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Let's Talk About Sexo: Family and Sexual Politics in Online HIV Prevention Education

April 23, 2013

Mathew Rodriguez

Mathew Rodriguez

If you're like me, then at one point or another, you've found it difficult to discuss sex with your family. Regardless of how universal sex and sexuality are, it seems to be a topic that not many families can openly discuss. Funny, because most families are formed by generations of people having sex to produce offspring!

Nowadays, talking about sex also includes talking about HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and the importance of testing as part of a complete sexual health regimen. Though many families leave these potentially sensitive areas out of their conversations about health, it is now more important than ever that sexual health topics be broached in the family unit.

To address this issue, two HIV care providers -- Natalie Sanchez and Hilda Sandoval of AltaMed, the nation's largest federally qualified health center -- decided to bring prevention education into the 21st century with their online telenovela series, Sin Vergüenza. The telenovela chronicles the goings-on of the fictional working-class Mexican-American Salazar family -- from a newly-widowed grandmother to an out, loud and proud gay son Enrique.

Why don't you watch the last installment in the series right now? Don't worry, I'll wait!

Before you read the rest of this piece, make sure to watch Episode 4 of Sin Vergüenza. If you're hearing about this great series for the first time, catch up by watching Episodes 1 through 3 (in English or Spanish!) -- and reading the accompanying interviews!

Haz clic aquí para ver la telenovela Sin Vergüenza, capítulo 4, en español.



Those who are familiar with the series -- whether from its beginnings or a recent first-time viewing -- will see that there are some very recognizable family dynamics at work. While our families are often the people we love most, they are also often the most likely people to whom we lie. Families can be hotbeds of secrecy, deception and "sins of omission." Any different, and they wouldn't be families. Sin Vergüenza takes the age-old trope of family secrets and injects it with another complication: HIV.

Sin Vergüenza is, first and foremost, an exploration of the anxieties that come along with sexual relationships, how these anxieties are magnified when people refuse to speak about them out loud -- and the very real dangers that accompany silence. Every person in this close family unit is dealing with an anxiety around sex, whether it is infidelity, sexual orientation or empowerment. There are scenes when characters must combat these anxieties alone, and even more powerful scenes when the entire family comes together to face them together.

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First, we have the grandmother character, Esther Salazar. Newly widowed and back on the dating scene for the first time in years, Esther is nervous about pursuing a romantic relationship with a male suitor with whom she plays bingo at the local recreation center. Knowing that the rates of STIs and HIV have been increasing among people 50 years of age and older, this situation reads as both very real and very refreshing. Sex is a real human need, and in the wake of the passing of a partner, many older adults are taking a second dip in the dating pool -- and last time they were in it, HIV was either nonexistent, or seen as only a gay, white, young man's disease. Having a heterosexual female character over 50 who's dealing with the effects of condom usage is a revolutionary and necessary portrayal, and I applaud the makers of Sin Vergüenza for creating this character.

Though the novela leaves the question of who has become HIV positive open until the very (bitter) end, that it could be abuelita is one of the most intriguing storylines. We see a woman of a certain age engaging in unprotected sex -- an extremely realistic plot point -- and then realizing that she thought that part of her life was over, but that she must negotiate condom usage with partners.

And what of the gay son? Surprisingly, Enrique is portrayed as least at risk for HIV out of the entire cast. A law student and community advocate, he's the most well-adjusted -- and the most trusting of his partner. The filmmakers fly in the face of almost every gay stereotype. The opening scene of the series shows that the family is much more accepting of the daughter's boyfriend than Enrique's, but after HIV makes its way into the fabric of the family tapestry, Enrique's boyfriend is the person who educates everyone around HIV, how to protect themselves and how to seek treatment. Implied in this is that not only do Enrique and his boyfriend speak openly about HIV and condom use, but that speaking openly about sex actually makes for a healthy relationship (Enrique's is the healthiest relationship represented). And, Enrique's boyfriend's knowledge of HIV finally enmeshes him into the family dynamic.

The youngest in the family, Christina, suspects her boyfriend, Hector, of infidelity. Coming out of a Latino family, one with a gay son (me!) and a straight daughter, I understand this family dynamic. When I came out to my family, I was told to watch out for HIV; and when my sister came of age, she was told not to get pregnant. I know many people out there who share a similar story. As such, Christina's struggle in the series is to find her voice to speak to her boyfriend about her desire to use condoms during sex. Subtly looming as a subtext may be the fear of domestic violence as a consequence of using her voice to negotiate condom usage with Hector. Where Enrique's relationship seems to succeed because of openness, that lack of openness seems to threaten the very foundation of Christina's relationship.

Christina also cares about her father's sexual health, and slips condoms into his jacket pocket, showing a strong generational problem with talking about sex. She cannot intervene on her boyfriend's infidelity and instead tries to intervene on her father's, in place of her mother's inability to do so.

César, the father, and Adriana, the mother, are the couple at the heart of the conflict. César is keeping his sexuality a secret from his wife and the rest of his family. Adriana believes her husband is cheating and is worried that she may be pregnant after she gets sick one day. Though she does not think herself at risk for HIV, she gets a routine HIV test from the doctor which comes back -- positive! Yes, the mother character is the one who gets HIV in this case. And, it is presumed that she received it from her husband, César, who we see is engaging in gay sex when his son sees him out at a gay bar.

This brings us to perhaps the most complicated part of the plot: Does Sin Vergüenza blame the "down low," or supposedly straight men having gay sex in secret, for the spread of HIV?

Though that may seem to be the case at first, truthfully, the series is an exploration of secrecy and the consequences of not talking about HIV. This series was adapted from real-life stories that people working at AltaMed encountered. Though the alleged "down low" has been proven not to be a major driver of the HIV epidemic in communities of color, to think that no heterosexual men in the U.S. ever cheat on their wives with other men is to be ignorant. In order to combat homophobic and misinformed remarks, people in the HIV community often dismiss the "down low" as hogwash. And indeed, the phenomenon is not so pathologically common as to warrant such rampant use of that stigmatizing label. But what is pathologically common in many communities , not just communities of color, is homophobia. The homophobia that can turn parents away from their out, proud gay children is the same force that may make it seem impossible for men like César to be open about their sexuality with their families.

The important note, and the overriding theme of Sin Vergüenza, is that while sexual health should be discussed openly in a family setting, as well as with your doctor, personal responsibility and the ability to speak up for yourself are steps on the road toward personal empowerment.

Does Sin Vergüenza lay blame on any one person in the series? No. In fact, the series is more an optimistic prevention tool than a rehashing of the blame game. It's based in hope that community members will begin to talk about HIV in both their family rooms and their doctors' offices. It's a step toward helping people find their voices. Perhaps it's a story about a couple, César and Adriana, who found their voices too late. It's not until the final moments of the series that we finally hear them open up and speak their truths, when really our truths deserve to be opened up, recognized and validated at every stage of our lives. And since the producers of Sin Vergüenza clearly recognize that not everyone is in a place in their lives where it's safe to be completely open, what better destination to suggest for their characters -- and their audience -- than one of sexual health and empowerment?

Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.


Copyright © 2013 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.


This article was provided by TheBody.com.
 
See Also
A Series Without Shame: Episodes and Interviews From HIV-Focused Telenovela Sin Vergüenza
HIV & Me: A Guide to Living With HIV for Hispanics
The Body en Español
Quiz: Are You at Risk for HIV?
10 Common Fears About HIV Transmission
More on HIV Awareness and Prevention in the U.S. Latino Community

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