Juan Carlos Hernández is changing social attitudes toward sexuality through a system of sex education that emphasizes the importance of pleasurable, responsible sexuality as a public health issue in Mexico.
The New Idea
Juan Carlos Hernández, a young promoter of sex education, is determined to bring about a fundamental change with regard to social attitudes toward sexuality. He envisions Hispanic cultures freed from overlays of machismo and religion that tend to infuse sex with associations of guilt and dominance. In his words, his aim is to "re-vindicate the search of pleasure for itself without the need to search for higher ends," such as reproduction, and to balance it with responsibility and respect. Half of the population of Juan Carlos's state of Veracruz are under nineteen years of age, and he has created classes for rural high school students and young urban parents there in a model poised to influence sex education in the national public school system.Mexican programs that address social problems related to sexual behaviors, such as sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy and sexual violence, typically emphasize abstinence and instill fear. Juan Carlos's strategy is to alter the underlying attitudes that ultimately lead to these problems. His work illustrates his understanding that the attitudes he seeks to change have been perpetuated through the family. While holding firm to the traditional values of community and commitment, in a fundamental way Juan Carlos advocates the liberation of children's sexual development from the private control of their parents and for it to be seen as a health issue for the entire society: "I think that sexual education is a social responsibility, not merely of the state or of the family; it is a matter of the mental health of the public, not of private morality."
As do most societies around the globe, Mexico wrestles with the HIV/AIDS pandemic and other sexually transmitted diseases, sexual violence, unwanted pregnancies and abortions. Juan Carlos sees a less visible dimension that contributes to the familiar disfunctions of human sexuality: a stoic religious culture common to most Hispanic nations that teaches people from childhood to distrust the body and its pleasures. Within a morality linked to self-denial, sex evokes fear, guilt and an expectation of suffering. Children are taught from an early age that exploring their sexuality in any form is evil and often produces threats and severe physical punishment. Diseases and unwanted pregnancy may actually be portrayed in these lessons as inevitable components of any sexual relationship. Males learn a macho association of power and violence with sexuality; women in turn learn to accept pain and submission as inevitable. These attitudes are most strongly transmitted from one generation to the next within the family. A very concrete result of such a system is that sex becomes a taboo subject for frank discussion, and where attitudes remain unexamined they are not accessible to change. The absence of open discussion of sex limits the availability of crucial health information to the public. The society continues to perpetuate the myth that young people do not engage in sex before marriage, and government health statistics do not even mention the category of homosexual males in the reporting of AIDS cases, attributing 51 percent to an "unknown risk factor." The majority of Mexico's citizens are not aware of the reasons for protected sex. The risks to women, who have less control over their sexual contacts in the society, are even greater than for men.
So long as these attitudes persist, sex education that focuses on simple physiology or the use of birth control devices will always fall short of its goal and continue propagate the notion that sexuality is inevitably a problem by emphasizing its dangers and keeping secrets. What is truly needed, in Juan Carlos's view, is a change in attitudes to view the responsible exercise of one's sexuality as an inseparable element of health.
In 1992 Juan Carlos founded the Xochi Quetzal Center for Social Studies, named for the Aztec goddess of fertility. Through the Center, Juan Carlos trains young people in his philosophy of sex education, forms alliances with citizens' organizations and like-minded religious groups, and launches campaigns to spread his work more broadly in the public education system. Juan Carlos focuses especially on youth from rural areas: one-third of Veracruz's young people live in villages of fewer than 1,000 residents, and Juan Carlos believes that they will create a chain reaction to spread his ideas. Some of Juan Carlos's workshops are held in schools and are integrated directly into the curriculum, while others are conducted in less formal settings. So far, Juan Carlos has trained more than 200 young people between the ages of 15 and 22 with information that includes human biology, variations of human sexuality, sexual and reproductive rights, self-care, AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases and correct use of condoms and other contraceptives. Throughout the workshops, which resemble other Mexican sex education curricula in many ways, Juan Carlos returns always to his distinctive linked core themes of pleasure-responsibility and pleasure-respect, including respect for sexual differences. He sees his work as a combination of traditional regard for the family and self-restraint coupled with a new vision of the body. The methodology is participative; as Juan Carlos puts it, "The sense of humor and laughter are important parts of our vision of life and sexuality."
Juan Carlos' Center joins together with fifteen other citizens' organizations to share materials and programs. Some of the other collaborators are the Feminist Collective of Xalapa, other civil groups that devote themselves to sexual and reproductive health, Compañeros in Defense of Life, an AIDS-related group, the Human Rights Commission, groups from the University of Veracruz, and representatives from the municipal government of Veracruz and the State Program for the Protection of the Family. By using the local press and radio throughout the state, brochures, posters and word of mouth, the Center recruits young parents to its "School for Mothers and Fathers" in Veracruz where mothers and fathers of urban families learn in seminars how to foster healthy sexual attitudes in their children from an early age. Four "generations" of graduates are now themselves in charge of educating interested new parents.
Over the long term, Juan Carlos plans to consolidate his program and establish it as an obligatory subject in state schools, and he is developing it into a curriculum that can be duplicated easily in various settings. In 1996, interviews carried out by his center among a sample of 3,000 people throughout Mexico showed that 85 percent of the parents and 93 percent of the students among them agreed that the program should be taught in schools. Juan Carlos participates in a group of professionals in sex education who meet at the national level to make a proposal of basic principles for a sexual education program for the entire country that will be proposed eventually to the Secretary of Public Education.
Juan Carlos comes from a very conservative and traditional family. He has described the Catholic Church as the basic influence upon him during his childhood and adolescence. During his youth, he had a disagreement with his father that forced him to leave home. His search for a cause to which to dedicate himself took him to Rome and the Vatican. After being in Rome for two years, where he encountered many international students in his courses on Missionary Catechism (the Catholic professional preparation for those who want to do missionary work), he returned to Mexico. There he worked as a professor of theology and as a vocational counselor. After being illegally detained and questioned by judicial police while participating in a gay demonstration, he decided to turn his efforts to changing social attitudes about sexuality.
Juan Carlos values his continuing education and personal development as much as his teaching. He frequently travels to Mexico City to participate in seminars and discussion groups about masculinity and gender.