear God, please keep me from finding out when he is unfaithful to me.
"Dear God, please keep me from caring when I find out he is unfaithful to me."

Joke told in Degollado, Mexico, summer of 1996 (5)

            While machismo (What is machismo?) is a concept that dictates many aspects of Latin American male behavior, it has particular relevance to male sexual culture. In terms of machismo, males have an “expansive and almost uncontrollable” sexual appetite, and it is their right to satisfy that desire in the ways they choose (1). In contrast, female sexuality is seen as an object over which the male has control. Females are expected to have only one sexual partner, none before or outside of marriage (1). Machismo sexual behavior is a source of pride for males and men must prove their manliness by upholding their sexual dominance. In this way, reputation is one of the driving forces behind machismo (2). Hirsch et al. makes the argument that reputation is the central element of sexual identity. The overemphasis on sociosexual reputation explains why males often act in socially safer yet physically more risky ways (2).

Extramarital affairs are the primary way in which males prove their masculinity. By having sex with a variety of women, in addition to their spouses, men demonstrate their expansive sexual appetite. Married men may have sex with commercial sex workers, an extra-marital girlfriend, and/or male partners, yet these relations are practiced in a separate underworld that is not acknowledged in the light of day. Men create an underlying culture in bars and brothels where there is a mutual trust and understanding that they will cover for one another. In these contexts, men prove their sexual independence to other men and are expected to have sexual relations that would be unacceptable in any other context.

Thus, a man’s perception of female roles is divided between two contexts: la casa (the home) and la calle (the street). As described by Hirsch et al.,

Men practice a very efficient social and emotional division of labor: the official wife, to whom men refer as ‘the mother of my children,’ provides respectability, raises a man’s children, provides him with domestic services, and receives the security of a public moral claim to his

resources, whereas the “outside wife” provides pleasure, sexual variety, excitement, and companionship. (2)


For the sake of social norms, men want a wife who is respectable and fulfills practical domestic duties. Often, though, demands to maintain the household and care for the children overwhelm a wife’s ability to sexually satisfy her husband. Social norms teach women that a respectable woman has no sexual desire and engages in sex only as a means of reproduction. Silvana Paternostro explains in her ethnographic portrayal of Latin American sexual culture, “In our society, women attach punitive attitudes to their sexuality. They associate sex with sin, so they carry a negative emotional burden” (3, p. 83). To stray from this image is to risk becoming like the shameless women of the streets. Thus, men, as a means of exerting their masculinity, look to extramarital affairs for sexual variety and pleasure.

            The implication of the sexual expression of machismo and the extramarital affairs of married men is that they put their wives in danger of exposure to HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Commercial sex workers and homosexual men are often involved in extramarital sexual relations, both of which are high risk populations for HIV/AIDS. Interviews with rural Mexican men revealed that, ironically, those men who still felt affection for their wives were more likely to seek sex from prostitutes (an at-risk population) and men who experienced less emotionally satisfying marriages had girlfriends or more consistent extra-marital sexual partners, a less risky sexual behavior than the former (2). With their reputation at stake, men define “safe sex” not in terms of using a condom but in terms of being as discrete as possible, which often leads to more risky sexual behavior (2). Extramarital affairs of married men institutionalize the transfer of STIs from high risk populations to the general population (4).

            Wives could assert control over protecting their sexual health by demanding their husbands to stop having extra-marital affairs and/or by using contraceptives in marital sex. Unfortunately, cultural values and norms often prevent Latin American wives from exerting this control. Specifically, wives are often unable to protect themselves because they lack power in their relationship with their husbands and the skills needed to negotiate contraceptive use.  (Discussion on power disparities in marriage)


1. Parker, Richard. “Behavior of Latin American Men: implications for HIV/AIDS interventions” International Journal of STD & AIDS. (1996); 7 (Suppl.2): 62-65.

2. Hirsch, Jennifer; Meneses, Sergio; Thompson, Brenda; Negroni, Mirka; Pelcastre, Blanca; Rio, Carlos. “The Inevitability of Infidelity: Sexual Reputation, Social Geographies, and Marital HIV Risk in Rural Mexico.” Framing Health Matters. American Journal of Public Health. (2007). Vol 97 (6). 986-996.

3. Paternostro, Silvana. In the Land of God and Man: Confronting Our Sexual Culture. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1998.

4. McIntyre, Peter. “Married Adolescents: No Place of Safety” World Health Organization. Geneva: WHO Press. (2006); 1-18

5. Hirsch, Jennifer et al. “The Social Constructions of Sexuality: Marital Infidelity and Sexually Transmitted Disease–HIV Risk in a Mexican Migrant Community.” Am J Public Health. 2002; 92(8): 1227–1237.