Cultural difference or Sexism? Compliment or degrading?

Posted by at 8:48AM

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Walking down the streets of Santiago (or anywhere else in Chile or Argentina) female Stanford students can expect to receive acknowledgement that they are attractice. The person acknowledging their beauty can be a taxi driver, a man walking down the street, construction workers, or anyone else.
The acknowledgement can range from slightly funny but still tasteful (my favorites are the man in Mendoza, Argentina that told a friend and I “you two, you are very pretty,” and the clerk in the Santiago shoe store that told me I had very beautiful eyes); to the still amusing but slightly annoying- whistles, claps, loud kissy noises; and then the worst- the men who just stare at you on the subway and do not look away, or the college aged boys who lean into your personal bubble space when you walk by to say “linda” or beautiful.
We’ve discussed this in our Spanish classes here at the Stanford in Santiago center, and my Spanish teacher strongly defends it as a cultural practice, insisting that it is a compliment to our looks. Yet in our discussions most of the (US) girls in the room indicated that it made them uncomfortable, that it made them feel like they were only a sexual object. I know from my personal experience I’ve avoided walking past certain groups of guys because I don’t want to feel uncomfortable. And yet even listening to all of us describe our feelings of uncomfortableness, and thinking that we’re just sexual objects, my Spanish teacher still maintains that it’s a compliment, and we should take it as such.


The fact that she had to repeat compliment multiple times, and she didn’t convince any of us, made me start thinking about sexual harassment- because when it occurs in the US, the classic initial response by the perpetrator is “it was only a compliment, I didn’t mean anything else by it.” But the litmus test is how it makes the girl feel- if she feels uncomfortable or like she’s being made into a sexual object, then its harassment- no one else but her can make that judgment.
In conversation with my parents about this, I learned that this type of action was very common in the United States until 40 years ago, when the feminist movement started in earnest, and US women decided that it was demeaning to have these things said to them as they went about their own business on the streets. I wonder if a similar feminist movement will occur sometime down here in Chile/Argentina.
Let me know your thoughts- sexual harassment, cultural differences, compliments?

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17 Responses to “Cultural difference or Sexism? Compliment or degrading?”

  1. Cristina says:

    I experienced similar harassment when I was in Ecuador this summer, and the reason it is allowed to persist is that no one does anything about it. Ecuadorian women don’t vocalize that it makes them uncomfortable (if it does), and seldom do tourists either. I think the best way to reject this is to confront it. Of course, this may be difficult if you don’t speak spanish, but I think that if women start stepping up it might discourage such behavior from men. It can also be empowering for women, and definitely a better alternative than shuffling away awkwardly.

  2. David says:

    “Ecuadorian women don’t vocalize that it makes them uncomfortable (if it does)”
    So, even if it’s a practice that makes nobody uncomfortable over there, you still think it is a bad thing?
    The litmus test isn’t only that the person on the receiving end feels harassed: it also has to be “reasonable” that one would feel harassed by the behavior in question. If you feel sexually harassed when I merely say “hello” as I walk past you in the hall, that would have some difficulty flying in court.
    Basically, different cultures *do* feel differently about what constitutes harassment. It is interesting that while you write posts and comments such as this, decrying the objectification of women, some women from other cultures think of US women as overly hung up and lacking perspective. I am not going to say who is right and who is wrong for that is not the point; the point is that cultural differences are not quite as simple as you make them out to be.
    Of course, you can’t defend everything in the name of “cultural differences”, which is why some perspective is needed. Sometimes the culture doing the “harassing” should be adjusted; other times, the culture feeling “harassed” should perhaps adjust. If you do not understand that a comment was truly meant in an inoffensive and friendly way (and, certainly, not all such “you are beautiful” comments are meant as such), is it right to get so upset about it? And is it right to refuse to try to understand it?

