Calling for a Transnational Culture Shift on Street Harassment

By Brianna Suslovic

It’s a strange feeling when you realize that your life is technically in the hands of a creepy cab driver who has been making passes at you since you got in his taxi. I like to think that I give off “don’t-eff-with-me” vibes, being nearly six feet tall and sporting a short, asymmetrical haircut that often makes people confuse me for a man. As I sat in the back of that Barcelona cab, though, I realized that my appearance and my vibes really didn’t matter. This cab driver was young, with a soft voice that lulled me into a false sense of safety that was only really broken at the end of the ride, when he told me that I should stay with him in the taxi instead of going to my hotel room.

I snatched my change and slammed the door, all the while realizing how disturbing the entire ride had been – he had asked me multiple times if I was alone, he had asked if I had a boyfriend, and he had told me that, according to rumor, “todas las chicas americanas les encanta el sexo.” Trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, I let him make those comments and ask those questions because to me, he was just another guy trying to make a living and I had been trained to believe that all workers deserve respect––yes, and no.

I’m all about treating service workers as human beings. I want them to be able to unionize and receive the work benefits and protections that we all deserve. But as a woman, I also want to be able to have a pleasant conversation that doesn’t focus on my sex drive while I safely get a cab ride back to my hotel.

The next night, my friends and I went out to the club, which was packed. I fought for space on the dancefloor, pushing back against the men––many of whom were shorter than me––who were aggressively on a quest to take a girl home with them. They were so willing to bump, elbow, and push my 5’11” frame, catching a glimpse of my perfectly-lined eyes and blood-red lipstick. I guess my man-murdering aesthetic wasn’t strong enough…

As I moved through the dance floor, I felt one hand, then another. One on my hair, the other on my butt. My rage bubbled over. “¡No la tocas!” snapped a friend who was with me, glaring at the man who had just grabbed my head. My eyes met with the harassers’. Mine were wet and angry. His were cold and amused. He laughed before turning away, off on the hunt for another woman to harass. Walking away from the club to the bus stop in the rain, a man made kissing sounds and hollered “Hey sugar!” in my direction.

I’d always felt a bit distant from the movement against street harassment until last summer, when walking down a DC street holding hands with another female-bodied person warranted being called a “sick fuck” in the eyes of a panhandler who didn’t like what he saw. As a tall, semi-masculine girl who was used to being ignored while my femme friends got harassed, the issue was important, but it wasn’t personal––until it was.

I have the privilege of going to Harvard, of receiving substantial financial aid that covers my expenses on campus and abroad, of getting mistaken for a male often enough that I feel unafraid walking alone at night in many places. And still, the harassment happens to me. I blew off others’ warnings about street harassment in Spain, thinking that my appearance and my vibes would protect me. I was wrong.

Europe and the United States both have problems with street harassment, but in the U.S., there seems to be a concretely organized, unified movement to stop it. What will it take for cultural norms to change in Europe, when people aren’t even shocked? A striking, distressing 100 percent of survey respondents in a study of Parisian women reported being sexually harassed on public transportation. We’re just trying to go back to our hotels, go to work, or dance it out with friends at the club. What is the end goal of the countless men who choose to accost us as we try to go about our daily lives? Seriously, what healthy and functional relationship has been built off of an breast-comment or a butt-grab?

Spain has given me a new sense of beauty, knowledge of another language, and moments of cultural exploration in places so deeply unlike my home. For these reasons and their accompanying memories, I am sad to leave. Spain has also taught me that as a female-bodied queer person of color, I am not invincible. Patriarchal and white supremacist norms pervade this culture just as deeply as they do in the United States––the difference lies in the way that these norms present themselves.

Every night, I compliment my host mom’s cooking after eating dinner with her. “Gracias por tus piropos!” she laughed the other night. “What are piropos?” I wondered. She explained: “Cuando un hombre te dice en la calle, ‘Hola guapa…’––los piropos son una forma de dar cumplidos.” In other words, she believed that catcallers weren’t harassing or threatening me, they were complimenting me.

Clearly, a transnational culture shift needs to happen. But how? Maybe it begins with peers stopping other peers from objectifying or harassing us. Maybe it begins with parents planting seeds of respect in the minds of their children. Maybe it begins in school curricula, where children are taught basic respect alongside addition and subtraction. As I stepped out of that cab, I felt a sinking in my chest as I realized that this problem was much larger than my taxi driver.

I have lived in two different cultures where catcalling is prevalent, and where it is not viewed as a problem by everyone. I have observed how cisgender men at home and abroad are allowed to take up space how they want to, violently threatening or harassing everyone who isn’t easily categorized as male––there isn’t an easy answer, but one must be found. In the meantime, I remind myself that resistance takes many forms. Choosing to share my experience and critique it is my first step in fighting back.

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