“Don’t fight the culture. The culture will always win.” These words stuck with me after my on-site orientation in Buenos Aires, Argentina. At my pre-departure meeting back in the U.S., past travelers reminded us about safety and cultural differences. Women specifically were advised to avoid smiling or making eye contact with men in the street, as these acts might be interpreted as sexual interest. I was forewarned by many a guidebook and travel blog to ignore the onslaught of catcalls I would hear, which are blamed on machismo culture.
Since I have been known to accidentally smile at strangers in airports as well sassily snap retorts at people shouting at my group of friends on Del Playa Drive, I took a series of deep breaths and prepared myself for a challenge.
I’ve now spent four weeks here in Buenos Aires and the catcalling does not disappoint. It’s as if the men on the street feel it’s rude not to comment on girls as they pass by. As my housemate and I moved through a busy crowd near a bus stop, every single one of the men in a long line of workers made a comment as they squeezed past us, carrying boxes of supplies above the crowd. They were practically bored afterthoughts, comments out of habit made mandatory since opting out would have thrown off the rhythm of the group.
I had prepared myself to deflect these catcalls with indifference and avoid stubbornly speaking out about microaggressions that women face every day. But once I was here in this culture that was supposed to surprise me with its objectification, I suddenly didn’t feel the need to give anyone a dirty look for yelling at me the way I did back at home.
Late to class one day, I walked as fast as I could across the widest avenue in Buenos Aires with a stack of papers and a determined expression when I heard “hola, diosa” from a man nearby. I couldn’t help but think that if I were doing the same thing at night back in I.V., I wouldn’t have gotten a “hello, goddess” but something like, “Why you walking so fast, bitch?”
While alone in I.V., I’ve been asked by a large group of men if I was scared to walk next to them as I crossed to the other side of the street. (Of course I was.) Take a stroll down DP on Saturday night and you’ll hear, “Why are you walking so fast?” plenty of times, and see more than a few guys insistent on following girls to parties to the point of physically blocking their path.
This has always frustrated me, but it took a trip to the southern hemisphere to realize it isn’t normal, not even in a society where catcalling is widely accepted.
Any catcall is unwanted sexual attention, but something about the catcalls in Buenos Aires makes me feel a little more respected than the ones at home — which is an absurd thing to say about a catcall. When someone whispers “che bella” in my ear, it’s creepy, but not inherently threatening.
The difference between these two kinds of outbursts is that one is objectifying you but leaving you alone, while the other is objectifying, threatening and expecting to get something out of it. The latter is more sinister because it’s a reminder that the person yelling thinks you owe them something whether it’s a smile, a conversation or a sexual act. This is not lighthearted flirting. This is harassment, and it is unacceptable.
I could try to fight our culture, but I wouldn’t win. We are too strong to be fought singlehandedly. We are a community that perseveres and thrives, that loves and stays with its residents long after they leave. But we can change and we do change. And I believe that we can become a community that respects everyone’s right to live without being intimidated or receiving unwanted sexual attention, advances or assaults.
It starts with the realization that, when someone hears a catcall, in the back of their mind they are hoping it won’t be followed by violence. It starts with the realization that women are subjected to this fear routinely. It starts with the realization that to be an ally to women it’s not enough to respect your friends who are girls.
I know that you love your sister or your girlfriend or your mother or your female housemates. I know that you hope they get home okay. I know you’d want them to feel safe walking down their street. But that’s not enough. Until you can treat women you don’t know with respect and encourage others to do so as well, nothing will change.
Risa Weber thinks a healthy dose of respect is the best medicine.