“Oy mami!” I was fiddling with my camera on the streets of Granada when a man walked by moaning this at me. I was so shocked when I looked up that I snapped my head around and followed him with an icy stare until he left my field of vision. He almost had the humility to look ashamed.
The perpetrator? A sixty-something-year-old white guy.
Since I arrived in Nicaragua, I have been harassed by locals. By what I presume are expats. By boys so young I can’t imagine they’ve hit puberty to men old enough to be my grandfather. In one weekend in Granada, I did not walk a block without being cat called and did not eat dinner in public without brushing off relentless and unwanted advances. I felt tired, too soon, just one week into a four month trip.
Those of you who follow me on Instagram may have seen my call for advice on the topic, and followed along on the extremely interesting conversation that grew from it. As promised, I’ve finally worked up the nerves to press publish on a full post on the subject.
The Art of Being Alone
I have traveled quite a bit in Latin America, to six countries over about seven cumulative months in the region. But for the vast majority of that, I have not been solo – I’ve been with a boyfriend, with a family, with a friend or with a whole group of them. Being truly on my own again is eye opening. I know, in a way, that I could make life easier by aligning myself with other backpackers – doing my sightseeing with them, eating with them, being in transit with them. But I came here, in part, to enjoy my own company. I want to take pictures of old churches in solitude. I want to read quietly while I eat my salad. I want to join up with other travelers when I want to, not because I feel I need to.
In a way, I think my travels in Southeast Asia have shielded me from what a reality this is in so many parts of the world. I remember being absolutely shocked by being catcalled in Gili Trawangan, the first time I’d experienced such a thing in years of wandering around the subcontinent. I certainly experience my fair share of street harassment back home in Brooklyn, where I almost developed an amused attitude to it. Sure dude, I look sooooo super sexy coming home from the gym with an armful of toilet paper I just picked up at the bodega. But in Latin America, I’ve found these encounters to be more threatening and aggressive, and my reaction to them more intense.
I’ve been surprised to find this is such a touchy topic, with attitudes ranging from extreme empathy to extreme eyerolling. When I tried to explain how male attention was affecting my trip to the female half of a young couple in my guesthouse, the girl looked at me somewhat suspiciously, as if I were exaggerating or perhaps overly sensitive. “We have not experienced much of this,” she told me with a shrug. I smiled back but in my head I was snarking that yeah, I got left alone with a 6’6” Scandinavian dude by my side too! I don’t think it should come as a surprise to anyone that in much of the world, woman are treated completely differently with a male companion.
I understand that Latin America has a strong culture of machismo. I understand that I am a blonde young woman, an anomaly traveling alone in this part of the world. I understand that some people actually think that catcalls are a compliment. Hissing, muttered “guapas!,” and other simple shout outs – I can get used to those. I can brush them off pretty easily. I can even, in some corner of my brain, register that this is a culture different than my own and accept the explanations I’ve read that they are “an appreciation of youth and beauty.”
But no. Grabbing your crotch and gesturing at me with it while you walk by me is not a compliment. Trying to reach out and grab my arm or leg while I walk by you is not a compliment. Waiting until I round a corner and startling me by screaming in my ear or kissing at my face to the great amusement of your friends is not a compliment. Making a woman feel fearful or uncomfortable is not a compliment.
I know that the popular tactic is, basically, to get over it. To chalk the whole thing up to “cultural differences,” to say boys will be boys, to smile, and to move on. On one hand, that’s a pretty open-minded and accepting way to live, and I’d like to think I strive to be both those things. Plus, frankly, it seems like the only long term survival tactic out there.
But on the other, I don’t know if I ever want to accept that this kind of casual harassment against woman is something not to be enraged by. It’s almost like I want to stay angry, because anything else feels like an injustice – but how long can you live with a constant rage-on like that?
I think my girl Rikka, who has been living on the Honduran island of Roatan for several years said it best when she chimed in with the following: “I’m all about respecting local culture but aggressive catcalling and street harassment against women should not be okay anywhere, period.” Rikka, it seems from her other comments, has stayed angry — and I give her kuddos for it.
The Gringo Effect
I noticed something really interesting while I was in Granada.
While the street harassment is overwhelmingly by local Nicaraguan men — surprise! It’s the old white dudes who pick up where they left off. It’s as if the visiting and expatriated North Americans who flock to the area have almost co-opted the local attitude towards woman and found a way to expand upon it.
On two separate occasions in my week in Granada, I was left shuddering after encounters with equally relentless groups of sexagenarians. (You might think I’m being funny, which would be an understandable mistake considering I’m usually so hilarious! But that is actually a term for 60-69 year-olds.) On both occasions I was working over dinner – using a restaurant’s wifi to blog while enjoying a quiet meal in a public space. Yet it appears something about me sitting there, surrounded by a laptop and notebooks and clearly working very hard, screamed to men old enough to be my grandfather, “Yes! Please! Come over and make inappropriate comments and even try to touch me! Ask the waitress to send over drinks and refuse to take no for an answer! Have that street musician play me a song when I politely said no and told you I was working! Have at it!”
Another group tried to manipulate me into being polite by berating me that “girls your age are usually so rude to men my age.” Gee, I wonder why? Could it be that you tried to introduce me to what you described as your “rich friends” as if that would be enticing? That you told me I’m beautiful and asked what kind of man back home would let me out of their sight? Or that you informed me that if you were forty years younger you’d be trying to get the key to my hotel room? Dude, you officially entered Creepsville, population you, like four conversation attempts ago and breaking news: I am not here for your entertainment. I am disgusted by this kind of selfish behavior from anyone, but especially men old enough to know better. And worse, I’m mad at myself, because I leave every encounter wondering how I could have behaved differently to make it end sooner.
I didn’t even bring the expatriate issue up on Instagram, as it seemed too tangential for that format. But to my relief, one of my commenters specifically mentioned the seedy expats they’d seen catcalling at women all over Granada. It was comforting to know I wasn’t the only one who’d experienced it.
How to Deal
Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a magic formula for warding off unwanted attention. I dress conservatively in cities, I don’t make eye contact and I carry a personal alarm with me for my own peace of mind. My fellow Instagramers had some great tips, too, like wearing sunglasses, working on my Resting Bitch Face, putting in earbuds without actually listening to anything, and investing in a fake mustache — okay, the last one may have been for comedic relief. Personally, the only thing I have found to make a difference is how I wear my hair. I always tuck it into a bun before walking the streets, and this actually does make a difference versus letting it hang down to my waist like I prefer. I knew several fellow blondies who have temporarily dyed their hair to make their travels in certain parts of the world easier, but, I think I’d rather stay home. I mean, just kidding guys! Hardy har! Obviously! (But actually only sort of kidding.)
I also, found, strangely, that the problem was noticeably worse in Granada over the weekends – I’m not sure if that’s because the offenders aren’t busy working or because they come into the “big city” from out of town on those days, but a few other girls I met confirmed they had made note of the same thing.
So I might not have found clear answers, but I did find I’m not alone, thanks to the outpouring of support on Insta, as well as warnings from USA Today that “street harassment is often worse for solo females and blonde women. Occasionally, Nicaraguan men will try to touch foreign women in the street.” Or a post from fellow seasoned traveler Camille Willemain, who wrote, “Now, in Granada, Nicaragua… the looks, the whispers, the shouts, the touches are more incessant than any place I have ever been, I just can’t take it anymore.”
