Machismo: How Toxic Masculinity Harms Latinx People – an interview with Laura Carlsen

Machismo is an expression of exacerbated masculinity that has caused lingering pain and trauma to generations of Latinx people. Many young people are still struggling with it today.

“Machismo” has dreadful roots in Latin based cultures, and is strongly associated with many men’s identities, Latin society and its expressions. Its name derives from the Spanish and Portuguese word “macho” which means male. Machismo is an expression of exacerbated masculinity that has caused lingering pain and trauma to generations of Latinx people. Many young people are still struggling with it today.

Journalist and scholar Laura Carlsen directs the journalistic site Americas Program, focused in Latin America’s foreign policies and the countries’ relations to the USA. She has studied and lived in Mexico city since 1986. In her line of work, Carlsen has to deal with machismo from politics to femicides. She’s dealt with it as it’s spilled into newsrooms where female reporters are bullied and sexually harassed by editors and colleagues, and while gender violence as femicide are treated in some media channels as day to day “sexual assaults” or romanticized as “crimes of passion.”  Scarleteen spoke to Carlsen to further understand machismo and the damages it can cause.

Scarleteen (ST): Can you define machismo and its characteristics?

Laura Carlsen (LC): It is commonly considered an exaggerated expression of masculine identity, but I’d say it’s more a deformed expression of masculine identity constructed to perpetuate and strengthen male dominance over women. It is expressed in brute force, that is, violence against women that confirms a submissive and discriminated role and denies physical and emotional autonomy; in oppressive attitudes that belittle, intimidate, and humiliate women and children; and social characteristics that encourage all of the above, especially in groups of men.

ST: What differentiates machismo from sexism?

LC: Sexism refers more to the structural system and is not directly tied to male character expressions and identities.

ST: How is machismo in Latin America different from the rest of the world?

LC: It’s no coincidence that the word for a stereotypical male-dominated culture is “machismo,” derived from the Spanish word for male and originating in Latin culture. Today in Latin American cultures, machismo is still considered the accepted norm by most of society whereas in other countries at least there is a recognition that, like racism, it is a form of discrimination that should be overcome.

As a direct result of the acceptance of machismo, or male-domination, Latin American countries have the highest rates of violence against women in the world. Also, the world’s cities with the highest homicide rates in general are located here (According to a 2018 report from Igarapé Institute Latin America has 8% of the world’s population, but 33% of its homicides and four countries in the region – Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela – are home to a quarter of all the assassinations on the planet). When a heavily macho culture is combined with weak institutions, faulty justice systems and easy access to firearms, like it is in our region, the result is lethal – for women, children and men.

ST: Are there social or cultural catalysts of that violence?

LC: There is a long history of not only acceptance of male violence and male domination, but of celebration of it. A man who has a more equal relationship with his wife or girlfriend is ridiculed as a “mandilón” (literally, “tied to her apron strings”). Motherhood is accompanied by reinforcement of traditional gender roles and strong barriers against women in the public sphere.

Men’s control of the family economy and often of women’s bodies creates decencies that maintain women’s submission. It’s a reinforcing cycle that despite greater awareness and some public policy to counter it, continues to remain strongly in place. In fact, we’re seeing many signs instances of regression, with the emergence of new fundamentalist movements and rollbacks in women’s legislative gains.

ST: Do you think the societies that lived here before the conquistadors were also sexist?

LC: It’s impossible to talk about all pre-Hispanic (indigenous) societies as one because they each have their own cultures and societies. Anthropologists generally agree that to portray the colonialists as the origin of machismo is wrong–that gender inequality existed in most pre-Hispanic societies.  However, there are also many ways in which women were less oppressed and there are many aspects of these societies that we are still learning about. One constant seems to be that with the rise of militarism comes greater subjugation and exclusion of women.

ST: Has it diminished as time went by or is it still very strong?

LC: It is still very strong and as I mentioned in some ways getting stronger. We have laws, such as electoral gender quotas that have increased the number of women in politics but the manipulation of these laws is widespread and cynical.

In Mexico, a large number of women candidates ceded their elected positions to their husbands after taking office and we had a recent case of parties registering men as transgender to fill women’s quotas despite the fact these people had never before identified as such.

ST: Is there any correlation between machismo and religion?