  3. Ashley says:

    I went to Chile in 2006, and as a Black woman I was a bit of an oddity. So was my blue eyed, blond friend. We got a lot of funny looks, and a few hilarious comments, but I’ve definitely gotten a few similar comments on the streets of Chicago, where I’m from. I don’t really understand why this kind of stuff makes women feel like sexual objects. You can’t let some fool on the street who is whistling and yelling at you make you feel any less than what you are. It’s just best to ignore it, in my opinion. At the very least, you get some funny stories.

  4. Doug Soehren says:

    I am a 64 year old white male from the author’s childhood and neighborhood. I have watched her grow from a cute little giggly girl to a very attractive woman. I am compelled to address her questions.
    In my life experience I’ve noticed that many women of all ages have a difficult time dealing with the effect they have on men. Some are frightened by it some learn how to exploit it for their own ends. The more attractive females learn early that they can get a lot of attention, favors and even power if they show the slightest interest in the “right” male. They do not understand at first their own influence over male hormones which can stimulate intense sexual desire in males. Some males are unable to reign in the desire so this prehistoric, fundamental biological attraction results in unwanted intimacy or assault.
    For this reason wise or well educated women are always mindful that sex to a male is more often than not his sole motivation for existence, and, in fact, nature may have intended just that. It is after all the force that can be thanked or blamed for the reproduction success of the human species.
    Your attractiveness can be a blessing or a curse depending on how quickly you learn how to avoid stimulating the “wrong” males while attracting the “right” ones. Dress and behavoir are important.
    Having spent years in Latin American countries I empathize with your concerns but first hand observation must support your teachers position that the uninhibited display of affection is normal in a culture you are not yet part of.
    The next time you hear a whistle or lips smacking or even a pinch consider this. It’s their way of saying I’m ready, please, please pick me. They know that some day, somewhere you will most likely pick someone to reproduce with.

  5. Anonymous says:

    David, I absolutely agree with you that it is important that a reasonable observer should view it as harassment to be able to call it that. So yes, saying “Hello” to someone in the hallway would probably not be harassment in anyone’s book. However, someone walking after you and yelling “Hello!” at you for several minutes might very well be said to be harassing you (if not in the legal sense).
    Traveling in India I got into many situations where I felt harassed (not sexually) by people incessantly wanting my attention (generally in touristy places). When it is clear that you want someone to leave you alone and they continue that is generally harassment.
    More specifically though, the core issue here is power. The problem is that some men believe that they have the right to comment on women and that they can do so loudly and without worrying about consequences. The women is seen as an object instead of a person.
    Doug: It is not just “I’m ready, please, please pick me” – there is a difference between saying “I think you’re beautiful would you consider me?” and “Yo, You’re hot!” There is no asking for permission here, and no consideration – the women is treated as an object (or at least a lesser person) than an equal.
    The way you address people shows something about your level of respect, and I think that’s the core problem here.

  6. Anonymous says:

    “The way you address people shows something about your level of respect, and I think that’s the core problem here.”
    Or…it shows something about one’s culture. As has been said.
    Author needs to lighten up. If someone follows and harasses you, or physically assaults you, then of course that’s bad – but kissy noises? You can’t handle kissy noises?