I actually don’t think this is a Nicaragua problem. I’m sure similar shit would have happened everywhere from Peru to Panama had I not been shielded by the other people I was with. From where I’m sitting, the men who do these kinds of things are cowards and they prey on woman who are alone and easy targets. That kind of attitude, sadly, transcends borders. I say this because I’ve got a lot of love for Nicaragua already and don’t want this post to be misinterpreted to mean otherwise.
I thought one day, as I almost screamed with frustration at the third man to make me uncomfortable in two blocks passed by, of one of the most visible sculptures from Burning Man 2013. An impossibly tall statue of a woman surrounded at the base by the text, “What would the world be like if all women were safe?”
Granted, I don’t fear for my safety – statistically, Nicaragua is a safe country and crimes against foreigners are rare. But I do fear for my psyche. It can’t be good for my brain to feel this much rage on such a regular basis for the next four months while I traverse Central America primarily alone.
I accept that there are so many things I can’t do as a woman traveling the world alone. I really do. But I refuse to accept that walking down the street or eating dinner alone is one of them.
. . . . . . .
Genuinely – how do you deal with this when you’re traveling? I’ve thought about memorizing a really pithy response in Spanish to the street harassment, but my instinct and everything I read tells me its safer to ignore. As for the men approaching me while I’m working/eating/reading and not taking no for an answer, I’m working on being very firm and saying something like, “I’m sorry, but I’m actually working/really enjoying this book/really just enjoying my own company right now. Have a great evening!,” and physically moving if they won’t relent.
I’ve never been to Central/South America, lately I’ve been busy in Europe, and as a young blonde traveling alone – even here – the number of overly rude and suggestive comments in a day is overwhelming. I’ve been here for over 5 months and unfortunately (fortunately? not sure which it really is) I’ve gotten used to it. I used to be so angry at it all the time, wrote my own “Open Letter to the Men of Paris”, and engaged in conversation with anyone who would listen about my “problem”…
But as much as I agree with you and don’t think anyone should be treated this way ever, anywhere, carrying that anger is tough too, so I’ve just let it go and ignore the vile catcalls and gestures. It makes me SO frustrated that I’ve allowed myself to give into the “boys will be boys” more that perpetuates worldwide, but there is nothing I can do to change the behavior and culture of several generations of gross practices.
I sincerely hope it gets better for you! <3
Hey Courtney, as I said in my post, I really do understand that attitude and though I might fight it I don’t know if there is an alternative for long-term survival, really. You hit the nail on the head, girl! Good luck out there and <3 right back at ya.
Thank you so, so much for this post. I’m burnett and currently living in Japan, where men are too scared of women to hit on them- but instead they just feel you up on the train. You are right that it is not safe to fling insults back on these men because you never know when these kinds of sick narcassists are going to just shoot you down, in any country. But I’ll give you a tip one female solo to another which most girls agree work, if you can do it. Cry. Cry loud- if you can’t make tears that’s okay. Make the cry face, then cry noises as you cover your face with your hands. Everyone will try to see what they did to make a pretty girl burst into tears in public, and the men will be instantly uncomfortable. Plus, everyone will remember you were there if something DOES happen to you.
Ugh, I’m so sorry to hear you’ve experienced that in Japan. I feel grateful that my travels in Southeast Asia have been completely street harassment free! Of course, there is a gender bias, but it comes in the form of my landlord only wanting to speak to my boyfriend and not to me, and not in the form of being afraid to walk down a public street.
I really like your crying tip! That actually seems like something that could spark some change, when used in cases of seriously scary or vulgar harassment.
Hi Rae – as someone who is half-Japanese and has spent a lot of time being in and living in Japan, I want to give you this advice – Japan is the one country where it’s better to confront this kind of incident rather than ignore it. I know in most cases ignoring this behavior has the best outcome, but in Japan if you physically turn around and slap the guy right in the face – no hesitation – I can guarantee he will just be shocked and not do anything further. Many Japanese are very submissive, and this left of centre attitude will put him right back in his place.
And Alex, I’m also really liking Rae’s crying tip! I’v never been to Central/South America so I’ve never experienced this. I have been to Gili T though, and like you said, I never felt threatened enough to make it a real issue.
Just want to chime in and say I fully support harasser slapping. That is all!
Interesting article and right up my street Alex. I recently had an incident in class where one of my students called a girl a ‘ho’ and she did not react! Turns out that they are a (very young) couple. Stern words were given to both privately about respect and equality.
We had the opposite in SE Asia, men would touch Craig all of the time! They loved his tattoos and his friend reassured us that friendly man love was very common. He was called ‘handsome’ by a group of young men, million miles away from what would happen in Scotland! He is handsome though, I’ll give them that!
Ha, I’ve had that experience in Southeast Asia when traveling with dudes — they get lots of compliments on their height and muscles! I guess I could be misinterpreting it but the guys I was with laughed it off, and the intentions of the complimenters really did seem sincere and awe-filled instead of sinister 🙂
We did laugh about it often. ‘Beckham’ was another catcall he got. If only!
I appreciate your courage to travel and write about harassment as well as good things. I think the countries with such issues don’t deserve money from tourism. their authorities should feel ashamed and use their media to educate their people.
Well, aside from this, I am having a fantastic time in Nicaragua — I wouldn’t boycott a destination because of it (it would eliminate, as I said, my adopted home of New York City!) but I can understand why some would. I do think some government funded PSAs would be extremely beneficial.
I am trying to move to Central or South America with my blonde girlfriend and had tilted Nicaragua but this scares me. It hurts the bf as much as the gf because your connected and can empathize and want to protect. I wouldn’t be able to let her do things alone, is that such a life? Your really still happy there through this? Have you been anywhere in the area where you’ve felt respected? Nicaragua is supposedly 6th in the world for gender equality so it’s only the sexual predator aspect at least 🙁
Hey George, not sure what those gender equality rankings take into account but its hard to believe any country with such a strong machismo country would break the top ten. I’ve traveled Southeast Asia extensively and street harassment is incredibly rare here — essentially unheard of. I think in the end, your girlfriend will have to be the one to decide how comfortable she feels and how free she feels to move around a new city alone (and I promise you, street harassment doesn’t hurt you as much as it hurts the woman it’s happening to — though I do understand it can be shocking and upsetting for men to witness, too.)
What a damper on your first days in Nicaragua – I’m looking forward to your positive reports to balance it out! I wonder if you could pretend to be deaf for the guys who won’t take a hint that you don’t want to talk? Instead of learning a pithy phrase in Spanish, maybe learn some sign language!
Actually, I came SUPER close to pretending I couldn’t speak English one night when a nearby table of old dudes wouldn’t leave me alone. They opened with “Do you speak English?” and I don’t know why I didn’t just shake my head. Next time, I will. And don’t worry — plenty of positive reports to come. Check out Photos of the Week for a little preview 🙂
Oh man I feel your pain! I had one really bad day in Kuala Lumpur where despite having my husband at my side I got incessant stares, leers and unwanted attention. I’m not sure if it was the part of town we were in or what I was wearing, or the fact that I’m just foreign, tall and blondish, but I literally left a train in tears. We tried to sit in the women’s only section on the train to avoid the trouble (I noticed several other couples, all locals, trying this tactic too), but we eventually all got asked by someone who worked on the train to move back to the mixed sex car. It’s just NOT okay to harass someone and I totally think you have the right to be angry!
I found that what I was wearing made a huge impact on the reception I received in Kuala Lumpur — I think in a situation like that, where locals dress really conservatively for religious reasons, it’s best to err on the edge of ultra conservative to avoid stares from both genders! But yeah, I remember lots of lingering looks in that city.
