I wanted to start this blog post with a story.
Nothing very dramatic really; an obnoxious, slimy middle-aged man on a Buenos Aires street, sidling up to me as I walked past, commenting lasciviously on my legs, sticking to my side as I walked on, awkward, worried about being rude and hurting his feelings as I laughed uncomfortably and declined his offer to accompany me.
A story about suddenly grasping the opportunity to turn a corner and leave him behind, almost stepping directly into the path of a speeding car as I sought my escape.
I almost started the story that almost started this post with a description of the shimmeringly hot, oppressively humid weather, the buildings leaning in, breathing hot air down on pedestrians. The heat that explained that day’s short sundress and long expanse of bare leg under it.
And then I realised what I was doing, and I got even angrier.
What I choose to put on in the morning has nothing to do with how I should be treated during the day. I don’t have to explain those choices to anyone, not even you.
That story should start, finish and end with his behaviour, not my wardrobe.
I wrote about Latin American men with more bravado back in August 2011: 5 simple rules on dealing with them, for gals travelling solo! I’d made it all seem so easy; I even believed my own hype. What I left out of that post was that I’d been a bit of a mess for the previous eight months. Around Christmas the year before an ex-boyfriend, Latin, alcoholic, jealous, threatened to kill me, and I half, or three-quarters, believed him.
The Cusco police sent me to the tourist police sent me back to the Cusco police. Nobody seemed inclined to do anything until he actually followed through; I finally found a way through the tangled knots of professional apathy and bureaucratic inaction and filed a restraining order.
As Brayan reminded me, the increased attention can, in many cases, be chalked up to cultural differences. Casual sex is far more acceptable in Cuba than in many other destinations, and machismo, whether we like it or not, is a very real part of the Latin American social fabric. Recognizing the cultural background will help you take what you see as harassment less personally.
Dastardly Ex came back to Cusco, and I finally decided the city was slowly devouring me. I put the hostel on the market, and hung on in there for the months it took to sell.
Now I’m in Buenos Aires, alone, aware of my gender as a point of vulnerability. The harassment feels a lot more personal all of a sudden.
(It occurs to me that I’ve seen men publicly masturbate on three separate occasions, when I’ve been alone or with one female friend on an empty beach, or walking through a semi-deserted park at dusk.)
Is there an actual link here, or am I just feeling fragile? Does this “culture” of casual street harrasment feed in, in a meaningful and measurable way, to a machista culture in which ex-girlfriends can be threatened with death, domestic violence is rife and societal inaction the norm? There’s nutty, possessive ex-boyfriends (and ex-girlfriends) worldwide, and let’s face it, women are subjected to gender-based violence in many regions of the world, including the Northern developed countries where street harassment has been reduced in significant measure.
I don’t know, but I do know that I’m sick of it. Back when I had my travel armour on, was sailing contentedly through Latin American capitals, it was easier to write it off as a cultural tick, one that I could deal with (by following five simple rules!). Lately, it bothers me. It makes me think twice before leaving the house in leggings for the ten-minute walk to my yoga class. I jog in the late evenings, head down, guard up. I often cross the road rather than pass directly through a large group of men. I change my behaviour to accommodate theirs.
For all these reasons I was thrilled to read Sara’s post at The Titleless Blog, Let’s make ending street harassment go viral. She wonderfully dissects and rebuts the “it’s cultural” argument, but what got my attention more was her description of an encounter with the Chilean police, having confronted a man who followed her around a supermarket taking her photo. It reminded me of a similar incident described in Sarah Menkedick’s excellent My own Mexican Revolution.
And it reminded me of the police in Cusco who didn’t really care that I’d been threatened with death. This bothers me more than the whistles, the salty comments, the slurping kisses as I walk away. It’s a society that says “boys will be boys”, “you shouldn’t have worn that dress”, “cállate, pendeja“.
Sara’s wonderful post also introduced me to HollaBack!, a global grassroots movement seeking to change this “cultural” behaviour all over the world. (There’s a Buenos Aires chapter as well). This is a cool initiative, and I would strongly recommend that you check it out. What I like most about this project is that it encourages women to come together world-wide: this isn’t a collection of enraged gringas trying to shout sense into insistent Latin men and complacent, accepting Latin women. It neatly sidesteps Sarah Menkedick’s ethical dilemma of fighting for change in a foreign culture. These are just women, from all over the world, in their own language and cultural context, telling their stories.
Vamos, pendejas, no nos callemos.
Note: I still wouldn’t recommend getting into a verbal – or, worse, physical – altercation with a man on a Latin American street. I’m still a little cowed by the slang and manner of speaking in Argentina. It’s vastly different from what I was used to in Peru and I’m pretty sure I’d come off the worse in any exchange here in Buenos Aires. What I like about HollaBack is that there’s options: a stern look, maybe, instead of a stern word. It encourages girls to stick up for each other and explain to male friends that this behaviour is not OK. You don’t necessarily have to holler back, you just have to know that it’s totally within your rights to do so.