A man once asked my partner to exchange me for two fifteen-year-old girls. Another squeezed my hand when saying goodbye and rubbed his finger against my palm while looking suggestively in my eyes. Yet another one rubbed his hard-on against my butt while watching a traditional dance spectacle in a crowded square. Once, a man felt free to take a look while I showered – not on a beach, I must say. Each of these happened in a different country and distinct culture – but they all have one thing in common.
Sexual harassment is one of the least pleasant parts of travel. While we mostly tend to speak about the kindness of strangers, funny occurrences and unbelievable anecdotes from the road, the experience with sexual harassment is still there, lurking at us from that part of memories we wish we didn´t have.
As a woman who travels on her own, you are likely to deal with this side of humanity sooner than later – and sometimes even when you travel with your partner or friends.
Shameless advances, seemingly ”accidental” physical contact, verbal or even physical pressure, unwanted suggestions, inquiries about your sex life and exaggerated sweet-talking are often mixed together in an ugly hangover inducing cocktail that doesn´t look dangerous at first but leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth.
Sexual harassment on the road: my experience
You´d be surprised, but I have not dealt much with sexual harassment in my home country. I am not sure if I was just lucky or if Slovak men really are that much more respectful, or (maybe more likely) I am more aware of cultural norms, able to detect weird behavior easily and react appropriately before it happens. While Slovakia is certainly dealing with gender (and orientation) inequality, I never felt unsafe walking home at night or even letting a brand new crush from a bar accompany drunken me to the door.
Harassed in San Francisco
When I was harassed for the first time (not talking about whistling construction workers here) I wasn´t sure what to do. I was staying with a couchsurfer in San Francisco and in spite of him knowing about my boyfriend, he was constantly trying to push boundaries. First, he made me believe he was gay with some remarks and then he proceeded to try to get his way.
“Sensual massage” offers, unwanted hugs and touches, intimate questions and weird vibes made me feel very uncomfortable, to say the least, but since it was all sugar-coated with exaggerated friendliness, food invites and generosity, I was left wondering; am I just overreacting? Is this guy simply being open about stuff and I am the prude Eastern European in the land of freedom? Maybe this is normal in their culture…? Asking myself these questions, I quickly undermined my own gut feeling.
Wrong. Always trust your instinct.
I felt ashamed and reluctant to tell anyone about it – but when I did, they confirmed my feelings. This kind of behavior was not right and I felt stupid for doubting myself. I left the man a long, detailed, sincere reference in order to warn other women and in the next few years, I received several messages from other couchsurfing ladies who thanked me for my honesty, saying that “they weren´t sure if they were just inventing it” and wishing they´ve avoided the person in the first place.
I promised myself after this that if there was a next time, I would stand up to it. Only that when it happened, I was struck by the same unnerving uncertainty of how to react.
Read more: What is naking and why women do it?
Harassed in Cyprus
This time I didn´t expect any problems; I carefully checked the hosts’ profile and references (as if I didn´t know that those are not reliable) and clearly stated that I am married in my message.
Anyhow, the host – a young, muscular guy – soon started to test my limits. First, he suggested I travel alone to “see other men” than my husband and that said husband should be by my side to protect me always. (Ugh, what century is it?)
Then he arranged just one sleeping place for the two of us. I took another mat and lied down as far from him as I could, but I didn´t sleep for a minute that night out of stress. The next day, he not only pulled my clothes to see “if I´m in shape”, he also felt free to take a peek while I was taking a shower, “accidentally” entered the toilet when I was in, suggested “we shave you Brazilian style” (we?!), commented that he is not “judging me for not shaving my legs because he is sure I am cleanly shaved when I´m at home” and peppered this tense situation with more massage and exercise offers. I was being polite (damn my good family education) but cold and left as soon as possible.
This time, I didn´t bother leaving a reference – I immediately reported the man to Couchsurfing support who proceeded to take his account down as soon as I was away from the island, to spare me more problems.
Hitchhiking in Cyprus
Although my pretext for taking this refreshing solo adventure was something along the lines of celebrating the International Women´s Day as a modern woman ought to, I must admit the first two days I was nervous as a virgin on his first date. I used to consider myself a solo traveler during my university years, but then marriage happened – I met my intrepid husband and we started to hitchhike together, hike, bike, camp…in two.