Oh… this is really tough. I’m so sorry you are experiencing this and having a tough time. I lived in Mexico for 4 months and had to get used to the cat calls. After a time, it stopped bothering me, and then oddly enough, wondered where they were when they didn’t come. That said, I did have a guy on a bus shove his crotch towards me, and let’s just say he wasn’t flaccid. That was really gross. But what can you do? I was forced to pretend like nothing was happening. When I was in Argentina, that was the first time I was actually worried… but then I realized how much it has to do with the macho culture. It just felt so amplified for me there. While I was in Buenos Aires, I was sexually harassed one day, and things went a little farther than just cat calls. A man came right up next to me and started breathing down my neck and then he followed me and continued to do so. Finally I ran away and stood by some riot police until I lost him. That was terrifying because I was truly by myself, didn’t even have a hostel friend waiting for me somewhere. I think some of this stuff can be tolerated, as you say, as part of the culture, and in some cases (as I did in Mexico) we can even get used to it. But grabbing your crotch and touching someone – that’s assault. This is completely unacceptable, and unfortunately, I think this problem isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. All we can do as women is continue to travel. I want to say fearlessly, but sometimes there will be fear, and we must go anyway.
Those sound like really scary situations — I’m so sorry 🙁 It’s not easy being a chica in this world, is it! But like you, I’m not going to let that stop me from seeing it…
I’m so sorry you’re experiencing this, Alex. I had a hard time dealing with the machismo culture when I traveled in Nicaragua, too. It’s even worse in the northern parts (León) where they are more traditional. It went to a point where my Scandinavian guy didn’t even want to go out because they were staring at him and catcalling me. I acknowledge that this is a culture difference, but I absolutely agree with your friend on Instagram – harrassing women is never okay no matter what the reason!
It’s been present but much less so here in San Juan del Sur — I’m heading to Leon next and tired just thinking about it being worse again there. At least I’ll have some time to mentally prepare myself…
My friend and I traveled to Granada last summer and experienced the same thing, and we are both ginger. We were coming from Honduras (where we lived) and found it to be even worse than San Pedro Sula. We saw it in Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Panama too. It seems like that “machismo” attitude encourages this type of behavior. We also had issues with expats, and we often pretended that we didn’t speak English. After a few moments of older (usually American or British) men trying to communicate they would get bored and move on.
I agree with lots of the other comments and hope that this doesn’t discourage travel. Hopefully an attitude change is in the future for Latin America.
I like the idea of pretending not to speak English — I think that will be my new tactic for handling the expat creepers from here forward.
I lived in Central America and the Caribbean my whole life, and I saw the harassment gradually progress. Thankfully I don’t remember feeling threatened as a little girl, but it definitely started at some point. Being Hispanic, I think a lot of it is cultural. I had classmates in high school who would talk to the girls with the same slimy undertone and it always made my skin crawl.
It definitely doesn’t make it right or excusable though, and at the end of the day I think it comes down to education. Which is why I’m so glad you spoke out about your experience! Thanks for sharing.
In Korea the dynamic of what I personally consider harassment is weird… Sometimes it can be a supervisor being overly friendly (at which point it would be unheard of to be rude), or being relentlessly stared at on the subway. A friend of mine was recently followed by a middle eastern man walking home from the bus stop, in her own neighborhood. Funny enough, I just speak in Spanish to them and pretend I don’t know English. More than anything, I’m never too nice. Maybe polite, but never nice.
Sounds like the “don’t speak English” tactic is a popular one. I like it! Definitely implementing soon…
Maybe download and re-read “The Gift of Fear”. I seem to remember that the author has definite ideas about what to say and do when approached. Very happy to hear that you are carrying that alarm.
That is a good suggestion. I loved that book — would be interesting to reread again.
Such a tough topic – but you handled it well here! This line of yours wrapped it up perfectly for me: “Making a woman feel fearful or uncomfortable is not a compliment.”
Even if the catcalling and grabbing and otherwise unwanted attention is the “cultural norm,” that doesn’t mean that it’s an OKAY cultural norm.
For example, I have very little desire to go to India because of all the stories I’ve heard from woman about getting grabbed in public. I don’t think I would feel comfortable there, and feeling uncomfortable often is just as bad as feeling unsafe.
I’m sorry you’re going through this! I really don’t have any sage advice… but I think you’re totally justified in staying mad about it if you don’t want to just “let it go.”
I actually feel the same way, Amanda… I’m really hesitant to travel to India because of what I’ve heard about the attention foreign women get. I know some people can brush it off pretty easily but it really rattles me and I worry that on the level I anticipate it would be there, it would affect my trip too much to allow me to enjoy it.
Tagging on to Amanda’s comment…
There’s a reason why there’s so very little about India on our site. To be honest, I’m still suffering a little PTSD from our trip. Daily, I was harassed, groped, and grabbed. Even though I was traveling with Chris, I still feared for both of our safety. I had never been so rattled before and it really shook me to the core. I feel like I turned into a horrible person while there because I didn’t know how to handle it.
This post was one that I had started over and over again. I’m so glad you had the courage to push publish. Love you!
Girl! I am so interested to hear this and so glad you chimed in. This is what has kept India off my “must visit” list thus far — like you, I think it would be a core shaking experience and I’m not sure if I could move past that to enjoy the positives of the country. And I feel like that would make me feel guilty, or something. Thanks for sharing <3
Hey Alex – I’ve been a reader for a few months (and fellow 518er, wahoo!) but have been lurking without commenting until now. Better late than never!
I actually just moved to Brooklyn three weeks ago after a year of living in London and have been astounded at how often I’m harassed on the street in my neighborhood. I’d been to New York City many times growing up, so I think I thought I had a handle on the vibe better than I did. Also, I explored almost every corner of London during my time there, and there was only one incident with a stranger on the street that made me uncomfortable in an entire year. I wasn’t expecting Brooklyn to be so different, but it is.
Unfortunately, I don’t have much advice – just an “amen, sister friend!” to give you. Even though I’m often tempted to respond, I think this usually would only prolong the situation and possibly escalate it. The most successful tactic for me is headphones – it also helps because I hear less of what they’re saying, so I don’t end up as angry.
The ones that really stump me on how to respond are the most frustrating occurrences – when some guy catcalls and then starts shouting after me for being “rude,” “ungrateful,” or worse. In that case, I feel like I can’t win whether I respond or stay silent. All I can do is hope to get away from there quickly, which is certainly no comfortable way to exist on your own block.
The only step towards a solution I can realistically imagine is spreading awareness – to guys and girls alike. Did you see this video from a few months ago?
It’s shocking, but I had a few male friends see it and say that they genuinely didn’t realize it was such a common occurrence, and it really upset them.
Oy, sorry for the novel. Good luck and enjoy your travels to the fullest – and keep writing! xx
Fellow 518er gone Brooklyn! No way! Enjoy my favorite borough for me, though I’m sorry to hear you’re dealing with street harassment there — it is pretty relentless. I think it’s great you shared that video with male friends… I think that’s going to be the key. Making men aware of the issue and how it affects us (their friends, sisters, girlfriends) is what’s going to incite change, I think.
