Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 263 | Junio 2003



She Said, He Said: A Survey on Sex and Gender

An analytical look at a survey conducted among Central American University students takes us into the gender dimension of off-hour practices and preferences, and offers us an opportunity to reflect on the thrusts and parries of Nicaragua’s patriarchal system.

José Luis Rocha

To say that young men and young women think and act differently is so obvious that it is a cliché. To what point and in what way is this cliché crystallized among the students at Managua’s Central American University (UCA) and what meanings can be attributed to it? For many reasons, this question is the stuff of a very productive field of enquiry. It permits a certain calibration of the state of gender stereotypes or of their partial demise. It helps us learn more about the cultural reproduction of certain ways of thinking in the university, a setting presumed to be more liberated, better educated and a major contributor to the stockpot of new ideas and life styles. And it allows us to measure the persistence, vigor and determination of social prejudices that are imposed, interposed and superimposed on the rhetoric and the aspiration of groups and individuals to dabble cautiously in new tastes, fashions and behavior or don them ostentatiously.

Over a year ago, we surveyed female and male students at the UCA in the belief that this center of higher learning had the greatest diversity of young people within the country’s constellation of universities, albeit only a single star in Nicaragua’s universe of young people. An analysis of that survey, published in the August 2002 issue of envío, looked at the labels young people hang on each other and themselves in a stubborn determination to produce identity. At that time, we identified and described the four main labels they use in Managua today: hippies, revolutionaries, revelers and fresas (whose closest English-language kin would be yuppies). Using that same database, we are now going to analyze the gender diversity of some of those same responses.

The say-do contradiction

I will essentially treat the data obtained through the survey as reflecting how young people in fact present themselves publicly, ignoring any discrepancies between what they told the pollster and what they actually do in real life. I will likewise forego looking into the very interesting topic of the various gender gaps between what one says and what one does. In this intersection between discourse and action, which all surveys must grapple with, I will mainly stay with what was said and try to interpret what it means, to discover the strategy behind it.

Lying, a moral concept applied to the strategy one uses to present oneself to the outside world—or to oneself, for that matter—with certain distortions, is a defense mechanism. Among other possibilities, the degree to which a specific group turns to this mechanism may indicate the power of social coercion exercised on the group and the hegemony of certain stereotypes over it.

The demographics of those surveyed

Let’s begin with the sample itself. It consisted of 63% women and 37% men, which is the exact proportion of the UCA’s total undergraduate population of 3,882 women and 2,234 at the end of 2001. That, in turn, is nearly identical to its current undergraduate student body of 3,880 women and 2,159 men.

The age breakdown is as follows: 36.5% of the sample was 16-18, 53% was 19-21 and only 10.5% was 21-35. The sexual breakdown of these age groups, however, reveals an interesting shift from the lower to the higher age groups. While the women and men interviewed in the 16-18 age range respectively represented 41% and 29% of the total female and male sample, 71% of the total men and 59% of the total women came from the two older age groups combined. Of the small number of students in the over 21 group, the ratio by sex was 43% women to 57% men.

The social calendar imposed on women

There are various possible reasons for women’s tendency to comprise a greater part of the younger student body and reduce their presence among the older student population. One is that women’s social roles are more likely to be confined to specific ages. In the countryside, when a girl turns 14, she is said to be “single,” which means she is old enough to get married. Both there and in the city, when a woman reaches a certain age without getting married, everyone says, “the train left without her.” A calendar is socially imposed on women that prescribes the appropriate age for just about everything, including studying, in which the orthodox age range for university undergraduate studies is 17-20. Over a quarter of the men interviewed went against this norm, as opposed to only 15% of the women.

Another reason is that women acquire family responsibilities earlier and both feel and discover in practice that being a married woman is incompatible with further studies. The household and childcare chores always fall to her. A man— freed of this burden either by himself or by the women in his family surroundings—can use his time more autonomously and freely.

Still another reason is social class. Lower income students are frequently obliged to wait until they have worked several years to save up to pay for the university themselves, by which time many women are already married and cannot study either due to domestic obligations or the husband’s jealousy.

