Themes of Child Sexuality and Pathology in Latin Moon in Manhattan

In Jaime Manrique’s Latin Moon in Manhattan, there are many confusing representations of sex and sexuality, including instances of prostitution, incest, and bestiality. Even more confounding is how almost all of these sites of sexual “perversion” (to varying degrees) seem to intersect with themes of childhood and child sexuality, as well as sex-negativity. Taking the book in its proper context, Manrique seems to explore these areas of contestation throughout Latin Moon in psychological or psychoanalytic terms, creating a narrative of sexual self that moves from repressive sexual desires and expressions to a healthy practice of sexuality (In psychoanalytic phrasing, a somewhat late overcoming of the Oedipal complex). Although it would be easy to make a shallow reading of such a narrative as progressive (in that it rejects the (former?) psychological notion of homosexual practice being pathological), he does so by casting other sexual practices that are now considered perverse in a light that could easily be considered homonormative, pathologizing, and regressive.

Oft-cited queer theorist Gayle Rubin speaks to this particular kind of pathologization in her essay Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality. She writes, “Sexuality in western societies has been structured within an extremely punitive social framework, and has been subjected to very real formal and informal controls.” (Rubin, 10) She denounces what she calls sexual essentialism, or a notion that sexuality exists as a biological or chemical drive. Rather, sexuality is created by social interaction (sexual practices and kinship) and subsequent responses (policing, violence, rejection). Those practices that are considered normal or natural are rewarded positively, and practices that transgress “are considered utterly repulsive and devoid of all emotional nuance.” (Rubin, 15)

The flattening of sexual practices considered morally repugnant seems to be a preferred literary exercise for Manrique. I would like to challenge the reader of Latin Moon in Manhattan to problematize some of these instances in the text.

“…I spotted a tiny hooker standing in front of the door of my building. She looked about seven years old, maybe seven and a half. I had seen teenage hookers and hustlers, but this was a child. This was real depravity and decadence – no doubt a product of the crack epidemic.” (Manrique, 88)

This passage is followed by a description of this “child” in an objectifying style just short of blason, and he seems to conflate the presence of a child in such an unsettling position with the contextual particularities of his neighborhood. It seems to say, “because of this child’s socioeconomic status, they must perform sex work, and this is a problem.” His attitude changes as soon as he realizes the sex worker in question is not a child but in fact is a little person, “She was not a child—she was a midget hooker. I breathed a sigh of relief. […]” (Manrique, 89) I found this quantum moral leap astounding. In his relief, one may read that he does not care whether an adult is driven to sex work because of socioeconomics. From this the reader can draw two conclusions: the character (or Manrique?) considers all sex work perverse/pathological, and he considers expressions of child sexuality equally repugnant.

Here I would like to problematize my own argument. Do children have sexual desires and expressions, or are such actions and feelings only placed or imagined on them? Are these inherently pathological, or do they only become so when in relation to adults? ARE BOTH OF THOSE STATEMENTS INHERENTLY AGEIST??? I certainly don’t claim to know the answer. Rubin states that, “Virtually all erotic behavior is considered bad unless a specific reason to exempt it has been established.” Could the question simply be reduced to the fact that all sexual acts are “burdened with an excess of significance”?

Whatever Manrique seems to be implying here about adolescent sexuality, he doesn’t seem to have a problem representing such themes in relation to the narrator (or himself???)

“At night, when he and Mother closed the door of their bedroom, I would sneak out of my room […] to watch them make love through the windows that opened onto the patio. Night after night I watched, discovering my own sexual appetites…” (Manrique, 138)

I suppose it will have to remain to be seen whether this particular arena with become a desired site for sexual liberation, or something. I only wish I could remind Manrique that homosexual practices were once pathologized and stigmatized in this way. But the reader still must consider the time in which this book was written, the intended slant of the narrator, the social context that Manrique wishes to present here, and all of that. But I would like the reader of this blog to think harder about where the (in)distinctions between kinship and sexuality lie, especially within the family.