Please continue to stay outraged because you are right; touching, lewd gestures and intimidating tactics are not acceptable. I never realised it was such a problem in Latin America as I was always traveling with my boyfriend and brother. I experienced it in Egypt (I couldn’t even leave the hotel in Luxor) and in Italy and Turkey to some extent. It’s not nice at all
Thanks Katie…. I feel there are so many people that are made uncomfortable even hearing stories like this, they kind of just want it to go away. So I appreciate you encouraging me to stay outraged 🙂
I have not been to South America yet but coincidentally I saw this video just the other day about mothers in Peru being undercover as their own sons catcalled them: https://goo.gl/60Asih
It’s so frustrating that these men (yes it seems to be centralised in certain areas but I believe it happens worldwide) still believe that if a woman is either travelling, walking, eating or doing anything alone, that it is an invitation. Actually there are instances where a woman is not alone but this still happens.
A few people sent me that link — incredible! I obsessed with the fact that someone did that.
This was very interesting. I have experienced some of this in Mexico, but never enough to affect me.
The worst I have experienced was in Brasil. I say this with love too because Brasil to me is Thailand to you.
My first time in Brasil I was with my guy friend Pedro so I was generally left alone, which gave me a false sense of security for my second trip. I spent more time with my friends cousins, 20 year old very tiny girls. We were walking to the mall to get groceries and holy wow. They followed us, cat called, some asked for money some made what I can only imagine was some sexual remark in Portuguese. I was mortified and very uncomfortable. My friends on the other hand ignored it, or said go away, crossed the street basic head in the sand type thing. I understand they see it every day but wow. I couldn’t imagine.
I got tired enough of people staring at my eyes I couldn’t imagine creepy comments day in and day out.
I’m sorry you had to go through this, it does dampen a trip.
Yeah, having a break from it here in San Juan del Sur (still present but much less so) has been great and given me some perspective to think about all the great parts of Nicaragua. In Granada it really was weighing on me — it effects the entire experience.
I’ve never really experienced catcalling to the extent you have in Nicaragua. I’ve only ever experienced it in Poland, and it has never felt threatening. No touching, following, loud shouting, sexual gestures or anything of that sort, only being called non-offensive stuff while walking alone. I still don’t feel like it’s ok, and I definitely don’t think that it’s acceptable behavior that women should have to deal with.
Hope you have a safe and pleasant trip, and that the “cultural differences” won’t ruin your trip to an otherwise wonderful destination 🙂
It certainly won’t ruin it, but it will leave a mark. I hope if more people start talking about it and saying so, maybe that will eventually prompt the government to try to change attitudes somehow, even if just to protect their financial interests in tourism (unfortunately that seems like the most likely incentive, over say, concern over the well being of women.)
I just got back from South America, and this was exactly my experience in Cartagena, Colombia. (I’m also a blonde). While walking around with my 6’3″ husband, no problem. Head out by myself to maybe visit a fruit stand? Holy crap. I do feel for you though because of your petite size as well (I’m 5’8″). One good enough bitch look from me to the smaller in stature Hispanic men, typically would make them back up. Perhaps you need 6″ heels? 😉
Ha! Yeah, I think my size (I’m 5’1″) and the fact that I look very young (I am regularly mistaken for 18 when I am currently 25) does not help me. Time to break out the platforms, perhaps!
I’m so glad you wrote this post Alex. Every woman should have the right to walk the streets and go about their lives without being harassed, regardless of what they’re wearing, what time of the day or night it is or whether they’re alone or not. Sadly, most women are not granted this basic human right. I believe what it comes down to is the fact that most of us live in patriarchal societies where some men believe it’s their right to assert power over women, to remind us that they are the ones with the power to look and we are the objects to be looked at. The problem exists everywhere to varying degrees (we have a Reclaim the Night march in London to raise awareness of this issue) but it sounds particularly awful in Granada. You are right to be angry about it, we all – men included – should be. As to how to handle these situations, I just don’t know. I’ve both angrily confronted men and politely told them to go away before and they’ve turned nasty; ignoring them seems safest but as you mentioned, it wears away at your psyche.
I just want to give you a hug after reading this comment, Amy. You get it, my friend. You really get it.
Isn’t that the saddest statement – that you (and trust me, I’d probably do the same) would be forced to stop what you’re doing and move everything. That isn’t right, and I don’t think it should be allowed. One of the creepiest moments I have ever had, actually happened right here in Canada, when a guy approached me at a bus stop (in daylight and surrounded by other people) and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I am by nature a non-confrontational person, and by the time he finally left (after even going so far as to touch my hair), I felt violated and mad at myself – thinking of all the things I should have or could have done to prevent it. That in itself infuriated me because I feel like no one should have to feel that way. I’ve been incredibly lucky enough to not have this sort of experience on my travels, but I will say there are already places I would love to see that I will not go to without at least one male with me.
I applaud you for writing this, because it really is an issue that should be brought to light as much as possible. I hope the rest of your travels are much easier for you!
Thanks Marni — I was stressed about publishing this and I really appreciate all the love it’s getting.
I really admire your ability to write so eloquently about such a tough subject.
Aside from a few stares or cab drivers asking if I had a boyfriend I haven’t experienced anything like this is SEA. I think anytime a woman is made to feel fearful or pressured is unacceptable! No matter what the cultural differences are. As far as safety goes I think you have the right idea. Ignore when possible and give firm rejections when necessary. And always trust your instincts!
Yeah, I’ve definitely gotten the boyfriend or husband question in Southeast Asia but I think usually that’s more of a curiosity — they aren’t used to the idea of an independent woman traveling the world. But that area of the world has been blessedly harassment free for me (Gili Trawangan and, I guess a little bit Kuala Lumpur aside.)
Oh Alex, you’ve clearly struck a chord here. Personally, I don’t mind the odd catcall & sometimes even take it as a compliment! Controversial I know. But anything threatening or sinister & things quickly become not ok. And of course the distinction is blurry — one woman’s harmless catcall is another’s alarm bell.
I wish I had some advice but if I’m honest, what’s bubbled up for me reading this post is a bit of anger at certain female travelers who claim we’re on an even playing field with male travelers. That there are no special issues we have to deal with & are perfectly safe. Not sure if you’ve encountered this attitude but I’m kind of infuriated by it at the moment because it’s obviously not true. Off the top of my head, I can think of 6 women close to me, all savvy world travelers, who were assaulted in countries as diverse as Mexico, Morocco and France.
So the fact is we do have additional challenges as traveling women. What to do about them? You’re such a street smart girl with good instincts — I know you can handle yourself in most situations. Personally, if I find a place or a situation to be problematic, I may opt to leave rather than stand my ground. For example, for you, the restaurant seemed to be full of unwanted attention. Some might see this as “letting them win” but it just may not be worth the aggravation to prove a point.
Sometimes if you have a good rapport with your waiter or a staff member, you can inform them you’re being made to feel uncomfortable. And sometimes if they’re cool, the staff will kind of have your back, maybe even move you to a more “shielded” area.
It’s really case by case & unfortunately, it’s especially important for women travelers to be alert & on their toes, ready to make that snap decision. I wish I had more for you. But I can say that I feel your pain & wish you safe & harassment-free travels through Central America.
I do see where you are coming from. There have been times that I have laughed at the odd catcall — example: “Aren’t you a tall drink of water!” said by a jolly old man on a hot day in New York. I guess it’s just intuition, like knowing the difference between someone laughing at you or laughing with you.
And I’d give a serious side eye to anyone who claimed female travelers are on a level playing field with male travelers. Nuh uh. And actually, I never did go back to eat at La Calzada (the main restaurant drag where everyone congregates at night.) Just not worth it. And yeah, the sympathetic looks I was getting from the waitstaff was the only thing that was keeping me sane before I learned my lesson and ate elsewhere.
