To Walk Away or To Not Walk Away: Dealing With Sexual Harassment Abroad
This here y'all...it's a touchy subject. I know that talking about sexual harassment and women and reactions and clothing, etc. is inherently controversial and sensitive. Therefore I am going to try to handle this with as much grace and tact as I can. Also, in order for this to be helpful to female travelers everywhere, I'm going to try to make this purely about how to handle harassment in the SAFEST possible way. Not necessarily in the way you feel bubbling up from your gut. Honestly, I can say that I've been that person that threw all sense out the window when I went charging through a market in Peru to confront a group of guys; the only thing stopping me was Justin grabbing me by the arm saying,"you don't know what will happen. what they'll do. the police could get involved!". This statement is a nice lil segue into what I hope will be helpful.
Lets start with the definition of what sexual harassment is just to clear up any misunderstandings of the term: "harassment (typically of a woman) in a workplace, or other professional or social situation, involving the making of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks" (websters). Okay, there. That's done. Easy, right? hah. hah. hah.
Okay, so onward. First off, anyone can be a victim of sexual harassment BUT the majority of the time we know that it's individuals who identify as female. So because of this, I'll be making this post more female-centric. Also, more solo traveler centric.
I have been on the receiving end of unwanted attention and it can definitely make you, as a woman, feel powerless, angry, sad and disappointed. As a feminist and as someone who considers herself to be pretty independent, being so upset about harassment bothers me even more than the actual act (almost). It's like I'm letting myself get pissed off about it and not chalking it up to cultural differences, "being too sensitive", etc. The strong emotional reaction can definitely be shocking and unsettling. The feeling of powerlessness is the most disturbing feeling for me. Obviously it's normal to feel shocked, angry and sad about harassment, amiright?!
Dealing with harassment can change how you feel about where you've traveled, souring your memories of a favorite country. It can change your behavior, it can change your feeling of self-worth. You may feel like you have to behave differently, dress differently, go somewhere different or avoid a place.
Being abroad, the harassment scenario can be even more unsettling with all the cultural differences. There are extremely different perceptions of personal space.. saaay in the US versus...almost everywhere else. We really value our personal space and get uncomfortable when somebody invades it. It can come off as aggressive and forward. There are also differences in norms surrounding gender identity roles/presentation, clothing expectations, modesty, touching, etc. Obviously this is not excusing any of this behavior but it does make it more frustrating and potentially scary.
For example, while hiking in Europe, I felt that the older men would lounge about on the sidewalks and gawk at every woman passing by. It made me feel as if I was reduced to less than human. Eventually I took to meeting their gaze every.single.time. Did they stop? No. Did it make me feel better? Kinda. It made me feel like I was making them aware that I was also looking at them. That I saw them. Now, was this their intention? I don't know. Was it just a cultural misunderstanding? I don't know. Did it still make me feel uncomfortable? Yes.
Therein lies while street harassment can feel so bad for people who identity as female. We often experience this sort of thing often and not just abroad. It can feel like a build up of frustration and mental and physical stress. Y'all...being aware that maybe the next time you ignore a guy leaning out of his car to yell something at you will have him turning his car around, can just be too much sometimes.
So why does this happen? For the most part? Power. Someone who feels as if they have power in the situation will try to exert their power over other people. Who does it normally happen to? To people who, seemingly, do not the power in the situation. So that means that street harassment is an act of aggression and not a neutral act happening between two misunderstanding parties.
So, what can you do? The solo, female traveler? Other than try to educate men and other people who try to exert their unwanted power over women who feel uncomfortable with their unwanted attention?
You can, if you must take up this mantle:
*Let people know where you are going and when you expect to be back. Even if they are not in the same country as you. They can stay up and wait for a text saying that you're back to your hostel. When I was in Australia I would text my mom or my sister and tell them that I had gotten back into my AirBnB after Thai food with Gina (hey Gina!).
*Travel in groups with other women (girl power!) or anyone else you trust. Someone who is trying to exert their power over you will second guess taking on an entire group of people. They will no longer feel their power.
*If you must and feel led to, you can look up what the cultural dress expectations are for the country you're traveling to. If, for anything, to make you feel comfortable in your surroundings. Obviously there are situations that are sacred, religious, a cultural experience that requires modesty, etc. where you should show your respect by dressing modestly. Then there are other situations where other women in that culture typically dress modestly and you will for sure stand out if you're wearing shorts in Old Delhi and every other women is in a salwar kameez.
*Also, sometimes it just doesn't matter. You could wear a trash bag and you would still get unwanted attention. Why? Because you're foreign and unfortunately sometimes men from different countries around the world have experienced Western women in one explicit medium and that is now how they think Western women just are now. I'm telling you this straight from my translator's mouth when I was in court in the Middle East dealing with an incredibly stressful harassment scenario involving a hired taxi.
*Walk strong and with a purpose. You feel and look empowered and not to be messed with. Do it!
*My feminist, independent, I often don't wear my wedding ring self really hates to say this but..wear a fake wedding ring. I know. I know. Sometimes men or others will see that you're "married" and will give you less unwanted attention/harassment. Obviously you should be respected no matter your marital status but..they're not necessarily respecting you in the first place with all the unwanted attention. :/
*Be firm, be strong, be vocal if you feel safe to do so. If not, then find someone/somewhere that makes you feel safe.
Ultimately, we must all do what we can as a collective whole to educate and spread awareness that unwanted sexual attention and harassment is not okay wherever you are in the world.
Stay safe. Don't stop traveling. I honor your power and your strength you wonderful woman, you!