And so when the first man I met once alone for the first time in months turned out to be a sexist pig, naturally, I was nervous. Instead of freaking out and running back, I decided to try again.
I hitchhiked anyway – I wasn´t going to let fear stand in my way, hell no. How would I look into the mirror? The first ride went well – a man offered to drive me to the next city before I even got the chance to raise my hand. I stayed with a female host (a wonderful, amazing, badass Moroccan girl that I am proud to call my friend), calmed down a bit and got ready to hitchhike more.
Unfortunately, out of the five following rides, two were making advances. Touching my knee, repeatedly pressing me to go for a dinner, urging me to call them in order to explore together (in a sleazy way), or downright making plans with me without asking if I´m looking for company (“We will go to the Golden beach in my car and camp there, I have a tent.”) – but instead of reluctance to hitchhike more or fear, anger was growing inside of me. This anger gradually became stronger than my shyness.
Change your attitude and you will change your destiny
Was I seriously having to deal with these problems? Was I going to let a bunch of misbehaved men to spoil my trip? Hell no, I decided.
My having a vagina was not going to be my disadvantage. I was not going to allow anybody to steal my having a good time on my first solo adventure in years! In the evening, I gathered all my pissed off-ness and channeled it into a new attitude.
I was going to be a woman nobody messes around with and if I was feeling small and afraid, well, then I was going to fake it til I´d make it. I trained mean looks in front of the mirror, prepared a couple of dry comments to reply to inappropriate remarks and promised the scared part of me that I would immediately slap anyone who´d as much as dared to touch me.
After giving myself a pep talk in the morning, I stood on the road and hitchhiked the 80 km to Famagusta.
I got there in three or four rides. Did I have to use my new tactics?
Not at all.
I got rides from a family and a couple on the way there and a bunch of women (who took me to their village and invited me for coffee, dinner and showed me around) plus some men again on the way back. None of them were touching my knee. All of them were being polite to me. As my Moroccan friend said, what was needed was to “Oblige them to respect me merely with my eyes.”
Insecurity, bad luck, and human behavior
The lesson I took from this was the one of self-respect. I was feeling fear and I let people (try to) take advantage of me. While I was feeling vulnerable and insecure, weird things kept happening to me.
As soon as I decided that I needed to put myself first and take better care of that scared girl inside, things changed completely. I kept hitchhiking in North Cyprus for two weeks and had zero negative experiences from the breaking point onwards.
I realized that I can influence the way people (or rather men) treat me simply by changing my mindset and therefore my behavior. When I stopped being a prey, they stopped playing games with me in turn.
Yes, hitchhiking alone as a woman can seem scary and is certainly riskier in some places than in others, or than hitching as a couple. But bad people are a minority in this world – the rest will respect you as much as you respect yourself.
Some men scared me; but I was having none of that nonsense and thanks to realizing this, I was able to live a wonderful experience meeting all kinds of cool people – from a local retired police officer to a bunch of students from Iraq, who all helped me and convinced me that hitchhiking alone is a great experience.
Solo travel & sexual harassment
Unlike some, I am not going to pretend that sexual harassment is a female only issue. I have heard from men already that they have received unwanted advances from female guests or hosts that made them uncomfortable and in spite of the popular opinion, boys and men can also get raped.
Attitude only is not going to save you from the worst, unfortunately – I don’t pretend it will. But my personal experience changed completely when I finally decided to ditch fear and stand up for myself. With more respect for myself, I received more respect from the others – old and young.
Being a 165 cm tall, blond, 27 years old woman, I don’t have too many other options of how to impose myself than my attitude. It took me time to learn this – at first I felt that after all, solo travel wasn’t for me – but honestly, this journey has always been about testing and pushing my limits, not only of courage but also of trust, bodily endurance, and personal integrity.
Fear, submissiveness, and sweetness are not your friends on the road. Keep that head high and proud – and let me know if you’ve seen any difference!
Have you experienced sexual harassment during your travels? How did you react and what did you feel? Share your story in the comments!
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We were on a hitchhiking journey from Europe to India; now I broke my backbone and have zero idea what follows – stick around to find out with me!