Ah. Uneducated folk. It is a shame. It’s pathetic and it’s how men like to put themselves above women.
I am angry after reading this post (a first for your blog).
People want a rise though, don’t they? Don’t give it to them. Easy to day, difficult to act out.
You sound like you are already doing the correct things. Have a safe trip Alex 🙂
Good… I’m glad I made you angry. I think we all need to get a little mad in order to make a change 🙂
So sorry all that crap Alex! Honestly, been yourself so blonde and so beautiful, I was wondering when would you complain about that….
I mostly travel solo. I personally decided not to come back to Cairo and Sharm el Sheik, ever, for same reasons. All pain-in-the-ass men in Africa were locals, unfortunately. I was also seriously attacked in Zanzibar. In SE Asia I only experienced uncomfortable harrassment by white 40+ men. Dodgy disgusting expats who makes the most of their little retirement money in Asia. And I stop here. But I could go forever.
I deal with it several ways: I literally buried my head in my laptop, I look up, point my earplug device, pretending Im having/listening to the most important call conference in the world, and if they insist I point my ear and also make a silence sign with my lips with an icy look. I always pretend I am having a phone conversation, or just pick up the phone and start talking but making the silence sign again, I always wear sunglasses and always pretend I dont understand a word. I also wear a wedding band and I ensure everyone knows I am expecting my husband anytime.
I always cover most part of my body when not at the beach, but its in my nature try to look beautiful, and at my best at all times, for my own self, and I will never stop doing it.
Unfortunately, many times I just had to leave my lovely blogging spot and find another place away from disgusting creepies.
This is just to say IM WITH YOU AND WELL DONE ON WRITING THAT POST! And if you still need a few spanish phrases, to shut and shock anyone, just give me a shout. I have plenty.
Xxxx take care and keep enjoying your lovely travels!!!
Haha I am the QUEEN of the fake phone call! It is an amazing tactic actually and you can get in some sly digs… “I’m just here working now but it is hard as there are a lot of distracts (AKA SHUT UP WEIRDOS).” I love this comment though, sounds like you have learned to handle it like a boss — and I’d expect nothing less!
I HATE catcalling. Namely because I’m not a cat, I don’t respond to being called, and I highly dislike pervy men who are pretty much the only ones who do it.
I’ve never been to South America but I’ve heard its intense there. It sounds like you’re doing everything right and I think when women all send the message that unwanted attention like that will get a man nothing but disgust, hopefully it will start to change things. It really should never be socially acceptable to harass a woman or make her feel unsafe.
Ha, I really like your first statement. I might have to use that in the future!
This is a really brave post and thank you for sharing it.
I think this is an issue girls can have in any country (although to varying scales of intensity and how it’s socially accepted). Even in England (where I live), I once had really terrible harassment on the tube by an incredibly creepy man. Because I was just in my normal routine (reading a book, coming home from work, shutting out the world), I wasn’t expecting it at all and it shocked me so much I didn’t know how to react.
And where it’s happened (eg Paris) I’ve been more on alert, but the harassment has been worse because I didn’t feel I had the language skills to convey what I wanted to.
These sort of stories put me off travelling alone to certain countries. And that makes me really angry. And we should be angry. Reading the comments on this post shows this is an issue women face everywhere.
I hope you find a way to deal with this on your travels (I really liked the crying suggestion!) and that you manage to have a more enjoyable time solo (and that you get some peace).
Thanks Gemma. I struggled with writing this because I don’t want to discourage women from coming to Nicaragua solo — hopefully it won’t and will instead just give them a heads up so they can mentally prepare for what will probably be ahead.
I am going to Nicaragua in about two months and loved reading about your post on catcalling. Thank you for writing it!
Personally, I don’t agree with some people to “just let it go”. Problems are never solved by just “letting the anger go”. I understand that your slightly apologetic undertone comes from wanting to take the oppressors’ (=catcallers’) perspective – possibly even from a cultural angle. I appreciate the effort, all the while thinking that it is so typical: women trying to understand men’s inability to treat the other sex equally.
Let me ask you this: while people catcalled on you, how many men took your perspective?
It DOES hurt to be the victim of harrassment. Never, ever, nowhere in this world, is this okay. And unfortunately, we live on a planet of victim blaming. I wonder: how many times were you told to dress differently, behave differently, walk differently, instead of GUYS being told to stop? I understand that this maybe wouldn’t help you in your current situation, but it would finally put the blame where it belongs. And it helps in the long run.
You took your anger and molded it into a blog post that people can discuss. I think that’s so great.
Now, I wish people would stop telling you how to “deal”, stop telling you to “let the anger go”, and start dragging their boyfriends, fathers, uncles and every other male acquaintance in front of the computer screen and make them read your post. Because they are the ones who need to change. Not you.
Isabel I think we would be good friends 🙂 I really love this comment. And yes — I hope lots of men read this post. I am always shocked when I try to talk to male friends about this and how hard it is to convey how big of a deal it actually is.
Blech, I have come so close to dyeing over my blonde hair a bunch of times because of this. Putting my hair in a bun and wearing a headband/scarf definitely helps though. And earbuds are pretty much permanently in my ears when I’m traveling solo! I’m actually traveling with a guy instead of solo for the first time now and cannot believe how differently I’m treated (in good ways and bad). Still, that solo time is so worth it – at least I hope you find that it is!
The power of a bun is incredible! Who woulda thunk. I guess long hair is an invitation?! And yes, there are positives and negatives to being with a man — think of how many woman take off their wedding rings in their professional lives as they know they will be tipped/treated/promoted better if they are perceived as single! It’s sad that whether or not there is a man in your life or in your orbit has such an effect on how the world perceives you.
I’m a male and I think what you are going through is horrible. It all comes down to treating people how you would like to be treated. Stay strong!
Glad to hear from a male voice on this, Shuan! Thanks for your support.
I have no answers to this, but I wish I did. It’s true: we need to accept cultural differences, but no cultural differences are an excuse to make anyone feel threatened, whether because they’re a woman or for any other reason. I think your solution of calmly but firmly saying no is probably the best one – though I wish it always worked!
It is really interesting the way people respond to solo female travellers. There’s this reaction, but there’s also the flip-side of that coin, where people are super eager to offer advice and friendship because they see you as vulnerable: a woman on your own. I kind of love that side, because it’s led me to some great experiences and lovely conversations with people I would never otherwise have spoken to. But it’s interesting that the perception of solo male travellers is so different: an adventurer; a lone wanderer; a strong individual living by the seat of his pants. Why can’t women have that too?
I have had some really touching and sweet encounters with locals for the exact reason you said — they want to take care of this vulnerable young woman on her own. I cherish those experiences because I think they come from a really pure place of altruism, even if they do say something kind of condescending about our cultural perception of women, as you point out.
First of all, I’m also in favor of accepting different cultures and adapting to them when you’re in a foreign country. Yet, I do not see what harassing women has to do with culture. At all. Because it doesn’t.
When I was 19 I was in Costa Rica for 3 months with a boyfriend at home. Luckily, I’m not blonde, but still I’m teeny tiny and at the age of 19 the perfect “victim”. I also used to get these catcalls a lot, like “give me your number” and also the guapa-thing. Anyway – as I was there studying Spanish I spoke it fluently at the end. And one “poor” guy experienced all my rage and frustration when I screamed at him in a public place that No, I was not gonna give him my number and that I was not his girlfriend at all and I was also not going out with him.
