Before I moved to Colombia I had heard, of course, about the culture of machismo here and all of my Latin American friends had tried their best to mentally prepare me for the sexist context that I was walking into. Upon arriving in Bogotá, however, I immediately noticed how polite and respectful the majority of men here seem to be, especially compared to my experiences with men in Bangkok. They give me right of way on public transport even during peak hours, they appear to be more likely than women to give up their seats to the elderly and those in need on the bus, they respect ‘no’ as an answer when they approach and you’re not interested and, although they do often make comments when I walk past them on the street, it’s usually just a relatively inoffensive, ‘Buenas días!’ (‘Good morning!’). I was beginning to wonder what all of the hype about machismo was…until I went on a four-day trip with three Colombian male friends.
Apart from (jokingly and unsuccessfully) trying to convince me on the first day of our travels that “in Colombian culture, everyone takes a shower together” and knocking on the door while I was in the shower to ask if I needed help, they always treated me with respect and are (what I would call) nice guys. But perhaps because women were so underrepresented – with me being the only girl on the trip – or maybe because they just forgot that I was there, it didn’t take them long to slide comfortably into ‘guy talk’ – a state in which they happily stayed for the next four days. This involved them making detailed ratings and comments about the body parts of all of the women in a 360 degree radius of anywhere that we sat/stood/stopped for 10 seconds or more. Come to think of it, we didn’t even need to be stationary; they were very adept at drive-by harassment, at least some of which was definitely audible to the women targets on the street. Thankfully, my Spanish wasn’t good enough to understand about half of their comments about women but, needless to say, I returned from that trip with a very colourful vocabulary list that they certainly don’t teach in my Spanish course. For efficiency, they made use of the convenient clock face method (ie. ‘Check out the ass at 4 o’clock’) and even where we sat at every café, bar or restaurant was determined by how well the table provided a direct line of sight and proximity to women they found attractive. They made elaborate, ultimately unsuccessful, plans to hook up with the local girls. And, to top it off, the theme song they’d unanimously chosen for the trip was a delightful number called ‘Prende la Moto’ (‘Grab the Motorcycle’) whose lyrics go something along the lines of: “I know that you’ve come here to enjoy / And you know what I’m going to give you / And you’re going to like it / With your permission (at least, he asks for permission), I ask you to rise / grab it with your legs / and, with your hips, give the endurance to last all night long…” They had all of the corresponding movements down too.
At first I just cringed inside and tried to make myself as small as possible in the back seat of the car, but that’s just not me, and by the third day, I’d really had enough. I told them that the way that they were talking about women wasn’t cool and that I didn’t appreciate it. They laughed, quieted down for a few minutes, and then started up again as soon as the next woman walked past. I guess they just saw me as a feminist killjoy but, after years of working on gender issues, I automatically see even this type of verbal harassment and objectifying of women as inextricably linked to more violent acts against women like, for example, Friday’s misogyny-driven California killing spree.
I’m not at all saying that I think my guy friends would ever do anything like that, or even harm a woman in any way. But men’s use of verbal harassment and objectification demean women and feed a culture in which men’s use of violence against women is normalised, even accepted, because women are seen as ‘lesser than.’ As Anne Theriault explains in her post about Friday night’s murders: “We need to talk about this. The media, especially, needs to address this. We live in a culture that constantly devalues women in a million little different ways, and that culture has evolved to include a vast online community of men who take that devaluation to its natural conclusion: brutal, violent hatred of women. And I don’t mean that all these men have been physically violent towards women, but rather that they use violent, degrading, dehumanizing language when discussing women. Whose bodies, just as a reminder, they feel completely entitled to.”
When my workmate and I were walking down the street last week and a guy stuck his head out of his truck and whistled at us, when a guy walked past me on the street in Thailand and grabbed my breast, when a guy followed me home in Switzerland, when a guy flashed me in Australia when I was ten years old, I did not take it as a compliment. It did not make me feel more beautiful or desirable or valuable. It made me feel sick, angry and unsafe.
This is obviously not an issue isolated to Colombia and, certainly, many Colombian men are actively taking a stand against harassment and violence against women. It was just my first journey with a group of straight guys where I was the only girl and I suspect that ‘guy talk’ is pretty similar in other parts of the world. So, to all of my guy friends out there, even if you think it’s just a bit of harmless flattery, think twice before you tell that woman how nice her ass is, or before you describe the body of the new girl in the office to your friends, or before you whistle at those women on the street. And say something when you hear your friends do it. All of our actions have consequences far beyond us.