LC: Yes, the Catholic church hierarchy in many countries and evangelicals have initiated orchestrated offenses against women’s sexual and reproductive rights as part of what they call “family values” that by keeping women and girls from reaching their full human potential and encouraging violence do immeasurable damage to families.

ST: Can you talk a bit more about the correlation between machismo, the Catholic church, and the policing of women’s bodies (particularly their sexual and reproductive health)?

LC: I’m thinking of the Evelyn Hernandez trial, which had a relieving outcome but was still a vicious case nonetheless. (Salvadorian Ms. Hernandez was prosecuted for aggravated homicide based on an obstetric emergency she went through while birthing her child).

ST: During demonstrations in the USA of white male supremacy in 2018 we saw some men with T-shirts making references to the deadly helicopter rides done by the Chilean dictatorial government to throwsome of those who oppose them out of airplanes to hide their deaths. Is there an intersection between white male supremacy and machismo?

LC: Yes. What’s interesting here is that there is an assumption that opposition to white male dominance can and should be annihilated.

ST: How does machismo affect Latin American politics? 

LC: In a number of ways. It is a cultural current that serves to repress feminist movements and campaigns for women’s rights and justify male supremacy. It openly validates discrimination by creating cultural expressions in music, literature, film etc. that set out macho role models that assure its reproduction in the next generation, stunting the emotional growth and human potential of children both male and female. It operates on the basis of dualisms that construe differences as battles for dominance and require active suppression of any human expression that threatens male supremacy.

ST: How does machismo affect your journalistic work and observations of Latin America?

LC: Machismo poses a huge challenge to women journalists. Issues that mostly affect women are ignored or buried by editors, gender violence is trivialized as sexual assault and even assassination of women are justified in the language as “crimes of passion”. we have to struggle to be treated equally as reporters and analysts and face widespread sexual harassment on the job. With high levels of violence against journalists, women journalists face specific threats of sexual violence along with general threats, and not only against them, but against their families.

In Mexico, the tragic and unsolved murder of Miroslava Breach sent a chilling message to women reporters regarding the risks we face. Lately women have been organizing groups of women in journalism to confront these barriers and force the media to be more responsive and adopt protection measures. These groups are important but incipient and still striving to change an industry that is deeply sexist.

ST: Is there any way to extricate machismo from “family values”?

LC: They are completely the opposite. Machismo is statistically the greatest threat to the safety and health of families since rates of male violence affect children’s and mothers’ health, physical integrity, emotional well-being, economic stability, etc.



Libido and Lockdown

Are people experiencing the “quarantine hornies,” or is sex entirely off the menu? The answer is yes; both; all the above. Here's some help for dealing with changes in libido and sexuality, how you express them, and sexual safety for right now.

A lot has changed in the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing, quarantine, school closures, working from home, not working at all (not to mention fear about the health of you and/or your loved ones), as well as… libido.

Are people experiencing the “quarantine hornies,” or is sex entirely off the menu? The answer is yes; both; all the above.

Shifts in stress and anxiety, as well as big life changes, can have an effect on a person’s libido in either direction. From a biological perspective, eating, sleeping, and exercising habits all affect sexual appetite. Getting more sleep now? Sexual desire might increase. Can’t go to the gym anymore and don’t work out as much? Sexual urges might decrease. Eating lots of food, but not the healthiest kinds? You guessed it, potential passionate-feelings buzzkill.

A psychological concept called Terror Management Theory provides another explanation for why this libido change can occur in either direction. This theory says that when we are reminded of our mortality, we alter our behaviors. Though the creators of this theory didn’t specifically relate it to libido, the connection makes sense. Basically, “Life is short! I need to have lots of sex!” or “Life is short! There’s no time for lots of sex when I have so many other things to worry about!”

Anxiety can also affect libido in a bi-directional manner. Think of it like Goldilocks and the Libido-Bears of Anxiety. Too much or too extreme anxiety can decrease sexual desire drastically, whereas just a little bit,  juuuuust the right amount, can increase it (no anxiety at all, of course, has no effect). It’s also possible to alternate between both ends of the libido spectrum!

While anxiety, Terror Management Theory, and lifestyle changes are some broad explanations for libido changes during the pandemic, you may be wondering if there are any other, more specific reasons. There are.

“Where on earth did my libido go?”