So that helped me a lot to release my frustration and I also like to believe he learned his lesson, since all his friends were standing there and watched him getting more and more ashamed. Haha!
I remember it being really exhausting, so I can only hope you’ll find a good way of coping with it.
Until then, I suggest watching this video and getting some satisfaction out of it (just google it – the link was way too long):
When Street Harassers Realize The Women They’re Catcalling Are Their Moms In Disguise
I love that video and that so many people have seen it and sent it to me! Amazing project. Yeah, I feel at some point I am going to explode on someone as well, though I’m not sure if I’m fluent enough yet to say, “Thanks but no thanks for your creepy comments but actually as I am walking down the street my body is a vessel for getting me from Point A to Point B, and not an object for you to comment on so HAVE A NICE SILENT DAY.” 🙂
i completely feel ya alex. im naturally blonde, but have been dying my hair dark for the last three years (not because of this…) so some of it has stopped, but it is still rampant and makes me uncomfortable. the worst i ever experienced was in the country of georgia (i was alone) as well as down in colombia (again, alone). it makes me thankful that during both times i was based in scandinavia where you can’t pay a guy or girl to talk to you. in georgia, it was so bad that on my last day there while sitting in an airport and getting harrassed, i started screaming that i was going to smash my beer bottle on top of their head if they didnt get away from me.
i wish i could offer advice, but sadly i have none. just keep your head up and thanks for bringing attention to a very prominent issue. <3
Ha, love your comment about Scandinavia. One great place to travel harassment free for sure 🙂 Appreciate the moral support!
Thanks for this awesome post, and for sharing mine. Girl, I totally feel you!! The catcalling is definitely worse in Granada than anywhere I’ve ever been. Shocking really. And you’re right, the moment you have a man beside you, it’s nonexistant. I wonder how the local women feel about it, as I know most of them have wives, daughters, girlfriends, etc. As far as the expats go, I think a lot of white men go to third world countries and develop this belief that they can have whatever they want. I’m sure you saw it in Thailand. I too have experienced, mostly in Costa Rica, older men assuming that I would want to be with them. Perhaps this sounds narcissistic. However I don’t mean it as, those old men aren’t good enough for me. Rather, I wish that more men would have the awareness to actually sense and respect a woman’s energy, which will very clearly communicate whether she’s interested or not. And if you push a woman who is clearly not interested in you, that’s pretty rapey if you ask me…
Keep being the strong woman that you are, I know it’s exhausting over there..
Exactly. It’s totally NOT an “I’m too good for you” vibe. It’s an “I’m giving you extremely clear social signals that I am not interested and you are completely selfishly ignoring them” vibe. It makes me furious. Your post made me feel like I wasn’t crazy — so thank you for that!
Ugh I hate cat calling and random guys approaching me in the street. And I hate hate hate it when people try to say it’s a compliment. No it’s not! I just want to be left alone- I don’t want random guys shouting stuff at me or trying to chat me up. Fortunately that kind of stuff doesn’t happen so much in Beijing. When it does it’s almost never Chinese guys doing it. I remember when we were working in Venezuela- when I was with Justin I didn’t get any comments at all and for a while he was convinced Venezuelan guys didn’t cat call! Ha! Of course it didn’t happen when he was there but when I was alone I couldn’t walk two steps with out the sucking, hissing, or shouts of hey gringa! I’m afraid I don’t really have any advice on what to do though. I usually just ignore them or scowl a lot! Although in the UK scowling did not work as I’d always get some builder shout “oh cheer up love”. Ugh! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and writing this post. I think it’s important.
Yeah I was in Peru for a few days on my own when I first got there and it was relentless, but it was amazing how quickly I forgot when I was surrounded by others again. I doubt this time will be so easy to leave my memory.
Ugh, hate this type of behavior. I haven’t been to Central or South America, so not familiar with how the men act there, but can relate being a blond girl in India.
India is known for having men who stare- and no girl here would deny they stare a hole through you! I’ve had my ass grabbed and nasty things said to me. I can’t escape it from walking down the street to being at home getting at least 2-3 messages a day on email or social media from men. Just yesterday a guy in Bangalore invited me for a stay at a 5 star hotel with him (VOMIT!)
I do speak tiny amounts of Hindi and when Indian men do the famous “elbow brush over a girls boob” I yell in hindi don’t touch me (then a curse word) which always does the trick 😉
Girl, hats off to you. From the stories I’ve heard about being a cute blondie in India, you must have nerves of steel by now. I admire you for keeping positive and managing to have such a loving relationship with your adopted home in spite of it. Keep on keepin’ on…. and oh my gosh, I’m just remembering I owe you an email. I’m so sorry! My inbox is out of control.
If you are able to keep your temper in the face of this kind of treatment you are a better woman that I! While traveling in South America I was amazed at the difference in how we were treated when one of the men was with us vs a group of women along. At 36 I thought that I would be left alone, and mostly I was, but I often played Protective Mom for the girls in their 20s who didn’t know how to handle aggressive Brazilian men.
As I prepare to travel in Mexico and Central America with my family I think of my 3 daughters. My oldest is a teenager and has decided not to come, and honestly it is a bit of a relief that she will not have to be exposed to harassment like this, although there are a lot of good things that she will be missing. I was worried how I would protect her, how she might be targeted. It is one thing to come after me, but get inappropriate with my kid and all bets are off. My husband would lose his mind if someone treated his daughters this way, as I’m sure your own father would.
Men who think this is ok need to be reminded that we are someone’s daughter/sister/mother and they would not stand for their own family being treated this way. I for one plan to remind them every chance I get, and if I see a woman being treated this way I will gladly play Protective Mom for her. Stick together girls and don’t put up with this kind of shit!
I actually had a very similar sentence in an earlier (angrier) draft of this post…. don’t these men have mothers? Daughters? Sisters? I wish there was a way to get them to make that connection. You have made me feel like I have something to look forward to as I get older… a little less of this! 🙂
It’s so interesting that you never experienced this in Southeast Asia. I’ve never been there, but so far I’d always assumed that harassment was something that happened in cities everywhere. I was groped in the small town of Aix en Provence – multiple times. When I first got to France I never expected to experience anything like that. Thank you for posting this, I feel like it’s a topic that many bloggers hsy away from, but it needs to be spoken about.
Nope! It’s one of the things I love about Southeast Asia. The men there are too polite or shy or who knows — I NEVER got catcalled outside Gili Trawangan. I did get stared at quite a bit upon arrival in Kuala Lumpur but I quickly caught on that I wasn’t dressing conservatively enough. It’s a great part of the world for solo female travel.
I am sorry you are experiencing this but I also think what is classed maybe as a ‘social norm’ in some places does not make it acceptable. It shows me the world has a long way to go before women are treated as equals and not objects.
I had a different experience in Asia, as a Woman who was 40+. What I discovered and another Scottish Lady, I met of a similar age, did too – was that we experienced being ignored. I was ignored by men serving in shops, at a train station in Thailand, they wouldn’t deal with me, only my husband-this reduced me to tears of frustration and anger. On the Perhentians – where the male waiters were polite when my husband was with me, there was a difference in the way they spoke to me, when he wasn’t there. It was far more aggressive. In Malaysia it was more subtle, being ignored in shops until my husband spoke and then he was served not me.
What I have noticed in my own country and I was very glad to come back to a western one at the end of my trip was that sometimes men only talk to women if they fancy them and the other way round. I like to think that as people, we can break down age, race and gender barriers through communication but know – even where I live, that it is going to take a lot longer to achieve this!