  7. Anonymous says:

    I am a bit appalled by some of the comments expressed in response to Cristina’s post. First of all, is it out of defensiveness that you say that the author should lighten up? She poses a question–a dilemma–and asks for thoughts… about something that is a very valid concern that many people—mostly women—in every culture share, even with differing perspectives. While Cristina’s question is a valid one, the way it’s posed suggests that it must be either/or sexism or cultural difference. Let’s not make the mistake of narrow, binary thinking here. Can’t it be both? It seems to me obvious that it is, but the major point I want to make here is: no culture is homogeneous. Just as there are those within our culture disagreeing about this matter (see above), there are those that disagree in every culture, including those all over Latin America. Women and men all over have different experiences and vary. Depending on the culture, depending on the exact words said and manner in which it was said, etc., and depending on the woman’s experience of it, it may or may not be harassment.
    There may be areas of gray here, but some things are certain: it’s not okay to objectify or demean women in any culture, and on occasion, comments about a woman’s body to her, whether intentioned as a compliment or not, that make her feel uncomfortable (unsafe–this fear is very real sometimes, particularly in a different cultural setting where many factors are less known or more ambiguous), objectified (that she is an object of the “complimenter’s” sexual desire or gratification, or demeaned (that her primary, most noticeable or important quality is her physical attractiveness–as opposed to who she is as a human being), aren’t okay. Genuine compliments are okay. Harassment is not. There is a difference, and the lines that differentiate it may vary slightly, in general, from culture to culture, but more importantly, from person to person and situation to situation. Also, normal as in “common” does not make something okay. Worldwide, 1 in 3 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime… does this make it “normal?”
    Re: For this reason wise or well educated women are always mindful that sex to a male is more often than not his sole motivation for existence, and, in fact, nature may have intended just that. It is after all the force that can be thanked or blamed for the reproduction success of the human species.
    Finally, the silly, sexist idea that men are incapable of controlling themselves due to their biological, sexual overdrives is to deny both women’s sexualities and the strong socialization factors that contribute to the relations between the sexes. There are clearly some important biological differences between men and women, but to reduce men’s behavior to this single factor is both offensive and ludicrous.
    Your attractiveness can be a blessing or a curse depending on how quickly you learn how to avoid stimulating the “wrong” males while attracting the “right” ones. Dress and behavoir [sic] are important.
    The implication that the responsibility for any discomfort caused by a sexualized cat-call from a man lies with the woman for how she looks or dresses is even more offensive. Sexual desire is natural, and wanting to get off with a hot person walking by is also natural, but the commitment to treating that person respectfully enough to not make them feel uncomfortable by the way you feel turned on by them is a greater virtue than desperate attempts to get them to “pick you” by yelling out to them like a pathetic, poor loser who has convinced himself that he can’t do it any other way.
    Re: They do not understand at first their own influence over male hormones which can stimulate intense sexual desire in males. Some males are unable to reign in the desire so this prehistoric, fundamental biological attraction results in unwanted intimacy or assault.
    And women, I suppose, are just passive recipients in this theoretical manifesto of yours? They have no prehistoric, fundamental biological drives that also have something to do with the reproduction of the species? They just happen to be there and get knocked up? Refer to previous comment about denying women’s sexuality…

  8. Gemma says:

    Take it as a compliment girl, get youself some sexy clothing and sexy lingerie and pull in even more of them!!!

  9. john thames says:

    Why not create a concept called “hormonal harassment”? Define “hormonal harassment” as “giving men unwanted erections by showing off the tits and ass in any way, shape or form”. Then sue women endlessly using their own dialectical doublethink against them.
    As Mel West might put it: “Is that a pistol in your pussy-or are you just glad to see me?”

  10. Chung says:

    I agree these behaviors are just a compliment. Maybe you can view such kind of acts as an immature one. I disagree to call them sexual harassment, because all the words they said to you are positive ones, such as” you are so pretty” or” you have beautiful eyes”. If you are, they just describe a truth, and if you aren’t, it’s a compliment to your look, what are these kind people!
    I also disagree that just the girl involved can judge whether she was harassed by others. There are various opinions on one thing, someone can accept and others can’t. That is why law exists. Maybe you can try to change some bad laws legally, such as you can fine that guys saying” you have so beautiful eyes” to you if you are supported by most people. Anyway you will meet lots of people not living in your style in an open society. I think it is a more important thing to try to accept them in a broad mind. If you really can’t tolerate such “rudeness”, maybe one way you can try is to give them a rude stare or say” F@#$ Y@#” back.

