Just Another Existential Hazard of Being a Woman

Posted on 17 October 2017

This was originally posted on 13 November 2012, when I was living and working in Cusco, Peru. Though this was five years ago, and I am now based in Seattle, things haven’t changed. I was last harassed just over a week ago, and then less than a week before that. It is endless. It is a bombardment. It makes me angry. It limits me. So, here goes again. I haven’t changed the wording of this post because, sadly, nothing has changed. Maybe there is a bit more awareness thanks to (mostly) womxn diligently speaking out, but we also have a harasser in chief here in the U.S. The #MeToo campaign has spurred conversation, so I am (re-)adding this story (one of many) and also demanding: men, we need you to step up if we’re going to truly tackle the scourge of sexual harassment and assault.


I was asked if I was actually going to publish this post because doing so might make people worry about me. But yes, I will publish this post because if people care about me and are concerned, they should be concerned for the welfare of women everywhere. Because what happens to me on almost a daily basis happens to millions of other women around the world; if you’re upset about it then do something. Harassment continues because consistently people–especially men–turn a blind eye, effectively rendering it socially acceptable.

So, last Thursday I was verbally threatened with rape.

The view from my place in Cusco. I was threatened just around the block from my home.

But let’s take a step backward: almost every single day, almost every time I leave the house, men harass me. Today walking to work I got the obnoxious “hello, hello, I love you!” On the way home I got whistling. This weekend I had two men and a moto taxi closely following me and my (female, which really goes without saying) friends. Almost every single day men bother me. To them I’m a blonde, sexual piece of meat walking down the street.

But let’s step back again: this problem isn’t limited to my existence in Peru, oh no. Last summer in Kenya was worse. It took courage to dare to walk alone and when I did of course a man would try to follow me. Of course I would get asked for my number. Of course I would get comments about my appearance. Of course I would get men masturbating (yes! I’m fairly certain!) on the bus behind me because I couldn’t keep my hair from blowing in the wind (I’m such a slut, no? Shouldn’t I have controlled my hair?).

Step back again: I’m not only harassed in foreign countries. I’m harassed at home, where I don’t stand out. I dread running alongside the road to the park because about half the time I get men calling at me from their trucks. I always power walked home from class (inevitably after dark) so as to give men as short of a glimpse of me as possible. I don’t look men in the eye when I walk around. Even at home. Because I get whistles, I get obscene comments, and who knows if someone is lurking in the dark, hence my pepper spray.

But step back again: this doesn’t just happen to me–of course not! It happens to my female friends. It happens to us when we’re taking an otherwise pleasant walk together. It happens to us when we’re waiting to be picked up by the other to hang out. It happens to us when we are going anywhere, doing anything. In fact, the Thursday incident happened to me and a Peruvian friend both.

How dare we have the audacity to walk while female from a café about five minutes away from my house and the office at the terribly late hour of 8:30pm? How dare we, especially when it wouldn’t be possible (or economical) to catch a cab for five blocks? We were walking to my homestay when across the street from us two men, sitting comfortably in their front lawn, apparently making a sport out of threatening female passersby, began yelling in heavily accented English, “fucking bitches! Fucking cunts! I’m going to rape you!”

And what do you do when this happens? Freeze a little inside, walk faster, and once I was slightly more safely some houses away I thrust my fist in the air, my keys laced between my fingers as threats, as they always are after dark. And then the disbelieving questions to each other: “did that actually just happen? were we actually just threatened with rape?” And then the anger which is, for me, quite omnipresent: I can’t go anywhere without being a target! It almost always happens! And why? Because men have the power? Because they think women are objects? Because they simply can? Because when they do it, no one ever tells them to stop being pitiful scum and just lay off?

I’ve been harassed countless times; and I’m sure my friends and plenty other females could tell you similar stories. And not once–not once!–out of the hundreds of times I’ve been harassed, has anyone, has any man, told the perpetrator to knock it off. Never.