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6 thoughts on “Themes of Child Sexuality and Pathology in Latin Moon in Manhattan

  1. I thought your Gayle Rubin quotes were really interesting and true. For example when you (Joseph) stated her quote: “Sexuality in western societies has been structured within an extremely punitive social framework, and has been subjected to very real formal and informal controls.” (Rubin, 10) and when you mentioned that “…sexuality is created by social interaction (sexual practices and kinship) and subsequent responses (policing, violence, rejection)”, I highly agreed. I feel that in the west, sex is looked as something highly private, non necessary, and practiced by people who cannot control their urges. Many people are uncomfortable with talking about sex. Even in my home, my mom would gasp if I spoke about sexual relations. But the fact is that sex is something natural, should be explored safely, and should not be limited. For many years women and queers (even today) have had to hold their toungue and not talk about sex since it would be considered inappropriate. If a woman has alot of sex she is called “promiscious” or a “whore”. This is unacceptable and demonstrates sexism. No one should set limits on peoples affairs. Even as im writing this I think to myself… hm I wonder if the class is gonna think Im a major sex freak. That thought itself is caused by society’s stigma of sex. If someone has sex to create a baby, society approves. If not they may criticize. This comes to show society’s obsession with sex as an act just for heterosexuals or for procreating, while everything else would be considered revolting. Society questions anything that may be arousing and gives it a negative connotation. Think about times in your daily lives that you may have stigmatized sexuality and explore how problematic that is.

  2. This is a fantastic close reading of Latin Moon, full of urgency and great theoretical moves. I’m wondering how a shift in the subject of your analysis might change the arguments you make, specifically in terms of character/narrator as separate from author. Is it useful to assume that Manrique is expressing his own sexual morals through Santiago’s stream of consciousness? Whose judgments are Santiago’s?

    Here we have a character whose sexual history includes cows, older men, and possibly his mother. What happens when we juxtapose these non-normative sexual encounters that appear in his subconscious narrations (his dreams and hallucinations) with his conscious parole–his conscious speech–in which he makes these judgments about perverse sexuality? Is there a kind of psychological projection the character is engaged in, an attempt to absolve his weird sexual past and restore normativity by performing it in his conscious thoughts? Can we let the author off the hook in order to read the character more complexly? Is the moral division of perverse and not-perverse the character’s, the novel’s, or the author’s, and what’s the difference? How is sexuality differently constructed at each of these narrative levels?

    Great stuff, Joseph!

  3. I was interested in your introduction, and how you noted that Latin Moon In Manhattan could, on a surface level, be understood as “progressive.” As a text which works to de-pathologize male homosexuality, it certainly stands in opposition to many deep-rooted discourses about sex, desire and masculinity in the western tradition. However, when the same text simultaneously ignores, silences and pathologizes the desires of other bodies, it can hardly be called progressive, and certainly not radical. The observation you make interests me in that the de-pathologizing of one sexual practice seems predicated on the denigrating and demoralizing of others, both in this text and in countless other discourses which it connects to. What can the thoughts of the narrator in Latin Moon teach us about our own desires for acceptance and safety? How do our goals for mainstream approval often lead us to participate in the very systems which we set out to destroy? How do labels (i.e. gay, Latin@, queer, of color) with progressive histories mislead us into believing all projects bearing their titles are equally progressive?

  4. I have been thinking a lot about the sexual dimensions of mother-child relationships. We see it coming up again in Omaha Bigelow, with the title character’s erotic memory of his mother’s red toenails. He deals with this insistent memory by using it as a masturbation tool and also by pushing it away in disgust, calling it a by-product of some kind of Oedipal complex. I just read a book for another class, Trauma in Asian American Literature, that gives a powerful account of a mother daughter relationship that is very physical, intimate, intense and at times, sexual. How does really truly looking at these mother child desires expand our notions of sexuality? Why must sexual feelings be confined to consummated relationships? Whose power structures does that serve? Can there be a sexual dimension in our relationships with our friends, acquaintances, co-workers, teachers, students, pets?
    I’m telling yall though, you bring this up and people freak out. I tried to talk about it in a lit class last year and everyone just looked at me like I was speaking in a language they did not understand. especially as someone who works with kids, I think about the ethical issues that come up. I just wonder if we could allow ourselves to see and nourish sexuality as it pervades us, invades us, evades our attempts to confine it. My connection with my own mother is an intensely physical one. But she has never abused me, hurt me, exerted her power over me. A non-normative sexual relationship is not inherently unethical. Hopefully we agree on that. Our ethical response to navigating our sexuality has to be rooted in an understanding of power in the situation, instead of relying on knee-jerk reactions instilled by the powers that be.

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