First, I think I owe many of you readers some back story. Yesterday, I went to have a late breakfast with a friend in Valparaiso. It was a warm afternoon (okay, so it was more like brunch) and she arrived in a cute, colorful, new dress. The first thing I said was “Wow. You look so colorful. I love it. Did you get that on vacation?” She nodded and looked around, “Yes, I did, but I wish it wasn’t so short. The men just can’t control themselves.” I could have practically finished her sentence at that point.
We experienced precisely that in the next few blocks as we wove our way through Valparaiso to get to the restaurant. Men wolf whistled, did the ever-irritating kissy noise, and spoke whispered comments. To our credit, we didn’t look at them and kept on our trajectory, but we did start discussing the piropo problem that we face on a near daily basis and why we must put up a stone wall as soon as we walk out on the street.
I have to admit that this is an issue that leaves me feeling a bit helpless – like I don’t know how to even begin to tackle it. I’ve brought up street harassment for women before on this blog and usually I receive a few comments from women who feel as uncomfortable as I do. Then, oddly enough, I also get some comments from a subset of people who believe these intrusive comments to be “compliments” and “cultural”.
To those who say it’s a compliment, it’s a rather flat compliment, as we are not being praised on anything we actually worked to achieve but rather a set of features we were born with. And when we are so cavalierly cat-called, we cannot turn around and say something like, “Thanks, mijito. I like the way you shake it, too.” Because that would be too brazen, hussy, and frowned on. Thus the cat call is a hollow, one-sided compliment.
As for the cultural argument: I do have to admit this one had me stumped for quite a while. I mean, after all, who would want to change something that is cultural? Right? If cat-calling is is part of Chilean culture then that puts it in the ranks of cumbia, cueca, pastel de choclo, the kiss-on-the-cheek greeting, the clipped but beloved “po”, and so many other legitimate cultural contributions. Those things are so charming! I wondered if maybe I just wasn’t looking at the ugly piropo issue from the right angle.
Then it hit me. If cat-calling is so cultural, then you might as well know that it was cultural in the United States just 30 years ago – where It is still cultural, but less so than in Chile. (I’ve been yelled at countless times while jogging outside in the U.S.). And, by that definition, and my own personal experience, it is less cultural in Chile than it is in Argentina, Venezuela or Mexico, but more cultural than in Costa Rica. It is also surprisingly cultural in Europe and Canada. Are you also feeling dizzy?
Essentially, looking at it as cultural boils it down to the lowest common denominator: Men. Boys will be boys. Men can’t be expected to control themselves. We must understand what a burden it is to be a man and live daily with these “feelings” that you can’t control and, frankly, society doesn’t expect you to. Poor primate-like men can’t be expected to reign in their baser urges. Women, by that cultural definition are objects for the viewing pleasure of men. Men, I would be insulted by the “it’s cultural” insinuation and what it implies about your nature. In fact, I’m insulted for you!
As my friend and I were venting about cat-calls, we began to classify them. To be fair, we are not talking about the traditional whistle, kissy noise (although, those are annoying and insulting in their own right), rather we are talking about the male narrative, the lecherous commentary that sounds like a line from your raciest Harlequin novel and a porn film birthed a weird breed of word vomit in which “I (the man) want to do (redacted) to your (censored) and then (censored) you up and down (redacted for redundancy).” Those particular comments we categorized as “rapey” because they imply sexual activity that you, as the woman, haven’t consented to nor would you ever consent to. Many times you and the man in question will be the only two on the block, or the man will say it in such a way that it makes your insides crawl and you feel dirty even though you just stepped outside.
My limited experience with calling the police after such harassment occurred two years ago when I was shopping inside a Tottus and a man followed me snapping my picture down several rows until I turned around and started screaming at him. It ended with me punching him twice in his generous gut and slapping him across the face. When the police arrived, one of the officers had the audacity to suggest that “Chilean men just can’t help themselves in the face of a beautiful woman. In fact, I had a similar case last week where another foreign woman misinterpreted the compliments of a Chilean man. Seeing as how you attacked him, maybe we should be brining you in?” *Stodgy male cackles* They might as well have broken out the brandy decanter and cigars, for all the help and protection they provided.
Then, a week ago, I was reading a blog and followed a link to HollaBack! a non-profit organization and global grassroots movement that started in New York City with the intention of stopping street harassment for women everywhere. They have chapters in Santiago and Buenos Aires and, if recent experience is any indication, they need one in Valparaiso. Go check them out.
Remember last week, how the world watched the Kony 2012 video go viral in 24 hours? Let’s make this movement viral. If you don’t believe in the cultural bullcrap argument or that men can’t be expected to control themselves because they have dangly parts, then share the link with women you know. Tweet it. Blog it. Facebook it.
Let’s take back the streets.