And it’s not like I’m always in an empty street, just me and the scumbag. And it’s not like I don’t draw attention to it either. I used to try to ignore it and walk quickly past. But ignoring doesn’t make people go away and besides, I’m done being a passive woman. I’m not going to shut my mouth and let people bother me. It has worked when I’ve yelled back: this weekend when the two men and a moto taxi were following my friends despite the fact we clearly weren’t going to talk with them, I turned and shouted (in Spanish), “go away!” They stepped back a bit but when they continued to keep pace with us, stare at us, I yelled “pitiful!” And lo, they backed off and let us be, even saying “sorry, sorry.” This incident was in fact on a deserted street, apart from us. But a few days before, in the Plaza de Armas, people abound, a disgusting male hollered at me the old “hello, hello, I love you!” I turned, cursed at him, and continued on my way but from the multitudes of people around, right there: silence.

For me, these streets are dangerous. Me in Cusco, in my typical attire – not that it should fucking matter, and it didn’t, because I was harassed all the same.

I believe that this a significant reason why street harassment, which leads to even worse, continues and is so prevalent. Here, or in the United States, people, especially other men, never stand up to the scumbags and tell them: “stop it! That’s not ok! In fact, what you’re doing is pitiful and disgusting!” And especially men I say, because men shaming other men would have more of an effect (males want to be accepted by their peers after all), but also because many men seem to care very little about the problem.

An illustration, which fit my point so perfectly I was seething afterward. Friday morning I go to the office to go to our project. I tell everyone in the office what had happened the night before; I wanted to warn the ladies especially, since I knew a couple who don’t live far. There were three men (or boys) in the room and about five women. The women, and one of the men (Peruvian) responded appropriately: “where exactly? When? Oh gosh, that’s horrible! Are you okay?” Here is how the other two men responded:

First man: oh, they were just practicing their English!
A joke! A joke about a situation in which I was threatened with rape. To which I responded (or snapped), “no, they were making a sport out of threatening women!”

Second man: oh, maybe they were drunk!
To which I responded (or at this point, rather snarled), “oh yeah, because drunk men don’t rape! I don’t care, if you have any inkling within yourself of saying things like that ever, then you’re dirt.”

So you see, the responses of women and many (in this case the majority) of men are quite different. One group expresses concern, and then anger, and then (as my Spanish professor and I do) begins brainstorming various reactions. The other group blows it off, excuses it, makes a joke of it. And this street harassment and everyone should know what else continues.

So, family, friends, anonymous readers: are you concerned about me? Are you concerned about your sisters, mothers, daughters, girlfriends, female friends? Because you should be. It happens to us all. And once is too often; this happens far too often. If you’re concerned, then, confront those jackasses whistling at anonymous women. Those women are us. Tell them it’s not okay or ever okay. Shame them. We have been taught all too well by history that atrocities happen when entire populations turn a blind eye. And this is a daily atrocity, the degradation of women who dare simply to walk around.

On a closing note, wisdom from the Manic Street Preachers: “who’s responsible? You fucking are!” (from “Of Walking Abortion”).

Erosion

Posted on 4 August 2017

I’ve learned I can simultaneously expand with wonder and implode with despair. It’s a hard thing, working in a beautiful place and knowing it’s degraded, its soils are crumbling, rolling into the lake, leaving scars of absence. It’s also a hard thing to be degraded, to be regarded either too hard or too little, so like the soil you run away and scars mark your retreat.

Walking back to my tent-room after tracking down documents, I’m greeted by a man who shakes my hand and then refuses to let go, he grips harder and I yank away and shuddering, hurry off. He knows exactly to where and I don’t like that. I have to work, or I don’t have to but I want to, we’re trying to do the right thing and write a decent, helpful report, but I sit on the edge of the hill and stare out over the lake a bit first. It is beautiful. I know it’s choking.

