Sexual Empowerment
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Lifestyle

Santas No More! How Latinas Are Reclaiming Our Sexual Agency

Many Latinas do not grow up discussing things like sexual wellness, pleasure, or reproductive health. Lots of us are raised in conservative households and though we may be taught the importance of vaginal cleanliness, it is often relayed through a patriarchal lens. The message is that our vaginas need to smell, taste, and look good for our future husbands, not for ourselves. It’s no wonder so many of us grow up with so much shame around our bodies, our sexuality, our pubic hair, and even our menstrual cycles. 

Dominican women — even those of us born and raised in the states — are sometimes still encouraged to douche after periods and to cleanse as often as possible using Lemisol, a harsh feminine wash filled with lactic acid that leaves your vagina smelling and tasting like mint. In fact, according to research published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, as recently as 2009 vaginal douching was widely practiced among Latinas. Many Latinas have participated in vaginal douching unaware of the potential health risks that include both pelvic and vaginal infections. According to gynecologists, washing with just plain water or a mild gentle soap is really all you need.

“Douching practices are shaped by social and cultural norms regarding hygiene, reproduction, and sexuality. There was a lack of research in this area. Douching was popular among Latinas because of the emphasis to be clean in order to increase our chances of finding a husband,” says Wildilisa Silverman, a Dominican-American licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in sex therapy. “Using Lemisol was like a rite of passage, it meant you were entering womanhood. It’s a household name that gets passed on from our mothers and it was something we didn’t question.”

For many Latinas who grow up in strict Catholic or Christian households, the idea of having sex before marriage was or is out of the question. Self-pleasure or sexual pleasure of any kind was something that only “putas” concerned themselves with, which is why so many of us reach our teens or our early 20s not understanding much about sex or our bodies.

“This has definitely been detrimental to the development of our female identities. Unfortunately, conversations around vaginal health and sexual wellness were so inherently and culturally stigmatized that it was simply off-limits,” Silverman says. “The perception continues to be that if you suffered from vaginal infections, you were being neglectful or just plain dirty. We weren’t prepared for periods. Conversations about periods usually involved carrying diaper-sized pads in our backpacks and being told to never use tampons if you were still a señorita. It was as if talking about our sexual health or our vaginas would encourage us to have sex at an early age.”

But fortunately, things are finally starting to change. Latinas are taking control of their own sexual health, launching wellness brands, and normalizing dialogues around sexual wellbeing, allowing women to finally feel empowered to make sexual health decisions that are right for them.

Five years ago Daniella Levy couldn’t find a solution to her constant bacterial vaginosis. It had become an endless cycle. After switching gynecologists five times, always being prescribed antibiotics, and experiencing little to no relief, she began to realize that part of the issue was the lack of conversation being made around vaginal infections overall. “It was so uncomfortable that I stopped doing everyday activities like going out with friends or exercising (since moisture can exacerbate BV), and it was even impacting my ability to concentrate at school or work,” she says. “The worst part was that I was too embarrassed to talk about it with my friends, my family, my partner — which only made me feel more alone.”

After years of frustration, Levy started doing her own research, eventually coming across studies about natural ingredients that helped in treating symptoms commonly associated with vaginal infections like BV or yeast infections. It was also around this time that she had begun dating her current partner, Hans Graudbard, whose family owns and operates a manufacturing company that makes natural supplements.

“When I finally opened up to him about what I had been going through with BV, we decided to combine my experience with his knowledge and access to the world of supplements to create a series of high-quality products for vaginal wellness,” she says. This is what led to the inception and launch of her vaginal wellness brand Happy V, a wide range of natural and clinically proven products for the treatment of chronic BV, yeast infections, and UTI’s.

Danielle Levy of Happy V
Photo: Courtesy of Happy V

“Vaginal infections are incredibly normal; what’s not normal is just dealing with them. We haven’t had honest and open conversations about vaginal health and what it means to maintain a healthy vagina and vulva. Just like how you use certain products for skin and hair, there are also things you can do to maintain your vaginal health,” Levy adds.

“Unfortunately, these conversations feel even more off-limit in Latinx culture. I remember not being able to talk to my mom about sex. There is a dualism in regards to the conversations in Latinx families that are being had, which is if you are a young man: why aren’t you having sex with tons of girls? And this is called machoism/machismo and it’s instilled in them at a young age. Whereas with young women, we’re taught sex is off-limits and you have to be a ‘good girl’ and not speak about these things and sex is off-limits until you’re married. The result of these gender role norms is that young Latina women grow up not truly understanding their vaginal/sexual health because these conversations are seen as taboo.”

Latina sexologist Rebecca Alvarez Story also wanted to debunk the stigmatized conversations around sex and female pleasure when she launched Bloomi, an online market place for intimate care products.

