Margarita García Robayo remembers growing up in an environment where sex was ‘a poker game, trading in favours, a secret key that belonged to us girls’.

When I was a little girl, everyone around me believed that sex was a sin. I grew up in a conservative Catholic Caribbean environment and I grew up among women: mother, grandmother, aunts, sisters, teachers, classmates. Every one of them, in a very natural and imperceptible way, was born into a conspiracy aimed at keeping the order of the world unchanged: that girls were to be kept hidden away in their homes, while boys ran around willy-nilly, chasing after a ball or climbing trees like wild monkeys. Those of us who dared to subvert this decree were stigmatised as ‘tomboys’ and called to modesty with vicious pinches.

Adult men were distant beings who floated slightly above the ground, speaking in a primitive – and generally malign – language which it was best to ignore. Until you were seven, maybe eight, the masculine figure represented that dark and silent authority that the older women took care to instill in our fertile young heads.

We were not allowed to get too close to men. They weren’t to be trusted. We weren’t supposed to show them even a glimpse of our naked skin because – due to God knows what strange kind of anomaly – they could react like beasts and gobble you up in one mouthful.

After a certain age, the threat was expressed in the form of efficient euphemisms. ‘A man is a man’, our mothers would declare, in a tone that was both mournful and threatening, to which we were supposed to ascribe multiple meanings, all of them dubious and dangerous. What did this phrase mean exactly? And how to find out, when the point of a euphemism is that it needs no explanation?

I was always amazed by how deeply aware the female population was about the lack of evolution – in intellectual terms – of their male counterparts. I would hear my mother and aunts whisper about men with a certain condescension, and about women with unwarranted poison: ‘If she offers herself to him, poor soul has to react’. Men were weak-willed beings with no capacity for judgement who, when faced with the smallest provocation, would display their claws, lash out blows and bury their lethal fangs. Poor souls. It was best not to provoke them.

Under these circumstances, it was very hard to build healthy, honest relationships with someone from the opposite sex. It was like imagining that a tame pet could befriend a famished predator. As a result, we girls waged constant inner battles. If you liked a boy, a loud mental warning would dissuade you from talking to him. We grew up amid contradiction.

We grew up fearful and confused. But we grew up and, among other things, growing up means gaining independence. As you do that, you begin to write your own story that eventually superimposes itself on the one of your upbringing.

For years – and in some cases, forever – that superimposition only happens within you. We were weaving together our individuality with scraps of intimate secrets as innocent as they were unspeakable. And yet, outside us, the official story kept on being replicated: ‘Watch out: a man is a man’.

Those mixed messages from childhood continued in our teenage years, and they would also come from women, but not the kind we knew. These were women who were part of certain circles, equally hypocritical, but a lot more cynical. I remember the cousin of a friend – a girl older than us who lived in another city – giving us a lesson one afternoon. We locked ourselves up in my friend’s bedroom, still wearing our school uniforms, and listened to her with religious attention: ‘You have to get close, show a little but not too much, allow them to touch you, but never give anything away.’ Or: ‘You have to leave them wanting more, let them crawl to you and beg you for more.’ Beyond leading them on in this way, we had to remember the most important thing: always demand something in return. ‘Something’, in my Caribbean adolescence, could go from a teddy bear to a handbag to sailing to a private island with all your girlfriends. Ah, right, so this was what sex was about: a poker game, trading in favours, a secret key that belonged to us girls. ‘Sounds difficult’, I said to my friend that afternoon once her cousin had gone, leaving us in perplexity, lying on her bed, staring at a constellation of doubts on the ceiling.

Men’s role seemed a lot simpler. United in their inability to control their own instincts, they were limited to merely reacting. They were there, without having to move a finger: expectant, waiting. Whereas we girls had to cautiously approach them, quietly tame them, constantly measuring our limitations, being careful to provoke them just the right amount, careful not to give too much away. In the sum of those strategic decisions lay the secret wisdom of our female gender.

They say that what is planted in a child’s mind grows strong and deep roots that are hard to dig up. I could never think of sex as a key that would bring me benefits because I was basically consumed by guilt all the time. Even when as an adult I was able to enjoy a normal, uncomplicated sex life, there was always a tiny part of me that would feel like there was something not right in that exchange. Is he taking advantage of me? Is he going to think I’m too easy? Is he like this with all the others? I would ask myself all of those questions which, in today’s light, I find absurd but also humiliating. Why think of myself as a cherry that, if bitten and abandoned, will rot away? Because of a flaw in my childhood, obviously.

The worst thing was realising that among my female friends we would still, in one way or another, lie to each other.

What you did with your boyfriend was always more than you dared confess to others. There was a part of the story that you had to leave out because of fear or shame but, above all, because you’d rather lose an eye than lose your reputation. What if in the end, just like we’d always been told, that was actually the most valuable thing we possessed?

I truly believe in making radical – albeit always painful – changes to our most deeply-rooted ideas. I think it is harder to change behaviours, because many of the behaviours we incorporate are unthinking (they come imbued in those ideas we thought we had eradicated from our minds). For an organism to get rid of the poison in its body, it needs to undergo a kind of dialysis. In my case, the first thing I did was to create some distance, to face that dubious scenario with a different perspective and accept that, however much you hate it, you still carry some of it in you. I accepted also that the outcome of growing up in the midst of coded messages around sex, of learning the art of speaking in euphemisms, lying gracefully and manipulating, was the formation of a hypersensitive awareness to similar behaviours. Even more so when that behaviour comes from within. I don’t allow myself to be self-indulgent. I live with a whip in hand, ready to detect the toxins leftover from my upbringing. I feel I have made some progress as far as I am concerned: I have been able to change. My next ambition is a bit grander. Now that I have children, I aim to change an entire generation. Wish me luck.

Margarita García Robayo grew up in Colombia and now lives in Buenos Aires. She is the author of three novels, a book of autobiographical essays and several collections of short stories, including Cosas peores (Worse Things), which obtained the prestigious Casa de las Américas Prize in 2014. Her books have been published in Latin America as well as in Spain, and have been translated into French, Portuguese, Italian, Hebrew, and Chinese. Fish Soup (translated by Charlotte Combe, Charco Press, 2018), a collection of novellas and short stories, brings her work into English for the first time.

Translated by Carolina Orloff.

Margarita will join Sharlene Teo and Sarvat Hasin for an event with English PEN at the Free Word Centre on 30 October. Find out more.

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