Gwassi Hills, KenyaSunset over Lake Victoria

At night, we stare out over the water some more. The sunsets are some of the most stunning I’ve seen. I read my book before bed. In the morning, before our tea and toast, we stare out over the water again to see what we’ll see: fishing boats, a smudge of a midge hatch, contrasting currents. I feel a bit more curious and energized. I think about the complex projects that can maybe help restore this place. But then I’m deflated the next time a group of men largely ignore me in a meeting about microloans. The only words for me are: hello, goodbye, and you should stay here and get married.

I prefer the words in my book, or the ones that I myself type, so I huddle back in my tent-room and do some work, or just sit in murk of discontent and unease. I can’t stay inside for long, though; it’s too beautiful.

Suba Tent RoomSunset Grass

With my colleagues I make my way down to the edge of the lake and I leave them for the women’s side of the dock. I’m happier there. I’m showered with smiles and questions and the ladies laugh at my swimming as they wash. They ask me if I’ll come back tomorrow. I wish I were coming back tomorrow. But I’m leaving tomorrow, with the men. Well, I should say there’s one man in particular who holds on too long, who grabs me close, who appraises me, who says things. He’s my boss.

I come back to these hills some weeks later, though, and now we sip tea in the dining area. We met my colleague in Kisumu after flying from Nairobi, after an hour’s drive from where I lived and worked. I was relieved to be with my colleague as we drove and ferried and drove from Kisumu, a buffer from him and the tense hours I’d spent just the two of us in the airport, on the plane. I was shown off to a government minister: look at her! His eyes pierced and I couldn’t avoid them. So now I was back in the hills, sipping my tea, and dissolving quietly, but more calmly, less rapidly than in those anxiety-tinged hours as I forced myself through the motions of politeness as I was subdued, devoured.

Tea Time

We visit gardens and offices and factories. We work on our report. We stare at the lake. I chat with the women. I shy away from the men.

Another Lake Victoria SunsetRed Clouds

One last sunset, and then we walk to dinner. The cook has made me another special vegetarian meal. She is very kind and seems as eager to make new dishes for me, as I am eager to eat her food. I’m eager to talk to her too. I ask her a lot of questions. I have learned a question is a friendly thing and I can’t, sadly, just be friendly because friendly is too much, friendly is dangerous. Except with women, of course. We get it.

Lake Victoria Current

The beauty crowds my emotions, and I feel bad about that because the hills are falling apart and the lake is curdling. I also feel bad for not enjoying myself but I’m curdling too. I’m getting mean. And I’ve learned I can concurrently appreciate and despise, for there are different components to everything. Currents cut through in different shades, they cut through me and they cut through this place. I love it and I am deeply uncomfortable. I’m disturbed and I’m excited.

More has travelled through these ravines by now. They’re six years deeper inside me. I’m sure they’re deeper in the hills too. Sadly.

Vacillation

Posted on 4 July 2017

 
I am an American. I am a bursting bubble!
I survey with an expectant smile.
Enthusiastically I trample around.
I offer hugs.
I throw myself.
 
I have a shadow self.
I say it will be alright.
And then it isn’t.
And then I squash the best parts of myself.
Down with all that isn’t boisterous glee.
 
Facets spark in different light.
In one hand I offer,
one hand is a fist.
Love me, hate me.
It’s fair.
 
I’m more restless than you know.
I know where I’m from, but
what is home? Still
I admit – proud? Of what, being born? –
I am an American.

Immigrant March

The South Rim

Posted on 11 June 2017

Another coyote gave us a glance and then pranced on as our car clunked along the rolling dirt road. The early January sun glared at us over the scrub. Dust billowed behind us. I settled back in my seat for the drive, which brought us winding through the Chisos Mountains. Pine trees began to line the road as we ascended, and browns turned to greens.

Big Bend Coyote

There are a lot of animals in the desert; it’s not nearly so barren as many people imagine. We began hiking and birds rustled in the trees alongside the trail. As we made our way into the meadows, deer abounded. If I had been inattentive, I would have been slightly concerned about colliding with them. And the plants, more specifically the cacti, presented their varied selves without modesty. I bent down and peered at many with glee.

