SANTIAGO, Chile — It is just after 5 p.m. in what was once one of Latin America’s most sexually conservative countries, and the youth of Chile are bumping and grinding to a reggaetón beat. At the Bar Urbano disco, boys and girls ages 14 to 18 are stripping off their shirts, revealing bras, tattoos and nipple rings.
The place is a tangle of lips and tongues and hands, all groping and exploring. About 800 teenagers sway and bounce to lyrics imploring them to “Poncea! Poncea!”: make out with as many people as they can.
And make out they do — with stranger after stranger, vying for the honor of being known as the “ponceo,” the one who pairs up the most.
Chile, long considered to have among the most traditional social mores in South America, is crashing headlong into that reputation with its precocious teenagers. Chile’s youths are living in a period of sexual exploration that, academics and government officials say, is like nothing the country has witnessed before.
“Chile’s youth are clearly having sex earlier and testing the borderlines with their sexual conduct,” said Dr. Ramiro Molina, director of the University of Chile’s Center for Adolescent Reproductive Medicine and Development.
The sexual awakening is happening through a booming industry for 18-and-under parties, an explosion of Internet connectivity and through Web sites like Fotolog, where young people trade suggestive photos of each other and organize weekend parties, some of which have drawn more than 4,500 teenagers. The online networks have emboldened teenagers to express themselves in ways that were never customary in Chile’s conservative society.
“We are not the children of the dictatorship; we are the children of democracy,” said Michele Bravo, 17, at a recent afternoon party. “There is much more of a rebellious spirit among young people today. There is much more freedom to explore everything.”
The parents and grandparents of today’s teenagers fought hard to give them such freedoms and to escape the book-burning times of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. But in a country that legalized divorce only in 2004 and still has a strict ban on abortion, the feverish sexual exploration of the younger generation is posing new challenges for parents and educators. Sex education in public schools is badly lagging, and the pregnancy rate among girls under 15 has been on the rise, according to the Health Ministry.
Indeed, adolescent sexuality has changed throughout Latin America, Dr. Ramiro said, and underlying much of the newfound freedom is an issue that societies the world over are grappling with: the explosion of explicit content and social networks on the Internet.
Chilean society was shaken last year when a video of a 14-year-old girl eagerly performing oral sex on a teenage boy on a Santiago park bench was discovered on a video-hosting Web site. The episode became a national scandal, stirring finger-pointing at the girl’s school, at the Internet provider — at everyone, it seemed, but the boys who captured the event on a cellphone and distributed the video.
Chile’s stable, market-based economy has helped to drive the changes, spurring a boom in consumer spending and credit unprecedented in the country’s history. Chile has become Latin American’s biggest per-capita consumer of digital technology, including cellphones, cable television and Internet broadband accounts, according to a study by the Santiago consulting firm Everis and the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Navarra in Spain.
Chileans are plugged into the Internet at higher rates than other South Americans, and the highest use is among children ages 6 to 17. Therein lies a central factor in the country’s newfound sexual exploration, said Miguel Arias, a psychologist and head of the Santiago consulting firm Divergente.
Fotolog, a photo-sharing network created in the United States, took off in the last two years in this country. Today Chile, which has a population of 16 million, has 4.8 million Fotolog accounts, more than any other country, the company says. Again, children ages 12 to 17 hold more than 60 percent of the accounts.