It’s unfortunate that women should expect street harassment in many of the places they travel, but it is often the reality. That’s not to say that such harassment does not take place at home—it certainly does, and sometimes more frequently. But at least in one’s own culture the rules concerning how to respond are more familiar. A victim usually knows whether it is acceptable to verbally confront a harasser, and what authorities can be sought for assistance. This is usually not the case in a foreign country.
Traveling in a new environment where the social decorum is unfamiliar will affect one’s tolerance of behavior that would be unacceptable at home, and this can result in feelings of helplessness and isolation. This displacement can similarly inspire some men, who believe the rules of their society no longer apply to them outside of its borders, to behave in ways they never would in their home countries.
If you’re wondering why a male would write an article about how women should deal with street harassment, realize this is an issue that men and women should ponder equally. I personally have never been harassed in the street, but I have often been traveling in foreign countries with female companions, and it is not too difficult to see that they must deal with a reality that I as a man am usually oblivious to.
Most of the advice in this list comes from interviews with female activists and travelers such as Kacie Lyn Kocher, director of the Istanbul branch of Hollaback!, a global movement to end street harassment. These women have provided me with the different techniques one can use to deal with this dismal reality. Though some of this advice may seem demanding, and perhaps a little unfriendly, keep in mind these are not rigid commandments. They are tips and techniques one can use if they feel the situation is appropriate.
And of course, though men don’t usually suffer from street harassment, they’re not immune to it. Most of these tips apply equally well for the male travelers who find themselves in a potentially threatening situation.
Be familiar with the culture
So that you don’t have to perform any of the undesirable actions listed here, the first set of precautions should be to know what is acceptable within the culture you are traveling. If it is scandalous within that culture to reveal your knees or shoulders, then you will be attracting a whole lot of unwanted attention if you do so.
Should women be able to wear whatever they want? Sure. Will they be harassed if they wear clothing considered ostentatious or lascivious within the culture they are traveling? It’s likely. Your backpacking tour of Iran is no time to push cultural boundaries. Sometimes even the police will be insensitive to your harassment claims if they judge you to be wearing something inappropriate. Even if you totally disagree with a society’s sartorial conservatism, you risk harassment if you do not play by its rules.
Travel with a buddy
One simple step to decrease the likelihood of harassment is to travel with a friend. Potential harassers are a lot less likely to bother you if someone else is around, particularly if that person is male. This is especially true of religiously conservative societies, where a lone woman in the street is sometimes abnormal and can be interpreted as licentious.
Seek the company of older women
If you’re being harassed in a public place, a good strategy to make it stop is to shame the one doing it. This can be done in a number of ways, but one of the least confrontational is to seek refuge in the company of an older local woman. If you’re on a bus and some man is bothering you, sit next to an older woman if possible. The same goes for other public spaces.
In most cultures a matriarch demands a certain amount of respect, and for a young man to be seen harassing a foreigner in such an esteemed presence is shameful and will most likely make him think twice. There is also the possibility that the older woman may say something damning to the young man to make him stop.
This may be a gloomy piece of advice, especially as most travelers are looking to have friendly interactions with local people, but keeping a serious countenance can often be a useful shield against harassment. In places where male-female eye contact signifies flirtation – or a smiling, laughing woman is seen to be emitting signals of desire – an aura of business announces very clearly that you are off limits. If the environment seems menacing, it might be to your benefit to try to avoid eye contact with men and to not smile or laugh in public.
Often the first signal from a street harasser will be auditory, i.e. shouting out obscenities or trying to gain your attention in order to approach with sinister intentions. A good way to avoid this is to have headphones on your ears. Your attention is crucial to someone wanting to call out to you on the street, and if it is obvious that you are unable to hear what they are saying then he will usually stop. If you are wearing headphones that are actually playing music, however, this may potentially cause problems, as some women have reported being attacked because they were unable to hear the person’s approach.
Seek refuge in a private space
If you find yourself in a situation where your harasser is following you and refuses to stop, one way to get him off your back is to slip into a nearby place of business, such as an internet shop or hotel. If this person has been particularly malicious then you may have someone inside call the police. Otherwise you can wait inside until he has disappeared. It is unlikely someone will pursue you into a private indoor space with other people around.
Responding in the moment
There isn’t a “best” way to respond to every harassment situation; you must be the judge and act accordingly, keeping your safety as a first priority. If you feel safe enough to respond, however, here are some possible techniques you can use to defuse the situation. They are informed by experts Martha Langelan, Lauren R. Taylor and Dr. Bernice Sandler. Note: because harassers often throw women off guard, practicing these responses can make them easier to perform during the actual event.
First, use strong body language. Look the harasser in the eyes and speak in a strong, clear voice to show assertiveness and strength. Project confidence and calm, even if you do not feel that way.
Do not swear or lose your temper, as this type of reaction could make perpetrators respond with anger or violence, but let them know their actions are unwelcome and unacceptable.
Some possible verbal responses would be to name the behavior and state that it is wrong. For example say, “Do not touch me, that is sexual harassment.” You could also tell them exactly what you want. Say, for example, “move away from me,” “or “go stand over there,” or ask them if they would want their mother, sister, daughter, girlfriend or wife treated like they are treating you.
Another technique is to identify the perpetrator: “Man in the yellow shirt, stop touching me.” This is especially useful if other people are nearby, like on a bus.
Even though these responses may not be understood if those around you do not speak your language, your irritated tone may sometimes be enough to deter the harasser. It is also recommend you learn some of the above phrases in the language where you are traveling, as well as other words like “stop” and “help”.
You can find some “success stories”, written by victims responding to harassment at the Stop Street Harassment blog.
Advice for bystanders
Many harassers will only bother others when their victims are alone, or will do it in such a way that no one else realizes it. But there are still times when they do act in front of others.
There are a number of barriers that keep people from preventing and intervening in street harassment. Often when there are several other people around, the “bystander effect” kicks in, so that each person expects someone else to respond. Some people may do nothing because they’re not sure if their help is welcome. Perhaps they fear the perpetrator may harm them. This can be especially true within a foreign environment.
These are legitimate concerns, but since action can often make a difference, the benefits usually outweigh the possible negatives.
Simply offering a presence can deter harassment, or clearing one’s throat or coughing, particularly if a harasser does not notice other people are around. Another easy, indirect avenue of action is to distract the perpetrator with questions. You can ask for directions, or for the time, or for their help in translating something. This can often be enough for a harasser to move on without causing a scene or putting anyone in danger.
You can also ask the victim “Is someone bothering you?” That alone may deter a harasser who believes no one will intervene. If the victim says yes and the harasser does not leave or persists harassing, tell the harasser to stop or call for assistance (from police, a transit authority worker, or other people nearby, if possible).
If the victim says they do not want your help, leave. You don’t want to be another person intruding on their space. If they say yes, try to help them as best you can. Sometimes, particularly if the harasser does not speak your language, beginning a conversation with the victim will be enough for the harasser to assume you are her companion.
You don’t have to be loud or physically confrontational. In fact that can often bring negative effects. But you should do the right thing, particularly if the victim is alone and seemingly helpless. You have to have the courage to stand up for victims in these situations, just be aware and know what your advantage is.
Get more travel safety tips:
- Tips for Solo Travelers
- The Girl’s Guide to Traveling Solo in Muslim Countries
- Solo Female Travel Myths Debunked