Big Bend Deer

We were hiking Big Bend’s South Rim, a 12.6 mile hike up into the Chisos Mountains, that leads to a view extending over the rolling desert for miles. The border with Mexico fades away in the wilderness: just the mountains and the sky exist and stretch on. Trying to place our order on this landscape is silly; it holds its own. We sat on the edge and ate our snacks as the wind whipped our hair around. It was chilly, so we got up and started walking in the sun again.

South Rim ViewSouth Rim View 2Elephant Tusk from South Rim

More meadows. The grass stood tall and silver, bending in waves. Deer plodded their way through it. There wasn’t a cloud in the blue sky above. As we descended and more robust trees reappeared, we began keeping an eye out for bears. We came across fresh, steaming at that, dung, and though we didn’t see the bear, it probably saw us.

Big Bend Deer 2Meadow Near South Rim

I took a detour to climb Emory Peak, because when a notion gets in my head, I want to do it. I speed-walked up the path, past other hikers, and then with a bit more fear in my limbs, pulled my way up and over the rocks marking the scramble to the top. Amid other people and the radio equipment positioned up top, I took a few moments to stare around. And then, I hurried my way back down, to Ben, to the car in the parking lot, to our campsite, to San Marcos, to the airport, to home. The desert stretches out behind me, indifferent.

Big Bend BootSierra MadreView from Emory Peak

A Trail of Thought

Posted on 10 May 2017

Big Bend from Grapevine Hills

My thoughts go like this. I’m in a national park – a relatively remote one, at that – and one may think it’s untouched and pristine, but no, it’s not. There was a mine in this park. I scramble among the ruins, trying not to touch too much. The desert has worn out the mine by now: it’s just over a hundred years old and it looks the part. And I say desert. This used to be grassland, but ranchers’ cattle gobbled it up. It is still beautiful.

Mariscal Mine, Big Bend View from Mariscal Mine, Big Bend

So, okay, there was a mine in this not-pristine wilderness but what about before that? Before the treads of cattle and the settlers who brought them, Native Americans were here; you can see old symbols they left etched on rock. They left other marks too. The wilderness hasn’t been pristine (whatever that means) for many centuries, for homo sapiens wreak havoc wherever they tread: when they came to the Americas, and Australia, and New Zealand, and everywhere, they killed off most mega fauna in a jiffy.

There is hardly a pristine, untouched wilderness on this earth. When you read those descriptors, know it’s likely a farce. But for all the havoc we’ve wreaked over the millennia, we humans have not lacked our impressive moments, even hundreds – thousands – of years ago. Humans then were, I suppose, about as dumb or smart as we are now. Pass through intricately decorated churches built without the help of engines and think about how that happened. Check out the Incan cities – or the pre-Incan cities at that! – of South America. Goddamn, it’s a hike up to Machu Picchu, and they got stones up there how? Or gaze over the seemingly never-ending temples of Bagan, some of which have stood for about a thousand years. Today we have machines and computers, sure, but most individuals lack other bits of knowledge that used to be common.

Dormition Cathedral, MoscowLlamas at Machu PicchuBagan Sunset

And we don’t all have machines and computers, anyway. The world is vast and varied. Some populations have had recent technologies snatched from them, deprived by war and/or poverty induced by other populations. And some populations never got them. I walked through an Andean village where no electricity flickers. Smoke filled the homes as mist filled the valley as I walked up the trail, the only way in.

Cancha Cancha, Peru

I guess my conclusion goes like this. We are, and have been since our species’ inception, very much a part of this world and, more so, have been playing much the same game, though in varied ways. Humans are diverse, now and across time, but we’re much the same, too. And that makes everything complicated. Draw a line and it probably deserves a stomp because it isn’t true. But there is one truth: we love clichés and cling to stories. So are there truer, deservedly intricate stories we can compellingly tell?