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How to Deal with Street Harassment Abroad

How to Deal with Street Harassment Abroad

“Hey...” someone growls out from the dark, their voice low but insistent.

“Hey lady, come back here.”

It’s late, it’s dark, and there’s a man following me to the bus stop. I’m alone and there’s almost no one on the street. I don’t know this guy and I don’t know what he wants, but it can’t be good.

“Hey I’m talking to you! I said get back here!”

My pulse is throbbing in my ears, and I’m walking double-time while trying not to look scared. I get my hand on my phone and am ready to dial.

Street harassment is any unwanted or unwelcome attention from a stranger in a public place, like on the street or in public transportation.

I haven’t heard him for a little while, so I take a chance to look back, and it seems he is too drunk to keep up with me. This time, nothing else happens and I make it home safe. This time, it was only a few minutes but I’m exhausted and it completely changed my whole night. This time, I was lucky that it wasn’t worse.

Have you ever been abroad and found yourself getting unwanted attention? It’s hard to know what to do or how to recact, and fellow travelers may dismiss your concern as an overreaction, or try to rationalize the behavior. This is street harassment, and you’re not alone. Whether you're studying abroad or living abroad, here's how to deal with (street) harassment abroad.

What is Street Harassment?

Street harassment is any unwanted or unwelcome attention from a stranger in a public place, like on the street or in public transportation. It can include whistling, staring, following, or yelling. Someone exposing themselves, pleasuring themselves, or rubbing themselves against another person is also street harassment.

You may have heard it referred to as cat-calling, or even the old-timey phrase “Eve Teasing.” Sometimes it takes the form of a supposed compliment, like calling someone beautiful, honey, or baby, or commenting on their physical appearance. It can also include commands, like telling someone to smile. Unfortunately, it can be found all over the world, sometimes more frequently than we're used to, and many people downplay the seriousness of street harassment, and the effect it has on its victims.

Who gets Street Harassed?

Street harassment abroad

Everyone can be a victim of street harassment, but most of the time, it’s women, gender non-conforming folks, persons with disabilities, and people of color. While overseas, if you're obviously foreign, this could get you additional unwanted attention.

Unfortunately, the more of these identities you hold at once, the more likely you are to receive street harassment.

Straight, white men can be harassed as well, but there is a power dynamic that means they are less likely to face actual danger, and if they do, they are more likely to be believed that it happened in the first place.

How does Street Harassment Feel?

Reactions to street harassment are different for everyone, but it’s common to feel angry, scared, frustrated, and even ashamed. Many people feel like they must have done something to bring on this behavior, so they feel embarrassed or guilty and replay the incident over and over in their head, trying to find the missing action or signal that could have caused the harassment.

Cultural differences mean that there are different norms around personal space, race relations, clothing, gender presentation, interpersonal interactions, and ways of showing affection in public.

It’s not unusual to be mad at yourself for “letting” street harassment bother you. Many independent women I know who go overseas frequently get the most upset at the very fact that they are bothered by it in the first place. They feel like street harassment isn’t a big deal since in their mind, “nothing happened,” so they are surprised and upset by their strong emotional reaction.

Street harassment can be so upsetting that people change their behavior, whether by walking a different route, paying more for a cab, keeping their head down or putting in headphones so they can’t hear the inevitable harassment. For many people, street harassment is an unpleasant fact of life, and they just do what they can to put it out of their minds.

What’s Different about Street Harassment Abroad?

When you’re overseas, there’s an added layer of fear and confusion. If the person is speaking in a foreign language, you may not be certain of what they’re saying. If you’re in a new city, you could be lost and not know the quickest way to safety.

Cultural differences mean that there are different norms around personal space, race relations, clothing, gender presentation, interpersonal interactions, and ways of showing affection in public, so people who have never experienced street harassment at home may go through it for the first time overseas. This doesn’t excuse the behavior, of course, but it does mean the experience can be more distressing.

Why Does Street Harassment Feel So Bad?

The truth is, all of these reactions are completely normal and understandable. That said, street harassment is a form of violence, and it’s on a spectrum that includes physical violence like touching, hitting, groping, hair-pulling, or sexual assault. Many people experience street harassment repeatedly, so they don’t experience the incidents as isolated, but rather as a constant build-up of damage.

Further, with every interaction there is always the threat that the violence could be worse, and living with that frequent fear and dread takes a serious toll on a person’s well-being.

When you consider the scope of the problem, it is completely justified to be shaken by these experiences. In fact, some of the bravest, most grounded people I know have been shaken to their core by street harassment.

Why Does Street Harassment Happen?

