Still Got It…But I Don’t Want It

When I went to Ecuador in 2021, I was surprised, and pleased, at how little catcalling I was subjected to. Sexual harassment was the norm in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Mexico. To a lesser degree in Belize and Cuba, but to a greater degree in Jamaica. So that I could go about my business in Quito, Cuenca, and the Galápagos unbothered was a pleasant surprise.

But I had to wonder – was that a cultural feature or because I was much older than when I had visited those other countries? Honduras was way back in 2004, Nicaragua in 2008, Jamaica in 2015. I had no way to know.

Well, my recent trip to the Dominican Republic provided an answer in no time. Here are a few examples.

  • The very last day of our trip, my friend and I were almost out of pesos and needed the little we had for the tolls on the highway back to the airport. We stopped at a waterfall and didn’t have enough pesos for the entry. We offered dollars (which are accepted everywhere in the DR) but the guy refused and let us in for free instead.
  • While doing some light “canyoneering”, one of our guides was very handsy under the guise of being helpful so we didn’t slip while scrambling upstream over river rocks. Not inappropriately so, but excessively and unwantedly so. I was able to shake him off, but then he moved on to my friend, who was not quite so successful.
  • While driving along the southern coast, two friends and I got stuck inside a blockaded road (don’t ask how). I, as the only Spanish-speaker in my group, was tasked with asking the construction worker to let us through. He did so because, in his words, I was so beautiful.
  • When speaking to my building security to let him know my friend would be arriving in the middle of the night and needed to be let in, he first wanted to know what I eat and drink to be so beautiful. Then he wanted to know if I was married. Aside from this guy, I was asked if I’m married no fewer than six other times on this trip.

In reading these examples, you might have thought, that’s all harmless. What’s the big deal? And I want to agree. I think I sound a little crazy “complaining” about these interactions. What does it matter if a guy lets me get away with something because he finds me attractive? What does it matter if a guy flirts a little and asks me if I’m married? What does it matter if he asks me out on a date? I can say no and move on, right? Sure, and nine times out of ten, that will be the end of it.

But one time out of ten it won’t. And what if that one time is when I’m alone at night in the middle of nowhere with a taxi driver? What if that one time is with a security guard I have to walk by every single day of my life, who knows where I live and what my coming and going patterns are and that I live alone? What if those are the times the guy doesn’t take no for an answer and keeps pushing? Or what if I decide I’m not going to laugh and play along for once on this situation that has been forced on me entirely out of context, but rather express my true feelings about these interactions and I say that the comment was inappropriate and then the guy gets mad? Then what?

Women can’t shut these conversations down because often when they happen, we are in vulnerable positions or have something to lose. So we laugh politely or smile apologetically as we decline. Look at this woman and this woman. Their lack of interest in the conversation could not be any more obvious but the guy doesn’t take the hint and they are alone with their harassers, in a position where shutting him down firmly could be dangerous. It’s not just young women in low paying jobs that leave them vulnerable either. It’s established career women too. Look at this bold woman deliver her takedown…with a smile. Because she needs the account, she has to play the game still even as she calls the men out.

So no, I don’t find this kind of flirting and commentary and questioning harmless. Since I am not free to respond how I really want to without fear of putting my life in danger or losing something valuable, these behaviors are always oppressive.

Next you might be thinking, well that’s Latino/Dominican/Caribbean culture and if you don’t like it, don’t go there. No. You’re wrong. “It’s their culture” is never an excuse for accepting women being treated poorly. It was once American culture too that women couldn’t vote, own property, have credit cards, go to university, have jobs other than teacher or secretary. Our husbands (that we were reliant on for previously stated economic reasons) could have us involuntarily committed to mental institutions when the dullness of being captive to housework and children pissed us off and we got loud about it and demanded better for ourselves.

American culture changed and other cultures should too. Every woman, no matter what country she’s born in, has a right to feel safe and to expect equal and respectful treatment.

I can leave the Caribbean and did. But most women who are born there can’t and are far less empowered to stand up for themselves the way that I am. One of the activities I did while in Santo Domingo was “a day in the hood”. Our guide was a lovely, lovely woman, Gloria, who is a social worker in these poorest communities of the capital. Gloria’s work is supported by the non-profit, Latinas & Líderes, who recognizes the disadvantages that women in the Dominican Republic face, including gender violence. Their website says:

The Dominican Republic has the highest rate of adolescent pregnancy in Latin America and the Caribbean. Many of these girls come from some of the most under-resourced communities in the country, therefore perpetuating an intergenerational cycle of poverty. Almost half of school dropouts in the Dominican Republic are the result of early pregnancy and happen around the eighth grade. Too many Dominican girls and young women are also severely affected by gender violence, under-age prostitution, and child marriages. It is our mission with your support to disrupt this heart-breaking narrative by building the leaders of tomorrow!

Every place I go, I find a cause to donate to and this was my choice for the Dominican Republic. If you’ve ever vacationed here, have any connection to the country, or simply feel compelled to help, please consider doing the same.

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