One of the biggest differences between Havana and Washington D.C. is the number of penises that can be seen in public on an average day. Such a sight may be rare here, but is not uncommon in Cuba’s capital.
On my third day in Cuba, I stood on a street corner consulting a map in an attempt to locate the local supermarket. I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. Turning to my left, I saw a young man masturbating only three feet away. He winked at me and I immediately bolted in the other direction, abandoning my plan to pick up cereal and bottled water.
My roommate had a similar story. Casually chatting with a friend while walking down the street, she saw something strange. A biker was slowly peddling alongside them at their walking pace, inciting honks from cars whizzing past. On second glance she noticed that he, quite skillfully, was pleasuring himself while maintaining control of the bike. Apparently, the dexterity of the average Cuban male was more applicable than we had
Cuban men sometimes walked down main streets completely exposed. Men sat next to foreign women in dark movie theaters, pleasuring themselves while the film played. It was not uncommon to be hissed at lasciviously by an eight-year-old boy wearing his school uniform.
As far as cultural differences go, the Cuban penis frenzy was a hard hurdle to clear. It was nearly impossible to gauge the appropriate reaction to these offenses. I was warned that Cuban men had an affinity for publicly displaying their affection for themselves, but no one told me how to deal with it. A desire to respect the otherwise delightful culture that surrounded me stood in stark opposition to a gut reaction to kick these men in the nuts. Though chauvinism is inherent in many cultures, it floats on the surface in Cuba rather than in the dark corners of society.
After I returned to D.C. from being abroad, I noticed similar offenses, but in the U.S., chauvinism is bred more privately and exhibited far more violently. During a late summer evening at my Georgetown townhouse, our neighbors, a rowdy group of boys clad in polo shirts and seersucker shorts and clinging to their Busch Lite cans for dear life, started heckling my roommates and me.
“Guess what, ladies, my standards just dropped and I’ll impregnate all four of you!” screamed one choice male. The boys broke out in laughter.
Attractive young women in miniskirts, standing below the boys on the steps, giggled at their humor. They flipped their (blonde, to our shock) perfectly blow-dried hair and eyed us, disheveled, exhausted and increasingly annoyed.
“Ugly lesbians,” one of the males added when we failed to react positively to his advances.
Since my libido did not rise at the hunk’s first smooth pickup line, I clearly must be homosexual. I remained on my porch, trying to deal with these aggressively rude college boys who proceeded to make rape jokes. Later that evening, after the police had been called, they went so far as to chase me to my front door and attempt to push it open.
In Cuba, offenses such as public masturbation were limited to the public sphere. Here, on my home turf, such misogyny invades my privacy. Though I was consistently made to feel uncomfortable, never in the four months I spent in Cuba did I feel that my personal safety was threatened by the actions of a horny man. I was offended, yes, but it was clear that their masturbation, occurring in public, would not follow me home.
The line is far blurrier here. Young men expect women to laugh at jokes they make in their own homes. If laughter doesn’t come, they get aggressive. Their physical masturbation may occur in private, but they clearly get off hearing cute girls giggle at their objectifying comments directed at other women. It’s the young American male’s version of public masturbation.
Georgetown’s public masturbation affects me in much the same way as seeing a 60-year-old, toothless man grin at me as he pleasured himself behind a bush (yes, that happened, too). Whether wrapped in a worn and tattered “Devuelve Elian!” t-shirt or a Lacoste polo with a popped collar, chauvinism abounds all over the world. They may be different, but I’ll still see public penises in both cultures.
Julia Cooke is a senior in the College and leisure editor of the Georgetown Voice. She is also a member of the Pen15 Club.