Are you under duress?

A few weeks ago, when the weather was still warm, I happened to walk past two young lovers who were deep in an intimate conversation. The boy was wearing a baggy, sleeveless shirt which hung carelessly off of his gangly frame, exposing more of his flesh than I needed to see. At the farthest end of one skinny arm, between two tweezer-like fingers, he held a cigarette. He was using his other arm to keep his girlfriend in a solid headlock.

The boy’s lankiness gave length to his arm, which was wrapped completely around the girl’s entire neck. He had used what scant strength he had in order to bring her ear closer to his nicotine stained lips, which were enthusiastically forming words of, I’m almost certain, indescribable banality.

The girl, for her part, did not seem to be putting up any protest. Her delicate hands were rested on top of the boy’s forearm, presumably to moderate the pressure that was being applied to her trachea. She had a serene smile upon her face, which I judged as being a result of the words she was hearing, and not due to imminent death through asphyxiation.

At that moment, a familiar sentence popped into my head:

“Do you think she’s under duress?”

The girl was not, in fact, under duress. Despite the aggressive body language, I had come to learn that physical interaction in Chile is on a level I had never seen before. The phrase, “Do you think she’s under duress?” was a throwback to a game I used to play with a friend of mine when I first moved to Chile. It was our way of coming to terms with the terribly distracting body language of lovers in this country; of pointing out a pattern that, to us, seemed so absurd yet so commonplace.

Now, there is not enough blog space in the world to address the complex and politically fraught dynamic between men and women in Chile, and I am not nearly involved enough in the culture to be able to understand this kind of behaviour, so it’s not my place to condemn it. It seems to be the norm, with women being just as comfortable with being physically subdued as the men are with being physically overbearing. All I can do is witness it with bewilderment.

Somehow, the young woman interpreted the man’s stranglehold as a show of affection. She was unfazed by the claustrophobia and the restriction in her movement. She found no offense in being breathed upon, at point-blank range, by a mouth that had just taken a youthfully arrogant drag on a cheap cigarette. I can only assume that, to her, this was an intimate expression of true love.

Admittedly, that was one of the more extreme examples I have seen while I’ve been living here. The more common practice is the clamping of the neck from behind, like a bank robber leading the bank manager towards the vault. The stance is one gun shy of a hostage situation. And it’s not only teenagers who act this way. I’ve seen the same conduct adopted by people all along the age spectrum, but all with similar levels of tenderness.

Under Duress
In a way, it is quite sweet. But there’s still that voice at the back of my head asking, “Do you think she’s under duress?”


To be fair, it’s not only Chileans whom I’ve seen acting in this way. I’ve spotted this maneuver in other countries as well, and among different cultures. I think perhaps I’m just more aware of it in Chile because of how awkwardly intimate the public displays of affection are here.

Ellie Goulding
In the music video for “I Need Your Love,” Calvin Harris shows Elli Goulding that he loves her (and also that he owns her).

Love is good, and I’m happy to see it celebrated. However, I like to see love celebrated happily and freely, and not in a serious, us-against-the-world kind of way.

Edward and Bella
Remember that scene in “Twilight” when Edward and Bella just laughed and laughed and laughed? Me neither.

But I must stress that this is all just personal opinion. The touch of a loved one can lift the spirit. A hand at the back of the neck can be pleasurable. Sometimes the best moments of loving someone are just in reminding them that you’re there. It’s a way of communicating affection, and I think that’s very important. But still, I’d prefer not to use my partner as a leaning post.

Holding Hand
I’m all for holding hands, though.

Superheroes Don’t Look Back

It always used to frustrate me that Peter Parker never told anyone that he was Spiderman. If I had his strength and reflexes, you wouldn’t be able to get me to shut up about it. Partly because I’d talk about it every chance I got, but mostly because I’d have the strength and reflexes to physically prevent anyone from shutting me up.

“Hi Greg? This is Peter. Peter Parker.You don’t know me, but I’m actually Spiderman.”

