PDA in a Catholic State

By Amelia Earnest

I spent one night last week in the house of a potato farmer on the tiny island of Amanti, a place preserved in the past by virtue of its isolation amidst the vast waters of Lake Titicaca. Tucked away from outside influence, the people there speak Ketchwa instead of Spanish, survive off of agriculture, and still dress in the old tradition. The married women wear elaborately embroidered headscarves while the single women wear the same bright fabric, but around the shoulders. The men wear a hat of alpaca wool, blue if they are married or patterned with a large white stripe if they are single.

A married couple from Lake Titicaca’s Island of Amanti in traditional dress. (Earnest/TYG)

Because the use of wedding bands is generally less common in Peru, and is even less popular in poor, isolated areas, this type of dressing practice is useful for determining whether that cute sheep herder is still available, or whether you can pursue that cute girl who sells chichain the market.

Cosmopolitan Lima, on the other hand, is quite a different dating scene. Living in a city where people cast off headscarves and dress formalities generations ago, the young urban couples of Lima utilize a slightly racier method of proclaiming their lack of availability—PDA.

Embracing against trees, leaning on benches, laying on grass, or pausing at the street corner—kissing, tickling, touching, and gazing— the lovers of Lima are head over heels and they sure as heck don´t mind you knowing it. Why would they after all? No one seems to take any special note of these brazen couples. Limeñans have an impressively high tolerance for Public Displays of Affection. This has left me feeling rather prudish, as I can’t help but give a second glance to an indiscrete couple, while nuns and old ladies walk by completely nonplussed.

Initially, this constant and unabashedly forward flaunting of physical affection puzzled me. In an overwhelmingly conservative, Catholic nation—a place where ceramic tile mosaics of a crucified Jesus in the bread section of your local supermarket and rosaries offered around in public hospitals as if they were Kleenex are normal—no one looks twice at the necking couples fixed on every street corner.

A young couple in one of Lima’s parks. (Earnest/TYG)

I asked one of my co-workers, a native Peruvian community health worker who admitted to frequenting a few park benches and street corners with boyfriends in her day, about couples’ liberal public conduct and received a surprising explanation. She blamed rigid Catholic values held by traditional families for their own eventual public defiance by young people. Primarily in the case of young girls, sexual partners—or even dating— are categorically forbidden within the tighter, more conservative Catholic families. As that which is forbidden doubles in interest and excitement, the rules meant to pen young people into the “good” path ultimately serve as an unintentional inspiration to jump the fence entirely.

To escape the watchful eyes of family, these young people flood from their homes and neighborhoods to seek affection, along with an unconventional type of privacy, in the wide open. In any given sunset, in one of the many parks sprinkled amongst the gray city blocks, you will find every bench occupied by strange, non-human lumpy silhouettes—embracing star-crossed lovers, hiding in plain sight.

These clandestine meetings often yield consequences not so easily hidden as the relationship itself. Because the girls who need to conceal their relationships are usually quite young, they are often less experienced using contraceptives, and have a higher likelihood of unplanned pregnancy. The power imbalance within relationships between a young girl and an older boy, along with the anonymity of the baby´s father to the girl´s family in these cases, makes it exceptionally difficult to hold the male partner accountable for his responsibilities if he does not “man up” on his own accord. After becoming a single mother, some girls intentionally become pregnant again, hoping to gain a partner in life and a father for both children—an expectation naively based in the traditional values of the culture.

A Limeñan couple embracing at nighttime on a park bench near a religious icon of Virgin Mary, a fixture placed in all of Lima’s public parks.

On a larger scale, this trend contributes to the comparably large population of young, single mothers, which is especially abundant in the poorest, and, often times, more stringently religious, areas. Having worked in one of these communities for six weeks, I can honestly say it is more commonplace to come across a single mother with three children of three different fathers than it is to encounter a nuclear family.

A rigid atmosphere of locked doors and boundaries fosters an abnormally fervent desire to see what lies beyond the keyhole, to cross that line drawn in the sand. Unfortunately for some young girls, Pandora’s box cannot always be “unopened,” and sometimes lovers’ best intentions lose their shine somewhere between the flower enshrouded park bench and the cathedral’s pristine white altar.

Amelia Earnest is a junior in Pierson College. Contact her at amelia.earnest@yale.edu.