I have definitely experienced the same in Thailand — my old landlord would never speak to me, only my then-boyfriend. It was frustrating but it didn’t make me threatened or uncomfortable so it had much less an impact on my experience than what I’ve outlined here. Hopefully we are on the right track, but it will be a slow burn. As you said, there’s lots of time and work ahead!
Panama was awful! I spent a few days alone there and I couldn’t go out in public without being harassed. Any time I sat down in public, men would be almost lining up to sit next to me. As soon as I shooed one man off, another would take his place two seconds later. While I’m sure you got a lot more genuine sexual attention as an attractive blonde, I had mousey hair and I’m fairly fat so it makes me wonder if actually the idea of embarrassing foreign women is the main appeal for the local men.
One of the worst places for harassment was actually Italy, because I was slimmer and ‘yellow’ blonde then. I lived in Milan for a year, and being chatted up by strange men in public happened a couple of times a week, and they always referenced my hair. Even one of my university lecturers called me Blondie, while calling the Italians “Signorina”. Several times random men asked me if I was a Russian prostitute. Yet for some reason, most Italians utterly refuse to believe this! It makes it more infuriating- at least Latin cultures own it and say “That’s how we are” (which presents its own problems obviously), most Italians I’ve met flat out tell me I’m lying.
Yeah, I actually think genuine sexual attraction is only a small fraction of it — I do agree that I think a lot of it is intimidation or even humor, which is very disturbing. I’ve heard the harassment is off the charts in Italy! And wow — there is nothing more frustrating than someone telling you your own experience is incorrect or untrue. So sorry to hear that, Jo.
This is a great post Alex and thank you for being brave enough to write it. I want you to know that you are and have been doing everything right. It’s not your fault, it’s theirs. Stand your ground. stay firm, stay polite & if necessary move away.
This issue of sexism is a horrible one. I haven’t been to South America proper only to the Dominican Republic and at the time, I was with my husband. However, 15 years ago I went travelling solo and even though I’m dark skinned and dark haired, I still had men asking if I wanted a boyfriend, cat-calling, trying to touch my skin, & following me around. One man even went as far as harassing me whilst I was eating. It was the waiter!
However, the biggest perpertrators have been Western men who just because they’re abroad, leave all sense of propriety and decorum behind. I’ve had random British guys put their hands on my legs, Italian guys insisting on 3-somes, old creepy American men leering at me in Thailand & Monaco, Australian guys thinking it’s OK to get into my taxi & go to my hotel (I called security). If they’re Western I give them a dirty look, slap their hands, & use my “teacher tone” firmly but coldly. If they’re not Western, I’ve politely said “No thank you” & when I think it’s getting out of hand, I just go to a random local person and ask them to help me get rid of the vermin. And they have.
Keep up your spirits & stay safe.
Yup. It is very upsetting to see Western men behave this way abroad. We should be on our best behavior when we are guests in other countries, not sinking to the lowest common denominator! It really does infuriate.
This makes me see red. You really shouldn’t have to put up with this sh!t from anyone. While you don’t blame the place in your writing it still can take all the wind out of your sails and makes it hard to see the positive in an otherwise beautiful place.
I was in Nicaragua for six weeks and didn’t experience this kind of behavior even towards the females I was traveling with. I did however, barely dodge some huge fruit or nut or something that was thrown at my head from a passing car.
You’re torn. If you react you risk feeding their behavior even more, if you ignore they don’t learn any lesson from it and see it as acceptable.
One thing you hit square on the head though is they are cowards. Through and through completely spineless and wouldn’t stand a chance if confronted.
P.S. Rikka’s blog rocks!
I’m not surprised the women you were with got left alone with you by their sides, Shaun! Having a male companion makes all the difference in the world. Glad to hear from people of both genders getting fed up with this kind of behavior.
What a fiery subject Alex!! I hate that this has been happening to you there, but can confirm as a Central American expat that this kind of shit is rife here. Now, while I know I shouldn’t react and feed/escalate these kinds of interactions, I feel like it’s my job here to let these men know IT IS NOT OKAY to talk at/interact with foreign women like that (and hopefully one day that will translate into local women as well…)
I usually play either one of two cards: 1) curse at them in the local language using traditionally male vocabulary – this either shuts them up or makes them laugh and move on or 2) shame them in the local language (ie. I know who your mom is and I’m going to tell her about your disgusting behavior, don’t you know the tourists won’t come here if the island gets a reputation of men harassing foreigners and then you won’t have a job?!) – this seems to make them stop and think for a second and then move on.
It’s a tough road to battle and I don’t know about Nicaragua but the local women here have definitely given up and just ignore this kind of behavior. I’ve begged everyone here I know with kids to please, please stop raising humans who think this is okay. It will take a long time to stop, I’m sure, but ignoring it as a society won’t make it go away. There’s only so much that can be written off as cultural norms – I’m happy to cover my legs and shoulders in a temple but people making me fear for my personal safety shouldn’t be acceptable anywhere.
And thanks for the shoutout my dear! Come see me in Roatan, I will make sure no one bothers you 🙂
You’re a badass Rikka, keep doing your thing! Might take you up on that Roatan offer in a few months….
This is such a tough one! Its not unusual for me or my female friends to experience street harassment in Washington D.C., where we currently live. Its definitely not ok, and most of the time I make it a point to say something along the lines of ‘have a good day’ as coldly as I can. But I am on familiar ground, and I know what to watch out for. When I was in India, I felt very different, there were a lot of unwanted stares even though I dressed conservatively. I didn’t know how to deal with that there, and I am sad to say that it impacted my trip negatively. Thank you for writing about this topic!
I don’t blame you — these experiences I think will definitely make a lasting impression on my time in Nicaragua. How can it not? Luckily I have had plenty of positive experiences to even things out a bit.
I still haven’t figured out a good way to combat this myself, but I did really enjoy having Mak turn around and make eyes at the creepsters as if they’d been catcalling him. Since you don’t have that option, there’s always the pithy Spanish response I learned from my Colombian boat captain (who was creepy in his own right)… Me importa un culo malparido!! Pero…I never really feel comfortable employing this tactic, for a couple of reasons…one, I think guys that are so ignorant to harass you in the first place will only find it hilarious that a white girl knowns something so vulgar in Spanish, and two, aggression can often create more aggression in response. Maybe you could just casually wield a big ol’ knife in one hand as you walk down the street and some fake testicles in the other?
Ha… I like the idea of just wielding a weapon like a straight up gangster. Unfortunately I don’t think my personal alarm is very visually intimidating.
I’m so sorry to hear that this has been such a problem for you, Alex. I haven’t traveled to Central/South America (yet), but having done so much traveling in Asia, I can only imagine what a rude awakening this must be for you. Even though I have also always traveled with a very tall white man, not once did I ever feel anywhere in Asia that I couldn’t walk down a street by myself if I wanted/needed to. Of course, I am in a completely different boat to you, as I am frequently mistaken for a local throughout Asia, and I suspect this will happen when we head to Mexico and beyond as well (I often have people in the States come up to me and speak to me in Spanish, so…). It sounds like that will not make me immune to this kind of behavior should I be on my own, though perhaps not quite as much of a target as you blondies. It’s hard to know what the most appropriate course of action is in these situations—confronting these people is unlikely to change the behavior and could actually provoke them, but staying silent and tacitly accepting it doesn’t seem much better either. I think as women, we often feel we’re not supposed to assert ourselves, that we must “politely” decline rude offers and comments. I would say that one step forward would be to rebuff creepy actions and comments without prefacing them with “I’m sorry…” After all, what do you have to be sorry about? They’re the ones being creeps and should be the ones doing the apologizing, not you!