  • Survival Stress: There are so many causes of stress right now. There’s relationship stress (of the familial, platonic, sexual, and romantic kinds), for one. There’s also school stress. Adapting to digital learning or making the decision to take some time off from school are both really difficult. Motivation and focus might suffer right now, further increasing stress. Plus, there’s work stress. The loss of a job—part-time or full time, for either you or your parents— is always stressful, let alone piling everything else happening right now on top. Pair this up with a pandemic and health concerns, and “survival stress” occurs. When this happens, the body essentially goes into fight-or-flight, and the only thing that matters is getting through the stressor—sex be damned.
  • Mental health struggles: Many people are experiencing mental health changes during this time. Previously controlled depression might now be spiking. Panic could be appearing for the first time. Generalized anxiety might be rearing its head. If you’ve lost a loved one during this time, there’s processing, grief, and mourning. All these things can drop a sky-high libido down to the sub-basement.
  • Pregnancy, contraception, and other sexual health concerns: if you do have access to a sexual partner*, fears about pregnancy or STIs could stunt libido. Expired IUDs or Depo-Provera shots might not be easy to renew right now. Perhaps you’re out of PrEP and don’t want to risk going to a doctor’s office or pharmacist for more. Maybe there are access issues for reproductive health care. Either way, worrying about getting pregnant or contracting an STI isn’t exactly a turn on.

“Why am I in the mood all the time?”

  • Physical contact changes: Even if you weren’t sexually active with partners before lockdown, you likely experienced other forms of physical touch from romantic partners, friends, and family. Now, without access to partners and friends, that physical contact is lacking, and quarantining with family might have you cringing at the thought of giving them a hug. This prolonged lack of physical contact can cause an increased desire for physical intimacy, which may include sexual intimacy.
  • Sex or masturbation as coping mechanism, distraction tactic, or stress reliever: Whether it’s a solo session with a hand or toy, or a sexy video chat or phone call with a partner, sex and orgasms release feel-good hormones which can be helpful in periods of high-anxiety. If you’re experiencing pandemic-induced anxiety (think back to the Libido Bears), the body might know it needs something to relax, and you might be getting turned on more as a result!
  • Schedule changes: Before the pandemic you may have had classes, a job, sports, clubs, religious obligations, and a social life. If you were really busy, you could have simply lacked the time to always be in the mood back then. Now, with many things cancelled or put on hold, there’s more opportunity for you and your body to feel aroused. Similarly, with the removal of many obligations from your plate, your stress levels might have decreased, which can increase libido.

“What do I do about it?”

  • Whether you don’t currently have a partner or a safe way to be with one, or don’t want to masturbate all the time, you can channel your libido energy elsewhere. Finding something that fully occupies your mind can be a great distraction from unwanted arousal. Play a game, paint a picture, work on a puzzle, read a (non-sexy) book.
  • Meditation can also be useful. Meditation can improve willpower, self-awareness, patience, tolerance, and the ability to refocus attention. Becoming more in tune with the senses through mediation can be helpful in redirecting them. This practice can also help you become better at experiencing sexual feelings and subsequently letting them go.
  • Though certain kinds of exercise increase libido, exercise can also be used to tone down your arousal or release those feelings. High intensity exercise can be a great option, because it can decrease or answer libido, distract you from arousal, and make you way too tired to even think about wanting to have sex.

“I don’t like that my libido has changed. I want it to go back to the way it was. What do I do?”

  • Don’t guilt or shame yourself. If you normally enjoy a high libido, but now don’t want to be touched with a ten-foot pole, it’s okay. You’re still you, and you haven’t done anything wrong to bring this upon yourself. Your libido will return as the world settles into new normalcy and life becomes less scary and unknown. Likewise, if you never felt like you needed much sexual contact, but now are always itching for a release, know that you didn’t all of a sudden become sex crazed, and you’re not doomed to a life of constant horniness. Things will even out.
  • Pandemic or not, fluctuations in libido throughout life are extremely common. Age, diet, life changes, and many other things factor into sexual desire, and this will remain true during periods of life other than this one. Lockdown may have intensified libido changes for many people, but that doesn’t mean there will be need to worry if desire fluctuations happen again down the road when the pandemic is over. This also means that libido changes right now for some people might not have anything to do with the pandemic at all! It could just be one of the many perfectly normal libido shifts that occur throughout life.
  • Talk to someone you can trust. That person can be a romantic or sexual partner, friend, relative… really, anyone you’re comfortable with. Just talking about what you’re experiencing can minimize distress. If that doesn’t work and you have the access to mental health care, counselors—especially those certified in sex therapy—can be a great resource to help you work though these changes. Many counselors are offering teletherapy right now, so you can keep yourself and your family safe while still taking care of your mental and sexual health. Scarleteen’s direct services are also available to you.
  • Masturbate! Solo-sex can be helpful whether your libido is unusually low or unusually high. Masturbation can help release some sexual tension if your libido is higher than normal; likewise, if your libido seems to have flown off to a distant country, taking some time to really get yourself aroused, and doing so on a somewhat regular basis, can help bring your sex drive back up naturally. It’s kind of like a positive and negative feedback loop in one. This practice can be valuable whether you’re single or in a relationship with someone you no longer have physical access to.
  • If you have a partner*, finding other ways to be intimate (sexual and not) are super important and useful right now. Besides phone calls and video chatting, try writing each other a poem, or making each other a picture. Work out together in your own separate homes. Pick out a movie to watch at the same time. Make playlists for each other and listen to them simultaneously. Cook a dinner together on video chat, or order from the same restaurant. Intimacy building is an important part of all relationships, and adaptations in how we do so may lead your relationship to become even stronger!