Where they go for fun and
their musical preferences

Just as educational activities are segmented by age in one sex more than the other, there are also preferred entertainment niches for each sex. Male students are more likely to admit going to places frequented by what are pigeonholed as “hippies” and marihuana users. The coffeehouse-style nightspot called Amatl is listed by 6% of the men and only 2% of the women and La Colinita, a makeshift bar on a hill that often hosts live rock music, is mentioned by 4% of the men and only 1% of the women. This segmentation also occurs with respect to places where one goes to drink more than to dance.

Male students are more likely to admit to frequenting bars, considered spaces reserved for men to go talk about “guy stuff.” At the other extreme, the most prestigious and pricey discotheques in Managua—Sport (now Cocos) and Hipa-Hipa, as well as the fashionable movie theaters and the Metrocentro shopping mall—were the rest and relaxation spots women mentioned most frequently.

Segmentation by sex is also a dependent variable of the music played in these places. Rock, a sign of rebellion and coarseness that appeals to 58% of the young men polled and only 26% of the young women, is typical of La Colinita. Romantic music, rock’s symbolic antipode, is preferred by 67% of the young women and outright rejected by a similar percentage of the males. Even phobias are gender-biased. Rap, which polled last on the preference chart, is not the music of university students, but is rejected even more strongly by women (83%) than men (60%).

Those on the make and their prey

When asked “What are parties for?” 15% of the men and only 1% of the women answered that they are to “afincar,” a high-powered verb that enjoys a multiplicity of meanings in today’s youthful argot ranging between kissing and having sex, but implies aggressiveness in the male-female relationship. Its meaning outside of the sexual sphere is to grab, to overpower. For the male, it is a question of conquest to be boasted about later. To say, “Yo afinqué con esa muchacha,” [I made it with that girl] sets him up vis-à-vis his male peers as a tough—and successful—stud, not for the act itself, but for the macho style of treating it.

Any young Managuan male knows that the percentage of young females interested in parties as a platform for “afincamiento” is far greater than 1%, but it would be unsuitable for young women to declare this improper objective outright to a pollster. The same gendered cultural control device governs the levels of modesty and economy of values regarding the admission of having had sex. We quickly learn that while women “lose their virginity” as a result of sex, men “gain experience.”
When asked why they personally go to parties, nearly 10% of the males said they go to find a girl while only 2.4% of the females admitted the inverse. In themselves, these figures are an interesting distinction for both sexes from the response percentages to the more hypothetical question about what parties are for. Nonetheless, admitting to the search for a mate—or, more to the point, a fleeting sexual adventure—is clearly more frowned upon among women. Men who go to parties to find a sexual partner present themselves as hunters while women who do the same are seen as prey. Even if the woman’s behavior is proactive, the man is the one who “takes,” “possesses,” “conquers,” while she is just an “offering” who has put herself in his sights.

Cuban songwriter Silvio Rodríguez sang that “a good girl from a decent home mustn’t go out; what would the people at Sunday Mass say if they knew?” Our poll indicates that if the girl ultimately does go out, she ought not go alone. While 20% of the men declared that they go to nightspots by themselves, only 5% of the girls put themselves in that group. The hunter can do it because he hopes to find a new prey on each trip. The girl who goes to a place alone or is seen alone there awakens suspicions: is she there only to be caught?

The dominator dominated by domination

Men are more likely to admit to drinking, and indeed 32% of the males surveyed said they thought parties are for drinking, as opposed to only 12% of the females. Unlike in Spain, drunken marathons in Nicaragua are still an almost exclusively masculine sport and the “ability to hold it” still an attribute of virility. Bars are full of men who compete among themselves, displaying on the table all the beer bottles they have “possessed” as if they were young virgins conquered and deflowered. Throwing in the towel in the booze battle is the correlate of a limp dick during sex.

Confessing to drug use can also be an opportunity for a man to display his virility while it is cause for embarrassment in a woman. Only 0.4% of the females surveyed said they habitually use drugs, compared to 2.7% of the males. When asked if they had ever tried any drugs, 15% of the males and only 4.4% of the females admitted they had. Masculinity lies in tenacity, audacity. It is not so much a question of more daring equals healthier or wiser; the male is obliged to be bold enough to try anything.

