Dealing with Street Harassment in Latin America

August 8, 2014
Dealing with Street Harassment in Latin America

foreign-correspondent badge finalWhile living in Panama, I wear a wedding band on my left ring finger even though I am happily single and nowhere near engaged. I decided to wear the ring because I don’t take street harassment in Latin America or anywhere as a compliment. The ring might seem extreme, but it’s not completely unnecessary.

To put my no-nonsense attitude into better perspective, I am the type to respond to a “friendly” catcall with a “friendly” middle finger. Honestly, harassment gets tiring. Putting rude strangers in their place doesn’t- I can do that all day, any day- but preferably not every day. Defending my humanity against constant objectification, especially when it is harassment disguised as an amorous compliment, does get tiring.

The female form was first objectified long before Anno Domini was designated a time stamp. Women have been the “cause” of wars and tragedies dating as far back as Homer’s Greek legend Helen of Troy and even further back to the tragic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Centuries later, we are at the historical high-point of mankind when video games include jiggling breasts.

I realize how prejudicial that sounds, but considering the ‘caballerismo’ turned machismo attitude that has characterized much of Latin America for centuries, my initial worry isn’t that surprising.

I am so tired of facing harassment that I would rather throw in the towel and claim that I am taken, just in hopes that other men would respect my supposed husband if they will not respect me.

I am very pleased to report that Panamanian men aren’t as disrespectful as I thought they would be. I realize how prejudicial that sounds, but considering the ‘caballerismo’ turned machismo attitude that has characterized much of Latin America for centuries, my initial worry isn’t that surprising. In fact, men in Panama act very gentlemanly. Maybe I frequent nicer or more “gringo-friendly” areas, but I’ve never felt comfortable wearing a knee-length dress before now.

I learned in my first study abroad experience in Honduras that long pants are the norm regardless of how hot it is. Now I usually blend in because of the color of my skin. Still, when I wore jean shorts one day everyone immediately knew I was a foreigner. The transition to cat calling, whistling, and long uncomfortable staring was as abrupt as it was terribly, terribly uncomfortable. Before then I could never understand how a Catholic and largely conservative Central American country’s views on modesty could transform into a public mockery of women dressed like they’re ‘asking for it’.

Let me be clear: there is no such thing as a woman who ‘asks for it’ or a person who is dressed like they’re ‘trying to be raped.’ It is very important to understand that. Otherwise victim blaming becomes an accepted practice. But however much I or any other woman understands that victims are not to blame for sexual violence, we need to realize that not all men share this understanding.

Peruvian men are actually the reason I wear a fake wedding band (no hard feelings against any Peruvian natives reading this).

In Bolivia and Peru things were different. I did wear modest dresses, mostly because I felt comfortable doing so while working in a notorious party hostel. There’s power and safety in numbers, so it’s always better to go partying with people you know – regardless of whether you’re wearing pants or a skirt.

Peruvian men are actually the reason I wear a fake wedding band (no hard feelings against any Peruvian natives reading this). I figured it was just me until I read recent news about how Peruvian actress Magaly Solier denounced that she just caught a man masturbating directly behind her in public (seriously man?); and I stumbled upon the blog of a female expat in Peru. Her number 2 in her post “Top 10: Most annoying things about living in Peru” is dedicated to Peruvian men, and I think she hits the nail directly on the head when she reflects on how many of them think themselves “studs,” “[puff] out their chests” to showcase their grandiose (though I only encountered a handful of men taller than me), and have neither humility nor respect for women. For the sake of professionalism I’m trying to sound diplomatic as I write this, but I really do commend the author for “aiming a loogie or snot rocket in their direction” when she’s just had enough.

Since this is the first year I’ve tried the wedding band approach I can’t really say yet whether or not the ring has worked and dissuaded men from whistling at me or if the men in Panama are gentlemen. However, me wearing a fake ring does shed light on the largely overlooked issue of street harassment towards women. Furthermore, isn’t it just an unnecessary shame that I have to rely on a fake husband to help protect me from unwanted street harassment in the first place?

Reviewing some of the situations where flattery can easily turn into harassment is both wise and recommended.

1. A situation that most every girl, young lady, or woman has experienced is the “friendly” horn honk.

Though annoying, this is not all that bad. Often times they might actually be acknowledging your presence in the road. The line is crossed when the driver also screams an obscenity at you. As far as I’m concerned, male privilege is being able to walk down the street on a hot day without being heckled for enjoying an ice cream cone.

2. Another shared experience many women have is dealing with a guy who pushes too hard.

Guys who cannot take a hint or even a direct message that you are not interested and wish to discontinue further contact fall into this category. This isn’t to say every guy who approaches you has bad intentions. I, personally, will always welcome a conversation; how else am I going to get to know locals and obtain a better understanding of the place I am not from?

However, there are sometimes conversations with a man or woman that are pushy and uncomfortable. I cannot speak for others, but anytime you have to repeat yourself when telling someone “No thank you” means that they are treading the lines of harassment. Also, making your own choices, including the choice to tell someone “No” or “I’m not interested,” does not make you a bad person. It means you are respecting yourself.

3. A physical gesture that involves light contact like hand touching or linking arms is not inappropriate in the right context.

Latin American culture, for example, is very friendly and sometimes ‘handsy.’ Women and men greet or introduce themselves with a light kiss on the cheek, which really is more like touching cheeks rather than lips. We all know when our own boundaries have been impeded upon.

I am so grateful that I don’t yet have a story about harassment in Panama on this trip. That doesn’t mean that I won’t experience it when I visit my former host family in Honduras, or when I’m on the way there in Costa Rica or Nicaragua.

The thought that a woman’s body can and should be objectified has been around for centuries. As female travelers, we just have to be aware of our surroundings, know that sexual assault is never the victim’s fault, and adjust–not acclimate–to the gender biases of the communities we visit.

In related news, Peru seriously considered making sexual street harassment a crime. Victories like this give me hope.


Dealing with Street Harassment in Latin America

About Dara Wilson

Dara Wilson is currently living in Panama and working at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). This is her fourth time traveling to Latin America.

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