Sexual Harassment on Cuba’s Streets: What Can We Do About It?

Caricatures, songs and other Cuban cultural manifestations tend to naturalize sexual harassment, with displays of machismo, as if they proved greater “Cubania” (Cubaness) in a person.

By Lucia Suarez  (Alas Tensas)

HAVANA TIMES – It’s the morning and I’m walking down a block which generally has very few cars and pedestrians at this time of day. I see a neglected park on my right, as it’s full of rubble, heaps of sand, bags of cement… they’re building something.

I carry on, and about 4 meters away from me, a man speeds up his pace and leans his body against the fence. He’s a builder. He looks at me and smiles. I don’t know him. I cross the street. He begins to make a sound that is like a stream of water when a pipe bursts, something like psst, psst, and he asks me why I crossed over, saying he doesn’t bite.

I carry on walking, he remains behind mumbling God only knows what. This that has just happened is nothing compared to other experiences I’ve had. But, it still happened. I had to cross the street and I now know that until they finish the construction project, I won’t be able to walk there.

H is braver than me. One time, an old man followed her and kept saying obscene things until she suddenly turned around to face him and said, in not the most cultured way (just like her harasser had been talking to her) that if she agreed to have sex with him, he wouldn’t last because his heart wouldn’t be able to keep up and he would die of a heart attack. The old man felt insulted. H dared to be disrespectful towards him! So he stopped telling H how much he wanted to sleep with her and began to abuse her with another kind of verbal violence.

And, going up another notch… one afternoon C was on her way to class at university, she took public transport and it was crammed, like always. C told me that she kept a good eye on her bag in case there were pickpockets, trying hard to keep her balance among so many people, wishing that her stop would finally come. However, C didn’t have an eye out on the man who, leaning against her, masturbated and left semen on her clothes.

The first two examples were cases of sexual harassment on the street. C’s case is much more serious: she was a victim of indecent assault. The problem is that one can lead to the other, as the harasser can “be satisfied” with giving a lewd and rude catcall, but he might also want to assault the woman.

Crowded spaces are the favorite haunts of perverted men who go out looking to touch the bodies of young girls and women, however, exhibitionists normally go to places with very few people. They like to instill fear and have their fleeting share of power over the victim, as it’s clear that women are vulnerable in situations like these.

Talking to friends, I’ve been able to confirm that we all are and have been victims of street sexual harassment, at least since our teenage years. When we talk about this subject, it has become common for us to share our experiences and give each other tips on how to free ourselves of harassers: “if you’re alone, grab a rock and threaten him”, “if you’re on a bus, tell him to move away.” That is to say, women go outside to study, work, buy food or, quite simply, to go for a walk, and they have to be thinking about how to defend themselves from harassers.

A young Dutch woman called Noa Jansma has used social media to denounce this problem. She uses her Instagram page (@dearcatcallers) to upload selfies that she takes with the men who whistle at her or insult her in public spaces. This is how she exposes them, the men who are so skilled at pretending and hiding.

One of the photos (of her harassers) which Noa has published on her Instagram page.

Each and every one of us has to recognize the responsibility we have in tackling this problem. There are women who consider a catcall to be confirmation of their beauty, and there are even some women who feel less if a man doesn’t celebrate her appearance.

We have to be aware that we don’t need a man’s opinion on the street to make us feel beautiful; we shouldn’t give another person the right to judge our body, as this means that we accept their influence on our behavior and I don’t believe any stranger deserves that privilege.

Plus, the line between a catcall that praises you and another that attacks you is very fine and it even depends on the mood of the harasser that day.

We also have a great duty to educate children properly. I have seen so many times how young boys (who have just about started counting one with their index finger) are asked how many girlfriends they have by family members. Another constant thing is: Look at the girl, she’s so pretty, say something!

Lots of families even teach them to make gestures with their tiny hands to indicate that the girl (or muchacha) is attractive. After something like this, they generally all laugh and shout: boy, this kid knows!, without understanding the harm they are reproducing by instilling these attitudes. Harm to women and to men too, as social pressure is the reason that many men feel obliged to catcall, to confirm their manhood in front of others.

If there aren’t any legal channels today that allow us to defend ourselves from harassers, at least we can let children be just that, children, and not distort their sex education with elements of harassment and imposing machista attitudes towards women.