*You are your safest sex partner. This is true always, but especially right now.

If you are having sex with a partner you don’t live with, there are risks associated with participating in in-person partnered sexual activity. We know that COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets found in saliva and breath, making kissing a particularly high risk for transmission, and heavy breathing during sex can exacerbate spread. Though scientists currently think it’s unlikely for the virus to spread through semen or vaginal fluid, there may be a possibility for transmission through contact with fecal matter, making oral-anal contact a potential mode infection. Remember that trauma can lead to risk taking, and many people are experiencing trauma right now due to the pandemic, so intentionally prioritizing proper sexual precautions is of utmost importance. If you do have sex with someone outside your household, be safe.

  • Avoid kissing and unprotected oral-body contact, especially oral-anal contact.
  • Try mutual masturbation. Self-pleasuring together from a distance is significantly safer than up-close body-to-body activity.
  • Use barrier protection always, and contraception if needed. Focusing on COVID safety doesn’t mean standard sexual health practices should take a back-seat.
  • Talk about COVID the same way you would any sexual health topic. Does either partner have any symptoms? Has either been tested recently? What was the diagnosis? Safe-sex conversation skills can be truly beneficial for this situation.
  • Minimize the amount of partners you have during this time. If you are going to have sex, limiting your number of partners can be truly helpful with preventing spread of the virus.
  • Make informed decisions about your partners. Have they been social distancing or quarantining? How many people live in their household? Though risk is still high regardless, risk significantly increases if one or both people have not been following social distancing guidelines.
  • Wear a mask. Though masks don’t work perfectly in close contact, they can still help minimize spread by containing droplets. If you’re going to be having sex, taking every precaution you can is important. Though it may seem strange at first, incorporating masks into sex can be a fun and adventurous new thing!
  • Shower before meeting up and after parting ways, and wash your hands for twenty seconds immediately prior to and immediately post sexual activity. Cleaning your body and hands can remove any droplets that may have landed on your skin during un-masked alone time or from contact with your partner.

In the end, it’s important to remember that these times are difficult for everyone. You’re allowed to have feelings about what’s going on, and you’re allowed to be nervous about libido changes. But know that it’s all normal, and it’s okay that these changes are happening. People all over the world are experiencing the same things you are. And it will get better.



How Do I Tell If Someone Is Into Me?

You can read a book. You can read a map. But reading people, that’s difficult in any situation. Reading people to figure out if they’re actually into you romantically or sexually is even more difficult. Douglas Laman is here to give fellow autistic readers a little help.

You can read a book. You can read a map. But reading people, that’s difficult in any situation.

Reading people to figure out if they’re actually into you romantically or sexually is even more difficult. It’s a harrowing part of developing any sort of crush on another person. That sensation of your mind ping-ponging back and forth between the ideas that your crush is infatuated with you and that your crush probably doesn’t even know you exist. The difficulty of navigating this scenario is only exacerbated for many autistic people. After all, it plays into a struggle found among many of us, myself included, dealing with reading people’s subtle social cues.

If somebody is trying to let you know if they “like” you or not, they’re often going to communicate those feelings through hand movements, raised eyebrows or vocal tone. Trying to navigate those signals has brought me plenty of frustration in the past. I’m surely not the only autistic person to feel that struggle.

