In response to Sexual Harassment Abroad: The Worst Places in the World, reader Nisha posted this:
“…I think we have digressed ourselves from what we want to know. It is about sexual harassment while travelling. The data here shows how women are treated in their own countries…it’d have been nice if some light was thrown on female travellers being harassed abroad.
In that case, I think India is the most unsafe country for female travellers.”
When one comes to an article stating “Sexual Harassment Abroad: The Worst Places in the World,” one might expect a definitive listing that could help travellers decide just where they might want to spend their vacation. TravelSexLife, a sex-positive proponent of sexuality – and of having safe travels – should be able to provide such a list right?
I had intended, initially, to provide one. I searched far and wide, reading essays, messaging users at bulletin boards, and came up with very different results. When one person would claim India was the worst, such as Nisha, another would state:
“Outside of bars I haven’t had… problems. My last 3 trips [lasted] about 3 months and not once was I groped or hit on. And no, I am not terribly old or ugly!”
In my posting of statistics about women being sexually abused / raped in their own countries, my intention was to point out how varied the statistics were from report to report. If different reports couldn’t consistently determine which countries were the worst for women within their own countries, then how could I find data that conclusively determined which countries were the worst for sexual harassment abroad for travelers?
Given my newfound hesitation in painting one country a shade of vile and calling it a day, I’ve spent the last few weeks gathering opinions from across the web. After all, if we can’t provide you with the ultimate list that details the worst places in the world for sexual harassment abroad, then why not rely directly on the testimonials of travellers?*
What does ‘Sexual Harassment’ actually mean?’
“Getting sexually harassed has nothing to do with being young, looking attractive, or the way you dress and thus bringing it on to yourself; it’s all about power, right?”
“We all have our ideas about sexual conduct, what is considered correct as individuals or a society as whole (I’m speaking apart from actual law here). And when you intermingle those divergent ideas – power kegs happen or major misunderstandings or downright shitty behaviour. As a female traveler, it’s a matter of knowing what’s right for you and what is totally unacceptable.”
“Western tourist women will speak up more than Indian women…The responses you receive will obviously reflect that demographic.”
“I guess the simple act of touching a woman is all it takes to be considered sexual harassment.”
TravelSexLife reader Shannon, posting a response to my last article on sexual harassment, also asks an important question:
“I’m also told but I rarely hear people talk about it that MEN are also sexually harassed, what about this?”
Sexual Harassment: The Men Speak
“At least twice, while on my motorbike in Vietnam I stopped at traffic lights only to have my arm hair being caressed by a grinning Vietnamese guy pulled up next to me. Sexual harassment? Not sure. Invasion of privacy? Well, Vietnam doesn’t really give anyone respite from that now does it?”
Sexual Harassment: The Women Speak
Opening it up to testimonials from females as well, this is what I found:
“I was traveling alone in Cairo on Monday… On my way I lost the direction. Then I asked a tourist police (wearing white uniform and hat, with a gun and a walkie talkie) about it and he offered to walk me there. I thought it was the safest way to get help but it turns out not. He led me to a subway and sexually harassed me when nobody was around.”
“A special warning on Couchsurfing – in 2009 nine women have been raped and killed by their ‘hosts’ in India.”
“In Australia, here you are vulnerable in nightclubs and pubs… Over here, incidents seem to occur mostly on public transport.”
“I got harassed quite a bit in South America due to my hair and skin… but I found it really weird in China when I would get physically molested and stalked by South African and Middle Eastern men (especially in Beijing). Well, I stalk and molest boys all over North America, so I guess it balances out? Gah! Karmas a bitch!”
“I personally know somebody whom had a terrible situation in Bali. She was followed all night by a man and she eventually made it to her hotel room. Unfortunately, the door was pretty rickety, and there was an open space in the middle of the door for the man to leer in and catcall her for several minutes right outside her room. Frightening stuff.”
