Exotic beaches, tropical forests, new friends, a fascinating tan. Is what travel blogs and social networks give us every day through amazing articles and pictures. They all tell us a story: an affair, a first solo trip, a celebration. But few of them tell us about the dark side of traveling alone. I’m talking about sexual harassment abroad. And we need to talk about it.
Sexual harassment is a reality that happens everywhere, even when we travel. However, the situation is even more unpleasant abroad: you are alone, sometimes you don’t handle the local language and probably you are not aware how sexual harassment is internalised over there. Let’s take a look to sexual harassment definition:
They are sexual connotation practices exercised by a known or unknown person often causing misery to the victim. May be unsolicited comments or touching not consented to by the victim, which creates a negative psychological impact.
What if we are victims of sexual harassment abroad? How should we react? Who can we ask for help?
What is normal in your country, it may not be in another one. However, we must learn to differentiate a local custom from someone saying “I like your tits”, as it happened to me in a souvenir shop in Jamaica. I was with some friends. My only reaction was to ignore the man and leave the place. Now imagine if this happens to you while you are traveling alone.
Valentina, from Chile, was 21 when she decided to go to Europe: I was on a bus going from Hamburg to Amsterdam. My seatmate was a thirty-something year old man. He said he came from Syria and we spent some time talking in English. They turned off the bus lights and I told my neighbor I wanted to sleep. Suddenly I woke up because I felt a hand touching me. The only thing I managed to do was to give him a slap, but he kept doing it and even tried to get to my breasts. I gave him a stronger slap and told him, “Hey, stop” but I don’t remember in which language. He played silly.
I didn’t dare to ask for help because I didn’t know how people would react (as in Chile, where you always think people are going to think you’re crazy or something). Also I didn’t know how to explain it in English. I thought I’d keep taking his hands off until he got bored. Finally he did and fell asleep or pretended to be asleep. We arrived to Amsterdam around 6:00 am and the guy wanted to keep talking just like that. I just grabbed my bag and ran away.
Ili Valdes from Mexico was a victim of sexual harassment abroad. She was walking around Hanoi at 4 a.m. and suddenly she realised there was somebody following her on a motorbike: He followed me for half an hour. I took my Go Pro with the stick attached, determined to beat him. The guy insisted that I should go with him on his bike, until I found some guards of a building. I was talking to my husband online all the time.
Karin, a blogger from Slovakia, author of Girl Astray faced a bad experience with her Couchsurfing host in the United States: I arrived to a nice, comfy flat in Oakland and was greeted by its owner. He was about 60 years old, bald and had a big belly. His home was beautiful and filled with all sorts of representations of Buddha. Good, I thought. He took me for a ride in Oakland, offered me food, and even took me for a concert and a party with his friends. Apart from this, he talked in a way that made me assume he is actually gay, so when he offered me a massage, I didn’t think much about it. I didn’t really want to but he kept offering it and insisting in subtle ways until I said ok.
He told me I should take my pants off so that he can massage my butt muscles. He even asked me if I wanted a breast massage. It was all very discomforting but I just put on a polite mask —I didn’t have money to go to a hostel. Afterwards, when I asked him directly about his orientation, he just laughed and said that he was in no way gay! …awkward. He insisted on hugging me. Now, I would advise anyone in such situation to just get the fuck out of there really quickly, however, I thought of how I needed to stretch my budget —and I decided to risk it. Also, on the first day, I was stupid enough to purchase a camera online which would arrive during the week.
After six days another girl arrived and she literally saved me. Until then, I was thinking perhaps I was just making it up in my mind, but she felt exactly the same way —threatened. She helped me to change the delivery address for my camera so I would just pick it up elsewhere so we could go away and just sleep in the airport for the following nights. Now I have one more “When I was young and stupid” story to tell. I made sure to leave a long, detailed neutral review to that pervert predator on CS. I even got some messages from different people thanking me for the honesty.
The intention of this article is not to scare women who want to travel alone nor create a bad reputation for certain cultures or countries. But we should talk about an issue that afflicts us, but we need to find tools to know what to do in such situations.
We want to continue traveling alone, we want to continue using Couchsurfing, we want to continue walking at 4 a.m. in Hanoi if we feel like, we want to continue living experiences that fill our souls.
How to avoid sexual harassment abroad and what to do if it happens to us?
♦ Inform yourself about local costums
In some countries, the way you dress is a form of respect. Try to learn and follow the local dress patterns to avoid attracting too much attention. Also it might help you to avoid being robbed.
♦ Ask locals and other travellers
No one provides better information that a local or a traveller who knows the place well enough to tell you where you can move with confidence.
♦ Ask for help
If you are alone and you feel in danger or threaten, try to go near other people, maybe other women or anybody that seems safe to you. In this world there is more people willing to help you than to harm you.
♦ Ignore perverts
Sexual harassment is not about getting sexual gratification, but to exert power over you. If someone on the street makes a comment of a sexual nature to you, do not engage, he is only seeking attention.
♦ But if he touches you…
There are countries where people are going to help you no matter what, but there are other cultures where sexual harassment is silenced and even justified. In some circumstances to acknowledge and confront the harasser is useless and even dangerous, but if you scream really loud, you will achieve people’s attention. The pervert will feel embarrassed and he will think twice before bothering you again. Only scream if you are in a safe environment and the bully doesn’t threaten your physical safety.
♦ Denounce to the closer authority office
It is true that many times women are not heard and sexual harassment it’s no taken seriously, but we must not fail to denounce these situations. ⇒ I also suggest making a list of some places such as hospitals, embassies, police stations if you should report or appeal for medical assistance in case of sexual abuse (you must check in the first three days after a rape as medical evidence should be collected within 72 hours). ⇒ Make a list with useful emergency words in the language of the country you are visiting.
In case you are doing Couchsurfing, Karin says that since that episode she always make sure her hosts has had male and female guests alike to avoid an unpleasant surprise on arrival. This is her advice: In case you feel bad with your host be firm and decisive and speak loudly and clearly, right from the start. Also reach out to others within the community, even to those who declined your request before. Most importantly, trust your gut.
Personally, have a pepper spray that makes me feel more secure. However, some countries doesn’t allowed this type of articles. But you can put on your purse a spray deodorant. If someone tries to touch me, he will be a good spray of his eyes. And it won’t be nice. Thanks to Viviana, a Illi Valdés and Karin for sharing their experiences.
If you have experienced sexual harassment abroad or any suggestions, feel free to share with us in the comments below.