Gender-Based Violence TIG: Violence, Sexuality, and Remaking Gender in Coastal Ecuador

karin_y_adriana.jpgKarin Friederic
(Assistant Professor, Anthropology, Wake Forest University)


Adriana Córdova
(Undergraduate Student, Class of  2017, Wake Forest University)


“Si no le preparas comida a tu esposo, te pega, diga?”

“If you don’t cook food for your husband, he hits you, right?”

While spending two months in rural coastal Ecuador this summer, my student Adriana and I were asked this question on a couple different occasions by a precocious five-year old named Jeni. The little girl had noticed that I preferred cleaning dishes to preparing dinner. After many years of hearing these kinds of comments, I took the question in stride and responded that, no, my husband would not hit me because we always split the tasks of washing and cooking. But Adriana remained troubled, especially when Jeni asked her another time. She was especially concerned that Jeni might have learned this from watching her father beat her mother. Adriana got along really well with Jeni’s father, and could not imagine that he would lay a hand on his wife.

Though community members sometimes report that “violence no longer exists” and “all women here have rights now,” after fifteen years of conducting research on gender, violence, and community development in this region, I have grown accustomed to the slippages, contradictions, and the persistent ways that violence remains etched in everyday relations between men, women, and children (Friederic 2009, 2012). I didn’t actually think that Jeni’s father beat his wife. To be fair, I just didn’t know in this case. But I did know that narratives and threats of violence continue to be central to the making of masculinities and femininities in the region. I also knew that these messages were often circulated by women themselves, especially when they were raising and socializing their children. As it turns out, this is precisely how Jeni had learned this “truth.” Her mother later told Adriana that, even if not cooking might not result in violence in her household, it is well-known that cooking food for your husband is a wife’s moral duty. If a wife falters, she might get hit. Little girls should know this so they can prepare themselves accordingly and prevent problems in their future homes.

Adriana, a rising junior at Wake Forest University, accompanied me to rural Ecuador this summer to assist me with an intervention into gender violence and to conduct independent research on sexual health education in the local elementary and high schools. In this column, we reflect on the ways that we had to consistently remind ourselves and our interlocutors to challenge (and not reproduce) normalized assumptions about masculinity, sexuality, and violence, and the links between them. Adriana’s research revealed strictly-defined, naturalized gender norms that inadvertently shaped how she conducted her research. In my own project, workshops that I helped organize sometimes tended to reproduce the idea that men are inherently violent, leaving little room for the development of alternative masculinities.

Adriana’s Project: Health Education & Family Relations in Rural Ecuador

During the five weeks that I, Adriana, spent in rural coastal Ecuador this summer, I set out to find how parents and teachers in Ecuador perceive the quality and value of health education in public schools. At first, I had planned to ask about what people knew about health education, the curriculum, and how it should be improved. But soon after my arrival, I began to see how rigid gender norms were. When I recognized that there was severe gender inequality, I decided to make changes to my research. In the eleven interviews I conducted, I incorporated more questions to learn about how people perceived that sexual education should be different for young men and young women, and who they thought was responsible for doing the educating.

In these interviews, I often heard parents and teachers reproduce particular ideas about the differences between boys and girls and their roles, which corresponded to how they should learn about sex. According to most of the people I interviewed, girls should learn about sex from their mothers and boys should learn about sex from their fathers. But it also became clear that the way that girls and boys were meant to learn, and the ways that fathers and mothers were expected to teach them, was very different. For example, in many cases, boys learned about sex from their fathers by going to brothels, whereas girls would learn about sex through conversations with their mothers. But speaking about sex was a tricky issue. Mothers explained that they should talk openly to their children, yet at the same time, they thought that speaking about sex would automatically encourage girls, in particular, to start having sex. Teachers often told me that the reason why it was important to teach sexual education in school was because girls were running off and getting pregnant. Teachers and mothers knew that sexual education was important, but the mode of education was perceived differently. Both teachers and parents seemed much more concerned about girls than boys having sex at an early age.

Therefore, I noticed not only a strict division of labor between genders, but also sets of very different standards and expectations. As we saw with Jeni, this division begins at a very young age; girls like Jeni learn both by observing different gender norms in the household and by being told this is what happens. In a lot of the talk about health and sex education, it was implied that men were more violent and more sexual, and women were more passive. In one instance, one of the mothers I was friends with told me that STD’s were becoming more common. She said that if her husband was sleeping with other women, he better not get any STD’s and give them to her. She said this in a very serious tone. Not once did she say if this happened she would leave her husband, nor did she say it was bad for him to be sleeping with other women. It seemed that it was accepted that men have sexual needs and therefore they have the right to sleep around. The wife just didn’t want to get stuck with an STD, so it was up to her to take precautions. Because it is considered natural that men will more often act on their sexual motivations as compared to women, there are distinct norms and expectations for men and women which are evident even in the ways that young boys and girls are taught about sexual education. Girls and boys were taught about sexual education differently because it is thought that each have different relationships to their own sexuality: men have to learn to indulge their sexuality with the least harm possible, and women have to learn to protect themselves from men's inherently sexual and violent natures. These ideas are not just reproduced through how sexual education is taught but also through the types of messages parents communicate with their kids that are based in gendered assumptions that link masculinity, sexuality and violence, for example. In this way, I discovered links with Karin’s intimate partner violence research in ways I had not thought about before starting this research. Looking back, I also realize that I would have approached my research differently had I recognized more clearly how these gender norms become naturalized. From the beginning, I decided to interview only mothers because people told me that fathers were not involved with their children’s education. Reflecting upon this now, I should have considered or given the men a chance to share their opinions and insight about sexual education in the household. I myself fell into believing and reproducing normalized assumptions about masculinity, associating them with work outside the home, rather than with their role as fathers, involved in their children’s lives.

