I admit it didn't help that I was high on Fem-lit, swallowing chapters of Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me, while swaying point-side in the hammock outside the bunker-style cement-and-mortar cabina we rented for the week, hoping the last Southern swell of the season would deliver as promised.
No stranger to machismo after a decade living and surfing in Costa Rica, this particular surf trip to El Salvador with my Mexican surfer friend Mario, let out a whole new can of worms where self-proclaimed surfeminists like me are concerned. In fact, it nearly ended our friendship, and taught me how far we, as a human species, still have to go to keep from drowning in our oppressive patriarchal culture - and just how far the surfing world is from offering any sort of exception.
It had been a long day already, and it wasn't even noon when we returned from our first surf adventure of the trip, peppered with feminist fodder of both the commonplace surfing and scary Salvadoran variety. There was a sunrise bus ride and hour-long beach walk, a nearly empty pointbreak with wide-open barrels even I could get inside and out of, really for the very first legitimate time in my life - twice, in fact, in one unforgettably sunny session.
But that's not what this story is about.
Actually, this is a story about freedom.
I celebrated my twice-barrel milestone mostly silently among the din of 'Rica, mami' cat-calls exerting masculinity along the trail despite Mario’s presence by my side, invariably desrespecting both of us where cross-cultural machismo is typically concerned. I, a woman living in Latin America, had grown used to ignoring men's incessant comments and stares, which usually subsided when a man accompanied me in public. Mario, however, took this one quite personally and we had an interesting conversation about what it's like to be a woman walking the world, particularly in Central America. We weren't about to risk a potential MS-13 gang brawl over some indecent innuendo and a semi-slighted ego, so we took the high road, blood boiling, and let that one slide.
Earlier, there had been friendly banter in the water with a few salty New Yorkers riding custom-shaped logs, who had boated in to the point from a surf resort down the coast, and whose conversation felt more like an interrogation on how I, a woman, could possibly be living the dream of making a decent living in Costa Rica and travelling to surf epic point breaks at leisure with no sugar daddy in tow. If I had a nickel for every time the conversation with older men in the water went something like that...
What they didn't know is that I had actually paid for this trip with profits I'd earned from my writing, with a bit of change to spare. Surfeminist: 1, Salty Loggers: 0.
And when I told them I was a writer, and instead of asking me what I'd written they asked me who my favorite authors were, and instead of setting myself up for sure failure with a response for them to judge at will, what they didn't expect to hear was my reply: "Right now I'm reading a book called Men Explain Things to Me," the title of which I had to repeat exactly five times in order for it to be finally heard and understood, and then immediately dismissed with a laugh and a patronizing sort of 'Yeah, right'. I guessed they thought I was joking.
'No, really,' I retorted. 'It's actually a book and I'm actually reading it.' To little avail. They weren't hearing that. Luckily, it meant the end of our little chit-chat, and I could catch a few waves in peace and quiet.
While that conversation may have been a tiny step for surfeminism in my soulspace if nowhere else, it most likely disappeared quite unceremoniously, if not entirely lost in the ocean of all the invisible things that drown interactions like that right back into oblivion. Those things we call patriarchy, where it is customary for men to feel entitled to speak and be heard, and women are taught - in both subtle and overt ways - to listen and perhaps respond appropriately when prompted. Where women don't get where they are without the help of men, and where a successful woman living her dreams must obviously be interrogated as to how in fact she could possibly accomplish such a feat. As women, when we break those social rules, when we don't smile and nod, when we decide to be the exception, there are sometimes meaningful consequences - like the end of a conversation I didn't care to have - but they're often not as grandiose as many of us would hope. Especially since the big things require fundamental changes in the relationships of entitlement, privilege and power between men and women, in both subtle and overt ways, everywhere in the world. Still, silence around me for the remaining hour of our session felt a little bit like victory to me.
Next, back on land there was a feral South African blondie-versus-my vagina stare-down contest, which my vagina eventually lost, thanks to my strategically placed surfboard blocking an essential third of my body from view; once again, while Mario stood at my side and tried to distract said South African by asking him some important location questions between his unabashed bouts of unwelcome pussy-peeping. That's what we decided to call him, 'the pussy-peeper'. Yes, my vagina was wearing a bikini - a tasteful one-piece, actually. No, that isn't an invitation to ogle at will. Ever.
I was mostly annoyed and a bit upset in my stomach, but not terrified by any means. While feeling partially violated, I didn't perceive any actual threat from the likes of his scrawny surfy sort of self. I just figured he hadn't seen a woman in a while and had forgotten how to act in our presence. Again, blood boiling, we let it slide and went on our merry way. He just wasn't worth it. Back at our rented bunker, I'd read from Solnit later that South Africa was a rape capital of the world - with 600,000 rapes estimated in 2012 - and begin to reassess my sharpened sense of false security.
