Travel Tips

Dealing with Street Harassment While Traveling

Yesterday, Kendra over and Points and Pixie Dust published a post about experiencing harassment during her trip to Vegas. Some of her experiences were pretty appalling (blocking someone’s way, really? Are we in elementary school?). Reading her post brought back that feeling of anxiety and helplessness when a stranger says or does something inappropriate and all you can do is walk away. I hate that feeling. Women are often conditioned to ignore harassment and I don’t think it’s right. I’ve done that too many times and it always left me feeling angry afterwards. Even when I’ve witnessed harassment and did nothing about it, I’ve felt bad years later.

An American Girl in Italy Source:
An American Girl in Italy
Source: Orkin Photo

For example, a few years ago I was getting searched at a shopping mall in Kabul by a female security guard. Next door was the men’s booth, maned by a little twerp who strained his neck every time a girl walked by. Just as I walked out of the booth, a young girl walked by with a lose veil. He turned around and spoke the most vile, disrespectful words as he ogled her until she was out of sight. She ignored him. I’ve never punched anyone in the face before, but at that moment I wanted to grab that guy by his shirt collar and give his face a good pounding. Of course, I didn’t and if there is anything I regret in life it’s how I acted (or didn’t act) at that moment. At the very least, I should have reprimanded him for his behavior. It would have been all too easy to verbally eviscerate him, in the presence of other people and ensure he never behaved like that again. But I didn’t and he’s probably said and done worse things to dozens of girls since. 

Over the years, I have developed an absolute zero tolerance policy for this type of disrespect. If for no other reason, so I don’t feel weak like I do when I simply walk away or recall the experience two years later and still feel angered by it. I’ve since had instances where people have said things to me or people I’m with and I didn’t let it go. In my experience, the men who behave this way have very low self esteem and when you reprimand them, they get very embarrassed and think twice about how they interact with women in the future. 

During a train ride with my teenaged cousin in Sydney last year, we encountered a group of creepy young guys. Both of us were standing by the door and they were across from us. At one point, my cousin made a dash to my side and I looked over at her quizzically. She didn’t like the way those guys were looking at her and giggling. Then she said to one of them, “Could you please put your phone down?” and he quickly put it down and muttered, “Yes, sorry.” I was confused and she told me she though he was taking her picture. In the past, she’s confronted guys on the street and made them delete photos of her. Apparently that’s a thing.

I suddenly got angry and couldn’t contain myself. I walked over to David La Chapelle and told him to hand over his phone because I wanted to see his photos. He looked surprised and visibly nervous, but handed it over. I browsed through the gallery and found nothing but photos of what I presumed was his grandmother. At that moment I almost felt bad until I remembered his behavior earlier. I handed the phone back and all three guys stood in the corner quietly for the remaining train ride, looking at their feet, hopefully having learned a lesson.  

Yes, in certain situations walking away is the safest thing to do, but there are times when it’s necessary to stand up for yourself and put an end to harassment. There is no need for a profanity contest, but a simple, “Your behavior is unacceptable” will do. Be firm and demand respect. In my experience, it throws them off and they either apologize (it may be half hearted: “Jeez, sorry!”) or they’ll be so dumbfounded and embarrassed about being reprimanded, they’ll say nothing. And maybe it will put an end to this behavior in the future, in which case you’ve done other women a service.

Insulting people angers them and leads to a screaming match, which you want to avoid obviously. But if you’re firm and take the moral high ground, they quickly realize they’ve made a mistake. Sometimes even looking straight at them will rattle them because they expect you to ignore them and walk away. It’s simply an ego building exercise for these types of guys. Don’t feel embarrassed or cower in their presence. Too many women do that and really, it should be the perpetrators who should be embarrassed.

I can’t really say what other women should do when they are harassed (though I can offer my advice), but I strongly feel that the old adage, “ignore them and walk away” allows this behavior to go unchecked and empowers the perpetrators. They need to learn harassment is unacceptable and the only way to do that is to address it.

Regardless of whether it happens at a local coffee shop or abroad, women shouldn’t accept harassment as a condition of travel or being female. Put the perpetrators in their place however you feel comfortable, but do not allow the nonsense to continue.

How do you deal with being harassed during travels or on a daily basis? Guys, I’d like your opinion on this topic as well.

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  1. Great post. I am inspired by your decision to no longer ignore this unacceptable behavior. Personally, I find that the most insidious type of harassment is the “friendly” comment paired with the gross leer. I’m also just floored by the amount of sanctioned and “acceptable” harassment in our everyday lives. The videos that were playing in the cab I took last night were a good example of this. Basically it was a “prank” that involved a woman walking down the street and getting slapped on the butt…multiple times, by several different guys. WHY WAS THIS SUPPOSED TO BE FUNNY????? It’s just unacceptable.

    • It’s completely unacceptable. Of course women who object to this lame attempt at humor are labeled uptight. Videos like this prioritize men’s entertainment over women’s feelings. Not ok.

  2. You go Girl! Not speaking up can be interpreted as acceptance of behavior and women need be clear this type of behavior is unacceptable.

  3. Concur wholeheartedly with the post Ariana, though in my town, we’ve been reminded lately of the perils of thinking we’re invincible as individuals. (student here kidnapped/missing) Society indeed has gone sick even here in the US with the corporate media sanctioned (even encouraged) degradation/harrassment of women that seems ever so present. I’d add a word of extra caution when traveling “3rd world”…. esp. places like Egypt which now have the worst of all worlds, a culture of intense sexual harassment on the street combined with a brutal, vicious military government (which the US now looks the other way on… back to calling it “proto-democratic” bs…. in short, if you get into trouble, think twice about calling the “authorities”) …. Egypt is desperate for tourists to return, but does nothing to protect you (esp. of if you’re female on your own — instead, you’ll get blamed for bringing it on yourself, *arg.) Time for more travel bloggers to join you in stepping up to the plate, AND without white washing matters, so as not to offend the CC or hotel chains buttering their bread.

    • It’s really terrible and has seeped into every aspect of women’s lives, which is why it’s important for us to defend ourselves now more than ever. I’ve experience harassment walking to work as well as in the building itself. Reporting it has gone on deaf ears. There was one particular person I worked with at a health management organization who had complaints from over a dozen women and the HR rep herself! This was almost two years ago and he is still employed by the company.

      It’s really a worldwide problem that has no boundaries, though I’ve heard as much from a family friend who visited Egypt. It wasn’t so much sexual harassment as, “Why aren’t you dressed properly?” I wouldn’t call the police without being prepared with a hefty bribe.

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