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Feature photo by La Chiquita. Photo above by jonathan mcintosh.

Tips for female travelers on how to deal with sexist behavior while abroad.

IT IS A GLORIOUS Mexican morning. The sun is blaring down on bougainvilleas, you’re sipping a cup of coffee and strolling down a lazy cobblestone street…and then suddenly,

“Chhh, chhhhh!!! Hey, baby!!” A whistle and a wave from a passing truck remind you that you are in Latin America, machismo capital of the world.

At first, when I was traveling through South America, this was a novelty. Then it was one of those half amusing, half maddening nuances that are the very definition of “cultural differences.”

Now, it is simply infuriating.

Photo by ledpup.

I’ve heard the refrains many times: “It’s a compliment, a form of flattery,” or “It’s a cultural thing; you know, it goes back to the old days of gentlemen and romance,” and at first, I could buy it.

Now, however, with an awareness of the deeply embedded sexism in many Latin American societies, I don’t buy it any longer.

It is not flattery or romance, but rather domination, a male power trip, and one that echoes other male power trips with much more serious consequences than a pissed-off gringa tossing her mango at a passing truck.

The most serious of these consequences is rape.

Human Rights Watch women’s rights advocacy director Marianne Mollmann has stated that there are around one million rapes in Mexico per year.

Veronica Cruz, director of Las Libres, an organization that helps women who have been raped to get abortions, sums up the attitude of many Mexican men (and authorities) towards rape:

“They say the women invited the rape, that they’re easy. They say, it’s how you were dressed. They ask, did you like him or not? In Mexico, women are treated as sexual objects, not people. If a woman is walking alone in the street, anyone can insult her or touch her body.”

Perhaps most shockingly, in many Mexican states a girl under the age of 18 must prove she is “chaste and pure” in order to accuse someone of statutory rape. Such laws are indicative of what scholars describe as “marianismo”: the flip side of the machismo coin.

Marianismo refers to the idea that while men are tough and dominant protectors, women are virginal mothers. According to marianismo, the ideal woman should be a replica of the Virgin Mary.

Machismo and marianismo can not only lead to disturbing attitudes towards rape, but also to sexual, emotional, and physical abuse at home, and to the treatment of women as second-class citizens.

So how does this affect you, the traveler, walking down the street somewhere in Latin America? And what should you do when confronted with it?

The following are ideas for confronting machismo both in the immediate and physical sense (waiting for the bus, going for a walk) and in the more long-term, political and psychological sense (working to help local women gain rights and respect.)

Photo by furnstein.

Do not react

If or when you are harassed, do not shout or noticeably respond unless you feel you are in physical danger. I know firsthand how difficult this is, and I also know firsthand how grave the consequences can be.

90% of the time, ignoring them is enough to make them go away.

I was punched in the face by a man after shouting back to him when he followed me down the street. I called the police; they came, and did nothing. The neighbors told me to stop “making problems.”

Men will still harass women who are walking with other men, and in this case responding can lead to harsh physical violence. As much as I hate to tell women to silence themselves, you should ignore any taunting for safety reasons unless you feel seriously threatened, in which case you should try to get as far away from the harasser as possible.

Also, as often as not men are trying to get a rise out of you, and will get a kick (to a certain point) out of your anger. It will only prove to them that they’ve dominated you. 90% of the time, ignoring them is enough to make them go away.

Not reacting also includes not smiling! Please, for the sake of women in Latin America, do not give the impression that this type of behavior is okay or is an acceptable way to interact with women.

Talk with local men and women about the issue

The benefit of being an outsider in a culture is that you can draw attention to cultural particularities both good and bad, and locals can get a glimpse of their culture through you.

In this case, having discussions with locals about how you feel and think about machismo can be enough to get people to realize that it is not something unchangeable or inherent, and that it can have widespread consequences.

You don’t have to go ranting and railing (as I sometimes admittedly do) unless you’re with a group of friends who aren’t going to be offended by you.

Mix up talk of machismo with talk of the things you really like about a place. Latin America has so many wonderful aspects-touch on them, but nudge concerns about women and machismo into the conversation as well.

Photo by lynnefeatherstone.

Volunteer with local women’s groups

There are excellent organizations throughout Latin America fighting for women’s rights and empowerment. Before traveling, check out idealist.org for volunteer opportunities, and don’t forget to take a glance at Matador’s Change site, which offers profiles of hundreds of non-profit organizations.

Set an example

Take pride in traveling as a woman. Avoid the advice to lie about a hubby back home (unless you’re in a really uncomfortable situation) and tell it like it is: “I’m traveling alone, and I like it that way.”

And even if you’re traveling with a companion, celebrate the strength it takes to travel and the way traveling can break you free of more traditional female roles.

Sometimes just the sight of me heaving my monster backpack onto my back at the bus station was enough to make groups of people gather in Peru. Hopefully, the thought flashed through one of their heads–”Damn, that woman has guts!”

Stand up for women’s rights!

This means not only supporting local women abroad-buying from women’s cooperatives, working with groups that empower women, making the case for women’s equality-but defending the rights of women everywhere.

Sadly enough, it took two years of living in Latin America to make me wake up and realize that women deal with unequal treatment at home, too, and that I’ve taken my independence and opportunities for granted.

Writing about women’s lives and rights, supporting women’s organizations, and acting as a strong, bold example of everything a woman can do (hike Patagonia! Cook! Learn 10 languages! Farm!) are all ways to counteract machismo.

Don’t let this article dissuade you from visiting Latin America. There’s a reason I seem to keep coming back here-the people are full of vibrancy and light, the landscapes will knock you out, the food is heaven.

