There was a time, not that long ago, when any red-blooded Spanish macho, from the humblest laborer to the smartest-dressed executive, considered it perfectly appropriate to publically compliment, or piropear, an attractive woman on her looks. But over the last two decades, the piropo has fallen into decline, victim to a society ever more subject to the rigors of gender equality and political correctness.
"First of all, piropos have changed, and sexist expressions are used much less than 20 years ago," says feminist activist Nina Infante. "We have laws, and a culture that has begun to transmit our values. I would say that it is a positive change. But there are still too many expressions, compliments, sayings, and jokes that we have to get rid of."
"Some are plain offensive; but others are genuinely an attempt to flatter"
"The piropo is about men being active and women passive"
That said, the piropo has deep roots in Spanish culture. "Men like to say piropos when they pass an attractive woman in the street. She is supposed to ignore it, and keep a straight face so as not to encourage, and then laugh about it with her friends," reads a comment on travel website TripAdvisor. And back in the 1930s, German linguist Werner Beinhauer defined them as "flattering comments by which the Spanish male expresses his admiration for feminine beauty."
The piropo is a peculiarly Latin phenomenon. The origin of the word is in the Greek pyros, meaning fire, says Esther Forgas, a professor of Spanish Language at Tarragona's Rovira i Virgili University: "Piropos are like fireworks, and they tend to be used in more extrovert societies, where they are like small explosions." She adds that Mediterranean societies are also prone to hyperbole, the use of rhetoric, and word play, with languages suffused with rich, and all-too-often scatological expressions.
Ana Álvarez is an actress and filmmaker, who made the 2003 prizewinning short film about piropos, Mi señora. "It's not such a big deal, and can usually be dealt with through humor," is her advice to women who feel threatened by the unsolicited compliment. "I used to work in a theater, and for a while there was building work going on. We had to change in the passageway, and often the laborers would be there. They were very embarrassed to see us in our underwear, but when they saw us on the street, and they were safely hidden away up on scaffolding, they would happily shout piropos, because they knew they were safe."
"Men seem to think that when they are with other men they have to flatter women in public," says psychoanalyst Clara Bermant. Esther Forgas highlights its role as a means of reinforcing stereotypes. "The piropo is about men being active and women passive. The woman is not supposed to reply. If she does, the piropo isn't funny any more."
But is the piropo a verbal expression of sexism, can it ever be innocent and harmless? The experts say that there can be so many factors at play that each case would have to be taken on its merits. "You have to take into account who is saying it, and to whom, and how they take it, and when it is said, under which circumstances..." says Nina Infante.
"They almost always are about physical appearance. This is something that our society still focuses on. Women are also guilty of this. We tend not to say to a man how handsome he is. The majority of piropos are about objectifying women," says Forgas.
But Clara Bermant says that it is important to distinguish between different types of piropo. "There are some that are plain offensive and meant to be so; but there are others that are genuinely an attempt to flatter. I don't think that every time we make an erotic comment we are trying to bother somebody. Hostile comments, which I don't consider piropos, are about fragmenting the body by saying, 'what a great ass you have,' or they are exhibitionist. But what these types of comment reveal is impotence on the part of a man who knows that he cannot possess her," she says.
Hilario Sáez, who organizes workshops to educate men about domestic violence, says that many men genuinely do not understand that they could be causing offense when they compliment a woman in the street or a bar. "Men have been slow to pick up on the new values in our society. That said, any man knows that saying something like, 'you've got a great ass' is going to be taken as an insult," he says.
Virginia Acuña, a linguist and expert on gender-related language, says that the piropo is not, in itself, necessarily sexist, although it usually is. "There are studies that show that piropos are not always about flattering feminine beauty, but are designed to denigrate women and to establish power relations, for example, bosses who use piropos with their female subordinates."
Spanish women may prefer to ignore the piropo, and hope that it will die a natural death. But their American sisters are leaving nothing to chance. The Hollaback! website (ihollaback.org) is a social network site set up in the United States in 2005. It describes itself as "a movement dedicated to ending street harassment using mobile technology," and has already set up affiliated sites in the United Kingdom, France, the Czech Republic, Argentina, Mexico and India.
"We believe that everyone has a right to feel safe and confident without being objectified," reads the site's introduction. "Sexual harassment is a gateway crime that creates a cultural environment that makes gender-based violence OK. There exists a clear legal framework to reproach sexual harassment and abuse in the home and at work, but when it comes to the streets - all bets are off. This gap isn't because street harassment hurts any less, it's because there hasn't been a solution. Until now. The explosion of mobile technology has given us an unprecedented opportunity to end street harassment - and with it, the opportunity to take on one of the final new frontiers for women's rights around the world."
So, the next time any male readers feel the need to wax lyrical about the figure of the woman walking past them in the street, beware, you might get an earful, or worse, find your photograph on ihollaback.org.