In college, before I left for a semester abroad in Spain, I spent several hours in myriad Mandatory Meetings. I was given information about how to approach every hypothetical problem imaginable: What if I need to go to the doctor? Can I get allergy shots abroad? If I hate my host family can I move out? And so on.
These meetings would inevitably include a cultural component. The person in charge would share generalizations about Spanish culture so that we could begin preemptively bracing ourselves. I.e., “Spaniards don’t respond quickly to emails,” or “Spaniards don’t wear sweatpants in public like we do,” or—among others—“Spanish men shout catcalls at women on the street, especially at women who look foreign.”
I heeded the warning about catcalls but didn’t think much of it. Besides, catcalls aren’t exclusively Spanish. They happen everywhere. I was used to walking home at night past hordes of drunken Iowa bros; I was ready for whatever unsolicited piropos (Spanish for catcalls) the men of Seville had to offer.
But when I got here I realized that the catcall culture of Spain is in a league of its very own. The major league, probably. It made the Iowa bros look like T-ball players.
At home, a group of kids might drive by and honk while I walk my dog. They’d then they speed away, giggling like sixth-graders who had just ding-dong-ditched a neighbor. It was annoying; it left me feeling angry; but it wasn’t a fixture of my daily life.
In Seville, a group of kids might drive by, honk the horn, then slow down to continue yelling through the passenger window while they follow me for a block or two. Here, it seemed, there were no boundaries between where catcalls started and ended. In the States, most of the men who catcalled me were like rabbits: They’d yell one quick remark through a car window (“NICE TITS!”) and then sprint away. In Spain, the men lingered. They got into my personal space. They made me feel even more violated than the men who hollered at me in my hometown.*
Aside from the qualitative differences between American and Spanish catcalls, another major difference was the quantity—here, it happened all the damn time, whether I was on my way to class at 11 a.m. or coming home from a bar at 6 a.m. I rarely went anywhere without hearing “Guapa!” (“pretty” or “beautiful”) from a stranger on the street.
The relentless attention came as a shock to all the girls I studied with. None of us were used to it, but not all of us responded to it in the same way.
“I don’t mind the piropos,” some girls said. “I mean, if a guy’s saying I’m pretty, it doesn’t bother me. It’s a compliment.”
The first time I heard that rationale, I’m sure I gave the stinkiest of stinkeyes to the girl who said it. How could anybody be so dumb as to believe it’s a compliment to be screamed at on the street? Even if the catcall is “You’re pretty,” as opposed to a crass, “Nice tits,” it’s not a compliment. That same guy screams, “Oye guapa” at any vaguely feminine figure that walks past; you think you’re special because he shouted it at you?
I felt frustrated when other girls didn’t see it my way. To them, it was simple: “He said I’m pretty, he’s just complimenting me in his own weird style.”
But everybody could understand my frustration when my physical space was violated. Yes, they’d agree; it’s wrong for a guy to slide his hand up your skirt. It’s wrong for somebody to grab your ass in a bar.** There was a general consensus: Unwanted physical attention is a no-no.
But when it came to my grievances over unwanted verbal attention, those were easy to brush off: I was simply being hypersensitive.
Last weekend I had a flashback to all of my old frustrations when I was talking with a young Spaniard (~20-year-old male) about catcalls. Earlier in the night I was at a bar that was packed to capacity. It took nearly 20 minutes to move from the front of the bar to the back, and the journey involved a lot of unwanted touching from strangers and uninvited stares and remarks from men who immediately spotted me, a blonde foreigner (for the record, I’m not blonde, but I do fall into the Spanish definition of “blonde”).
“Hostia, que guapa,” was ringing in my ears by the time I got to the back of the bar.
I told the young Spaniard that I wasn’t in a hurry to go back to that bar, because I don’t have the patience for the kind of aggressive and unsolicited attention I got there.
“All people from Andalusia are like that,” he told me. “And the older the men, the worse their behavior.”
Then he paused and added: “But that’s what makes us Andalusians so fun!”
Ah, okay. I get it. This is the part where I’m supposed to laugh and make light of the situation so that you don’t feel uncomfortable—so that you don’t have to stop to question the longstanding rules of your society.
I was facing an age-old #feministproblem: I knew I’d look like a hypersensitive loser if I chose to question the norm instead of laugh it off. Or worse, I’d be written off as a feminist who is just looking for something to get mad about—just looking for an opportunity to hop up on her soapbox.