Admitting to not playing any sport is apparently seen more negatively among men than women. Only 29% of the males surveyed admitted playing no sport, compared to 58% of the women. Sports, associated almost exclusively with rivalry and brashness and seldom with harmony and health, are also usually seen as a test of virility.
Sooner rather than later, all these requirements end up being a huge burden for the presumed dominator: drinking, acting athletic and sexually aggressive, competing and showing no fear are all yokes that not all masculine temperaments enjoy with the same gusto or even suffer with similar stoicism. Dominators too are constrained by the structures of domination and feel obliged to behave as gender expectations dictate. Prisoners of their status, they must demonstrate publicly—and to themselves—who’s wearing the pants, who conquers more women and who can throw back more alcohol. They are hunters hunted by the system, dominators trapped by the social mesh into which they are woven.

The dominating man
assimilated by dominated women

Dominated females have partially or totally assimilated the viewpoint of masculine domination and manifest it in their opinions, judgments and actions. This assimilation is just as palpable when females differ with the system as when they agree with it.

Nearly 70% of the women said parties are for dancing, a view only 25% of the men shared. On the positive side, it can be said that dancing reflects a throwing off of inhibitions, an enjoyment of bodily expression. On the negative, this predilection could be interpreted as another form of passivity. When dancing, the woman insinuates herself, seducing without assaulting, taking the initiative without taking the lead away from the man. Dancing is the admissible seductive activity par excellence for women. They are on exhibit, dutifully displaying their bodies as in beauty contests, especially in activities that focus on their grace and charm, just as the male body is exhibited in activities like sports that spotlight their strength and vigor.

Of course, the young women who classified themselves as “revolutionaries” deviated from these patterns. If almost 70% of the total number of females surveyed chose dancing as their main idea of fun, only 39% of the revolutionaries shared that opinion. In contrast, while 12% of the total female sample said parties are for drinking, 23% of the revolutionaries named that as the goal, putting themselves smack in between the overall female and male percentages on the issue.

These rebels are in guerrilla war against the system of masculine domination. Their incursions into what are considered masculine activities could be seen as a sign of liberation, but that is not necessarily the case. Rather than undermining the structures, they adopt the dominator’s poses, concentrating on details rather than essence: I drink too; I also conquer. Thinking from within the dominant system’s cognitive structures, which reduces all gender-related ideas to the masculine/feminine dichotomy, they confuse a struggle against the system and its prerogatives with a struggle to attain the prerogatives and poses associated with it. In the end, their fight translates into “all things masculine.” They don’t perceive that all the attributes taken as dominant and therefore masculine are not that per se, only within a system that endows them with that meaning. Nor do they grasp how oppressive such attributes can be even for the dominators.

Rather than reduce certain behavior to its absurdity in an effort to liberate men as well as women, these rebels imitate the dominator’s behavior and perpetuate the relations of domination. In other words, while the passively dominated, adhering to an image that devalues women, are inclined to say with an offensive toss of the head, “That guy acts just like a woman,” the rebelliously dominated say, “I also drink and screw.” But both postures reproduce the domination.

What do they talk about?

Asked what topics they discuss during parties, 12% of the men responded that they talk politics, a theme checked by only 7.6% of the women. When having to respond to such a question, men are more likely to consider it their gender “duty” to concern themselves with public affairs.

Women, on the other hand, lean slightly more than men to issues about the family, or private issues that pertain to the secret and anonymous feminine world. These responses fit with the stereotypes: while men busy themselves with the macro and the public sphere, women fix on details and the private sphere, but since they are young, these tendencies are not so accentuated. Their interests are also marked by age, and perhaps the uncertainty that predominates in Nicaragua: the majority of both sexes said they discuss the future.

How do they get around
and how much do they spend?

Slightly more men (76%) than women (73%) polled use buses to get around, while more women (8.4%) than men (4.7%) use taxis. About 19% in both cases say they use a private vehicle. The figures change drastically when asked how they get to a nighttime entertainment spot. More men (35%) than women (18.5%) use taxis while a private vehicle predominates more among women (71%) than men (57%).

According to the women, this transmutation of proportions is because they are invited out in friends’ cars and because their parents don’t let them go out unaccompanied. The young men don’t enjoy the recourse of being invited because that would clash with their active role. In one of his many investigations in Nicaragua, US anthropologist Roger Lancaster found that in terms of the division of gender roles, the verb dar (to give) is masculine and recibir, tomar, aceptar (receive, take, accept) are feminine. The survey shows that this functions as an ideal in all spheres of gender transactions. Thus, 14% of the women said they don’t spend a cent when they go out, a situation not shared by even one of the men polled. That also explains why only 10% of the young men could admit to spending 50 córdobas (just over $3) or less when they go out, while 28% of the women could keep their budget that low.

