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Unwanted Male Attention
Dealing with Sexual Harassment Abroad

We've all faced unwanted male attention at some point and much as it pains me to say this, sexual harassment shows no signs of disappearing.

Western women are often seen as 'exotic' in other countries, especially if their skin or hair color is dramatically different. Unfortunately 'exotic' may have unpleasant connotations or be linked to certain stereotypes about Western women.

Cultural quirks and taboos

This isn't about who's right and who's wrong, but about having a safe trip, as free from harassment as possible, and as enjoyable as it can be. 

Different countries and regions have different views of gender and what is perfectly acceptable in North America or Europe may be highly offensive in the Middle East or North Africa. The opposite is also true.

Remember, American television is popular in all corners of the world. Men who have never left their home village may be glued to Baywatch or Desperate Housewives and think all foreign women are loose and sexually available. Breaking down stereotypes - however important - is difficult.

In some parts of the world, just traveling on your own is considered risqué or improper. That's why I often pretend my non-existent husband is waiting to pick me up at the end of the bus line or back at the hotel. Appearing 'attached' is one of the better safeguards against unwanted male attention - at least it has been for me. Women who make fun of the 'fake wedding band idea' probably haven't spent months trekking solo across rural Africa with a posse of young men trailing behind...

Solo travel is no less safe than any other kind of travel but if you're on your own, men may take more of an interest than you might expect. In some cases - for example if you want the attention - that's absolutely fine. It's when you don't want it that it becomes a problem. 

Common forms of unwanted male attention

These behaviors aren't acceptable by any standard but in some countries, they are customary and common. Some of these things will happen to you:

  • edging close, touching or groping on public transport, blocking your way
  • wolf whistles (which women in some countries consider flattering!), hissing, clicking
  • overt staring and leering
  • untoward affection - an arm around you on the street, a 'close' hug, a kiss on the lips, a pat on the bum
  • personal questions men wouldn't dream of asking women in their own societies
  • inappropriate comments about how you look, what you think

This unwanted male attention is not limited to Western women who travel - sadly it is something women face all over the world. Men who disrespect foreign women will also disrespect women in their own part of the world.

In South Africa some time ago and more recently in Kenya women took to the streets to "defend their mini-skirts" - a woman had been attacked by taxi drivers and hawkers for wearing a skirt that was too short. Here's what one of the men said: "If you are wearing a miniskirt, you give the impression you want to be raped." Case closed.

How to avoid that kind of male attention

Nothing is foolproof but all these tips will help ward off undue male approaches, especially if you use several at a time. I wish there was no need for any of this and that as women we could travel the world without any fear of offence or backlash. Unfortunately that is not the case and until things change, here are some sensible suggestions to help keep unwelcome advances at bay.

  • Research your destination and understand its culture. Before you go, do a lot of reading. You'll avoid the most obvious pitfalls.
  • Once you're on the road, talk to women travelers who are coming from where you're headed to find out what attitudes are like.
  • Dress locally. Wear headscarves, cover your shoulders and legs, or wear skirts rather than trousers if you're in a conservative area - do whatever local women do and leave the cleavages, mini-skirs and tight clothes at home. If eye contact is a particular issue - especially in our cultures where eye contact is welcome - then make it easy on yourself and wear sunglasses.  
  • Ignore whistles, leers and rude comments. Look down in disgust or away in disinterest. Don't engage. Any reaction at all may be interpreted as a victory - even a shrug or a 'go away' may send a signal that you're interested. If you're really uncomfortable saying nothing, then learn how to say something curt and firm in the local language. What you consider a friendly but dissuasive smile could be considered a declaration of undying love in some places.
  • Never hitchhike or ride with men - unless you know them very very well. But you already knew this.
  • Don't flirt with men unless you actually plan on going a lot further. In many countries men will assume that flirting is a prelude to sex, when all you're doing is being friendly. Remember, values may be different.
  • If a man really bothers you, say so loudly, and head towards a group of women. Better yet - carry a whistle. Most men will flee.
  • Use your head. Don't walk around alone at night. In Dar-es-Salaam I cut back to two meals a day, breakfast and a major meal at 3pm because come sunset, the streets weren't safe so I'd have to make sure I ate before nightfall.
  • Avoid drinking and smoking in public where this isn't the norm. It may send a different message than it would at home. If you do have a drink, keep an eye on it. Slipping something into your drink may be just the opportunity someone is looking for. And if you've had too much to drink, it'll be too late for you to notice. Getting drunk makes you vulnerable and trouble and alcohol often mix.
  • Be vague. Don't tell anyone where you're staying. If they insist, mention you're in a guesthouse in District X.
  • Always be aware of your environment. You'd do this in a large city at home anyway. And don't give away more information than you need to, like the name of your hotel or the fact that you're traveling by yourself.
  • Don't invite a man into your room, tent or home to show him your computer or a book or anything - unless you want him to stay. In many places this would be considered a firm invitation to stay the night.

If the going gets rough, apply the same rules you would at home: call someone you know, talk to a police officer, go into a shop, or run. Being safe is more important than looking silly, even if you have to apologize later.

In an ideal world, none of this would happen... The way women look or act should never be the basis for men's reactions but this is not an ideal world and for now, if we want to travel hassle-free, sticking to a few social rules will help.

And remember - it's about power, not sex.

If the constraints of being treated as an inferior or having to dress awkwardly become unacceptable - leave the country. Because you're not going to change it, at least not overnight.

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