As a white woman from the U.S. and living in Colombia, I know I’m experiencing life here from a specific perspective. I was raised in a feminist household and all of my friends are profound believers in and activists of gender equality. And while I love Colombia and its culture, the longer I’ve been here, the more apparent the machismo has become.
Whenever I go to the gym, I have to mentally prepare myself. Getting there involves walking on to busy streets and through crowded areas. I’m usually wearing long spandex or shorts, making me stick out even more than I already do. And on this walk to the gym, every day, without fail, I am catcalled.
The types of catcalling vary. Sometimes it’s a hola guapa/hi, pretty girl or oye, mona/hey, blonde girl (this one kind of cracks me up because I’m not even close to being blonde), or, my personal least favorite, a tss, tss, tss. Sometimes it’s just a long stare, and as I walk by I see a man’s eyes unabashedly looking me up and down. Most often the catcall comes from older men and comes after I’ve already walked by, forcing me to either keep walking and ignore whoever is trying to get my attention or turn around to look. My eyes always meet a leering smile.
Machismo refers to the culture of male dominance and sexuality typical in Latin America. Catcalling is just one way in which machismo culture manifests itself. I notice it in the way men talk to each other and the way they talk to women: Parcero, or parce, is like the Colombian equivalent of “bro,” and indicates friendship. Parcero, among other words, is pretty much reserved for men and is seen as unladylike if women say it. As an English teacher, I see machismo when the majority of my students who participate in class are men, and when I call on the women to speak they are nervous and reluctant to do so. I feel it when I’m out with a group of male friends and I’m not allowed to pay for anything.
The catcalling, though, is by far the worst part of machismo culture that I have observed. An on-duty police officer once said mamacita/sexy to me as I passed. On my way to the mall, a man leaned in and whispered preciosa/precious in my ear. For a while, there was construction on my street, and when I walked by the workers daily they said something every time. My friend and coworker from Scotland is catcalled by the men who work in a store on her street every single time she walks past, multiple times a day. I find that this marks a difference between street harassment in the U.S. and here– in the U.S., catcalling often relies on anonymity. A stranger might say something to you, but the guy who works on your street and sees you every day probably wouldn’t. Here it may come repeatedly from the same people, and the catcallers don’t seem to care when we scowl, flip them off, or don’t acknowledge them at all.
I find that this is an aspect of sexual harassment that isn’t as widely talked about. Rape and sexual assault garner attention and are generally regarded as wrong. There is still victim blaming, and still, perpetrators may never see adequate punishment. But in general, society sees these acts as horrible and we wonder how people could ever do such horrible things. I think the answer lies in street harassment. When I’ve been catcalled in Colombia, I feel angered or annoyed, but I never say anything. I don’t want to incite an altercation. I don’t want to appear rude. I don’t necessarily feel confident enough in my Spanish to address it. The intention isn’t to harm but to call attention: notice me noticing you. As long as I’m not being hurt, everything is OK, right? It’s a nuisance, but nothing more than that
I’ll admit that I haven’t had many conversations with Colombian women about how they feel about the catcalls. Perhaps it doesn’t phase them, or perhaps it is indeed taken as a compliment. But what I don’t want to do is chalk Colombian street harassment up simply to culture. To me, it functions as an excuse for the actions and dismisses the argument that things should change. It invalidates that there is a cause of this: boys and girls are socialized differently, and they learn from the men and women that they watch.
One evening during my walk to the gym, I noticed a man approaching me on a bike. It was around 6 p.m. and already dark, and the thought registered that I was in a more secluded section of the street. Still, I wasn’t worried. I had walked this route countless times and I’d never received anything more than unpleasant words and gazes. But as the man approached me and I moved to the right to let him pass, he sharply turned the front wheel of his bike towards me. I froze momentarily, then quickly jumped onto the grass to move out of the way. For a split second he was very close to me, and his face, so near to mine, was wrinkled with age. And right before I jumped away, he pursed his lips together and smacked them, making a loud, aggressive kissing noise.
He kept riding his bike. He probably thought about that interaction for less than a minute after continuing on his journey. But I stood there shaking in a cold sweat. I realized how dark and secluded that part of the street is, and I kept replaying that moment of how close he’d gotten to me. How easy it would have been for him to have rammed his bike right into me. How quickly that interaction could have escalated into something traumatizing. There are only so many degrees of separation between street harassment and sexual assault.
The thing is, if you ever ask the older man with the jeering smile why he has called your attention, it’s because he was greeting you. If you ask your male friends why people do this, it’s because they’re complimenting you. So we stay quiet, stomaching the discomfort that comes with someone announcing their entitlement to your body. And then women are assaulted or worse, and society scratches its heads in bewilderment.
We need to talk about this. As a society and a world, we need to distinguish between greetings and compliments and need to call catcalling by its true name: harassment. There are intentions and powers behind what men say on the street. There is a difference between what is instinctive and what is learned. Let’s start this conversation.