Lima, Peru — As the presidential race heats up, Peruvians are acclimating to the growing possibility that their next head of state will impose conservative views regarding sexuality on this highly diverse South American society.
The frontrunner ahead of the April 11 election, Yonhy Lescano, is a center-left populist former lawmaker who has been accused of sexual harassment by a journalist and is known for attempting to ban pornography. His party, meanwhile, is currently trying to outlaw racy social media selfies.
If Lescano wins the first round, pundits are predicting he could be accompanied in the expected June 6 runoff by Rafael Lopez Aliaga, a self-proclaimed celibate businessman and member of Opus Dei, the ultra-conservative Catholic group.
Lopez Aliaga has spread vaccine misinformation as part of his campaign and argued that raped minors should be forced to complete their pregnancies in “five-star hotels,” while his vice presidential candidate, Neldy Mendoza, believes that women who use birth control invite rape and career women who “don’t wash the dishes” will turn into “terrorist grandmothers.”
Although Peru remains a majority Catholic country, with a significant evangelical demographic, both candidates appear to be out of sync with segments of contemporary Peruvian society, especially the predominantly young protestors who brought down a right-wing de facto president last November.
Nevertheless, the Andean nation remains a laggard on equality and sexual rights. Sex and gender education, vilified by social conservatives as “gender ideology,” is largely absent from state schools and teen pregnancies are common; abortion is also only permitted in cases where the mother’s life is in danger. Domestic violence and femicide are rife, while LGBTQ rights are often nonexistent.
“I am terrified that one of these candidates becomes our next president,” said Raquel Rottmann, a Lima-based psychologist who specializes in sexuality. “Repressed sexuality becomes hostility. It brings out the worst in people. We don’t need repressed leaders repressing others.”
Peruvian psychoanalyst Cecilia Martinez Julio-Rospigliosi also highlighted Peruvians’ habitual “masochism” when it comes to electing leaders, adding that all 18 presidential candidates were the product of a “completely hypocritical society that has been shaped by a prudish colonial mentality that is out of step with how people actually behave.”
While Lescano leads the polls with around 13 percent, the next four candidates hover at around 7 percent. But one of the trailing candidates, centrist former frontrunner George Forsyth, has seen his numbers deflate from the mid-teens, while two other well-known candidates, the hard right Keiko Fujimori, the runner-up in the last two presidential elections, and leftist Veronika Mendoza, have also been stagnating.
Only Lopez Aliaga, who was polling less than one percent in December, has been trending upwards. Given that no candidate appears likely to come anywhere close to taking 50 percent of the vote needed to win the first round outright, a runoff is now expected.
Known for fiery attacks on political corruption, Lescano’s support for the dissolution of a widely reviled Congress—of which he was himself a member— in 2019 has helped position him against the political establishment that most voters now view as hopelessly rotten.
He also opposes same-sex marriage and abortion in all circumstances, and in 2016 introduced a bill to outlaw online pornography, arguing that it was preventing the young from becoming productive members of society. “A generation without pornography will dedicate itself more to sports and to studying,” Lescano said at the time. “[Young men] get stimulated and so they rape children and women.”
In 2019, Lescano, who is married, was accused by a female journalist of sending her unwanted, late-night WhatsApp messages asking whether she was “in bed” and “naked.” He claimed the messages were fake, but was suspended from Congress for 120 days.
Recently, his Popular Action party introduced a bill that would introduce fines of up to roughly $119,000 for people who use social media in an “inadequate” way. That would include “overexposing their intimacy”—wording that would seem to outlaw the kind of suggestive selfies that are routine on apps like Instagram and Tinder.
Still, Lescano appears moderate on many issues, including sexuality, compared to Lopez Aliaga, who is running for the Popular Restoration party, which has ties to Sodalicio de Vida Cristiana, a Catholic group that has been immersed in a years-long sex abuse scandal. Lopez Aliagahas repeatedly accused interim President Francisco Sagasti of “genocide” for, supposedly, purchasing ineffective vaccines, and even called for his ouster—just one month before scheduled elections and in the middle of Peru’s second COVID-19 wave.
Healso sparked outrage with his reaction to a landmark court ruling last month that paves the way for voluntary euthanasia for the first time in Peru, asking why Ana Estrada, the woman who won the case and is paralyzed by a degenerative muscle disease, had not just thrown herself off a building instead of involving “the state in such a private issue.”
Yet it is on sexual issues where Lopez Aliaga and Mendoza, his running mate, appear to take the most consistently extreme positions.
He has vowed that “gender doctrine will, obviously, be exterminated” if he becomes president, and in remarks widely reported in the Peruvian media, Mendoza has claimed that “89 percent” of domestic violence happens to women who use contraceptives.
“Women who take contraception are literally raped by their husbands,” she said. “Because the man is not concerned about a possible pregnancy, the arrival of the child, he simply has an object in his home with which to satisfy himself.”
The possibility of someone with those kinds of views taking power has many in Peru deeply concerned. “This is already a country where many kids never get sex education, never learn about intimacy, or pleasure, or their body, or how to know when someone touches them inappropriately,” warns Rottmann. “The last thing we need is a president who would make the situation even worse.”