By Kathleen Richter
The commercial sexual exploitation of minors in Guatemala is a common practice; so common, that it is perceived as a normal part of life, not as a problem. This paper seeks to explain the root cause of why this sexual exploitation has become normalized. To do this, it examines the argument that explains the prevalence of commercial sexual exploitation of minors as a consequence of the poverty and social collapse resulting from the Guatemalan Civil War, but finds this interpretation lacking. Instead, this paper suggests that the patriarchic trope of femininity, which idealizes the traits of purity, dependence, and vulnerability and therefore infantilizes women, simultaneously hypersexualizes and objectifies children. In order to prove this, this paper examines the role of the Guatemalan government and the Guatemalan society in promoting and sustaining commercial sexual exploitation of children.
Commercial sexual exploitation of children, which is understood as “child prostitution, child pornography, child trafficking, and sexual tourism, ” is a widespread phenomenon in Guatemala (Villareal 2002, 17). In Guatemala City alone, an estimated 2,000 minors are victims of commercial sexual exploitation (Mendoza 2006). At the national level, Villarreal estimates that 17,000 minors are victims, most of them being between the ages of 15 and 17 (qtd. in Mendoza 2006). Across the globe, it is widely recognized as “one of the cruelest violations of the fundamental rights of children, as it produces severe consequences for the physical, psychological, spiritual, moral and social development of the small victims ” (Villareal 2002, 17). In Guatemala, however, commercial sexual exploitation of children is seen as a normal part of life; exploited children are not widely perceived as being victims, but instead, they are believed to be either nymphomaniacs, social degenerates, or people who were “born that way ” (Villareal 2002, 26). Though the extent of normalization is already disturbing, Villarreal notes, “the problem is growing” (qtd. in Mendoza 2006). Given the extent of global aversion to the idea of commercial sexual exploitation, one must ask the question: Why is it that the commercial sexual exploitation of children in Guatemala has become and is further becoming a societal norm?
II. Literature Review
Amongst the literature concerning the commercial sexual exploitation of minors in Guatemala, there have been various explanations offered for why this problem has become a widespread, normalized phenomenon. One explanation offered settles the issue within the context of the 36-year long civil war. According to a UN report, “The years of internal armed conflict generated 34,000 refugees and 1 million internally displaced persons, of whom more than half [were] children” (Calcetas-Santos 2000, 4). Of these children, 150,000 were orphans, and between 1,500 to 5,000 lived on the streets (11). In addition, racism is prevalent amongst indigenous groups, and as many of these children are displaced from their place of origin, they are vulnerable to both physical and sexual abuse from people of different ethnic identities (14). The war also caused widespread poverty; between 56 and 80 percent of Guatemalans fall below the poverty line (Mendoza 2006). All these factors together—extreme poverty, displacement from place of origin, lack of parents, lack of living quarters, and lack of trustworthy social networks or kinship groups—make an extremely large quantity of children vulnerable to well-organized child traffickers.
This argument is far too deterministic by itself, and is better thought of as part of a larger constellation of causal factors. As Casa Alianza points out, “The explanation that prostitution is a result only of poverty is not valid, because many girls, boys, and teenagers experience sexual abuse in their own families” (Casa Alianza 2002, 23). In a survey of 143 street children, every single one of them had experienced sexual abuse—53.2 percent by relatives (Calcetas-Santos 2000, 12) though this number conceals a difference of exposure between genders, as it is reported that 64 percent of female street children had experienced sexual abuse from their family members (11). In many reported cases, this is the reason why children are on the streets; they either willfully ran away, or, upon telling other family members what happened, they are called liars and thrown out of the house (Las Estrellas de la Línea 2006). Also, the idea that poverty by itself leads to commercial sexual exploitation is misleading because it implies that all people who are poor decide to prostitute themselves. This is absolutely not true. Although there are reports of family members facilitating the commercial sexual exploitation of minors , child victims of commercial sexual exploitation are “recruited” also by deceit, by being kidnapped, by the inducements of other women or minors who are already being sexually exploited (Guinn 2003, 197)—and by growing up in brothels, either as children of prostitutes (Calcetas-Santos 2000, 13), or as a result of being sold (10). Additionally, if the effects of the Guatemalan civil war were the greatest determinant, most of the sexually exploited minors would be Guatemalan in origin. However, this is not the case, as a large number of girls come from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras (Guinn 2003, 198). Of the estimated 2,000 minors working as prostitutes in Guatemala City, 1,200 are from El Salvador, 500 are from Honduras, and only 300 are from Guatemala (Mendoza 2006); this distribution of ethnicities indicates that the immense normalization has less to do with the vulnerability of Guatemalan girls and more to do with predatory factors within Guatemala. Thus, although the poverty and breakdown of families that occurred as a result of the civil war may explain how children became vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation, it does not get to the heart of why this form of exploitation is seen as normal and harmless in Guatemalan society.