As I got older (but not much older), I started to realise the shocking reality of Peter Parker’s silence. If anyone were to find out who he was, they would be able to find and hurt his friends and family. The worst way to hurt someone is to hurt the ones they love. So, I got it. Peter Parker had to protect those closest to him, and because of that he could never tell his secret. I understood that part, but as far as sacrifices go, hiding your identity never felt like too much of a big deal. Sure, Mary Jane, and Gwen Stacy, and Aunt May would be forever kept in the dark – Peter exposed himself to all of the risks and in return received none of the reward. But that didn’t mean all that much to me. At then end of the day, he’s still Spiderman.

I think the reason that I didn’t fully understand the burden of this secrecy was because I knew his secret.  The people in his world might not have given him the attention he deserved, but everyone watching the film knew lowly Peter Parker was in fact Spiderman, and that kind of took away from the secrecy.

More recently, however, I discovered that there is a remarkable depth to this secrecy that I had previously been entirely unaware of. It came to me in a flash a few months ago when I decided to follow a beautiful woman without her knowledge.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll refer to her as Claire. I’d decided to follow Claire because I wanted to conduct an experiment.

I adjusted my pace until I was walking in step with her, but a few yards behind. I was far enough away so that she wasn’t aware of my presence, but close enough so that I could get an approximate idea of what was in her line of sight. We were in one of the more upmarket parts of the city, in the middle of a business day, so there weren’t too many people out and about. In the twenty-or-so yards in which I followed her we passed only two men coming the other way, and it was on these men that I focused my attention. What I saw made me a little bit uncomfortable.

The moment one of the men caught sight of Claire, his gaze would dart down to her legs, back up to her face level, and then slowly, slowly, back down to her legs. It was, as I’d once read in a Sherlock Holmes story, an “all comprehensive glance.” A full body scan. A thorough eye-interrogation. The gaze lasted no more than five seconds – the time it took for Claire to walk past the man – but I knew with utmost certainty that I would never want anyone to look at me that way. Now, I didn’t follow Claire for very long, but based on what I’d seen I could extrapolate that she probably got bombarded with that kind of awkward attention quite a lot during that day. And possibly every day before and after that.

As discomforting as that moment was, I felt as if I had learned something important. I had gotten an intimate glimpse into Claire’s life, and by extension, the lives of women all over the world. And I didn’t really like what I’d seen.

But before I self-righteously bash men everywhere, I think it’s only fair to point out that I’m right there with them. An attractive woman draws the eye, and when I see a lady in a short skirt I immediately get the impulse to stare. So I can’t really blame my fellow man for wanting to act the way he does. The least I can do is exercise a little more empathy, and beseech others to do the same. And this is where being a superhero comes back into the picture.

Staring at a woman is less creepy if you hold a coffee cup at shoulder height. It makes you look more casual.

Not all superheroes, they say, wear capes. I understand this to mean that the march of goodness in the world is not driven by grand moments of heroic bravey. Instead, heroism is a constant, ongoing process, manifesting itself in the tiniest of actions that often go unnoticed. One such miniscule act would be acknowledging that people don’t like to be stared at by strangers, and by passing them without a second glace you’re creating a slightly more comfortable environment for them.

You may think it is easy, and not heroic at all, to simply ignore a stranger. But I assure you it’s not. You see, there’s a second part to this – the part that that comes afterward. The first time I made an active effort to ignore an attractive woman, I felt a desperate urge to turn and look back. Maybe, I thought, this woman would appreciate not feeling objectified. Maybe my action of non-action would give her pause. Maybe she’d acknowledge that I didn’t make her feel uncomfortable. Maybe she’d stop in her tracks, or even turn around in order to thank me for not staring. One can certainly dream.

But the burden of the superhero is to avoid acknowledgement. So I kept walking, and I didn’t look back. Walking away from explosions is one thing, but walking away from a beautiful woman is quite another.

This? This is easy!