“Growing up, I felt that sex was taboo, even though my parents were quite progressive. When I was in college, I realized how much information was out there about sex and periods… two topics that were not often talked about openly. I was inspired to deep dive into and learn as much as I could. Sexology is not a well-known career path, but it has been instrumental in creating the change I want to see moving forward in this landscape,” Story says. “Being a sexologist has really fine-tuned my insights in this industry to better understand and predict consumer trends and appreciate the importance of creating a clean standard for intimate wellness.”

Rebecca Alvarez Story of Bloomi
Photo: Courtesy of Bloomi

After becoming a sexologist, Story began to work as a coach and consultant for various startups in their product development departments and it was during this time she was made aware of the high levels of toxic ingredients that were being included in numerous products but not actually being addressed in the industry.

“Brands were not prioritizing high-quality ingredients or materials. I wanted to launch a company that was inviting and had the best standard in the industry, which is why we created Bloomi’s Clean Standard. As a sexologist, social impact entrepreneur, and founder of Bloomi, it is my goal to empower sex-positive conversations and content so women have access to healthier, clean intimate care alternatives,” she says.

“There are few female founders in the sexual wellness and Femtech space and even fewer who are Latina. I’ve encountered various barriers for female Latina entrepreneurs trying to grow their companies larger than 1mm. When you mix this with some of the cultural oppression surrounding sexual wellness it makes it rare to find Latinas who are going into this space. That said, there is a shift happening with the millennial and Get Z generations who are really embracing sexuality in a different way than their mothers and grandmothers did. I think we will see a surge of entrepreneurs going into innovative women’s health categories over the next few years which makes me optimistic for the future.”

There definitely is a cultural shift happening and it’s an exciting one at that. Not only are there more options for women but conversations around sex, pleasure, and wellness are finally being normalized, especially for women of color. The cultural nuances within Latinx culture have kept us away from these conversations for centuries and they have harmed us in numerous ways but Latinas are finally feeling empowered to embrace their bodies and their sexuality, while also recognizing how sexuality is actually an essential part of our overall wellness.

“On a surface level, not having open dialogue makes it so that we are not as sexually comfortable or confident with ourselves or our sexual relationships. On a deeper level, not having open dialogues or education can create a lot of unknowns with relationships and can lead to confusion, women’s health infections, or even bad sexual experiences,” Story adds. “As a mother, it is critical for me to have conversations with my daughters about their bodies so they are educated and know how to protect themselves and have the tools and knowledge to know if something is wrong.”

When it comes to femme-focused pleasure shops owned by Latinas, there still aren’t many aside from Bloomi and ROAR by Anna Xiques. On the one hand, it’s expected with the sexual oppression generations of Latinas have had to endure but it’s also ironic considering how often we’re sexualized. In fact, Xiques has a few theories as to why there are such few Latina-owned spaces for women to shop for pleasure products.

Anna Xiques of Roar
Photo: Courtesy of Anna Xiques

“Well, for one, we were taught, whether directly or indirectly, that we as women don’t deserve sex. At least not to the extent that men do. And if you are a woman who does in fact desire sex, you’re labeled a slut, a nympho, a freak,” she says. “For many of us in the Latinx community, our childhood upbringing was deeply rooted in religion. Then there were the “traditional family values” they tell women. Then, of course, we have other ideas we impose on ourselves. We celebrate Hispanic women’s sex appeal. The media sexualizes us but then we’re expected to be good little wives and mothers. Why can’t we be all of the above? We don’t simply stop being sexual beings just because we’ve gotten married or have had children. We don’t stop being women.”

Historically Latinas have been conditioned to put everyone’s needs before their own — especially their cis-gendered male partners but Xiques wants to change that while encouraging women to prioritize their sexual health and wellness while developing a healthy relationship with pleasure. She also wants to do away with the stigmas associated with women and self-pleasure, 

“I think we might have the misconception that masturbation and self-pleasuring are indulgent and inessential. You are quite literally making yourself and your needs a priority and perhaps we feel guilty about that. But it’s known to have benefits beyond physical pleasure. Masturbation can alter your mood for the better. We’re constantly looking for ways to do all of the above. We call it self care. When we think of bubble baths, we recognize how important it is to put yourself first, to relax, for the sake of your mental health. Masturbation isn’t so different from that. In fact, masturbation is just like a bubble bath. But, like, way better.”

The double standards thrown at Latina women have not only impacted how we feel about our own bodies and sexuality but it’s also suppressed us in many ways. The “perfect Latina wife and mother trope” that Xiques refers to has been especially harmful to Latinas. Not to mention, these old mindsets completely erase Latinas who are queer and have no interest in pursuing romantic or sexual relationships with cisgender, heterosexual men.

But it’s inspiring to see us finally breaking out of that. We’re confidently steeping away from that narrative and owning, celebrating, and embracing our sexuality in healthy and empowering ways rather than suppressing or denying our needs. It’s been centuries worth of oppression but little by little we’re healing, learning, unlearning, and getting to a much more liberated place.