BOGOTA – “I woke up and he was sitting on top of me and slapping me in the face with his penis.” “He was my teacher and he asked me for nude photos.” “He grabbed my hand and made me touch him to feel his erection. I kept saying no.”
In Latin America, a region where 60,000 women are killed by men every year, these and other accounts about inappropriate touching, sexual insinuations and intrusive physical approaches have often been disparaged, challenged and ridiculed.
But the tide may be changing due to Me Too, an international campaign that began in 2017 as a social media hashtag in the wake of media revelations about now-imprisoned American film producer Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual harassment and casting-couch abuses of Hollywood actresses such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie.
That movement quickly spread worldwide and encouraged victims of sexual harassment and assault worldwide to share their experiences using the #MeToo hashtag.
In Latin America, the Me Too movement has served to shine a spotlight on the machista culture that is pervasive in that region.
Dr. Carlos Charry, a Colombian sociologist and professor at Bogota’s Universidad del Rosario, told EFE that a lax attitude developed in that part of the world toward “symbolic violence,” adding that in Latin America it is widely and erroneously believed that no sex crime other than rape can be reported.
Even today, the existence of a masculine hierarchy in those countries and the desire to avoid problems makes many women hesitant about coming forward to report harassment by teachers, bosses or prominent individuals, he said.
That fear is based on the reality that when a woman files a complaint her allegations are frequently undermined, according to Charry, who said the accuser can be labeled an opportunist or a lesbian or blamed for provoking the incident with her revealing clothing or pursuit of a successful man.
That symbolic violence concealed behind jokes and stereotypes that reinforce the idea that men are superior to women and can exercise control over them “is the main obstacle to bringing the problem to light,” he said.
In that regard, the Me Too movement not only is focused on making legal strides but also transforming individual and collective consciences.
Like in the United States, many of the most newsworthy allegations of sexual and harassment and abuse have involved people working in the entertainment industry.
One such case is that of 27-year-old Argentine actress Thelma Fardin, who alleged in 2018 that she was raped at the age of 16 by a former fellow cast member on the Argentine comedy TV series “Patito Feo,” Juan Darthes, then aged 45.
She said the crime occurred during a promotional tour in Nicaragua.
“He began kissing my neck. He grabbed my hand, made me touch (his penis) and told me ‘look what you do to me,’ making me feel his erection. He threw me on the bed and pulled down my shorts. I kept telling him ‘no.’ He didn’t care. He got on top of me and penetrated me,” Fardin said in a video.
Her denunciation led to an Interpol Red Notice for Darthes’ arrest last year and prompted a series of other allegations against influential men.
Jose Alperovich, a former senator and ex-governor of the Argentine province of Tucuman, was accused of raping one of his relatives, while Argentine rock musician Cristian Aldana was convicted of sexually abusing four minors and sentenced last year to 22 years in prison.
In Chile, filmmaker Nicolas Lopez has been accused of sexual misconduct, including rape, by more than a dozen women.
Another case that garnered significant media attention was that of Mexican actress Karla Souza, who in early 2018 said, without naming names, that she had been raped by a film director at the start of her career.
Shortly after Souza came forward, Mexican media giant Televisa said it had conducted its own preliminary investigation and announced that it was severing all ties with director Gustavo Loza.
Loza denied any wrongdoing and later reached an agreement with Televisa to resume work on a comedy series and other potential projects.
In Colombia, journalists Angie Castellanos and Alejandra Omaña (also a former porn actress who went by the name Amaranta Hank) touched off a media firestorm when they leveled sexual harassment and abuse allegations last month against prominent author and journalist Alberto Salcedo Ramos, winner of the King of Spain International Journalism Award and five-time recipient of Colombia’s leading journalism distinction, the Simon Bolivar National Journalism Award.
In Colombian daily El Espectador’s Las Igualadas platform, Castellanos and Omaña said that in 2011 and 2013, respectively, Salcedo Ramos had kissed them and touched their bodies without their consent.
Omaña added that Salcedo Ramos, who also is a university professor, forced her to put her hand on his genitals.
“It took me a long time to completely understand what had happened. I’ve heard other women who thought, ‘maybe he just went too far with me today. maybe there was a misunderstanding and that’s why he behaved like that.’ I also tried to justify the situation, but forcibly touching or kissing someone will never be normal or acceptable,” Castellanos told EFE.
Those accusations were leveled three months after the magazine Volcanicas published an article in which eight women accused Colombian director Ciro Guerra, best known for the acclaimed 2015 film “El abrazo de la serpiente” (Embrace of the Serpent), of sexual harassment and abuse.
“Sexual coercion related to power roles doesn’t mean the victim has to be tied up or threatened with a weapon. That’s why it’s not the same being attacked by a stranger as by an admired boss, teacher, politician, athlete or artist,” said psychologist Mayra Gomez-Lugo, a researcher on human sexuality at the Konrad Lorenz University Foundation, a Bogota-based university.
An imbalance of power enables the abuse because when female victims are targeted by men in positions of power they may “not react right away for fear of consequences like losing their job or failing the school year,” Gomez-Lugo said.
But amid these challenges, the Me Too movement is offering hope of progress toward true gender equality.
In the words of Mexican and American actress and producer Salma Hayek, who accused Weinstein of sexually harassing her on multiple occasions and even threatening to kill her when she did not succumb to his sexual demands, “women are talking today because, in this new era, we finally can.”