But be prepared for that sudden shout from the back of a truck, for the hiss and the whistle—and when you feel that rush of indignation, use it to fight for change.

COMMUNITY CONNECTION:

Traveling alone as a woman has unique challenges in most (if not all) of the world. Read up on these Reflections from a Female Solo Traveler and join in the discussion! How do you handle harassment on your travels?

Travel Safety

 

About The Author

Sarah Menkedick

Matador Contributing Editor Sarah Menkedick has traveled, lived, and taught on five continents, and is constantly in pursuit of spicy food, dark beer, and new places to run. She is an MFA student at the University of Pittsburgh.

  • http://zerotres.wordpress.com Ernesto Machado

    This is the key: "Please, for the sake of women in Latin America, do not give the impression that this type of behavior is okay or is an acceptable way to interact with women." Men seem to consider machismo a sport here in South America, and female travelers that smile at machismo are not only making it worse for the local women but also for all other foreign females that travel in the area in the future. But I also agree that: "Don’t let this article dissuade you from visiting Latin America."

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Eva Eva

    Great post, Sarah.

    And a perfect, powerful photo at the top, too!

  • Kamille

    We truly suffer with machismo here in Latin America, but also in the North Hemisphere, where people usually think brazilian women (my case) are cheap or even prostitutes…

  • Erin

    This was exactly what I needed to read today! I'm traveling in C.A. right now, and it's nice to know that I'm not alone. Some days, it takes all of my strength to ignore the men and keep walking–particularly when men say incredibly rude things in English (don't know why that feels worse). I'm in Guatemala right now, where the comments are few and far between–a much-needed respite!

  • Jordan

    Great article – having spent two years in latin america I've dealt with my fair share of machismo. Though I've lost my cool several times I definitely agree the best solution is not react at all. And two, talk about it with the locals. I'm always shocked when I talk to my guy friends about this and they tell me that they genuinely believe that women like the cat calls and inappropriate comments… help everyone out by clearing up this misconception.

  • kiki

    And how do you handle it in your home town? That cat calls and the like? I think there is a HUGE difference between “hey mami, good morning”, a cat hiss, and a sexual threat.

    While we DO need to acknowledge that not all cat calls are just flattery, we ALSO need to realize that sometimes that is EXACTLY what it is.

  • Eva

    Kiki — I don’t think Sarah is talking about guys simply saying “good morning” in this article…

    As far as flattery goes, I think men need to understand that what they think of as flattery doesn’t necessarily feel that way — this sounds an awful lot like the old “I wasn’t being racist, I was trying to make a joke” line. People need to take responsibility for how their actions come across. Do the five guys in the car that slow down to hiss at me while I’m walking on a dark street late at night only mean to flatter me? Maybe. That doesn’t change the fact that I’m planning six different directions to run if they stop the car. They need to realize their actions create real fear.

  • http://nonotfar.blogspot.com/ Troy

    I’m sure to be flogged for posting this, but I do think that it is worth saying. Where are rape rates higher? North America or South America? By posing this question I am in no way condoning such behaviour, but I also don’t think that it is such a black and white, cut and dry issue.

    I cannot say from experience, as I don’t live in S.America though have spent some time there and speak the language well, but I do live in Spain…a place that is also considered by many a macho, sexist country. That said, the rates of sexual violence here are far below those in North America. Ask a woman in N.America if she or someone close to her has been assaulted and the overwhelming answer is yes, whereas over here in Spain it would be the exact opposite. This is not saying it doesn’t exist, nor is it saying that things cannot be improved…but by failing to take into consideration that there are indeed cultural differences, you could fail into the trap that you mention, that of ranting and railing and sounding culturally superior.

    The language itself and the patterns of speech used have to be taken into account too. How often do you hear grandmothers, aunts and even strangers in the street saying “oye que guapa estas hoy”…(you look beautiful today). Is this non-threatening simply because it is coming from females?

    I can predict the rush of negative comments to what I have said, but all I want to point out is that a deeper cultural lens needs to be used when looking at issues like this. Imagine the picture someone would have of the U.S if their only reference point was rap videos?

  • http://www.bearshapedsphere.blogspot.com eileen

    I think part of what Troy said is true. There is a culture of calling people “mi amor” in Chile (which I have called home for five plus years), and if the lady from the fresh market calls me “mi amor” it’s sweet, and if someone calls me “preciosa” on the street, it irritates the bewhosis out of me. I have the advantage of traveling everywhere by bike, and often when called out to, if it’s a compliment, I will shout back, “Sí, sé” (Yeah, I know). It’s taking back my little cachito (piece) of power, and I will not be told that I can’t do it. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to anyone else, but I know my audience, and I know that Chileans are much more bark than bite, that confrontations are rare and, well, I could go on and on.

    I think it’s more important to do what keeps you safe and doesn’t incite violence than it is to “stay silent, no matter what.” On the other hand, I’m sure it’s not a good idea to lose your cool when you are outnumbered, or to get into an altercation of any kind with anyone.

    This is a grassroots problem, where men think it’s okay to call out to women because alot of women in the cultures in question act like it’s normal, or even expect it or (yes, even) like it. I enjoyed the article because it brings up an important point, but I don’t think that there’s a one-size fits all solution to piropos (flirtatious) comments on the street. And I do distinguish between the benign and the profane. I run for the hills with the latter, and make an educated decision with the former.

    I’ll be interested to see what others have to say on the topic.

    • pat

      I’ve been whistled at and cat called many times here in Chile… and I’m a guy! I haven’t seen that happen anywhere else in South America (although the girls here will almost always be upfront about it if they take to you). I think that’s a small sign at least that Chilean women have a little more power and respect than in other Latin places.

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