*A second version of this post can be found at: The Shadow League: Analyzing The Street Harassment Epidemic
I write this entry on a plane to Brasil (sidenote, at this moment the only male Brasilian flight attendant is taking photos wth passengers. It’s weird). I’ve had the great fortune of being on three continents other than my own since May. Brasil will be the fourth country where I’ve spent my time and Portuguese will be the fourth official language I will have heard spoken since May. The last few months have been thrilling, to say the least. Egypt, Italy and Colombia were all rich and unique experiences and I value each and every moment. Hol’ up. I retract the aforementioned statement. I value ALMOST every moment. In reality I could’ve done without most of the street harassment.
My girl told me in advance that if I wanted to minimize the harassment by men in Cairo I needed to rock a long tunic that covered the hip, thigh and derrière regions, long sleeves, no cleavage. Wow. I literally went from a beach club in Naples where women with weird fake tans wore thong bikinis one day to a place where showing too much forearm was deemed provocative the next. Gotta love travel. I can’t imagine what the harassment would’ve been like had I not dressed as my friend suggested, because it was intense when completely covered. But the harassment there felt unlike any I had experienced before. Somehow it felt scarier, more threatening. I’d been told in advance that men grab and touch in Egypt, so this was one of the sources of my fear. Talking shit to me can be annoying but touching any body part is taking the violation to an entirely different level. But the other source was the way in which men stared and spoke. There was this air of disdain or contempt that I’d never really experienced and found very worrisome. My own defensiveness, coupled with the fact that my homegirl is a fellow spitfire, had me wondering at point we were going to get into some kind of fight with the men of Cairo. Fortunately I made it out unscathed (although my girl did get into an argument with some men who were ogling lasciviously while on the women’s train car when I wasn’t around).
Rome and Naples, Italy
Before I ventured out to Rome and Naples I was told by many how aggressive Italian men can be, what lovers of women they are and about their perceived attraction to Black women. And to be honest, I was not terribly vexed by the attention I got from men in Rome. And trust this is not me giving them a white-man pass. They just never seemed overly aggressive or obnoxious. They did however express their appreciation of my physical attractiveness. And I’m not going to front like this is not something that I value. Herein lays one of those internal contradictions I struggle with. I’m totally aware of the beauty myth. The idea that beauty as we know it is socially constructed and is used to disempower women by making us compete against one another and constantly struggle to meet unattainable standards (check out Naomi Wolff for more). I understand how beauty is used to make some of us appear powerful with regard to men but that in reality anything we attain from physical attributes can be seen as a Pyrrhic victory due to all that we must sacrifice in order to achieve it. But at the same time, I would be bullshitting if I didn’t say that I DO NOT want to be invisible. I want to be aesthetically appealing, sexually attractive. I want to have a fan club full of fawning men. But fawning in a way which doesn’t demean me or minimize all of my other attributes that I feel are far more important. The way that Italian men expressed an appreciation was tolerable to me. I could deal with the intense staring, comments, and teeth sucking because it wasn’t incessant, loud or overwhelming. And quite honestly it didn’t seem like there was any less interest than in other places. It was just expressed differently. I was in Rome alone and while my East Coast armor wasn’t allowing me to be too open to folks there, I never felt threatened. During my last day in Rome this guy tried to pick me up around the Coliseum and win me over with the idea that he was an archaeologist once he found out that I was a budding sociologist. And as nice as it would’ve been to go out my last night, I didn’t trust him or the other two men who asked me later. But one, Giovane was quite interesting, very forward and honest. He spoke English and despite my firm “I don’t want to talk to you stranger” demeanor, he proceeded to try and chat me up. As a result of this demeanor he said that I was very hard and that if I didn’t want men to approach me then I shouldn’t dress sexy. Um, mi scusiiii?? Despite the fact that I really wasn't doing the most, he basically said that he could see my booty from down the street. “Italian women don’t have all that” (they really don’t, flat as boards) and gestured around his hip, thigh and derrière regions (must be a source of power judging by how much it’s emphasized everywhere). Besides the fact that I am never going to support the notion that I need to change so that grown men know how to control themselves, his forwardness was throwing me all off. And this is where I realized how even in NY folks are just not this direct. I was particularly taken aback by his openness with discussing race. He said “you’re black but you’re white white white. I’m darker than you.” Uh, say what?? He was darker, but still. Who feels the need to point that out after 3 min. of discussion? He said “white men in The States don’t approach you do they, only black men? Italian men aren’t like that.” Correct, sir. We discussed this for a while then he tired of me and my standoffishness and said he was leaving because I was too tough. Deuces. I later spoke to an Italian friend about the conversation and he shared that in reality there aren’t a lot of women of African-descent walking around there who weren’t prostitutes. That hurt to hear. Because no matter how much I go back and forth about my feelings about sex work, it never feels okay that people equate dark female bodies with prostitution.
