I was in Darwin, Australia and my friend Nicole and I had decided that our coolest fashion option would be to wear sundresses — but nothing flashy or revealing. Just normal cotton sundresses.
We strolled down Mitchell Street, a strip known for scandalous ladies’ nights and backpacker debauchery. We wanted to avoid the beer-soaked scene of our peers and instead set our sights on a small local pub with pool tables visible through the wide windows. There weren’t too many people inside, but I noticed a group of men in their 40s and 50s sitting outside smoking cigarettes, laughing and drinking beer. I groaned inwardly as I saw them look up at us in unison, elbowing each other like a bunch of teenage boys. I held my breath and stared straight ahead as I walked past, their leering gazes made me feel like I wanted to take a bath in hand sanitizer.
We ordered a couple of pints, paid for the pool table, and began an effort to have a normal night of drinking beer and shooting pool. But I never stopped noticing the men watching us, and they never stopped watching us. Their stools outside gave them a prime viewing position to stare at us through the window as we racked up, took forced sips of beer and chalked the cue. I said I would break, and the second I bent over to aim, a cheer went up from outside. I ignored it and broke. I was solids. We kept playing for a few more rounds, trying to act normal, like we couldn’t see or hear them. Nicole had to bend to hit the cue ball, and her backside was facing the men, so I stood behind her as she lined up the shot. I could hear the men sniggering outside, so I got fed up, whipped around, threw my hands in the air and yelled, “What the fuck are you staring at? Don’t look at us!”
I was shaking with anger and trying to chalk my cue when one of them stumbled in and on the way to the bar said, “Oh, don’t worry about that. We were saying nice things. Good things.”
“I don’t care. Don’t look at us,” I replied curtly.
He looked confused. “No,” he said as he shook his head, “You don’t understand. They were compliments. Compliments! We were saying nice things.”
“I understand, sir, but I don’t need your compliments,” I replied calmly.
His face instantly changed from good-natured drunk to ready-for-a-fight. “Oh, you’re really fucking immature, you know that? You’re a bitch. We were only giving you compliments. Grow the fuck up.”
“I never asked for your compliments, and what you were doing was invading my private space. It made me feel very uncomfortable,” I said, as if I were talking to a toddler.
I was trying to stay calm to keep him calm, but that didn’t seem to work. He walked quickly, threateningly toward me, calling me more offensive names and reiterating his stance that he had done nothing wrong. He was just paying us a compliment. I tried to ask him if he might understand that a group of men leering at two women might make those women feel uncomfortable and unsafe. He got right up in my face, so close that I could feel the heat of his beer breath and said, “You’re a fucking crazy bitch, you know that? Grow the fuck up.”
“Get out of my face,” I replied calmly, keeping my feet firmly planted and my head held high. My knuckles had turned white from gripping the cue stick, and I was already imagining throttling him with it if he turned violent. He wasn’t just trying to “mansplain” my valid reaction — he was trying to bully me into thanking him for sexually harassing me. Suddenly there was breathable air between us as one of his friends, who looked less like a violent rapist, pulled him away, trying to laugh it off while apologizing.
I spent the rest of the night fearful that the man and his pack of testosterone-fueled fools would wait for us outside and try to put Nicole and me in our place. It’s not the first time I’ve feared for my safety as a woman. From being followed down the street in Sicily by men asking me ‘Quanto?’ to being asked to dinner by random men on the street in Istanbul to being groped at Penn Station in New York when I was 14 to being hissed at and stared at like a tasty arepa con chicharron as I walked through the streets of Medellin. Whether we’re abroad or at home, females have a constant mental checklist in our heads relating to our safety and likelihood of being harassed or raped in any situation. I feel that this is in large part due to the things that are said to us, to sexist rhetoric that is deemed acceptable worldwide, but still shocks me when it appears in Western countries, like America and Australia.
We are seeing a rage lately, though — against a type of culture that allows men to continue with their ill-founded macho behavior. And that rage is worldwide. Right now, it’s in Argentina where women donned all black and marched to protest sexual violence after the brutal rape and murder of 16-year-old Lucia Perez on October 19. These women are demanding a cultural change in machismo culture in the Latin American world, in the same way that women in other countries, which boast equality of the sexes, should be demanding a rhetoric that demonstrates this shaky equality.
Australia and the United States are two very similar countries, culturally speaking. Both are English-speaking new nations with advanced democracies, and both aggrandize their forward thinking while they are simultaneously held back by conservatives. If countries like ours are to truly embrace their claims of equality for all, then we all need to take part in an active social change that stigmatizes sexist speech in the same way that it stigmatizes racial slurs. We need to accept the reality that sexist rhetoric can and often does lead to violence and sexual assault against women because it normalizes the attitude that we are objects. Let’s call this rhetoric “sexist slurs” because, at the end of the day, it is both hateful and founded in ignorance and a grasp for power that a certain class of people simply do not deserve.