“[In America, I was] almost raped at a party. Guy had his pants down already and me in a head-lock. Luckily friends noticed and got him off me. I don’t know if I would have managed to escape otherwise.”
“I know of two younger female travellers (early 20’s) who have been sexually harassed in Huanchaco, Peru.”
“I lived for a year in McLeod Ganj. I had my ass grabbed once and promptly kicked the grabber in the nuts. Another friend had her breast grabbed in a restaurant as she was walking down the stairs. My mom, who is 60, had her ass grabbed last year.”
“In Australia I came across someone from a country I considered unsafe and he wouldn’t leave me alone. He composed ‘love’ letters saying how I was to become the mother of his children. I later found out he’d just come out of prison for stabbing someone.”
“Indians, both male and female, think white women are sluts. It is a part of the culture and portrayed everywhere from bollywood to advertising.”
“While growing up [in India] in the 60s and 70s, the way western woman were portrayed was that all westerners… are game [for sex].”
“I was sexually harassed by almost all the male staff at my resort in Egypt.”
“We wore full punjabi’s, and tried to adhere to and respect Indian culture, but hey, it still happened. It appears we “bring it on ourselves” and “send out the wrong messages” just because we are female, western and not in the company of a man. That is just a reality of travelling in India and it is a shame.”
“If you are going to India, your main focus should not be on groping- might happen, it might not. I think its more important to learn about what sort of communication is acceptable with men. You will get a lot of unwanted attention as a foreign woman and it is important to learn to deal with this assertively.”
“In Canada I have had one guy grab my ass on the street… In Canada even teasing is known as sexual assault and will get a man sent to prison.”
I was happy to find that in collecting these testimonials, there was a wealth of people keen to hand out words of wisdom.
“I think it is good to warn people about things that could happen (and I don’t doubt they do occur) but i think it would be a shame for people to be put off visiting [countries] because of reading some of these [comments]. I think you have to be savvy and sensible when traveling anywhere in the world and I think any destination comes with its own set of risks. Even at home I have experienced unpleasant events at times. I just think it would be a shame to paint [some countries] entirely with the brush of being an unsafe place for… travelers or [being] the groping capital of the world.”
“Wherever you end up going it’s always important to remember you can meet any type of person. That’s why you should always be on your guard.”
“Don’t assume that because you have known someone for a few days, or been out with them before, that they are ok. Always keep your guard up.”
“If you scream, a horde of Egyptian men (most of whom would’ve sexually harassed you in other circumstances) will surround whomever’s giving you trouble and beat the shit out of him. Or at least scare the shit out of him. It’s not like the West where people simply ignore you.”
Perhaps my favorite bit of advice:
“If you want to avoid questions in trains etc, take a book. Otherwise, use my trick: inundate them with questions. Are you married? Where are you from? How many children do you have? What do you do for a living? What is your kids’ names? When you get into family and kids talk, you immediately become something else, more like an aunty than a sexual object.”
When looking at the sheer quantity of international sexual harassment incidents listed here, it might be tempting to draw conclusions about any one country and/or any one nationality. Please don’t. If we can define sexual harassment as being unwanted advances that are sexually charged, we’d be hard-pressed to find a country that doesn’t have its own accounts of such abuse.
What can we do, then, as travellers wanting to avoid sexual harassment, or even sexually-charged confrontations?
Travel in groups. Observe and respect the local cultures and customs. Travel light. Be aware of your surrounding. Find out how to ask for help in the country’s language. Err on the side of caution. Consult guidebooks in advance to know what you should expect. Date safely, and drink alcohol in groups.
* Please note that my intention was not to paint any one specific country as being worse than another; India does, indeed, have a disproportionately large number of testimonials compared to, say, Australia. However, this could very well be indicative of the fact that English-speaking travelers in Australia may have an easier time reporting sexual harassment than travelers in Jordan, thus having less of a need in sharing the details of the event on the web. Not that I’m throwing you under the bus, Australia. You know I love you.