Street harassment posters

While it’s hard to know why an individual person will harass someone, the underlying cause is power. Street harassment very rarely happens to those who have power in a society. The idea that a stranger should do what they say, or stop and give them any time or attention, is a manifestation of a sense of being entitled to that person’s time. Most men wouldn’t want to interrupt another man just going about his day, trying to get to work. So why is it okay to interrupt other people?

Even though some people try to explain it away as just being friendly, the fact is, street harassment is mostly done by certain groups, namely straight men. The victims are usually from groups with little power. This means street harassment is not a neutral act.

The idea that it’s “just being friendly” was brilliantly discredited by Elon James White’s #DudesGreetingDudes, where he tweeted typical harassing language as though he were trying to engage with another straight man. The fact that the interactions sound so strange and ridiculous makes it clear that men would never treat other men this way, so there must be something else going on.

Some people claim men are just romantically interested and want to meet a prospective partner. If this were true, straight men wouldn’t street harass gay men, and there wouldn’t be negative street harassment. It’s common to hear that street harassment victims just can’t take a compliment. However, compliments are meant to make the a person feel good, so if they make the person feel scared, they are by definition not compliments, or at least not very good ones.

Your number one priority is your safety and well-being, so do whatever you need to do to get out of the situation.

Further, if a victim doesn’t respond the way the harasser would like them to, it’s common for, “Can I get your number?” to turn into a string of profanities. Many spurned harassers will let their victim know they aren’t that good looking anyway, that they should be grateful for the attention, and that they’re stuck up. Why is it that a lack of interest suddenly means a victim is unattractive or has a bad personality? Doesn’t it seem more likely that this is all just bad behavior to begin with?

When it comes to the goal of harassment, some people think it’s a numbers game in a hope to get dates or attention. That may be true in some instances, but look at the wide variety of people harassed aside from just women who seem straight. The thing all these groups have in common is that they are somehow considered outside the norm. What’s the goal?

Honestly, given that it often causes people to walk different routes, take less public transportation or change how they look, it seems like the objective is to get people back inside the norm, or else to get them to cease to exist altogether. If nothing else, fear is often the end result, and the message is that public space just isn’t safe or welcoming for some groups of people.

What to do When You’re Harassed Abroad

Now that you know what street harassment looks like, below are some tips on what to do:

Get to a safe spot

Your number one priority is your safety and well-being, so do whatever you need to do to get out of the situation. If you’re walking down the street, you could try ducking into a shop or an ATM vestibule, or hopping into a cab. If you have a phone, you could call a friend to come walk with you, or for emotional support.

Feel safe

Just because you’re now safe doesn’t mean your mind isn’t still going a million miles an hour. When we detect a threat, our body has physical reactions, like generating adrenaline, and pumping our heart faster. Take a moment to try to calm down. You could drink a glass of water, or perhaps take off a sweatshirt if you’re feeling overheated. You can also try deep breathing to lower your heart rate, or some grounding exercises.

A grounding exercise will take care of that strange feeling like you’re underwater, or your mind is disconnected from your body. Try to find all the objects in the room that are one color, or slowly say the alphabet backwards. Meditation can also help. The important thing is to slow your mind down by concentrating on a fixed, simple task.

Self-care

Dealing with harassment abroad

Remember all those emotions we talked about? Now that you’re more calm, it’s time to get you feeling better. Self-care can be any intentional act that is meant to make you feel better in some way. It can mean taking a long, hot shower, writing in a journal, dancing to some music, crying it out, or punching a pillow.

Try taking a walk to a cafe and getting yourself a nice pastry, or taking the night off from friends to watch a movie or go to bed early. Do whatever makes you feel better in the moment. It will be different for every person, and what feels good one day may not work another day. Experiment, and try activities you wouldn’t normally do.

Connect to others

The aftereffects of street harassment can linger for a long time, and one of the most effective ways to feel better after street harassment is to connect with other people who understand your experience. Seek out friends, classmates or relatives who may have had a similar experience, whether it’s in person or over Skype.

If there’s no one in your life who understands, whether at home or abroad, you can try connecting elsewhere. Check out the hashtags #EndSH and #YouOkSis, which are for general street harassment and harassment of women of color, respectively, to find some solidarity.

You can also tell your story over Facebook, or on Stop Street Harassment. If you’re studying abroad, check to see if there’s a feminist group on your host campus. You can also reach out to local woman for their perspective, and perhaps learn some local tips to mitigate the harassment.

Bystander Intervention

What if you’re not the person getting harassed, but you see it happening to someone else? That’s where bystander intervention comes in.

Again, safety first

The most important thing is to make sure everyone is safe. For some people, especially those who are bigger in stature and those who come from groups that are traditionally more powerful, it’s easier and safer to intervene.