III. Development of Thesis with Supporting Evidence
Because poverty and social breakdown do not sufficiently explain why the commercial sexual exploitation of minors in Guatemala has come to be seen as normal and unproblematic, another explanation is necessary. Thus, I offer the following argument: the patriarchal ideology that defines the ideal desirable woman as a dependent, pure, submissive, young, and vulnerable sex object, while infantilizing women, has the simultaneous effect of hypersexualizing children. In order to understand how the patriarchal stereotype of femininity leads to the societal acceptance of commercial sexual exploitation of minors, it is necessary to examine both the role of the Guatemalan government and the role of Guatemalan society.
On paper, it would appear that the Guatemalan government is completely against the commercial sexual exploitation of children. According to Guinn, “Guatemala has ratified several important conventions that impose obligations with respect to trafficking, ” (2003, 203), such as the World Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children held in 1996 (Calcetas-Santos 2000, 11). In addition, the Guatemalan civil code defines several aspects of commercial sexual exploitation of minors as a crime: “a) procurement; b) pimping; c) obscene exhibitions, publications, and shows; and d) trafficking of persons. In the case of trafficking of minors, it is interpreted as an aggravation of those crimes,” and the punishment in thus increased (Guinn 2003, 205). Although these actions imply that the Guatemalan government is strict on child trafficking, the opposite is true. In spite of having ratified the World Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children held in 1996, by the year 2000, “no government agency [had] been given responsibility for follow-up action…[and] there [were] no clear public policies or institutionalized practices that could help save children and rescue them from prostitution” (Calcetas-Santos 2000, 11). Two years later, even after a UN representative had given the Guatemalan government special recommendations, there was “no change in the situation of trafficking or prostitution, especially with regard to the high number of child victims and the complete impunity of bar owners and traffickers” (Guinn 2003, 204). Additionally, though several aspects of commercial sexual exploitation of minors are crimes, commercial sexual exploitation itself is not, and even for the recognized crimes, the maximum fine is only $400 (Mendoza 2004). As Calcetas-Santos notes, “a stiffer penalty is imposed for the theft of a car than for the theft of a child” (2000, 6). What is more disturbing about this paltry punishment is that it almost never affects the perpetrator: “pimps or procurers tend to force the minors themselves to pay the fine, under the argument that they were responsible for drawing the penalty in the first place” (Mendoza 2006). It has also been reported that policemen allow fines on establishments to be paid in the form of sexual services (Guinn 2003, 197).
