Being harassed in your own country is challenging enough, but dealing with it abroad is a whole other ball game. Cultural differences and the language barrier add a layer of complexity to what is already a difficult and emotional situation.
There’s no right or wrong way to react. Cultural sensitivity doesn’t mean you need to accept behaviors that make you feel uncomfortable, nor is it your responsibility to confront someone if it compromises your own safety or emotional well-being. On the other hand, educating yourself about gender dynamics abroad can help you make safer choices, which will put you in a far more confident, empowered state of mind.
Being at the receiving end of some unwanted attention is never an easy situation to be in — so to help you out, we’ve pulled together some tips on how to deal with sexual harassment abroad.
1. Know what harassment is.
Sexual harassment is any kind of unwanted attention that’s sexual in nature. It can happen when you’re out and about or come from someone in a supposedly professional environment, such as a hotel, spa, or bar. The general rule of thumb is, if it makes you feel singled out, gross, or scared, then it’s not okay.
Leering, whistling, following, flashing, blocking your path, and groping all count, as do inappropriate comments and failing to respond appropriately to words or body language. Women and members of the LGBTQ community people make up the majority of reported cases, but it’s also an issue for heterosexual men – and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
2. Get to know the cultural differences.
As a traveler, you sometimes attract the gaze of curious locals. But what do you do when unwanted attention becomes sexual harassment, and where do you draw the line? In India, men are known to stare or serenade you with Bollywood songs. In parts of the Caribbean, it’s totally normal for men to smooth-talk women in the streets. In the UK and US, construction workers sometimes whistle at female pedestrians. They think they’re just harmlessly showing their appreciation, but for the traveler, it’s annoying, exhausting, and sometimes intimidating. Now to reiterate, none of this is okay. But just so you’re not caught too off guard, it’s always wise to do your research before you visit a new place so you have a better idea of what to expect. You can also ask locals while you’re there to see what they find acceptable and how they react.
Every situation is different and there’s no perfect solution, but your top priority should be physical and emotional well-being. Sometimes, the best response is to not engage at all. At other times, you need to let someone know they’ve crossed a line.
3. Dress appropriately.
Let’s get one thing straight: No one should have to put up with sexual harassment because of what they’re wearing. That said, having an understanding of cultural differences and dressing accordingly will give you confidence and lower your chances of attracting unwanted attention.
Research your destination and find out what’s appropriate to wear. This doesn’t mean you have to dress exactly like the locals, but you can achieve the same levels of coverage with a long-sleeved blouse or T-shirt, loose-fitting linen trousers or, if necessary, a headscarf. And remember, dress codes vary from region to region, which means what might be okay in a cosmopolitan capital may raise a few eyebrows in a remote rural village.
4. Be prepared.
While you shouldn’t travel in fear, having the means to protect yourself and deal with dangerous situations should give you more confidence. If you’re traveling somewhere that’s known to be unsafe, consider carrying a whistle and pepper spray with you (or a mixture of pepper or chili seeds in a water bottle) to attract attention and scare off an attacker. And when walking around a city, plan the safest route before you leave your accommodation, especially when traveling around at night. Pick well-lit main roads populated with shops or bars, while avoiding quiet streets and parks after dark.
5. Trust your gut.
Once while on vacation, I left a busy walled city and climbed up to a quiet viewpoint, which was essentially a plateau sticking out of a deep basin. To reach it, I had to cross a narrow walkway. As soon as I approached, I noticed two men on opposite sides simultaneously run down into the basin. It may have been nothing, but the situation didn’t feel right, so I left and went back to the city. Sure, I didn’t get to see the town from up high, but do I regret my decision to leave? Nope.
If you feel uncomfortable, trust your gut. Cross the street, change direction, or run into a crowd if you sense danger. That may mean leaving wherever you are, attracting the attention of a passing police officer, or simply running away. And if you’re heading somewhere quiet, like a viewpoint above a city, make sure you have an exit strategy.
6. Address the situation appropriately.
Sometimes, ignoring someone is the best option — but if they grab you, you may have to fight back. Getting away is your number one priority as opposed to inflicting damage (tempting though it may be), so push them off, move to a crowded place, and contact the authorities. If the assault is more covert — someone gropes you on public transport, for example — try to move away from them. If they continue to touch you, loudly tell them to stop; other people should notice the problem and help you out. At the very least, the shock of being confronted should force the grabby person to back off.
Whatever the situation, it’s important to make people around you understand what’s going on so they can step in. This is especially important if you’re a man being harassed: If there’s a language barrier, locals may think you’re starting a fight if you don’t make it clear what’s going on.
7. Speak out.
Keep the number of local authorities in your phone so you can call them in a snip. You may not want the hassle of dealing with the police while you’re traveling, but think of it this way: If you report the incident, they may be able to punish the harasser which could save more people from going through the same thing you did.
It’s also important to be aware that the police might not help you, especially in patriarchal countries where women and LGBTQ people endure daily harassment and persecution. In this situation, try to keep your cool (upsetting though it may be) and walk away. If the assault was serious, seek medical help as soon as possible from a clinic or hospital (you don’t have to report the incident if you don’t want to), contact your local embassy, and consider calling a trusted friend, family member, therapist, or crisis line for support. Many countries have organizations that provide help. If you search your country’s name with “sexual assault assistance,” you’re likely to find groups that can help you navigate the emotional, physical, and legal aspects associated with sexual harassment or assault.
If you feel comfortable doing so, consider sharing your story. This could range from posting a warning on social media to getting involved with political groups like Hollaback, which aim to change the culture of sexual harassment. Speaking out not only helps remove the stigma of talking about sexual harassment but also helps you take control of the situation, which can feel empowering.
8. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen.
Sexual harassment of all kinds is traumatic and it’s completely normal to feel upset, confused, ashamed, angry, or numb afterward. Remember, you’re not to blame even if your harasser was someone you know, you’ve previously been sexually intimate with that person, you were drunk or high, or you froze and didn’t say “no.”
While most sexual incidents involve a man attacking a woman, this is by no means the only scenario. There’s a mistaken belief that males can’t be sexually harassed, which perpetuates a cycle of victims not reporting the crime or being too ashamed to talk about it. The idea of being a victim may be difficult for some guys to deal with, but it’s important to know that you’re not alone and these emotions are normal.
9. Take care of yourself.
Whatever your gender, whatever the situation, you may not be able to function 100 percent after an incident and struggle with things like concentration, lagging energy, and irritability. Again, this is totally normal. Spend some time recuperating and don’t rush into social activities before you feel ready. Take care of yourself with a balanced sleep and mealtime schedule; do relaxing things like reading, meditation, exercise, or whatever you usually do to unwind; and, if you feel comfortable doing so, talk to someone you trust.
10. Don’t travel in fear.
People are usually proud of their country, and in the majority of cases, they look out for visitors. That said, if you think you’ll be uncomfortable as a female traveler in a particularly patriarchal society, or you’re an LGBTQ person considering a trip to a country where homosexuality is illegal, you should think carefully about how pleasurable and enriching the experience will be for you. Only you know what you’re comfortable with, and if you’ve researched your destination and have thoroughly prepared, you’re way more likely to have an amazing, incident-free experience.