They are more likely to be listened to and respected by a harasser, and less likely to be hurt by them. This means that a white man could use his relative privilege to step in and make a difference. It also means that if you’re a black woman, you should not feel guilty for refraining from intervening due to safety concerns.

See if the person needs help

If you feel comfortable, try checking to see if the target needs and wants help. They may not want it, especially if they’re afraid the harassment will get worse. You could walk right up to the person and ask them if they’re okay, but if you want to be more stealthy, you could make eye contact and mouth the question.

Interrupt the harassment

There are a few ways you can intervene. You could directly instruct the harasser to leave their target alone, or inform them that you’re calling the authorities. But you could also go for a more subtle approach, like moving so you’re physically blocking the harasser from his target, like on a crowded train.

Our best bet is to do what we can to spread the word that this behavior is not okay.

Some people act like they know the victim, and start talking to them loudly while trying to usher them away. Finally, you could disrupt the interaction by purposefully dropping your bag, giving the victim time and an opening to get away. Use your best judgment and always do what makes you feel the most comfortable.

Delayed intervention

This is by far my favorite tactic, and usually the safest. After the incident is over, check in on the victim to see if they’re OK. You could offer to call a friend or walk them to their destination if they need it.

Many people say that the worst part of street harassment is that there were plenty of people around, but they pretended everything was fine and did nothing. Now, there are plenty of reasons not to step in -- it could be dangerous for both you and the victim -- but by approaching the victim after the street harassment is over, you’re avoiding that confrontation but still letting the target know you saw what happened, it’s not okay, and you’re there for them.

Frequently Asked Questions About Street Harassment Abroad

You might still have a few questions about street harassment abroad. Below are a few of the most common questions I hear about it.

What about clothing?

Harassment abroad India

It’s common to hear discussion of clothing when we talk about street harassment. The thinking is that if you dress appropriately for the local culture, you won’t be harassed, or at least won’t be harassed as much.

While dressing in a culturally appropriate way -- like wearing longer skirts in Kenya or avoiding the booty shorts in Italy -- won't prevent harassment entirely, it can help. At the very least, it could help you not to appear foreign and be subject to stereotypes associated with your foreignness (e.g. "all American girls are 'easy'" -- a common perception abroad that's been perpetuated by unrealistic behavior in American films).

If dressing differently makes you feel better and safer, by all means do it. But when it comes down to it, the issue is not how much clothing you’re wearing; it’s the people who feel entitled to your time and attention, the people who are violent to strangers in public. This behavior of focusing on the actions of a victim instead of the perpetrator is called victim-blaming, and it frequently occurs when victims are from minority or marginalized groups.

Aside from distracting us to the real problem, victim blaming tells victims that street harassment is their fault. Victim blaming implies or outright asserts that the victim could have prevented the harassment in some way. This can exacerbate feelings of guilt, sadness or shame that accompany street harassment, so it’s important that we remind ourselves and others that street harassment is the fault of the harasser.

Are there some countries with less harassment?

Street harassment may look different due to cultural norms, but it happens all over the world. I get harassed in my home city of Boston as much as anywhere abroad. However, I have found that it annoys some people when I tell them that. Unfortunately, some stereotypical and discriminatory views of different countries and religions cause people to believe that only certain kinds of men harass.

The fact is, men of every race, class, religion, ethnicity and nationality harass, and there are men in all of those groups who would never harass someone.

How Do You Make Street Harassment Stop?

Unfortunately, there is no sure-fire way. Sometimes ignoring it makes the person give up, but other times they get angrier and start to follow you. Some people like calling harassers out, informing them that they are being disrespectful or asking why they are engaging in this behavior. If that feels empowering, more power to you! Unfortunately, many of us are too scared from having negative experiences to engage.

Our best bet is to do what we can to spread the word that this behavior is not okay. We can be a source of comfort when it happens to other people, we can tell our own stories to help us feel more empowered, and we can explain our experiences to the men in our lives, who may have no idea that it happens or how it makes us feel because they have never experienced or witnessed it.

It is my sincere wish that you never experience street harassment, but if you do, I hope you are now well prepared.

Read next: tips for women travelers in India or in the Middle East.

Photo Credits: feature image, woman, Delia Harrington, and photo of Tatyana Fazlalizadeh by Northeastern Center for the Arts.
Photo of Delia Harrington

Delia Harrington is a digital storyteller who has been working in international development since 2009. She was a study abroad student or in-country staff on eight different trips and was a study abroad administrator for three years. She is a documentary photographer and feminist activist, focusing on the intersections of travel, inequality, and gender-based violence.