Street Harassment: Be a “Bitch”

A scene from Captin Hima (2008 film) film

Image via Wikipedia

By Juliana Jiménez

I recently discovered the Hollaback Project, “a movement dedicated to ending street harassment using mobile technology.” Street harassment is a reality women face in varying degrees, depending on where in the world you live.

The first time I remember experiencing this I was 11 — I was living in Bogotá, Colombia, at the time, I should clarify. There you get constant bullshit like this from about the tender age of 10, or even younger if you’re more “developed” (shudders). It can continue until you’re about 60, or whenever you stop looking like what Colombian men consider a “woman” and more like a grandma, when you become this senile yet sweet asexual being.

Last time I was there, in May 2010, I was walking down a busy, very central street, in broad daylight, when a man selling cellphone covers or whatever, yelled at me,”what a delicious little ass.” My first instinct was to laugh, like, WTF was that? Seriously? But I just kept walking, and I kept thinking about it. What is up with that, really? I include the verbatim translation not to be crude, but because I think it might be enlightening to think about the language these men use, and how men and boys refer to women in general.

In Colombia, and I suppose in most Spanish-speaking countries, hot women are referred to as “rica” or “deliciosa”, that is, a variation of “delicious”. This isn’t just crude construction workers or street vendors; the language is used by white, middle- and upper-class guys of all ages. I make this distinction not to single out poor men as more sexist, but to point out that though most street harassment will come from men who work on the street (duh), all men do it, just in different environments. So business men maybe won’t yell out things in the street, but they will use the same crude and disgusting language in private with their friends.

The metaphor of sex as food, or more importantly for our purposes, of women as food, is evident in many places. The general act of fucking someone (as opposed to “having sex”, “making love”, etc.) is referred to as “comersela” or “comerselo” — but, of course, if you pay attention to the usage, it’s more common to hear that a man “ate” a woman than to hear that a woman “ate” a man, because it’s an issue of power: whoever “consumed and disposed” the other is the one who is doing the “eating”. (Note to English-speakers: this is unrelated to, though may include, oral sex).

I also want to think about my reaction to the “piropo“, the Colombian euphemism for street harassment. It’s a strange mixed reaction, because in a way, I must admit, you do feel flattered — for a second, but then you feel ashamed, of something, of yourself –you blush and feel observed, you feel strangely self-conscious and feel like hiding somewhere, or covering yourself. Oh, what was I wearing, you ask, what did I do to provoke this spout of unsolicited male lust? I was actually wearing some oversized pants my mom passed down to me, so no, I was not “asking for it.” And that’s the thing, “slut” or no “slut”, miniskirt, or burqa, if you’re a woman, you’re gonna get objectified and possibly harassed, no matter what you do.

After I recovered from the mild shock, I regretted not saying anything back to him. How awesome would it have been to turn around and say, “Stop being so disgusting, mind your own business, fuck off,” or something similar. But I never did, and I vowed to do it the next time it happened.

Well, I failed the next time it happened. This time here in New York, and it was actually a semi-groping, in a very public place called Occupy Wall Street.

I actually kind of have it on video. I was filming this passionate debate on the politics of capitalism that a group of deaf-mute people were having in sign language, when I felt someone stroking (shudders) my hip. Not quite my ass, but sort of. I looked around in outrage and I found a 6-foot, bald, black man clearly enabriated or on some type of drug. I, still in shock, scared to death, just said: “Excuse me? What was that?” and the man turned around, and with a big smile and very relaxed eyes, said to me: “You have beautiful eyebrows.” WTH? What do you say to that, after that had happened? I said something like “Well, thank you, but that was uncalled for.” OK, I literally just thanked a stranger who touched my ass. Feminist FAIL.

I obviously still regret this one too, and all I have to say for myself is that I was scared shitless. A little bit because he could easily kill me with his bare hands (although that would’ve been somewhat unlikely, given the very public and progressive space we were in) but more out of this primal fear of being a “bitch.” Sad, sad indeed, and it really makes you want to think twice about the definition and common usage of “bitch” and how hurtful it can be in situations like these.

As iHollaback says on their website, “Street harassment is one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence and one of the least legislated against … Sexual harassment is a gateway crime that creates a cultural environment that makes gender-based violence OK.” So though this might seem to pale in comparison to acid attacks or femicides in Ciudad Juárez, we are talking about a very broad, very widespread cultural practice at the heart of the sexual objectification of women. Tackling the problems on multiple fronts is necessary. I want to believe that were any of these two incidents happen to me now, I would react differently. Hopefully, I would be “a total bitch” about it.