One of the female strategies

While 43% of the young men from poor neighborhoods use taxis, this is true of barely 25% of the young women from the same kind of neighborhood. They apparently have more access to cars owned by wealthier male friends, since 10% more of them say they get around in a car than their male neighbors. They also claim to frequent the more costly discotheques and the Metrocentro movie theatres and food court more often than men from their own economic stratum.

What we may be seeing here is a strategy aimed at counteracting during their leisure time the disadvantage at which family options placed them in the academic terrain: 41% of the women students from poor neighborhoods went to public high schools compared to barely 26% of the male students from the same background. It thus appears to be a strategy to generate social capital in a setting in which women finally have an edge over the men. The high number of female students from other areas of the country, including rural localities where public schools are the only option, does skew these percentages, but the conclusion remains valid: they are trying to reverse somewhat the poor generation of social capital to which they were subjected by their geographic origins and the class in which they were born and raised.

Is masculine domination eroding?

There can be no pretence that the UCA undergraduate students interviewed represent the country’s youth as a whole. For the purposes of this mini-analysis, the circumscription of the object of study obliges us to remember that being university students acts as a filter on their social conditioning, sometimes activating currents of thinking, acting and appearing and at others canceling or modulating their flow.

At times the differences in declared tastes and activities appear very small, while at others they seem major. Lacking the opinions of other youth sectors much less those of other generations, it would be interesting to fill in these blanks, to be able to compare diachronically by universities, age groups and social strata, also contrasting urban and rural sectors. Only then could we more exactly pinpoint the coordinates of the UCA students on the national gender map.

There are data suggesting that the UCA student body is a more liberated sector in certain respects. Only 17% of the men surveyed come from the departments, whereas the figure climbs to 31% for the women. Remembering that 63% of this sample is female to begin with, we found that this percentage increased significantly with respect to young people from the departments furthest away from the capital. Of all students surveyed who were from Chinandega and Estelí, 80% were women; from Granada, 91% were women; and from Boaco, Chontales, Jinotega, León, Matagalpa and Nueva Segovia, 100% were women.

None of these departments offer very expansive futures for women, many of whom are not resigned to becoming housewives in homes headed by farmers or ranchers who keep an iron grip on them. With no work for women on the farm or in family commerce other than routine domestic chores, they come to Managua seeking alternatives, at least one of which could convince their anxious parents: finding a good match in the capital. In any case, the fact that traditional parents of limited means living in the hinterlands are allowing their daughters to go live in the capital in such a relatively libertine setting as a university, beyond the reach of paternal protection, is in itself a sign of change worthy of note.

The thesis that there is a greater propensity for girls from the departments to migrate to the capital is nothing new. The study Migraciones internas en Nicaragua, issued by the UN Fund for Population Affairs in August 1997, based on the 1995 census, revealed that 47.7% of the migrants from the hinterlands to Managua were in the 15-29 age group, which contained 17% of all male migrants and 30.7% of all female migrants. While many of the latter came to work in the service sector, we now know that a smaller but no less significant group comes to study.

Perhaps these strategies —coming to Managua and the storing up of social capital —are helping break down masculine domination. But the dominant structures are so etched into the skin and encrusted in the bones that their abrupt dismantling would simultaneously collapse a multitude of behaviors: our affective relations, labor relations, attitude toward dangerous situations, inclination to negotiate versus impose, etc. This is why some of the liberation strategies insert themselves into the fabric of domination and try to milk a profit from the conditions that are given rather than topple them.

Twist the patriarchal system’s arm, gently

If women have constructed their world by being more nurturing, attentive to details and hospitable, and men by presenting themselves as competitive and aggressive hunters, the best way to open up to possible new worlds does not consist of blowing up the existing one by sheer will. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu was right to warn that these dualisms, profoundly rooted in structures and bodies, did not emerge through the mere effect of verbal domination and cannot be magically abolished. He argues that the sexes are not just “roles” that can be interpreted on a whim (as by drag queens), because they are inscribed in the bodies and in a universe from which they draw their force. It is thus necessary to study that universe, its faces and its masks, to avoid settling for a rebellion of words and gestures, theory and ideology, that only benefits the patriarchal system. We should aspire to something more profound that truly twists that system’s arm—without violence and with charm.

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