Although on the surface, there does not appear to be a connection between the Guatemalan government’s inaction on the issue of commercial sexual exploitation of minors and the patriarchal trope of femininity, on closer inspection, the relation becomes clearer. In 1996, the Guatemalan Congress approved a law called the Child and Adolescence code, which could have led to an expansion of legal protections for minors (Guinn 2003, 207). However, the law was never put into effect, primarily on account of resistance “from people involved in intercountry adoptions who feared that greater protection could interfere with their economic interests since the new Code provided for imprisonment for six years of convicted traffickers of children” (Calcetas-Santos 2000, 6). This demonstrates that the value of minors is understood to be determined by how much monetary gain they can supply to whomever sells them; their well-being is unimportant—they are but objects. This commodification of minors reflects the commodification of women, whose worth, according to the patriarchal stereotype, is determined by the man who “owns” them, and is always much less than the man. Thus, because children are being commodified and the value of their well-being is diminished much in the same way that women have traditionally been commodified and devalued under a patriarchal system, the patriarchic dehumanized understanding of women has expanded to include children as well. This legislative safeguarding of vested interests at the expense of children’s welfare was repeated in 2005, when a draft amendment was placed before the Guatemalan congress that would increase the penalty for commercial sexual exploitation to 7 to 12 years of imprisonment (The Protection Project 2008, 4). Although the amendment itself affirms the worth of children and women, there is little faith that the government will pass this law, both because it would negatively affect the “people with political and economic clout,” and because “most of the lawmakers are men, so a sexist viewpoint prevails.” (Mendoza 2006). This reflects the perceived connection between children’s rights and women’s rights; the sexist Guatemalan congress is unwilling to pass laws that would make it more difficult to sexually exploit women and children—sustaining the commercial sexual exploitation of children through adherence to a patriarchal world view.
Demonstrating how the patriarchal trope of femininity is responsible for the collusion of the Guatemalan government in promoting and sustaining commercial sexual exploitation of minors is not enough, however, to completely account for the widespread acceptance of child sexual exploitation as normal; it is necessary to examine how the presence of this ideology in civil society has also contributed to normalization of child sexual exploitation. In a conversation about a 14-year old who was freed from sexual slavery, Dora Alicia Muñoz, the former coordinator at Casa Alianza’s shelter for girls, stated that, “Virgins attract more business [for brothels]. Clients demand them” (qtd. in Zeitlin 2006). This reflects the prevalence of the trope of femininity: it is important that one’s sexual object be “pure”. In this case, the desire for a pure, virgin sex object has morphed into a desire for a child, as clients were drawn to satisfy their sexual desires with a 14-year old girl. This attraction to extreme youth is re-demonstrated in a completely separate case: “Alba was the only underage girl in the bar where she worked, which attracted a relatively upscale clientele. She was also the most popular, to the point that she was the target of envy on the part of her fellow sex workers.” (citation) Although Alba was not a virgin—her being the most popular sex worker in her bar makes this impossible—her youth and perceived innocence were so attractive to clients that other sex workers became envious. Villareal notes that this demand for young virgins is also well-established in the context of sex tourism: “foreigners…can pay large sums of money to possess a girl [who is a very young virgin], and like many men being the first is primordial, so the owners enjoy and the victim cannot defend herself ” Thus, because the perceived virginity of a prostitute is repeatedly seen to be a desirable quality, clients seek out extremely young girls. It is clear that the patriarchic trope of femininity has expanded its reach to include children in the category of acceptable sex objects, and thus has facilitated the normalization and acceptance of the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
Thus, after examining how the trope of femininity has played a part in the Guatemalan government’s lethargy in adopting and implementing legislation that would better protect children from commercial exploitation, and how it plays a part in clients’ expectations of their prostitutes, it is clear that this ideology has facilitated the normalization and acceptance of commercial sexual exploitation of minors in Guatemalan society. In this context, it is important to re-emphasize that it is the patriarchic ideology, not the “failure” of women to live up to this ideology, that paves the way towards the acceptance of commercial sexual exploitation of minors as an unproblematic norm. In Guatemala, women are also still largely perceived as objects. The homicide rate against women is frighteningly high, nearly all victims show symptoms of torture before being killed, and essentially no one has been convicted for any of these crimes—demonstrating the prevalence of the ideology that women do not deserve to be protected by the law (Bermúdez 2005). Many of the victims are prostitutes. (Las Estrellas de la Línea 2006). Although the situation of victims of commercial sexual exploitation is generally bleak, there are a few optimistic spots. While government has been unwilling to help alleviate the situation, several groups within Guatemalan civil society have made attempts (Guinn 2003, 215-218). They may use the international agreements Guatemala has signed as a framework against which to criticize the Guatemalan government and demand that they adhere to the treaties they signed. International groups, such as the UN, may also apply pressure to hold them accountable. Thus, although within Guatemala the situation of exploited women and children is bleak, through international cooperation, the betterment of their situation may be in sight.