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.
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.