There are ways to cut through all the confusion and get some clarity on if someone you like feels the same way about you. But first, let’s clarify if the water is safe to swim in before you go jumping in that pool. In other words, let’s examine why you think a person might like you back. What circumstances have led you to think a person feels this way about you? Is it just because they have been nice to you? Is there a deeper connection between you two? What kind of conversations have you shared in the past?

There is a great deal of difference between a person exhibiting basic kindness and exhibiting indicators of feeling something more passionate. Contemplate your past interactions with this person to figure out if there’s anything in their body language and vocals to even examine.

Once you’re sure there’s something deeper, then there are ways to figure out if your suspicions are correct. These subtle signals can appear anywhere and at anytime through subtle pieces of body language. Some people may explicitly say “I like you” or “I don’t like you like that,” but many people won’t be so direct. Particularly with the latter phrase, people tend to convey their interior desires through gestures.

Now, sometimes, a stretch is just a stretch. It’s important to not lapse into self-absorbed territory and think every move a person makes is a signal to you. But other times, what a person does with their bodies can indicate something greater. This is especially true when a person is trying to convey whether they like you or not. For example, a person may indicate they feel closer to you through means like frequently getting closer to you. Conversely, a person looking always looking off or moving further away when engaging with you is trying to indicate they’re uncomfortable in this social situation and don’t want to be closer to you.

Of course, not every piece of body language is as simple as looking away or moving closer. If you’re still struggling to figure out what their body language means, you can use context clues to help you figure it out.  An example of this could be if the person you’re attached to looks at the floor. Did you recently say something that would cause the other person to turn downwards? Did they indicate they wanted to look at the floor? Did behavior from another person cause this? There are all kinds of things all around you that can help lead you to the meaning behind body language. In the process, you can figure out how the other person is subtly communicating their feelings about you.

A similar process can be used to decipher the underlying meaning behind someone’s voice. The way a person says a certain phrase can indicate they feel comfortable around you and may reciprocate your feelings. However, a person can also use details about their voice to convey the opposite feeling. This is especially notable in the kind of words and subjects they use in a conversation. For instance, your crush may repeatedly refer to you as a friend or change the subject when you bring up more intimate subject matter. These function as a way of a person quietly letting you know they just don’t like you in a romantic way.

If you want to figure out a persons feelings about you, it’s important to also interact with them in the right environment. For this topic, check out my recent Scarleteen column looking at ideal places for a first date.  This location should strive for a balance between intimacy and comfort for the person you’re seeing. Somewhere like a museum, a restaurant or a thrift store can provide plenty of opportunities for one-on-one interactions. However, they also have lots of other people around, which can provide comfort for the other person you’re seeing. In these locations, you can examine your crush’s body language and vocal traits to figure out whether you’re they like you back.

Of course, these tips, particularly ones regarding places to meet, are more applicable to traditional dating expectations than where we’re all at right now as I’m writing this. In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, everything is anything but traditional. People are connecting through virtual means rather than in-person scenarios. These tips about body language and vocal tics can still be applicable over a Zoom session. Additionally, this virtual reality offers new indicators whether a person is into you or not.

Let us look at a person constantly declining your requests to have a one-on-one videochat session. Though they may always say it’s because they’re “busy”, this recurring notice can be the other person trying to gently let you know they’re not interested in you in that manner. On a more positive note, recurring prolonged one-on-one Zoom or Skype sessions with another person can be a good indicator that they may have deeper feelings for you.

If you’re getting signals that they do, in fact, feel the same way about you, then you can start to gradually incorporate the topics like seeing each other regularly or having a more romantic or sexual date into your conversations. However, it is crucial to note that, whether you’re interacting in-person or virtually, you will never be able to read another person’s body language better than that other person. If the person you’re with is expressing discomfort or lack of consent, even if it doesn’t look like that to you, that overrides your interpretation.

Similarly, if a person ends up not reciprocating your feeling of affection, that’s totally okay. You can feel disappointed, of course, but them not returning your romantic intentions does not make them a villain. This is especially an important lesson to impart for heterosexual cisgender men. As a society, men are conditioned to think they’re owed women as romantic partners. If a woman deviates from a man’s affections, well, it gets chalked up to being a conspiracy against “nice guys” or other similar expressions of entitlement. We’re not entitled to women, their attention or affection.