We hitched a ride with an oyster man and his wife in their blue pick-up, balancing our boards atop the bag of heavy shells in the bed of the truck, while the breeze flipped through our crunchy-salty locks and cooled my sunburnt, surfeminist temper. Adventure finally felt a little more free. Like it's supposed to be.
A sketchy little dude hopped in with us a few kilometers down the road, sweating to high hell. Something was up but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Mario and I exchanged suspicious glances across the wind. We waited while the oyster man took a detour and greeted a trio of young oyster divers, emptying the heavy sack on the earth beside the truck, counting and separating his load among them. Oyster man's wife slid a thin blade between a pair of shells and shared one with us from their fresh, slippery catch, smiling sweetly. A young woman passed, carrying a baby and wearing a longish mini-skirt. All six men watched her ass, slowly, as it wiggled on by. Normal.
Sketchy little dude stood up in the bed of the pick-up and slapped at his front pocket, gesturing toward the oyster divers. Mario, trained well by the streets of Mexico City, reached for his knife - showing, not telling - and cracked open another oyster. He motioned for me to come sit next to him. No wasn't an option.
"Tienes mota ahi?" he asked sketchy dude casually, making sure it was weed he was packing in his pocket and not something heavier. With its history of bloody civil war and persistent gang violence born in Los Angeles and exported back through forced migration, El Salvador is among Central America's more dangerous spots, statistically speaking anyway. This wasn't a moment for passivity.
Beads of sweat dripped down sketchy dude's sideburns as one of the oyster divers approached. Mario stayed friendly while I stayed quiet, planning our escape. It played out in my headspace that this was all a heist, a tourist kidnapping hostage situation that we wouldn't narrowly evade.
'Es mota, verdad?' Mario asked again, laughing to ease the tension, heavy on sketchy dude's brow. 'Tranquilo, brother. Just relax. You're sweating like crazy.' Mario had a way of connecting with all walks of life, and I was grateful for his dominant demeanor, dispersing the energy among us. Everybody seemed to lighten up a bit.
'There's a party tomorrow night - Saturday - in town,' oyster diver acted cool and collected. I breathed a little freer. 'We like to smoke a bit, have some fun, you know?' I smiled, relieved, easing my grip on Mario’s thigh. It looked like every little thing was gonna be alright.
Goods were exchanged, oysters all accounted for. The men shook hands and nodded heads as the engine revved and we turned to leave. All three oyster divers stood facing us on the other side of the truck as we said our goodbyes. One of them said something I didn't quite catch and stared unmistakably at my crotch. Another one shook his head and slapped his friend playfully on the back before having a look himself, right up in there between my thighs in the place where my little jean cutoff shorts met suntanned skin where the sun don't shine.
It all happened so fast, there wasn't a damn thing to do about it.
I felt my eyes grow wide, mostly in impotence, as I grabbed on to Mario once again, this time for dear life, wishing I could crawl inside one of those oyster shells and hide until it was safe to come out again. ...whenever that would be.
In a place like El Salvador, where 524 women were murdered in 2017, and 10 women per day are victims of violence or sexual assault in a culture where rape goes largely unreported, we weren't in a position to be taking any chances, even when it meant defending my vagina from the pussy-peepers and oyster divers we met along the way.
Violated. Helpless. Weak. Defenseless. Small. Vulnerable. Disempowered. Scared.
I felt Mario feel it all, too. Perhaps for the first time savoring what it's like to be woman walking the world, with little to no recourse to the range of injustices we face every single day.
With no place else to go, I tucked my towel between my legs, praying I could disappear from sight. Or that I had a burqa like they wear in the Middle East. Yes, I thought, a burqa would be convenient in a moment like this, because it could make my body go away.
We didn't say much until we got back to the bunker.
Then, Mario broke the silence with the words I'll never soon forget:
"It would only occur to you to wear shorts like that in a place like this."
Oh no, he didn't.
Except, actually, yeah, he did.
Deep breath. I knew he meant well. He just wanted us to be safe in El Salvador. I did, too, of course.
Then, feminist rage. Because sometimes, that's all we got.
