It sounds just like the hiss of a poisonous snake. And many women immediately sense danger when a strange man on the street calls out to them in this way. I don’t think Jamaican men even think about what they’re doing when they psssst women on the street. It’s a reflex action. A man sees an attractive women and he instinctively knows he must proposition her. That’s just the way it is. That’s our culture.
But this culture can be very oppressive for women. You want to go about your business unmolested. Instead, you are forced to listen to a whole lot of foolishness: “Hi, sexy! Hi, fatty! Wa a gwaan? Mi can come home wid yu?” No man in his right mind expects the woman to say, “Yes, baby, yu can come.” He’s just practising his lines.
Even though the man knows full well that he’s only trying a ting, he can still get quite offended and very offensive if you make the mistake of not acknowledging him. You’re in for a whole lot of abuse. All of a sudden, you become a completely undesirable demon who must be verbally attacked. Even worse, you may be physically assaulted.
For a peaceful life, it sometimes makes sense to just say ‘hi’ and keep moving. But if you do say ‘hi’ this is seen as an invitation to prolong the interaction. And if you keep moving, your refusal to stop and engage in conversation is then interpreted as an insult. So, either way, is pure abuse.
TURNING THE TABLES
Some time ago, I was on my morning walk dressed appropriately in exercise wear. I was greeted by a very ‘friendly’ man: “Morning, Miss! I like your shape this morning. Can I be your friend?” I couldn’t help it. I had to laugh. Then I said, “No sir, mi not looking no friend this morning.”
And I put it to him. How would he feel if a woman stopped him and said, “Morning, Sir! I like your shape this morning. Can I be your friend?” It was his turn to laugh. He said the woman would have too much pride to admit that she found him attractive. So then I asked him if men don’t have pride.
He said is not that men don’t have pride. But when you see certain women, you can’t help yourself. The attraction just bubbles up and you have to say something. As far as he was concerned, the woman should just know he was paying her a compliment.
But what if the tables are turned? While I was on my walk another morning, a man on a bicycle called out to me in passing, “Hi, sexy!” My immediate response was, “Hi, sexy!” He almost fell off his bicycle. He certainly hadn’t expected me to return the compliment, such as it was.
I suppose he felt entitled to call out to me. After all, im a man. And he probably assumed I would be pleased with his view of me as a sex object out on the road purely for his entertainment. I wasn’t exactly telling the truth when I called him ‘sexy’. I had no way of measuring his sexiness. I was simply serving him back his sour sauce. And it was most effective.
Michael Thelwell wrote a brilliant novel based on the movie The Harder They Come. He cleverly fleshes out the story. There’s a powerful scene in which a domestic worker comprehensively puts in his place a gardener who was trying to friend her up:
“‘Since when me and you is frien’?’ she demanded. ‘Me is you love? What I would want wid all like you? What you have dat I want? You have money? You have looks? You have colour? You have education? No! You doan have nothing in you favour. You ugly, you poor, you ignorant and you black. When you see me a street, don’t talk to me, y’hear’? She sucked her teeth, tossed her head, and started off, her proud b*tty rolling with indignation.
‘After you is nothing but a damn garden bwai,’ she called over her shoulder. ‘You think garden bwai money can get me?'” That is a very hot piece of tracing. But if the man hadn’t called out to the woman, she wouldn’t have had the chance to list what she considered to be all his limitations. Proverbial wisdom warns, “Trouble deh a bush, yu bring it a yard.” This man certainly brought down trouble on himself. All the same, his fellow gardeners felt it was their duty to help him to take revenge on the woman.
How do we change this culture of male entitlement? On a recent ‘All Angles’ programme on TVJ, I half-seriously suggested that we pass a law making it illegal for men to call out to woman on the street. And it would have to be an equal-opportunity law. Women shouldn’t be allowed to call out to men either.
This law wouldn’t work. Men and women should be able to compliment each other courteously. We have to start with the children, teaching them how to treat each other with affection and respect. Sex education isn’t just about biology. It must include emotional intelligence. Otherwise, snakes will keep crawling in the streets, hunting for prey.