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  • Acoustic PatriarchyHearing Gender Violence in Mexico City’s Public Spaces
  • Anthony W. Rasmussen (bio)

Acoso callejero (street harassment) is an insidious form of gender violence normally executed in public spaces between strangers.1 In Mexico City, acoso callejero often manifests sonically and may include whistles, whispers, grunts, shisteos (e.g., ch-ch-ch), attention-demanding calls (e.g., “Hey!”), verbal greetings, and piropos, “verbal expression[s] that men . . . use to express their opinion of the physical aspect of a woman.”2 Such sounds may precipitate overt physical contact or contact disguised as an accident. In other cases, acoso calleje-ro may be decidedly silent and consist entirely of unwanted physical contact or insistent gazes.3 Whatever the manifestation, these acts serve to “exert power over another . . . in a physical and/or symbolic form.”4

Despite the rapid proliferation of media technology and the privatization of wealthy enclaves in Mexico City, face-to-face encounters in public continue to be, for many, sites in which relations of power are laid bare. Frequently sonorous, such encounters mark momentary, territorial occupations characterized by “a constant state of active contestation. Because sounds are ephemeral, a regular stream of sonic acts is necessary to maintain the spaces they occupy.”5 In this article, I argue [End Page 15] that acoso callejero is just such an occupation, an attempt to deny women (or those identified as women) equal access to public spaces and, in doing so, preserve patriarchal structures that both symbolize and are reinforced by institutions of power in Mexico.

In order to understand how such patriarchal structures manifest at the intersubjective level, I explore the specialized listening of victims of acoso callejero. By this I refer to two mutually constitutive processes that are the outcome of exposure to a sociocultural setting in which personal safety and auditory awareness are enmeshed: (1) a heightened, often preconscious sensitivity to sounds as acoustic phenomena, as well as their sociocultural emplacement (e.g., who or what is producing a given sound and for what purpose, where and when it is being produced, who is the intended audience, etc.); and (2) an acuity in selective listening (i.e., drawing auditory consciousness away from sounds deemed innocuous).

These processes are akin to ethnomusicologist J. Martin Daughtry’s notion of (in)audition, “the hidden and often unconscious labor that goes into the seemingly effortless activity of listening to the world,” which, taken in a setting in which such labor is integral to physical and psychological well-being, is of “great consequence[, impacting] tactical, ethical, political, and aesthetic fields of possibility.”6 Acoso callejero, which accounts for 73.7 percent of reported gender-related crimes in Mexico City’s public spaces, coexists with other forms of violence (e.g., sexual assault, rape, and armed robbery) and is framed by a national epidemic of femicide: between 2013 and 2015, approximately seven women were murdered each day in Mexico, rising to eight each day in 2016.7 Furthermore, endemic institutional corruption and criminal collusion have generated an atmosphere of impunity; it is estimated that eight out of ten women who experience some form of gender violence in Mexico City’s public spaces will not report the incident to authorities.8

Subjected to whistles, shouts, murmured profanity, and words of false familiarity as a matter of routine, victims become experts in discerning the implicit intention behind sounds and filtering out those they deem benign. This filtering involves not only a reflexive analysis of the sounds themselves but also situating those sounds between the producer(s) and intended listener(s). Says Karen Condés, actor and cofounder of the performance art group Las Hijas de Violencia (The Daughters of Violence), “When [a piropo] is anonymous and shouted at a [End Page 16] distance it is harassment, but if there is a direct relationship [between the piropo giver and receiver], that gives us the opportunity to [participate] in a dialogue.”9 In order to manage or avoid this harassment outright, victims draw on a personal history of sonorous encounters (e.g., where they happened, what they sounded like, whom the sounds came from, etc.) to construct topographies of risk: ever-evolving, spatiotemporal arrangements of relative...


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pp. 15-42
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