Those toxic ideas reduce women from being people to objects. That’s why it’s important, even if you’re disappointed that your crush isn’t into you, to not diminish the humanity of that former crush. They are a person too and one perfectly within their own rights not to be enamored with you.

Reading a person’s body language is significantly harder than reading a map or a book. However, it is an essential process. Much like not demonizing a person because they’re not into you, understanding a person’s body language is a great way to recognize somebody else’s humanity. Relationships are not built on treating people like trophies to be obtained. Taking the time to assess a person as a human being who communicates needs through body language, that is what relationships are all about.

Soft illustration of a peacock with text "how do I tell if someone is into me?"



Dating During the Pandemic: Tips for Young People Who Are Living at Home

Ellen Friedrichs
If you are a teen or young adult who lives at home during COVID-19, and are dating or sexually active with a partner, navigating this part of your life — with your partner, with parents or guardians — is complicated. A lot of households and families are having to negotiate what the new dating normal looks like. Here are some ideas to help make those discussions smoother.

Wherever you are in the world, it is likely that you’ve been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in some way.

If you are dating or sexually active with a partner who you aren’t living with, one of those ways is probably going to be how to navigate this really intimate part of your life. That can feel overwhelming at a time when being physically close is so hard, and when even things that are usually considered safer, like hugging and kissing, can be risky for COVID-19 transmission. To complicate matters even more, if you are a teen or young adult who lives at home, there is also the extra issue of adding your parents’ opinions, and their rules, into the mix. Needless to say, things can get intense fast!

Sometimes, everyone sees eye-to-eye on the matter. As one 17-year-old said in an online discussion about dating during the pandemic, “I have a girlfriend that I love to hang out with…Our parents let us hang out, but we have to stay 6 feet apart.”

For others, there is more tension about the issue at home. An 18-year-old looking for advice on Quora wrote, “I want to quarantine with my boyfriend. Living with him would make my life a little bit better in these horrible times. I mentioned it to my mom and she basically just got mad.”

Still, whether or not you and your parents are on the same page, or in a heated battle, a lot of households and families are having to negotiate what the new dating normal looks like. So here are some ideas about how to help make those discussions smoother.

1. Prepare to compromise

Right now, everyone is trying to figure out how to get together safely in real life. But since there isn’t a clear playbook, it is pretty common to disagree about the details. For example, if your parents want you to only see your partner online and you want to meet up in person, then you might propose a compromise. I wouldn’t advise suggesting a sleepover, which will be easy to nix on COVID grounds alone. But many parents will be open to a physically distanced outdoor hang-out.

Obviously, if you have a physical or sexual relationship with your partner, staying apart can be incredibly hard, and for some people, being close to a partner they can’t touch is excruciating. I don’t want anyone to beat themselves up if they aren’t always totally diligent on that front. But since being physically intimate with someone you don’t live with can be risky for both you and your household, you really want to think through your decision. That is something people of all ages have had to figure out and many are choosing to take a break from their partnered sex lives right now, even if that is the last thing they want to do.

2. Be responsible

Prove that your parents can trust you. If you say you will only hang-out with someone outside, do. If you commit to wearing a mask, don’t take it off the second you are out of sight. If you agree to see just one specific person, don’t go to a party. If you realize you have done something risky, voluntarily quarantine or physically distance as best as your household will allow. It can be hard to be honest when you’ve done something you know could put others at risk, but if at all possible, right now if it crucial to be truthful and then to work out how to deal with the situation together. The more trust you build with parents, the more flexible they are likely to be.

I know at first I was nervous about letting my own teen see friends, but after she took some distanced bike rides and had some distanced picnics in a way we were both comfortable with, I stopped grilling her about how far apart she’d been sitting and how many times she’d put on hand sanitizer. I actually started encouraging her to get out of the house when she could.

3. Go for open communication

My friend Ilana is a midwife and mom of a teen in Victoria, BC. Her 15-year-old, Eva had a first date planned before the pandemic hit. Ilana says, “My partner and I debated what to do. In the end we just said to Eva, why don’t you go for a walk but stay six feet apart. I explained it felt weird to tell her not to touch, and it was literally just because there was a pandemic. Otherwise, obviously, physical contact would be fine as long as she was comfortable and there was consent.”

