F*** off and other things you can’t say to men in the Caribbean: A Smart Girl’s Survival Guide

We were at Carnival in Fort-de-France, Martinique, and it was Mardi Gras: the wildest and most sexually charged night of the holiday week. Everyone was appropriately dressed up in face paint and the obligatory red and black iterations of their lingerie. Night had fallen and suddenly the cheerful light-hearted phalluses of the parade seemed a bit more aggressive. The music was pumping and the streets were jumping. Someone grabbed my arse as I passed and I whirled round in outrage ready to aim the death stare at the perpetrator. Then a very large local man grabbed a young friend of mine by the waist and tried to force her to dance with him. She was shocked and reacted in the way that many British girls do when someone touches you without your permission: she slapped him (not very hard, on the arm). She stormed off and I, riled by the changing atmosphere and the guy who had already grabbed me, shouted at him that this was unacceptable. Our friends followed her into the throng, but so did the guy. He barrelled through the crowd, grabbed her, and whacked her round the head. We were surrounded by people and no-one did a thing to help, even when we appealed for aid. Someone did ask ‘what did she do to him?’, but that was it. He then proceeded to yell at her and scream about how she mustn’t hit people. It was clear he felt she had behaved unacceptably and was putting her in her place. She was in tears: extremely shaken by this assault in front of so many people, who had done nothing to help and had even seen it as normal.

The thing about this episode is that it could have easily been avoided by a bit of basic safety and cultural awareness. We were all language assistants, still quite new to Martinique, and still not used to the local approach to casual sexual harassment. I had asked the folks who ran the programme in Martinique several times to give us some training in how to respond to men here, because of this very kind of episode. In British, Irish and North American culture, it’s not socially acceptable to bother women in the street, so it’s generally normal to respond with an angry fuck off or a physical retaliation if they actually touch you. The most the directors of the programme could come up with was a generalised lecture about not going to the beach by yourself, and the advice to walk on and take it as a compliment. The thing is, we needed more help than that. Negativity or aggression is the worst response you can give and makes your situation dangerous, but this is often our automatic reaction. What I really wanted to know was how I could, without sacrificing my self respect, respond to the daily sexual harassment I received as a young foreign woman in Martinique. It took me three years and a much improved level of French to work it out.

First of all, what’s the harassment like?

Caribbean men pride themselves on being hot-blooded and super-sexual. Stereotypically, they’ll flirt with anything they think is female (let’s not get into homosexuality right now, that’s a topic for another day) and won’t necessarily take no for an answer the first time. They’re very persistent. It’s not unusual for one man to have several different women in his life: his baby mama (or baby mamas), the girlfriend he lives with, the girlfriend he’s seeing on the side and maybe the girl he’s currently trying to flirt with. In my experience, as far as guys are concerned everyone is fair game (even if you’re married – if you’re partner’s not physically there he might as well not exist). If you’re into women you just haven’t met the right man yet.

So because of this culture of being on the prowl all the time, as a woman it’s hard not to feel like perpetual prey. Especially if you’re not used to it.

The carnival episode was quite extreme, but a friend of mine told me about a situation in her first month in Martinique where she was followed home by a guy in his car. She was so scared she started crying. He was shocked and apologised. He hadn’t realised that his behaviour was distressing to her.

In general, the mildest sort of bother is being hissed at from across the street by one or a group of guys. A bit more unpleasant is someone sidling up to you and muttering in your ear something along the lines of ‘mmmhmmmm you’re a beautiful girl I’d like to…’ Or shouting this at you from across the street. Or stopping in their car as they pass you to say something along those lines. Some old guy came up to me in a supermarket once and muttered something at me which felt like he was asking how much I charged (luckily I didn’t speak much French at the time so didn’t understand) and then when I didn’t respond, he angrily bitched about me in Creole to the other people there (who laughed). I felt completely helpless because the biggest barrier in this situation was that I couldn’t speak much French so not only did I not really know what was happening, but I had no way of responding. This kind of harassment was normal daily life for me for a while.

