Staring and other Strangeness
Staring and being stared at are taboo in the U.S., even if we don’t realize it. Personal space is a standardized halo of roughly two feet, and you’re supposed to keep your arms, legs, and eyes inside that bubble or straight ahead at all times. One of my professors here in the U.S. told me that we can’t make eye contact for five consecutive seconds without getting into a fight or having sex. Argentines do not follow these rules because they have their own.
Men made me uncomfortable when I was abroad. Correction: in those first days, people made me uncomfortable when I was abroad. On the subway, people stared at me and at each other. People I did not know interrupted my aggressively solitary walks through the city, even when I had headphones in my ears and eyes averted to communicate pointed unfriendliness. The men were worse, to be sure, and I was catcalled almost every single day, often several times per day. I felt looked at and studied and even pursued much of the time, partly because my hair is blonde and this was a distinct sign of foreignness which attracted particular attention. However, as I interacted with different Argentines throughout my semester, my attitude towards Argentine attention began to change.
At a check-in dinner after the first month abroad, our resident director Mario smiled and laughed when someone pointed out how people on the subway tend to stare. He replied in Spanish, but his response went something along these lines: “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.” If anyone in Argentina is one hundred percent trustworthy, it’s Mario, and if Mario stares, then perhaps it doesn’t mean what I thought it meant. I asked myself if this cultural latitude should extend to catcalls and realized that it doesn’t (Argentine women don’t think so either and have organized extensive campaigns to put a stop to it), but I did have to relax some of my particular ideas about personal space and approachability in order to avoid being angry all the time. The line between necessary cultural adjustment and street harassment is difficult to parse outside of home turf, but it firmly exists — when in doubt, 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 do cross that line.
Acts of Violation
Unfortunately,sometimes there is no latitude to give. One afternoon on the way to my internship, I was sexually assaulted by a stranger behind me who had decided that his pleasure was more important than me. Acts of violation follow exactly the same rules abroad as they do back home: they’re unacceptable, and your institution (IFSA) is there to help you if they happen. I chose to be relatively private about what happened to me and not go through counseling or alert my home institution, but the on-site IFSA office immediately swept in to help in any way possible. An important thing to keep in mind is that you may be trying to practice some form of cultural relativism and extend latitude in areas of interaction that you wouldn’t back home, but assault, rape, and sexual harassment are completely wrong everywhere and it is still never your fault — even though some rules don’t apply abroad, this one unilaterally does. Female classmates and I fervently discussed our experiences in classes with Argentines, sharing our stories and calling out the catcalling-culture we kept encountering. Even though we rarely took the risk of engaging with catcallers themselves, we found 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 the issue as we were. There will be uncomfortable aspects of assimilating to another culture, but this type and degree of discomfort is never asked of you, and it wasn’t of me.
Practical vs. Progressive
There are many things which I wish didn’t affect women’s safety abroad, but often do nonetheless. Something to consider is this list of three dangerous D’s: Drinking, Dressing, and Doing things alone. Drinking is consistently dangerous for women everywhere because some men, no matter where you are, do bad things to drunk women. As for dressing, this was a more notable problem that I experienced abroad because there was a distinct difference between the times I wore leggings and a T-shirt to the gym and times I wore running shorts and a tank top — when I did the latter, I would, without exception, be bothered by men on my five minute walk. Dress as you see fit, but keep in mind that dressing can require more strategy abroad because if you wear revealing, sexy, or minimal clothing then you may encounter more attention than you’d like. As for doing things alone, I found that having just one friend with me would decrease unpleasant interactions and catcalls by half. Whenever that friend was a man, they would go away almost entirely. This advice goes against all that most progressive groups are working to achieve for the agency of women, but they do practically reduce unwanted male attention and increase general safety. Be willing to suspend some of your ideological ‘should’s’ in practice for the sake of safety; this is unfortunate but we live in a world in progress. The good part is that you can bring what you’ve learned about how women deal with the particular issues they face in their cultures while you’re abroad back home, and then look at the cultural hang-ups in your own home country with fresh eyes — Argentina has boasted a female president, for one, and we could certainly learn from that example — and keep making strides for women back home and everywhere!
SASHAA, Prevention and response to American victims of sexual assault overseas: https://pathwaystosafety.org/
IFSA’s Title IX Policy: https://live-ifsa.pantheonsite.io/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/misconduct_relationship_violence__stalking.pdf
Your IFSA On-Site Staff: they are available to help with any incidents that may occur while you are abroad and can provide you with any resources from medical care to counseling to support services.
Bethany Catlin is a student at Macalester College and studied abroad with IFSA through the Argentine Universities Program in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2017.