This approach seems to be paying off. Eva has now gone on a few distanced dates with the same person and has been open with her parents about the challenges of having a relationship right now. That’s something which her parents have been more involved in than she would have anticipated under normal circumstances. As she explains, “I’ve had to go to my parents for dating advice multiple times during the pandemic because my friends aren’t helping me and my parents are home.” And as to whether or not she’s followed the advice they’ve given? Eva says while her parents’ ideas about things like flirting can miss the mark, she’s taken some of their suggestions about navigating dating right now and about the difficulty of connecting when that is primarily happening over devices.

Though a lot of us groan about being stuck in such close quarters with our families, for some young people that proximity has also opened up the door to conversations that might not have happened otherwise. 

4. Correct misinformation 

Not all parents are up to date on current safety recommendations. For example, in the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of cities closed parks and beaches to keep people home. Now, more and more research is showing that being outside at a distance from others is much safer than was originally believed. If you think your parents don’t have the right information, find out what is advised where you live and share that with your folks. Of course, you want to be thoughtful when having these conversations. Though it might be tempting to push back the second parents set a limit that seems unfair, try to start by asking them to explain their decisions. There are always those who are going to just take the “because I said so” approach. But there are many others who will at least explain their rationale and listen to the information that they don’t have. Some parents may be vary of information presented by their children, but will listen to people the see as authorities on the matter. So if you know of articles from trusted sources offer to share those with your family and then to read them together.

And, if their issue is that they think young people can’t be trusted or are driving the second wave (or continuing the first wave) of the virus, you might want to let them know that intergenerational family parties, religious gatherings and political rallies, which skew much older, have also been found to have contributed to the recent uptick in new cases. Plenty of young people are perfectly capable of following public health guidelines.

5. Get an outside adult advocate

If your parents refuse to have a rational conversation, or if you just keep hitting dead-ends on coming to an agreement about socializing, try to think of a supportive adult whose opinion they might value.

This can be especially important if their decisions aren’t due to a legitimate difference of opinion about safety and risk, but are instead driven by other factors, like racism or trans- or homophobia. For example, if your parents let your brother see his girlfriend but don’t let you see a same gender partner, there might be some serious bias at play. Now obviously, there could be a totally different reason for their decision, say if they suspect abuse, or if your partner is much older or uses substances. But when it is clear that something like that isn’t the issue and rather your partner’s identity is, then you might need some help getting through to them. In those situations, enlisting allies who have your parent’s ear can make a huge difference.

You might also be interested to know that Scarleteen has done parent/teen mediation via the message boards. If that sounds like something that could help in your situation, you can come ask about it on the boards here.

6. Nosiness is part of the new normal

Lots of young people feel like their parents are too involved in their social lives and dating experiences. But these days, our choices have an impact on those around us like never before. If you are seeing someone who you don’t live with, you could potentially be exposing your household or your partner’s household to a really dangerous virus. So while I fully believe that teens and young adults need privacy, if you live at home, you also need to understand why your parents might be grilling you about your activities. It is more important than ever to be truthful with them about what you are doing so they can know whether your actions are putting anyone else at risk. And if it isn’t safe for you to be honest about your dating or sex life, that might be a sign that – at least for the time being – you need to rethink some of your choices.

There are so many obvious downsides to dating during a pandemic. But Ilana, my midwife friend from Victoria, thinks there could be one silver-lining. “I had a long-distance relationship in my twenties and I thought one positive effect was that it made our communication really strong before we were physically close.” She is hopeful that young people who are new to dating and who are now doing so much of their socializing virtually, might also benefit in that way.

I’m hopeful for that too. Everyone is struggling to figure out how to connect at a time when any human contact can be so risky and when so many young people are experiencing painful separation from partners. So I’d like to imagine that if nothing else, your generation will come out of this messy time in history equipped with some very important new dating skills and insights.




Learning How to Love Through Friendships

Alice Draper
For as long as I can remember, I have worked on cultivating strong and meaningful friendships. It’s through these friendships that I have discovered what I hope to get out of romantic relationships. My friendships teach me the importance of trust, communication, and commitment.

I enjoy being single.

If you try saying this to a group of strangers, you might be met with a quizzical glance or expressions of disbelief. This is how most people have responded to me when I’ve said it, anyway.

I hardly ever date. In my teenage years, some of my friends used to try to set me up on dates. This rarely happens anymore because most of my friends know that I won’t reciprocate the interest.

“Alice will be interrogating people about their political views before she gives them her phone number,” my one friend joked.