I could go on, but I won’t. Basically it got to the stage where I just preferred not to go outside the house on my own because it was a constant gauntlet of being bothered by every single man you passed (including gentle-looking grandfather types) – sometimes hitting on you in a derogatory way or outright shouting abuse to look good in front of their friends. (I began to despair that all Martiniquais were like this, until someone pointed out to me that this isn’t true. Those are just the guys who don’t do anything with their day and hang about on street corners. There are lovely respectful guys with real jobs who you never meet because… they have better things to do than to hang around on street corners.)

In addition to street harassment, it also seems to be perfectly OK for people in professional work situations to chat up a colleague, or a client/customer, or for your teenage students to hit on you. Men here seem to reserve the right to be sleazy all all times, but the culture says it’s fine and that you should enjoy it (if it’s not outright harassment then they’re just appreciating an attractive woman. Nothing wrong with that.) A man openly appreciating you or looking at you like a piece of meat is fine and normal. It can be very hard to get used to if you’re not from a similar culture. You can wear the most unflattering clothes you want, but you feel like you’re always on display and always being mentally eaten up by every man in the vicinity. The marriage of the French draguer culture and Caribbean hotbloodedness is killer. (And I don’t think it’s nearly so bad in the English speaking islands.)

In general I find that if I’m friendly to anyone, it’s an invitation. And unfortunately in British culture, to be polite is to appear friendly. And although we’re not quite as extreme as the Canadians, we do like to be polite. It was clear some re-training was in order, and the advice I received from a male friend went along the lines of ‘n’hésite pas d’être un peu sec’ – which roughly translates as ‘master your resting bitch face’.

Where are the real problems?

This one is a bit harder to unravel. To try and understand, one of my housemates and I went to a feminist activist night in our town with our landlady.

The first shocking thing we learned was that one in five girls in Martinique schools are victims of incest. Domestic violence against women is common, and our landlady commented that although a man can easily leave a woman, a woman who chooses to leave her partner risks being hunted down with a machete. We didn’t know how seriously to take this comment because she was trying to warn us off dating local men at the time, and I know there are plenty of nice respectful men in Martinique who would be horrified at the thought of that.

There’s also an issue with fatherless children, especially fatherless young boys who have disrespect for women modelled to them from a young age. It’s quite common for fathers not to stick around, or at least not to live with the mothers of their progeny. Don’t get me wrong, they really want to have children. It’s a matter of pride. Men often brag to me about the number of kids they already have, and one asked me if I was ‘ déjà enfantée’ (already childed). He was shocked to find at my age that I wasn’t. It’s also not unusual for a man to have kids on several different islands. I was chatting to a teenage girl in Bequia (in the Grenadines) who told me she’d met her father once, when he’d visited the island to deal some drugs. But when he’d been arrested upon arrival she’d decided she didn’t want to see him again. People have commented that this fatherlessness is a hangover from slavery – men were used as ‘studs’ to father new slaves, and often weren’t allowed to keep contact with their children. (NB I want to be careful about contributing cultural issues to the slavery period, because the explanation is used a lot in general conversation, but as I’m not an expert I can’t speak with authority.)

Back to the feminist night. We had a chat with one of the speakers after the event to ask her advice on how we can deal with the sexual harassment. She explained that although the sexual remarks and the leering and everything else might be really unpleasant for us, we have to deal with it in the right way because we’re white (caveat – these comments were for us because we were white Europeans, but for other foreigners the situation might be different. For example, Spanish girls have the additional issue that many of Martinique’s prostitutes are Spanish or from Spanish-speaking islands, so they told me they often got treated like prostitutes). This also harks back to slavery (she explained) and being treated like subhumans (and worse) by white people. It’s a cultural memory. If we use irony or aggression or ignore them in the wrong way, to them it looks like we’re white people looking down on them. Most of them are jobless and everything-less – all they have is their ability to be superior to women. One of my Martiniquaise friends told me that the same applies to her. If she ignores the catcalling they shout after her things along the lines of ‘what, you think you’re too good for me?’