It’s a very complex problem, harassment can cause serious emotional damage in teenage girls and women. After her experience, C had to continue going to her university classes, but she has never felt safe on public transport ever again. As soon as a stranger approaches her, alarm bells go off and she can’t think about anything but protecting every inch of her body.

The man who assaulted her must be roaming the streets, looking for victims, the protagonist of sordid stories, “protected” by crowds and the little sense of risk that exists in Cuba, of the crime he has become addicted to.

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9 thoughts on “Sexual Harassment on Cuba’s Streets: What Can We Do About It?

  • Realmente es muy desagradable,la.situaciòn del irrespeto a hombres de cualquier edad hacia las.mujeres en las calles ,inclusive en lugares donde se.compran mercancias y negocio de bebidas. Pareciera que no se controlan ni nadie los controla pero hay Leyes ,se deberia esforzarlas màs y, multar a esos indecentes y mal educado piropiadores indeseables. To the Hail I’ll of them

  • As a Respectful Latino living in North America, it’s Bad enough we have to deal with these radical feminists here; but to deal with their BS in our countries now you’re crossing the line.
    If you don’t like the way we paid complements to females over there please stay in your country and don’t come to ours.
    More women are killed by their male partner in North America and Europe than many other countries in the world. Sonplease clean your rubbish and stop complaining about our countries. Just the way you don’t like us coming to your countries forcing you make changes; we don’t need your insecure radical feminist daddy issues in ours!!!

  • Georgia Lombard: Eres una freaking stupid!! Hacer este comentario, no vengas hablar M.. decir que en Cuba las leyes son más fuertes que EU y Canada en relación Acoso Sexual, estás loca!!! Si para ti es un elogio que se te pega un tipo en la guagua o un lugar público y te deje su semen en tu ropa, como el caso que habla la periodista.. Eres una cerda degenerada….

  • Cuba is probably the safest country in the Americas for women. Women can walk about on the streets alone day or night. For females travelling alone Cuba is a prime travel destination. This is not to say everything is perfect. Nor do I understand why bad behavior is particularly associated with construction, but it seems to be worldwide.

  • Yes, it is sexual harassment(Acoso Sexual) in any part of the world.
    You! that called F*ck compliment should end up in jail receiving the same compliments and ask to any female in your family How are they feeling to go through this.

    I was 12 years old when I get the same compliment on the bus (it might have been you). I didn’t want my father to fight…… it’s the most devastating situation.

    People like you are the ones that should leave Cuba to learn a good lesson.

  • Unfortunately it doesn’t have to do with (just) Cuban culture or machismo. I’m living in the Netherlands, which definitely doesn’t has a macho country. And it has been happening here all my life as well, even as a young girl we learned it is better to walk across the street from any construction site and not to react to whistling and shouts. The semen in the bus experience I had while on vacation in Portugal (maybe a bit more a machismo culture there). I think it is mainly an effect of the inability of a lot of men to communicate with women in a normal way (especially if they like them) and the total misconception of a lot of men that women actually like any kind of attention. So unfortunately it’s somethings that happens all over the world.

  • That wouldn’t be “Cuban” culture, that would be “machismo” culture. Many nationalities around the world have this “sub-culture”, or more aptly put, this mentality embedded within them.

    You also over simplify the issue when you say it is just a compliment. Like most grey issues, there is the light end where it is just a compliment, but there are many who take it too far and it becomes lewd.

    And since they are dealing with another human being, the line for what is a simple compliment and what is lewd changes as well. So with each encounter it is a balancing act.

    It doesn’t matter what country it is in, the mechanics of these human interactions stay the same.

  • Let me see if I get you right…. Cuban women like the author who don’t like sexual harassment should leave the island and foreign female visitors shouldn’t bother to come if they don’t want to hear such “compliments”. You imply that anything short of rape is “Cuban tradition” and should be tolerated. Now that’s a revolutionary attitude!

  • Its not sexual harassment, that is part of the culture they just giving you compliments, as a cuban i can assure you that the laws in Cuba are very strong when it comes to rape, unlike in Canada and USA.
    I will suggest that you stay away from Cuba if you cannot accept the Cuban traditions.

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