Stories of rape, incest and child prostitution have proliferated in Costa Rican news for the last decade, largely as a result of actions by human rights defense groups like Casa Alianza, no longer operating in the country, and the administration of former President Abel Pacheco (2002-2006), which openly confronted child prostitution. Pacheco’s presidency ended a period of official denial that child prostitution is a problem in Costa Rica.
This subject is amply aired in the news and other public forums, but a book published last year explores in depth the underlying attitudes that have implicitly fueled support for sex with minor children. Chief among those attitudes is that child prostitutes are morally inferior and even biologically different from their peers.
“Child Sex Abuse and Prostitution in Costa Rica in the XIV and XX Centuries,” a collection of essays, is the result a 10-year study of historical documents that include judicial files, public health and venereal disease control records, civil and penal codes and legislation, newspaper articles and public opinion polls. The resulting essays trace a meandering line of the meaning of “age of consent” – the legal age and the age and circumstances under which children are popularly considered adults. At least one law still is in effect today that is musty with the redolence of colonial Spanish rule.
Laws Like Museum Relics
“Listen,” Eugenia Rodríguez, editor and contributor to the book, said in an interview, “there is still a law that says an attacker will be pardoned if he marries the victim. It’s a colonial idea that would return honor to the woman, but in practice it means that the woman is sleeping with the enemy, and their children, too, could be in danger.”
The law is the 1999 reform to the Sexual Exploitation Law that declares a kidnapper who intends to marry the victim will serve half his sentence once he releases her (the law assumes the victim is a woman).
“Even though a big effort was made to reform (the sex exploitation law) it’s inexplicable that that stayed in there. I don’t understand it,” Rodríguez said.
Historically, the law has been porous regarding child prostitution. In his essay Prostitution and Sexual Exploitation of Children in San José (1860-1949), Juan José Marín wrote that girls at the turn of the 19th century who were under age 15 were inscribed in the registry of prostitutes treated for venereal disease, in spite of their legal standing as children incapable of legally charging for sex. In his study of 2,615 San Jose prostitutes in the century up to 1950, he found that 81% were registered, nearly 5% were under age 15 and 75% were ages 13-24. Rodríguez said records of venereal disease treatment show a duality in the perception of prostitution.
“People rejected sex abuse and prostitution, but at the same time the state practically became the biggest pimp by regulating all kinds of prostitution and creating a mechanism for health services,” she said.
Are 15-Year-Olds Adults?
Maiín explained there is a contradiction between the legal and popularly accepted ages of consent. Prior to 1970 the legal age was 21, but San José’s social elite paraded their quinceañeras – 15-year-old girls – in the National Theater at gatherings devised to flaunt them before potential husbands. Since 1970, 18 has been the legal age of consent, but the popular conception of childhood is that it ends at 16,Marín wrote, and could be as young as 12.
Boys were also swept into the 15-year-old popular idea of adulthood: “As much among the elite as among the masses, a boy proved he had achieved manhood when he was 15, by having sex with a prostitute,” Marín wrote. “That means that young prostitutes above 12 years old and particularly 15 years old were not perceived as girls, but rather as women.”
Media Drives Debate
The concept was justified as a process of “accelerated maturation” in a news column printed in the daily La Nación April 24, 2001, by Edgar Mohs, a pediatrician and former director of the National Children’s Hospital who became a legislator for the Social Christian Unity Party (2002-2004).
The column and the biting response to it printed two weeks later by Leonardo Garnier, economist, former Minister of Finance and now Public Education Minister, were reprinted in Blanca Valladares’ essay, “News Treatment of Child Sexual Abuse in Costa Rica.”
Mohs wrote,“I must insist that a girl of 10, 12 or 14 years, whose school has been the streets, crime, the struggle for survival and a disastrous home,will necessarily mature more quickly…. (She) has the same sexual behavior as an ordinary person of 24 or 25 years in terms of being aware of what she is doing and having the freedom to do it; that is to say, her conduct looks more like that of a perverse adult than that of a child. Why, then, do we insist on calling this phenomenon child prostitution when has nothing to do with childhood, but rather with adolescence?”
Trying to impose his brand of psychological measurement on adulthood, rather than a physical measure of years, Mohs opened himself to a shocking, sarcastic attack Garnier published later in the same paper titled “Mature Little Whores (Putitas Maduras).”
“Let’s understand this once and for all: these little girls aren’t child prostitutes, they are only little whores who are just as perverse as they are grown up. Let’s not get so worked up, then, over a few perverted adolescents that, as don Edgar (Mohs) tells us, ‘have learned every kind of vice at an early age: lying, stealing, murder and sexual perversion.’” Garnier’s retort goes on to ridicule Mohs for not having extended the same logic to argue that sales of liquor and cigarettes and the right to vote should be granted to children as long as they are prostitutes.
The opinion pieces followed a whirlwind of media coverage of child prostitution in the country incited by the Casa Alianza and other private children’s rights defense groups, which published opinion pieces such as Rocío Rodriguez’s “Innocent Victims in the Claws of Sexual Exploitation in Costa Rica,” that chastised the government for its inaction.
Rape Victim, Media Victim
Valladares presents the case of a 9-year-old daughter of impoverished Nicaraguan immigrants who was raped and impregnated in Costa Rica allegedly by a 20-year-old neighbor. Valladares reprinted reports from La Nación that, she writes, focus on the victim, and only reticently and subsequently expose the attacker. Also, a photo published with a rectangle over the girl’s eyes was not enough to hide her identity, Valladares wrote, so the girl may have been subjected to further harm when the story became national news.
One reporter mentioned the problem the news attention was causing the family. Alvaro Murillo wrote on Feb. 7, 2003, that the girl’s godfather was “annoyed” during an interview with La Nación, a statement followed by, “For them, the attention given the case of their daughter has been excessive.”
“The Costa Rican media handle the issue by reproducing stereotypes of victims, their attackers, gender roles, the preservation of virginity, etc.” Rodríguez said. “A girl from a high class home is regarded differently than a poor girl, for example.”
In the law, too, she said, “Whether the girl was a virgin when she was raped is taken into account.”
She painted an historical picture of the release of alleged rapists because of a lack of evidence, a problem that may persist and that Valladares addressed in her essay when she noted that authorities “did not act quickly or energetically to gather evidence” according to news reports on the 9-year-old rape victim, dubbed “Rosa.”
The final essay is a collection of public opinion polls and commentary that reveals that more than 30% of those polled in 2003 knew someone under the age of 15 who was a victim of sex abuse. Ten percent knew children under the age of 15 who were prostitutes.
“Prevention is the key, you’ll never eradicate it,” Rodríguez said. “We don’t gain anything from putting out the fire without attacking the roots of the sickness.
The book is available at bookstores at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) in the eastern San José suburb San Pedro._