  11. Anon says:

    Found this stream after looking up a debate on sexism. I agree with “Anonymous” 100% and would like to encourage everyone to reconsider telling anyone who feels uncomfortable with the way they have been treated to “lighten-up” – it is dismissive and not helpful.
    While I recognize the question was posed about a different culture, all of the behavior the author describes would potentially be in conflict with sexual harassment laws in the US. Even if you disagree with her take, they are good questions. In fact, the whole key is not what we / other responders think. It all boils down to what she thinks. For example, say this had taken place in a US workplace. If the author had expressed her discomfort to the commentors about their remarks and they continued their behavior then it would constitute harassment by US law. If the same comments beget mutual flirting and then dating then there would be no problem.
    The issue then becomes one of equality — street catcalling is not flirting — which is why it isn’t ever called that. It is someone expressing a verbal sexual desire (or supposed sexual desire as some of this can be peer-pressure / machismo, etc). People are going to take this differently — some will be flattered, some embarrassed, some will feel unsafe, etc. But everyone can have their own reaction and that is okay. My only advice is that if you feel uncomfortable and safe, than confront it. If you do not feel safe, then go where you do and regroup.
    It may be no surprise that I do find the behavior she is describing sexist. I recognize it as being culturally acceptable in many places and by many people, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t bother me or anyone else. We all have our different comfort levels and that is perfectly okay and it does not need to be reasoned or debated away from someone.
    I would also like to respond to Doug’s post. It seems clear that he has sincere affection for this author, but his advice and interpretation are not good. Frankly, many could reasonably consider some of the comments to be more sexist than the catcalling we are all debating. Every person is responsible for their own sexual behavior and expression and to imply a woman’s behavior, dress, attractiveness, etc. causes men to behave in certain ways over which they have no control or about which they cannot be held responsible is dangerous and inaccurate. This perspective leads to very sad things such unequal relationships, objectification of women, tolerance of sexist behavior, and assault. I realize some will disagree with me on this (and may tell me to lighten-up), but I work in the sexual assault community and have countless credibly sources which support these effects, not to mention first-hand knowledge. I have seen a violent rape case lost in court this year because the victim knew her attacker and was wearing a short skirt. It happens every day.
    I realize the previous paragraph deviates from the debate a bit, but I thought it important to address. Bottom line author is that your feelings are valid and you should respond how ever you feel most comfortable no matter what country you find yourself in.

  12. Oyunlar says:

    great info thanks…Oyunlar

  13. Anonymous says:

    On this subject, Salon wrote a great piece that puts some of this dialogue to the test: sexual harassment on NYT’s subways. Take a look: http://www.salon.com/mwt/broadsheet/feature/2008/10/03/subway_groping/index.html

  14. john thames says:

    I see that my latest incisive comments have been taken down. Truth is too much-particularly when it calls the BS by its proper name.

  15. garbarharyarb says:

    “Why not create a concept called “hormonal harassment”? Define “hormonal harassment” as “giving men unwanted erections by showing off the tits and ass in any way, shape or form”. Then sue women endlessly using their own dialectical doublethink against them.”

    Seconded.

  16. Montserrat says:

    I live in Chile and found this while searching for information on a Sexism. And I just though I should say that it makes me uncomfortable too, and I live here. Sometimes it’s annoying, and sometimes it’s just severly creepy. I think nobody should have to plan the route home to avoid construction sites, or other similar places where groups of men come together, just because these men think they “compliment us”. An old guy once followed me after saying I was pretty, a stranger put his arm around my shoulders out of nowhere (and wouldn’t get off, I practically had to run away)… It’s NOT a compliment. It’s like saying “Yum, a burguer”. And the worst part is, it’s extremely common. You can’t go anywhere without receiving unwanted attention. Chile, and latin america in general, is Sexist, and it shows. Im tired of it. So never say “we accept it and it bothers no one”, because it does.

  17. Cissa says:

    Montserrat, I totally second you. Easy for men to dismiss our fears when this never happens to them and when they´ll never feel that uncomfortable feeling of realizing that in a situation in which you will need to defend yourself, you will be the weaker part.
    Street harassment is a lesser form of the radical machismo of arab countries. So no, it´s not acceptable, in any shape, quantity, or form. No woman wants to be touched, taked to, hissed at or cat called against her will, ever. Period.

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