Mario suffered the consequences of millennia of patriarchy and its resulting hetero-masculine ignorance known by most as normal, and flagged by feminism as completely and violently unacceptable in both cause and effect. Victim-blaming and shaming in the same ways that Solnit describes university students being coached by police officers that in order to prevent rape, women shouldn't 'dress like sluts', instead of teaching men how to not rape them. It's assumed that women need to change their behavior, not men. And worse, it's assumed that if women change their behavior, they will be safe, when the factual and statistical evidence points completely to the contrary. The fight against victim-blaming for gendered violence and aggression was the same fight I fought that day in El Salvador, as a victim of an entire slew of unwanted sexual and masculine attention reminding me that I don't have rights to the physical integrity of my body, or even to the silence of the ocean.
As women are forced to do every single day of our lives, I was defending the fact that it wasn't my fault - or that of my bikini or cute little booty shorts - that men violated my body with their eyes, assaulted my freedom to walk with their machista innuendo, and forced my defensive responses to gender-biased conversation - instances of injustice all supported and unchallenged by thousands of years of male-dominated culture and varying degrees of silencing, dismissal, abuse and sexual violence toward women. Experiences that are often described as 'just the way things are' or lived so casually as 'normal' that they have become completely and utterly invisible.
Many women choose to cover up, and I don't blame them. Some days, like that day in El Salvador, it's absolutely unbearable to stand strong in our skin, in our freedom to wear as much or as little as we'd like, when men are sick and haven't learned better than to just simply let us be.
I knew I wasn't going to end machismo in El Salvador in one surf trip, but it felt important to defend myself as a surfeminist unwilling to accept fault for being the victim of gendered harassment, innuendo, and unwanted pussy-peeping. And it's the same reason why I find it important to share this story beyond our otherwise fleeting experience. And while Mario was almost always on the feminist side of most arguments, this one was complicated and quite cultural, to say the least. And I don't blame him, either. It's gotten so commonplace to shame the victim, that it's nearly accepted as truth that women should cover their bodies if they don't want men to look at them, and if they don't want to feel vulnerable on the street. That is not the kind of truth we as a human species should be willing to accept.
The conversation got worse before it got better.
"It makes us more vulnerable when you dress like that. Like if I have a GoPro in my pocket, I know better than to whip it out for a photo op in the middle of the gang neighborhood in the ghetto."
Yes, he compared my vagina to a hand-held camera. The difference, of course, being that he can leave the house without his GoPro and therefore be less vulnerable to gangs on the street. In my case, whether I 'whip it out' or not, I don't have the luxury of leaving my vagina in the safe when I step out the door and into the world. And the mere fact that I'm woman makes me vulnerable, wherever I go and no matter what I wear, because whether it's wrapped in a bikini, in booty shorts, or a burqa, every man on earth knows that beneath a few layers of fabric, is my vagina. And instead of having a conversation with me about vulnerability and the real roots of sexism and machismo, Mario opted to victim-shame and blame me and my shorts for our sketchy bout of bad luck. In essence, blaming me for being a woman, vulnerable by birth.
At that point, when vaginas got compared with GoPros, I nearly lost my shit and packed my bags.
However, as I considered leaving, I was mostly scared of the men I might encounter on the streets of El Salvador, and realized that despite his off-kilter point-of-view in the moment, my man was still my greatest source of protection against all other men, after all. Now how's that for a feminist conundrum?
With no place else to go, I stayed, spoke my peace, fought for my silence, and sat down to write. Because sometimes, that's all we got.
There aren't easy answers to these sorts of sociocultural realities. Mario's acculturation growing up in a violent, hyper-machista barrio of Mexico City contrasted with my hyper-feminist academic and familial background in suburban white America. Not to mention my fiercely feminist commitment not to change my behavior based on the presence of men, unless absolutely necessary - including what I say, where I walk, and what I wear. The girl in shorts at the pyramids in Egypt. The one who walks past the construction site in a bikini headed home after a surf. Hell, the same girl who once walked no-pantsies down the busiest street in Washington DC on her twenty-first birthday (because YOLO). That girl lives to not give a fuck about what men - and many women - think she should be wearing, saying, doing or being. Yes, it often means I receive much more unwanted attention in booty shorts than I might if I wore a mu-mu. But statistically speaking, it doesn't make me any more vulnerable to sexual violence, despite what our victim-shaming society and legal system may have both men and women believe. I am a target of gender violence simply because I am a woman living in a misogynistic patriarchal society, not because of what I choose to wear. And that is a truth worth hearing.
Someday I hope men, and many women, actually get that. Because it's actually a fact, no matter how hard it's been mansplained otherwise.
And perhaps the looks we get and the comments that are made, usually regardless of what we wear, serve no other purpose than to remind us just how vulnerable we are to be women walking the world.
But, like I said, this is a story about freedom.
…to be continued.