We may not realize it, but staring is taboo in the United States. Here, personal space dictates a standard halo of two feet, with arms, legs, and eyes inside that bubble. One of my U.S. professors told me Americans can’t make eye contact for five consecutive seconds without getting into a fight or having sex. But Argentines have their own rules.
In those first days abroad, people made me uncomfortable. On the subway, people stared at me and each other. People I did not know interrupted my aggressively solitary walks through the city, even with headphones on and eyes averted. Men were worse. I experienced catcalls daily, often several times per day. I felt looked at, studied, and even pursued, partly because my blond hair was a distinct sign that I was foreign. But as I interacted with different Argentines throughout the semester, my attitude began to change.
At a check-in dinner after the first month, our resident director, Mario, smiled and laughed when someone pointed out how people on the subway tend to stare. He replied in Spanish, something like this: “Well, yes. We Argentines tend to stare. Especially on the subway. We’re in a box underground, unfortunately, there isn’t much else to look at.”
Mario is 100 percent trustworthy, and if he stares, perhaps staring doesn’t mean what I thought it meant. Should this cultural latitude extend to catcalls? I don’t think so. (Argentine women don’t either and have organized extensive campaigns to stop it.) But I did relax some of my ideas about personal space and approachability to avoid being angry all the time.
The line between necessary cultural adjustment and street harassment is difficult to parse, but it firmly exists. When in doubt, it’s best to talk about it. Discomfort is a thing apart from insecurity, and both IFSA staff and Argentine women can help you distinguish between the two and resolve issues that cross that line.
Over the line
Sometimes there is no latitude to give. One afternoon on the way to my internship, I was sexually assaulted by a stranger who decided his pleasure was more important than me. When you’re abroad—as when back home—acts of violation are unacceptable, and IFSA is there to help you if you need it.
I chose to be relatively private about my experience, but the on-site IFSA office staff immediately swept in to help. You may be trying to practice cultural relativism and extend latitude where you wouldn’t back home, but assault, rape, and sexual harassment are undeniably wrong everywhere and never your fault.
While in class with Argentines, female classmates and I fervently discussed our experiences, sharing our stories and the catcall-culture we encountered. Though we rarely took the risk of engaging with catcallers, we did find safer ways of protesting, and ultimately discovered women and men, students and professors, leftists and rightists, who were just as cognizant of and pained by this practice as we were. When abroad, you are likely to experience uncomfortable aspects of cultural assimilation, but this level of discomfort should never be asked of you—and it wasn’t asked of me.
Practical vs. progressive
There are many things I wish didn’t affect women’s safety abroad but nonetheless do. Consider the three dangerous Ds: drinking, dressing, and doing things alone.
- Drinking is consistently dangerous for women because wherever you are, some men do bad things to drunk women.
- Dressing while abroad can require more strategy. If you wear revealing, sexy, or minimal clothing you may encounter more attention than you’d like. I noticed a distinct difference wearing leggings and a T-shirt to the gym and wearing running shorts and a tank top — with the latter, I was always bothered by men.
- Doing things alone. Having just one friend with me decreased unpleasant interactions and catcalls by half. When that friend was a man, the issue went away almost entirely.
It’s true that my advice goes against all that most progressive groups are working to achieve for women. But practically, it reduces unwanted attention. Be willing to suspend some of your ideological shoulds for safety’s sake.
There’s another upside. You can bring what you’ve learned home and see cultural hang ups in your own country with fresh eyes. Argentina has boasted a female president for one. We could certainly learn from that example—and keep making strides for women at home and elsewhere.
—Bethany C. (Macalester College), IFSA Argentine Universities program