I know I’m not the first or last person in this position, but I’m in it quite often in Spain. God forbid you take issue with patriarchy or the status quo here (and in a culture known for machismo, it’s impossible to ignore Spanish patriarchy). If you’ve got a problem with it, best to keep it to yourself, you touchy, thin-skinned little lady. Lighten up.***
Other people have already written about what’s the matter with catcalls and all other forms of street harassment. Thank goodness for that, because I’ve struggled to articulate precisely why I’m so affected and agitated by catcalls.
This definition of street harassment from the organization Stop Street Harassment sums it up pretty concisely:
Street harassment is any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing and is motivated by gender … Street harassment is a human rights issue because it limits women’s ability to be in public as often or as comfortably as most men.
(I can’t write about this topic without at least mentioning male privilege—if you haven’t heard of it, read up. And this anecdote demonstrates the trouble with catcalls as it relates to male privilege.)
But it doesn’t matter how many smart articles exist on the Internet; people—including women—are still making arguments like this.
Jennifer Wright, the author of the piece, describes all the reasons that she’s not offended by catcalling. You know, some women get all upset about it, but she’s not one of those women. The author says that maybe some women are offended by catcalls because they feel like they’re being treated like pieces of meat. But just remember, in Wright’s words: “Dude, we’re all made of meat.”
From there, she goes on to lament that most men who make catcalls are actually just sad, sex-deprived souls. She even expresses sympathy for them because these men surely realize that their shouts from across the street aren’t going to get them laid:
Cat-calling actually seems sort of sad, because the minute men do that, they must know that there’s no chance whatsoever of actually having sex with you. I mean, hey, maybe if you’d been standing next to them waiting for the train and they’d struck up some sort of meaningful conversation about bands you both liked or something maybe it could lead to something. It will never, ever lead to anything with the guy who yells “you’re looking pretty, today!” at you from across the street. It doesn’t work. And men must know it doesn’t work.
For any woman who agrees with this author, please hear me out for a few paragraphs.
I know it’s easy to laugh off catcalls and say they mean nothing to you, especially when you’re talking to male friends who expect you to brush them off. I know it’s preferable to be “one of the guys” than it is to be perceived as a high-maintenance, hypersensitive, man-hating, bra-burning feminist. I know.
But when we make light of issues that contribute to our own oppression, just to appear cool or carefree or chill to our guy friends, we aren’t doing any favors to women as a whole. And whether or not you choose to acknowledge it, men and women aren’t equal in any society. As long as male privilege exists, we’ll never be equal.
Sure, I’d be more likable in most groups of young men (and even women) if I would just let it go, giggle and concede: “Yeah, I shouldn’t have worn that low-cut shirt if I didn’t want to get hollered at in the bar,” or, “Yeah, I shouldn’t complain when a guy on the street tells me I’m attractive.” But that’s not what I feel, so I won’t say that.
Sometimes I want to wear a tight skirt; sometimes I want to wear XXL sweatpants (despite the warnings in my pre-study abroad meetings). But no matter what I’m wearing, I’d like to be able to move from Point A to Point B in this city or wherever I’m living without being greeted by uninvited comments, stares and physical contact from strangers.
I certainly won’t see the end of street harassment in my lifetime, but it would be nice to live in a world where I could dislike street harassment without being cast the Hypersensitive One in a group. But, again, I doubt we’ll even achieve that in my lifetime. Probably not until “feminist” stops being one of the dirtiest f-words in the book.
*I need to clarify that there is no such thing as “acceptable” vs. “unacceptable” catcalls. I found the catcall culture in Spain to be more in-your-face and aggressive than what I was used to at home, but that doesn’t minimize the damaging effects of the catcalling culture in the U.S.
**In the blog post I wrote in 2010 called “Piropos and ass-grabbing” I wrote: “The piropos in Spain occur from time to time, but it’s not like a girl can’t walk a block without a gang of men hanging out car windows and whistling.” That was after living only one week in Spain, and in the ~8 months I’ve lived here since then (and in the in-between time I spent back in the U.S.), I’ve realized that piropos happen much more often here than merely “time to time.”
***Of course, feminists deal with these same attitudes in the U.S. Based solely on my personal experience I’ve run into even more of it in Spain than I have in my homeland.