I gathered up my things, realizing more and more that the shot had actually produced quite an effect in me. I wasn’t exactly stumbling drunk, but I wasn’t sober either. I threw my backpack on and walked downstairs.
Now, I usually share a cab home with Jack, but it was his night off, so I was on my own. Then again, I was usually the one negotiating in Spanish to get it down to 10 Bs. instead of 15. Which is probably and unfair (in our favor) deal for 2 different stops. But Jack always reminds the chofer that he’s the bar manager, so they are happy to give him a discount. Tonight, negotiation should be easier. I’m happy to pay 10 and I only live 6 blocks away. It’s a straight shot, but the wrong way down a one-way street. Still, at 10:30pm on a Sunday there’s little traffic and it shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes.
So I walked from the Ekko door down the hill to the corner. As usual there were several taxis lined up, and since it wasn’t “taxi rush hour” (1:30 pm when the bar closes and everyone is looking for a cab to take them to the latest after-hours club), most of the choferes were standing around outside talking to one another.
“Buenas noches! Voy a Calle Zoilo Flores” I said.
“Ven, ven.” One man told me.
“Veinte y cinco.”
I looked around at the other drivers expecting someone to laugh. No one did.
“En serio? Es diez.”
“No, veinte y cinco.”
I walked up the hill and around the corner to the Irish Rose hostel, where I knew another line of taxis would be. As I walked up to the first in the line, I asked again and was told 20. I tried to negotiate down, but he was holding firm to 20. It just didn’t make any sense. I walked away again, thinking I’d go back to Ekko and wait it out until those taxis had taken charges and a new crop had popped up. And as I rounded the corner this time, two Bolivian men moved toward me. One slapped my ass. I elbowed him and gave him a scowl. He laughed and walked away with his friend.
I have been in worse situations. I have felt more assaulted before. I have had things taken from me that can never be replaced. And ass slapping is something that can be fun and/or funny among friends. But this made me feel especially exposed. Because this was my space. This block is probably the place I feel the safest in La Paz. Ekko is directly across from a police station, and has a security man at the door at all times. Nothing is supposed to happen to me on this block. But something has. And I suddenly felt very vulnerable.
But what happened next made it worse. I rang the bell to Ekko and explained to Moises, the security guard on duty, what had happened. He let me inside and then stuck his head out the door. He apparently didn’t see anything and then just closed the door. Frustrated with him, I walked upstairs. I couldn’t find Antonio, who I really wanted to talk to, but Avi, one of the Israeli bartenders could see I was shaken. I told him the story.
His response: “Oh don’t worry. Its not a big deal. Just go home and you’ll feel better tomorrow.”
And then my fear and vulnerability turned to rage. This is what is wrong with the world. People who stand by and dismiss gender-based violation as “not a big deal” are only contributing to the problem. They create an atmosphere that is accepting of sexual assault. They contribute to the impunity of those that believe they can violate women because its “not a big deal.” I don’t need to rehash the arguments here. They’ve been made more thoroughly, more eloquently, and more frequently by plenty of writers. But the point is, Avi’s response infuriated me.
So then, it being clear that this did not make me feel better, Avi called over Noah, who had a similar response to the story. Has the world gone mad? Or is it just that Israeli men have a particular world-view that does not allow them to understand why they are so freaking screwed up to say such things????
I got them to leave me alone, and I lied down on the couch. Now remember its only 11pm by this time and the bar is full. I’m just the crazy girl crying and screaming in the corner of the bar. I tried to calm myself down, but I was on the verge of hyperventilating through my tears. All I had really wanted was someone to go outside and yell at this guy or otherwise scare him off. I didn’t want violence or anyone to pity me. It wasn’t about that. It was just that I wanted this dude to realize that when he does such a thing, other people don’t consent to it. Don’t grant him leave. Don’t think its ok, and are going to be vocal about it. But apparently he was right and I was wrong. He can get away with it because its “no big deal.” And apparently my in-ring skills don’t necessarily translate well to the street.
As I lied there on the couch, trying to take deep breaths and stabilize my breathing, my mind, myself, Thomas came over and put his hand on my back. “You ok?” And then the story came rushing out again. “Do you think he’s still out there?” “Probably not.” “Ok, well what do you want to do? Do you want to go home? Do you want me to make sure you get home.”
I didn’t want to go home. My roommates had recently moved out, and returning to a dark empty apartment wasn’t necessarily scary. I didn’t feel like anyone was after me. But it sounded lonely. It sounded like too much quiet and space and time to let my brain keep churning. Because the scary part was not that some random dude touched my ass. It was that the space I felt safe in suddenly felt menacing. Like I could have easily been abducted, or truly sexually assaulted, or robbed, or any number of things. Suddenly my happy little La Paz life could come crashing down. I was shocked into recognizing my vulnerability again.
I talked to Thomas for a good while, and eventually the bar was starting to close. I told Antonio the story and he put on his jacket and black stocking cap (though he was still wearing flip flops). He took a machete from the bar office (there are a variety of weapons stored there including a billy club, 3 machetes, and several cans of mace). “What did he look like?” “Oh, lord, he’s not still out there. And even if he was, he was a short Bolivian man wearing a white shirt. You could probably find 20 of those in the neighborhood on any given night.” But Antonio went anyway, returning 10 minutes later, shockingly not having encountered the assailant. But he offered up his bed and I stayed there that night.
I found out 2 days later the guy had done the same thing to at least 2 other girls in the preceding week. And neither of them had said anything because they “didn’t want to make a big deal out of it.” But apparently when they heard it happened to me, they both told their very similar stories. To which I could only respond again—what is wrong with the world, where no one wants to make a “big deal” out of gender-based violation? How have we come to (or stayed in) a place where this is something that is pushed under the rug and forgotten. This is not ok.
I am not the first anthropologist to have some person assault them while don’t field work (See diLeonardo 1997, Leap 2008, and Frederik Meer 2007)—and those are only anthropologists I personally know). And my experience is far from the worst it could be. Many anthropologists have had people enact far worse violence on them. But I think its important to make a big deal out of this no matter how seemingly inconsequential. No matter how often it happens. (and thanks to what I’ve learned from an amazing colleague working on language and sexual assault, I just changed the wording of this sentence to an active verb with an agent rather than a passive construction). Yes, we bring our first world sensibilities about what constitutes rape and the safety one should reasonably expect while walking alone. But this is one of those instances in which “cultural relativism” is not a suitable defense for us not to speak out. This is important. This transcends culture. This is about the human right to autonomy over one’s own person and ability to exist in the world without fear of being alone or leaving the confines of a safe space.
di Leonardo, Micaela
1997 White Lies, Black Myths: Rape, Race, and the. Black 'Underclass.' In The
Gender/Sexuality Reader. Roger Lancaster and Micaela di Leonardo, eds. Pp 53-70.
New York: Routledge.
Frederik Meer, Laurie
2007 Playback Theater in Cuba: The Politics of Improvisation and Free Expression.
The Drama Review 51(4): 106-120.
2008 Whose [reading of] Gender Matters? Female Masculinity as Political Praxis.
Paper presented at University of Osnabrück, 25 November.