In her 2014 article, Are You A Woman Studying Abroad? You Will Be Sexually Harassed, Natalie Southwick openly discussed her experience of being sexually harassed while living in Argentina.
In her piece, she noted how being sexually harassed by men in the city of Buenos Aires made her more in tune with what it meant to be a feminist.
She wrote, “ I moved to Argentina to study, and I suddenly learned exactly how much I valued the right — and it is a right, not a privilege — to walk down a street without some creepy stranger telling me how great my [choose your body part] looks.” Southwick went on to further say that although she was not raised in the culture, she could not understand how catcalling was acceptable and even deemed as compliments.
“Buenos Aires itself is some sort of particular gauntlet for all female-bodied individuals, but as those of you who have lived in Latin America (or really any openly machista culture) undoubtedly know, there’s a very different social understanding of catcalling and what Spanish speakers call piropos (compliments),” Southwick observed. “As well as the extent to which it is acceptable to comment openly on a woman’s body or appearance.” The constant objectification of her body became culture shock for Southwick and although her father told her it was a “harmless game” men played, Southwick couldn’t understand why many (both men and women) avoid labeling such behavior as sexual harassment.
I had similar experiences in Peru while I studied abroad. It didn’t matter what time of day it was or the type of men I encountered, I was called “Morena” and kisses enough for every woman on earth were blown my way. Personally, I didn’t take offense nor did I label the behavior as harassment because it was normal for me to experience the same in my New York City neighborhood. I was raised to ignore such behavior and eventually, as I grew older and attained more autonomy as a woman, I would entertain some men because I was attracted to them and their approach was respectable.
Although I can relate to Southwick’s piece, as she presented numerous accounts of how women can “fight the system” abroad, it’s also important not to generalize a culture simply because it doesn’t fit your norm or made you feel uncomfortable. Most important, it is tiring to read think-pieces or watch viral videos that juxtapose men of color as rapists or those who have uncontrollable sexual urges. Interestingly enough, the latter always focuses on cities or countries that are representative of those who are often labeled as “other” and never sheds light on the Westerners who fuel sex trafficking businesses.
This doesn’t disregard the behavior of men who are tactless and over-step their boundaries in the presence of women but it’s important to not feel entitled to paint another race’s gender or culture as immoral when men in Western culture exude the same performance but in a different way. Perhaps is Southwick got out more in her own country she’d know that.
This leads me to ask: As a woman of another race or culture, do you have the agency to define what behavior is sexual harassment or not, abroad?