The Caribbean is a chilled relaxed sunny happy place, but you must never forget that there’s a lot of poverty and violence that remains hidden from foreigners. There’s also a high level of toxic masculinity and racial tension (especially in the French islands where people feel that the white French come and take their jobs and act as though they’re superior). All this trickles down into the way women are treated by men in public. BUT there is a solution (of sorts)…

How can you deal with it?

It’s important to be aware that Martinique culture (as with that of much of the Caribbean) is very community-focussed. You must communicate with everyone in your vicinity. You say bonjour to everyone you pass on the street. You bonjour and au’revoir the whole room when you enter a shop or bank. You acknowledge everyone around you. You aren’t a lone person drifting through the environment independent of everything else. So when you pass men, they’re going to talk to you, and the way they want to talk to you (before you know them better) might not be in the way you like. But you’re not in your own bubble, so you must respond and take part in the interaction.

The speaker at the feminist night told us that it’s fundamentally a game of respect. People here are actually generally nice, even the loulous (dealers etc) hanging about on the street corner. If you talk to them and emphasise your shared humanity, they’re often quite pleasant. You have to demand their respect by showing them respect first and emphasising that you’re also someone to be respected. My local friend uses ‘Monsieur’ and ‘vous’ very pointedly and politely with men who are being ‘chiant’. The undertone is – look at me respecting you, Monsieur, why don’t you return the favour? What you can’t do is use aggression, anger, or just ignore them. When someone speaks to you, you must respond. My friend and I have actually been followed by a man angrily demanding we respond to his catcalling.

Here are my top three techniques for dealing with harrassment:

  1. Respect & pre-emptive respect. Pre-bonjouring is a really good way to deal with guys who were otherwise going to shout something. They can’t demand your response because you’ve already given it to them before they started. I’ve found if I pass a guy or a group of guys and respectfully say bonjour, they just bonjour back and move on (even if it’s that guy who normally harasses you every day on the way to the beach). Eventually they realise you’re not a tourist and you’ll probably become mates with them. You also never know when you might need their help later if you’re being bothered by a different guy. Just respond to them cheerfully and they’ll treat you like part of the community.
  2. Humour. My favourite response to the hissing was from a friend who retorted sort of innocently ‘I’m sorry, you’ve lost your cat?’. I tried it once in Antigua – we all laughed and it was fine. The guy got his response and I got to keep my dignity. This is something that definitely comes with a better level of French because it can be really hard to be funny with someone when you can’t express yourself or don’t know what they’ve said. But sometimes the situation can call for a cheeky retort and it immediately lightens the situation. I’ve found this works really well. The Caribbean is supposed to be a chilled and friendly place, so keep everything light-hearted and you’re on the right track.
  3. Resting Bitch Face. Caribbean women are world champions at this. They have to put up with this shit every day. This is just for people who are being actually abusive/generally dickish. You keep your respectful bonjour Monsieur but apart from that you give them no smile, no further eye-contact. If they continue to bother you, don’t get agitated or angry. Never get angry. Just be firm and tell them politely to leave you alone. Passez une bonne journée, Monsieur.

Et voilà. This article primary comes from my experience of the French islands where the sexual harassment is a lot more aggressive. In the English speaking islands men are persistent but in my experience if they’re talking to you, they’re trying to charm you. What’s it like for me now? I know most of the loulous my the area and I cheerfully bonjour them as I pass. They say ‘comment ça va princesse?’ and if someone I don’t know is being really annoying I just politely say with my most English accent ‘I’m very sorry I have no idea what you’re saying, I don’t speak French’. In general you just remember that flirting is part of the culture. You smile, you laugh and you say no if you’re not interested, and you try not to take it too seriously. Bascially what the director of the language assistants programme was trying to tell us all along.

Go back and read the blog from the start