I wrote this blog last year while I was working in Peru. I have had some time to think a little bit more about the incident and thus the changes made in this post better articulate my feelings and thoughts.
Taxi drivers, men hanging from balconies, men I walked passed on the beach or in downtown Lima, flung these words at me like 10 cent pieces. Sometimes I noticed. Sometimes I felt flattered. Sometimes I didn’t care. And most times I was shocked and confused by the male attention.
I didn’t feel harassed. I assumed that Peruvian men were merely vocalizing their appreciation of the female body. They weren’t like those timid Canadian men. As long as I wasn’t being followed or groped, Peruvian men could say whatever they pleased. Peruvian men were simply being men.
However, one Saturday watching senior citizens dance in a park in Miraflores forced me to question my laissez faire attitude about the attention I received on the streets.
My friend and I stood together with a group of people, young and old. Tourists and natives. My friend and I laughed at one of the dancers, a middle-aged woman with long red hair, who was quite skillful at moving her hips. Then, I felt something poking me from behind. I thought maybe it was a purse or book bag. I shifted my position. But then I felt the same poke. Finally, I turned around and there was an old man with a hard-on trying to rub himself up on me. I was sooo disgusted, I yelled something in English and walked away.
As I walked away from the incident, I felt so filthy. I believed that I was responsible for what had happened. How could I have been so stupid to not notice that I was being used as someone’s scratching pole? And in a public setting too. And I felt angry at my friend, who was male, and thought it was funny. I wanted to know why didn’t he stand up for me. Why didn’t he scream, yell, or curse? I had just arrrived in Peru and I knew no Spanish words to express my anger and disgust. But also growing up as a Christian, I had been taught that swearing in whatever situation was wrong? Was it wrong to curse out this disgusting old man?
I have thought about this episode for the past year and I would like to make the following points:
1. Men should keep their “compliments” to themselves, well-intentioned or otherwise.
I don’t believe every man yelling beautiful or gorgeous at me has some underlying predatory agenda. But the attention does foster an environment that can lead to street harassment. According to an article from the BBC World News, street harassment –catcalling, whistling, leering, “compliments”—can escalate to “groping and more frequent public assaults.”
Street harassment interferes with a woman’s right to be. Her right to be blonde. Her right to be black. Her right to walk down the street without fear of harassment. While in Peru, I met a girl who dyed her blonde hair black to avoid drawing attention to herself. Another girl, residing in North America expressed her frustration at continually being complimented and ‘hit-on’ by customers while she tried to work.
In my experience, I felt that I could not wear red lipstick or big puffy twist outs. Or even without that particular style I was simply harassed because I was black. Colleagues and friends indicated that there were positive stereotypes attached to black women. We had great bodies and were excellent dance partners. Unlike my blonde friend, I could not simply change my phenotype.
2. Women should not be held responsible for street harassment.
Even now, there is an underlying assumption that women like attention. And because we like attention, then we like any and all types of attention. And if we don’t want attention, then we should dress conservatively (whatever that means), avoid eye-contact, and not smile. However, we can do all these things (which we should not have to) and still be harassed.
3. Don’t be silent.
I would have loved if in both incidents my friend had spoke up for me. He was male. He was Latino. I was in a new country, speaking a second language and unsure if a reaction on my part would lead to endangerment of my life. I have heard stories of women in foreign countries who chose to endure street harassment (groping etc) because they were afraid of the consequences if they spoke up. I want to encourage every woman, to be wise, and when appropriate, SPEAK UP.
4. We need to be educated on what it means to be a man. On how a man approaches a woman.
Growing up in the Caribbean, I often observed men calling out to women on the streets. This is how men acted. It wasn’t necessarily appropriate but I naively believed that this was a normal and natural behaviour. But the BBC article goes on to state that the “men being men” trope gives men license to act on their sexual perversion Society is basically telling men that they are incapable of controlling their sex drives and therefore it is okay to harass a woman. After my experience with street harassment, I don’t believe that behaviour is natural. I believe it is taught and allowed by society–both women and men.
My last point is a question: What can we do to stop street harassment? There have been countless marches (protests), websites, blogs, and public legislation that penalize men for putting their hands on a woman. Women have been encouraged to curse these men out, publicly humiliate them, carry mace, knives and other weapons. But have any of these things impacted the prevalence of street harassment? The root of the problem must be how men regard women—as merely bodies created for public consumption. How do we go about changing that perspective? Is it even possible?
Please view the youtube video link which captures women’s experience with street harassment: Walking Home.
Images: Image 1