I often tweeted my frustrations about the harassment in Cartagena. Last summer when I spent a month there I was floored by it. My first day there I was walking around by myself and at some point it was so intense that I had to go home. When you’re in a new country you never quite know what the line is. Do people grab here? At some point I realized that men there in general didn’t grab, they just stare, comment and slurp. Interestingly enough, last year I was touched twice and it was not by Cartageneros but by two people who thought they had license to do so: one drunken Irishman leaving Havana Café at the same time as I was and who had looked like he had been waiting all night to smack me on the bottom, and a massive female prostitute who pinched my leg as I walked through her turf when coming from the beach. Those two experiences sucked, particularly with the Irish dude because I felt humiliated and undefended by my male friends. This summer I returned to spend two months in Cartagena and wanted to hit someone with a little Puerto Rican judo pretty much every day. In the neighborhood where I lived there was a lot of curiosity about where I was from for a while, most assuming I was from Brazil or a daughter of Colombia who had returned. As I came to know more people in the neighborhood the word seemed to go around that I was coming from New York. And this was obvious when I walked through La Plaza from yoga and one idiot screamed out for all to hear in English, “Beautiful ass!!” Grrrr! This type of foolishness I just can’t adapt to. And I shouldn’t have to. A friend in the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia for my non-uuureah readers) asked “oh they are worse than here?” HAHAHAHAHA. Trust, Cartageneros would get the gold were “hollering” an Olympic event. And not because they are good at it but because they are persistent. They make 125 in Harlem look like an oasis of respect for womanhood. And these distinctions are where I start to notice what makes daily harassment tolerable. I’m harassed everywhere Black men are found in mass. So it’s not as if I came to the coast of Colombia a virgin to this. But the way it’s done there appears compulsive. If I walk by ten men at least eight of them seem COMPELLED to speak, like their manhood depends on it. And what was even more pitiful was the damn script. The power of the word is a big deal on the East Coast. Spitting game is literally a game folks are trying to win. And while you do get a lot of the same dirty “God bless you, Ma”s folks mix in a lot of other lines so at least you don’t get bored. Not in Cartagena. It’s like they are given a script at 15 years old and that’s pretty much what they are going to use until they die. Because harassment knows no age limit. “Hermosa, belleza, la reina, saborosa, modela, blah blah blah.” Every guy, in the exact same rhythm too. Oh and the PSSTing and SSSSSing. I ignore once, he does it louder. I ignore twice, three times and he continues, getting louder every time as if the reason I’m ignoring him is because I didn’t hear him. This kind of daily work just to get through the streets is taxing. My rule is that if you don’t address me respectfully I ignore the shit out of you. And men really do seem to have a problem with basic greetings. There were very few “hello, how are you?”s. Always some extra nonsense. And what was most unfortunate was that you get to the point where it is impossible to make eye contact with men because then they take it as an invitation to go even harder. I couldn’t even see an elder and greet him because he too would turn around and make me feel absolutely disgusting. It’s beyond an appreciation of the female form or a love for women. You begin to wonder whether men see you as anything else but a sexual object. People will tell you “oh that’s how men on the coast are.” Well what’s that about? Then it begins to seem like the men are feeding into some stereotype about hypersexuality and Black maleness, which makes the whole production even more frustrating.