Karin’s Project: Intimate Partner Violence in Rural Coastal Ecuador

In rural coastal Ecuador, human rights campaigns against domestic violence have introduced new ideas about gender, sexuality, and health over the last fifteen years. As I, Karin, have written about elsewhere, recent advances in knowledge of rights and access to state-based justice have offered powerful opportunities for some women in the region, but the empowering potential of these efforts is limited (and often squandered) by women’s continued social and economic vulnerability (Friederic 2012, 2013).  Many suffer from increased violence or attempt suicide when their newly discovered right to live free from violence conflicts with the lack of means to change their circumstances.

For this reason, in conjunction with my research on gender violence, I sought out and received funding from the Feminist Review Trust to implement a small-scale intervention to mitigate some of these effects[1]. This multifaceted project involves educational, micro-economic, and infrastructure initiatives to encourage a more supportive and sustainable socioeconomic environment for men and women seeking to diminish intimate partner violence. For one component, I partnered with in-country gender specialists with experience working with men on questions of violence to conduct intensive full-day workshops on household communication, gender equality, and gender violence. With their help, my field assistants and I coordinated a series of full-day workshops with activities such as community mapping, mini-lectures, socio-dramas, children’s activities, and group painting and drawing. Over 120 people attended, and the workshops were hailed a great success. Participants reported that they accomplished important self-reflective work, learned practical take-home lessons, and had lots of fun at the same time

After my field assistants, including Adriana, and I decompressed from the first of the workshops, we discussed how the facilitators did a fantastic job honing participants’ awareness of and sensitivity to how gender organizes and unfairly structures daily life by pointing out women’s invisible labor, for example. They were also successful at eliciting gender norms and people’s discomfort with the strictness of these norms. However, one aspect of these workshops left us uncomfortable. The workshop discussions had only allowed for the existence of one kind of man: an aggressive, violent, hyper-sexual, “machista” male. And our communal goal was to get rid of him. But, the problem was how. There was little room created in these conversations for acknowledging and exploring alternative masculinities that could replace the ubiquitous “machista” male.

The concept of “machismo” played a central role in the workshop discussions, but the idea itself was never placed under scrutiny, even if it was mentioned constantly by participants and facilitators as “the problem” that we needed to overcome. In this local context, “machismo” usually refers to a panoply of masculine behaviors (physical, psychological, social, and economic) that serve to demean and control women. But during the workshops, “machismo” seemed to stand in for the most egregious of these behaviors: wife-beating. And all men seemed to be referred to as machos.

At one point, various participants noted themselves that not all men are machista, and you could sense some resentment that all men were being painted with a single brush. While this wasn’t the facilitators intent (as they later assured us), the conversation tended to continually re-direct and re-construct the figure of men as perpetrators of various forms of violence against women. Thankfully, we were able to discuss this openly with the facilitators, and the next series of workshops improved. But it left me thinking about all the ways that we might also invariably reproduce the idea that men are inherently and “naturally” violent, even when we are seeking to destabilize this very norm. In my own workshops and conversations, I have used the figure of the “macho” to break the ice, poke fun, and register my solidarity with women who disapprove of these behaviors, while also demonstrating my knowledge of local cultural norms. And while these tactics might work well for raising awareness and encouraging conversation, as applied anthropologists it is especially important that we also incorporate strategies, or at least the space, for the building of alternative gendered identities. For example, I learned that I needed to pay closer attention to the fissures and cracks where these stereotypes broke down, the moments when men embodied contradictory postures in their lives, and use these to encourage new ideas of self and masculinity.


In this column, Adriana and I reflect not only on what we have learned about the links between gender, sexuality, and violence during this past summer’s research, but also on how we must take care to not reproduce certain norms even as we allow local cues to guide our research. Adriana only interviewed mothers about health education because everyone told her that mothers are the only family members who would know about their children’s experience learning about health and sexuality. She now acknowledges that perhaps she didn’t give men enough of a chance to demonstrate their involvement in their children’s lives. It is assumed by all that women “naturally” know their children better. On the other hand, Karin recognized that, in her workshops, continual references to men as machistas who beat their wives run the risk of overly associating masculinity with violence. If not addressed, this elision between masculinity and violence may result in either “emasculating” non-violent men on the one hand, or it might lead to false claims that “violence no longer exists” simply because men aren’t as machista (i.e. engaged in regular wife-beating) as they used to be. So, while Jeni’s father may not beat his wife, this does not imply that gender violence is over. Violence, whether physical, psychological or economic, continues to structure and shape gender relations. Jeni is becoming a woman who perhaps does not deserve to put up with male violence, but she is also learning how to be responsible and accountable for avoiding it. In this line-of-thinking, if men are naturally and helplessly hypersexual and violent, then women must spend their time learning how to protect themselves lest they be cast as irresponsible women who were “asking for it,” a phenomenon of unfair gendered accountability that has unfortunate parallels worldwide.


Works Cited

Friederic, Karin. 2014. Violence against Women and the Contradictions of Rights-in-Practice in Rural Ecuador. Latin American Perspectives 41 (1):19-38.

Friederic, Karin. 2015. Intimate Partner Violence, Social Change, and Scholar-Activism in Coastal Ecuador. In Applying Anthropology to Gender-Based Violence: Global Responses, Local Practices, edited by J. Wies and H. Haldane. Lexington, KY: Lexington Books.

[1]   My research on intimate partner violence in Ecuador has been supported by grants and fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the University of Arizona, a PEO Women’s Scholars Award and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. This article has also been informed by the recent implementation of “A Multipronged Approach to Combating Intimate-Partner Violence in Rural Coastal Ecuador,” for which I received funding from the Feminist Review Trust in 2014.