It’s true that I often come off strong. I hate small talk and, unless I am certain I’m into someone, I don’t see the point in feigning interest.

Many of my peers have described me as picky when it comes to choosing potential partners. One problematic comment from a potential love interest is often all it takes for me to lose this interest. When I envision a future partner, I picture someone who is intelligent, empathetic, cares about social justice, and who I am attracted to. If that’s too picky, then so be it.  A good number of people have told me it means I am doomed to spend my life alone.

“Yes, maybe,” I tell them.

For a long time, I thought that my inability to sustain interest in potential partners meant that there was something seriously wrong with me, and that if I didn’t sort this out and find someone soon, I was destined to live a lonely and single life.

But then I realized that being single doesn’t necessarily mean I will be unloved or lonely.

The rare times I get lonely now are moments when I feel like I ought to be feeling lonely. If I’m with a group of people who are coupled up and I suddenly realize I’m the odd one out, that can be difficult. But these moments are unexpectedly infrequent and usually pass by fairly quickly.

You don’t need to find a partner to find unconditional love.

Part of why it’s taken me so long to accept the idea of being single is because society and the media have ingrained in us the idea that women need partners in order to find happiness. For example, many of us are more likely to describe an older, single man as an ‘eligible bachelor’ while the word ‘spinster’ holds negative connotations. Most pop culture also fails to represent the idea that someone can be simultaneously single and happy. Almost all media portrayals of a single person are that they are either seeking love, suffering from heartbreak, or in a state of despair over their singleness.

Even when a long-established character is canonically happy being single, Hollywood might force them into a relationship. In the original Archie Comics, on which the television series Riverdale is based, Jughead Jones is asexual and has little to no interest in dating. Yet in the series, he fairly quickly begins an intimate relationship with the character Betty Cooper.

In All About Love, bell hooks writes that most of us believe we’ll find love first in our families and eventually through committed romantic couplings. She explains that many of us are taught as children that friendship should never be seen as important as family ties — yet it is through friendship that many of us discover redemptive love and caring communities and make our families.

For as long as I can remember, I have worked on cultivating strong and meaningful friendships. It’s through these friendships that I have discovered what I hope to get out of romantic relationships. My friendships teach me the importance of trust, communication, and commitment. I know that if I have an emergency, physically or emotionally, I can call up a good friend for immediate assistance or comfort and advice.

It’s through my friendships that I’ve learned how to extend love and, as clichéd as it sounds, how to love myself.

Seeing the way that some of my friends spoke so openly about what others might perceive as being their flaws or weaknesses has encouraged me to open up about many of my own insecurities. If I didn’t have friends who carefully listened and validated me when I spoke about my father’s chronic illness or my feelings of self-doubt, I’d be a very different person than who I am today.

Thanks to my friends, I know how to be honest and vulnerable with myself and with people I trust. I also know that in moments of crisis or difficulty, I have a strong support system. I’d like to think that my friends, too, know that I’ll provide them with the same support and care that they offer me.

In All About Love, hooks also mentions that many people accept things in their romantic partners that they wouldn’t necessarily accept in friendships. Part of this is because of the perceived idea that we all need romantic companions and that if we apply the same standards to relationships as we do to friendships, we’ll end up alone.

When I look at my friends who are in unhealthy relationships, it concerns me how much of their own happiness they are sacrificing for their relationships. I have seen friends regress from being happy, self-assured, and confident to having intense feelings of self-doubt, insecurity, and depression. This change, based on what I have observed and what these friends have told me, can largely be attributed to the way their partners have treated them. Something similar happened to me the first time I fell in love a few years ago. While the relationship wasn’t exactly healthy, I was willing to sacrifice my time, my academics and, if necessary, my own happiness for them. I accepted certain treatments that I definitely wouldn’t have been okay with when it comes to my friendships. Despite the heartbreak of the relationship ending, I’m grateful it didn’t continue for a prolonged period of time.

Just because I had a negative romantic experience doesn’t mean I am shut off to future relationships. I am simply a lot more sure of what I want as well as how I want to be treated. Right now, I feel both loved and incredibly certain of who I am. Because of this, I refuse to have anything but high standards when it comes to dating.

Most of us want to be loved and cared for. I am lucky to have enriching friendships where I receive this. I’d be thrilled to meet a potential partner who meets all of my standards and with whom I am able to form a loving and trusting friendship—but if I don’t, I know I can lead a life that is equally fulfilling.


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