That is something I really should focus on, Steph. I need to work on not caring if some creep thinks I’m rude or not. He’s being rude by ignoring my social signals — and blatant statements — that I don’t want to engage!
I’m so torn. Part of me wants to say “RAGE ON GIRL, THOSE CREEPS NEED TO KNOW THEIR BOUNDARIES” but the other part of me knows how exhausting it is to carry around that much rage. It eats up at you and it’s not fair. I wish i had an answer to contribute, and i’m saddened that i don’t, just know that you’re not alone and we’re always here if you need to rant rather than rage xo
Thank you for that, Amy! You summed up my conundrum perfectly. As usual, writing this post and having this discussion has been super cathartic for me.
So disheartening, and I’m really sad you’ve had to deal with this. Hope things only look up from here!
Thanks Kristin. Here is hoping indeed. Maybe I’m now radiating enough “eff off” vibes to keep the creeps away 🙂
ah a world in which we could all walk down the street calmly and uninterrupted.. I’m pretty sure I’ve had dreams about that…
south america was a rough one for me- the catcalling seems to be worse there than almost anywhere else. although i felt fairly safe traveling alone, i really struggled with the constant hissing and comments- i actually could feel my body tense up almost every single time i passed a male, and am convinced that i could actually feel their eyes on me.
at one point ,in huaraz, peru, i actually snapped and yelled at a couple of men that were hissing at me- i think they were pretty surprised when the gringa busted out in fluent spanish!
I’m sure my own verbal explosion isn’t far off! I empathize, Gillian. Here’s hoping maybe you taught that one guy a bit of a lesson and the next girl will thank you for it…
As a fellow blonde I can tell you I HATE catcalling so much. Everytime it happens I am filled with terror and adrenaline and it can take ages to calm down. I hadn’t experienced it in awhile as I was traveling so much with Mike, but then I walked down a street alone in Sri Lanka and it all came rushing back. So frustrating.
Yeah, I think it’s one of those things that is so unpleasant we forget it exists easily when it isn’t happening directly to us (example, I am always so shocked by it when I get back to NYC after months in Southeast Asia). Frustrating indeed :-/
Such an annoying part of the region and it is amazing the difference for a solo female (or even two female travellers) as opposed to a couple.
It can obviously completely change the colour of someones experience, and is something we discovered first hand on Caye Caulker.
We thought it was something akin to paradise, but there we were in our own little couple bubble.
Two English friends (both female, and both pretty thick of skin) found the harassment incessant and didn’t particularly enjoy their time there at all…
I’m headed to Caye Caulker later in this trip and quite a few people have mentioned how bad this is there, which makes me nervous 🙁
If I could have a super hero power, I used to say it would be to fly. Nowadays I’m thinking I’d like to be like Rogue. Just suck the life force out of anyone who touches me. Only I’d be able to turn the power off if it’s not an unwanted touch.
I’d zap those motherf***ers from here to kingdom come.
As you can see, I too get filled with rage.
Ha, I said to a friend recently, if looks could kill, there’d be a lot of dead bodies on the streets of Granada last week…
Im currently traveling through Peru & have been experiencing similar treatment from the locals (I’m a blondie too). I’m much more used to traveling in Europe where I blend in fairly easily in most parts and the harassment has completely thrown me for a loop. I expected to stand out here and to be somewhat targeted because of my appearance but the level of harassment–via shouts across the street, being followed, etc– is shocking. I’m from Philly & now I live in Denver where there is a diverse population and I’m used to some inappropriate attraction but this nonsense in Peru has made me appreciate home soooo much!
Yeah, it’s pretty bad where I lived in Brooklyn but it does make me appreciate growing up in Albany, I suppose 🙂
Hi Alex, just found your blog and I’m loving what I’ve read so far. I travel quite a bit (usually with one or two friends but sometimes alone) and I definitely have to agree with the other posts. I would consider myself pretty average looking and a modest dresser in any situation and I have been “uncomfortable” in many situations, particularly in central America which is a shame because the culture is amazing. I always kind of brushed it off, tried to walk faster, found different routes to my hotel but a couple of years ago I wandered apart from my friends (foolishly in hindsight) in a little Dominican town. All of a sudden I heard that psst sound the guys make there but instead of just a couple it was a lot of them, lounging in doorways leering on either side of the street and it sudden occurred to me that this was the only way back to my friends and I was completely vulnerable and alone. To my relief a little boy I had befriended the day before ran up and pulled me back through them. Like you said, physically nothing happened, but psychologically it definitely shook me up. Thanks for opening the discussion, its nice to get some female solidarity on a subject often overlooked.
I agree, Ada, reading through these comments (as well as writing the post itself) has been extremely cathartic and a huge help in dealing with this as I continue my travels through Central America. It makes me feel like I’m not alone, even when physically I am.
As a fellow 5’1″ blonde I feel your pain! When I was traveling alone in Morocco the harassment was constant. They don’t say anything too sexual there because it’s not their culture but they will just follow you even if you ignore them, and sit down with you at your table if you’re eating alone. So annoying. My best defense was going into a shop or stall in the medina because the owner would shoo them away so I could shop in peace. Also when I was in Argentina with my parents and sister, men would come up to our table in the restaurant and kneel down and start proposing to me! It was seriously obnoxious, especially having things like this happen in front of my family. I always try to ignore as much as I can but I also think making a scene that will shame them can work sometimes – especially if there are older women in the vicinity who will give them dirty looks.
Yeah, I’ve had that experience when traveling with my Dad and it always makes me feel really awkward and uncomfortable, and of course my poor dad as well! So not cool.
Thank you and good on you for posting this, Alex! Really interesting to read your thoughts and everyone’s comments. I lived in Spain for 5 months and generally ignored the “guapa” comments and whistles, as they were mostly quite non-aggressive and without any movement towards me. Anyone who shouted loudly or gestured would always make me stop, look at them with a disgusted look on my face and say “Que?” quite aggressively back at them. Thankfully they always chickened out and started mumbling and looked or even walked away, but those encounters always got my adrenaline pumping and I was always angry at myself for potentially putting myself in danger (I’m also a tiny blonde), but I just couldn’t let it slide if I felt like they were really trying to get in my face. Here in the UK I’ve always just gone for the disgusted look and occasionally (when I was younger and under the influence of alcohol!) quizzed the male in question on what he hoped to achieve by his comment, did he really think his behaviour was attractive etc.
I like the idea of the aggressive “QUE?!” I might try that next time someone really tries to scare me, if I feel like I’m in a safe environment.
Thanks for the great post. Very thoughtful. This really is a problem that so many of us deal with. As a solo traveler, I want to feel safe, and sometimes I just want to be left alone to take in the wonder of my surroundings. I don’t think there’s any easy or one-size-fits-all answer (except for harassers themselves to stop), but I’ve found the Bitch Face and purposeful/brisk stride to be helpful. Your point about hair is right on point, as well. Good luck, keep traveling, and keep writing posts like this for us fellow travelers!
Thanks for the support, Taylor! I definitely think my New York Hustle helps — I naturally walk at an incredibly fast clip, less time for them to think of something pervy 🙂
I built up a mental wall in my teenage years against catcalling because unfortunately even at home (near DC), it’s a common occurrence. While that is frustrating in and of itself, what I’m not cool with is the touching. I was just in Bali and on a couple different occasions was a victim of butt grabbing in the clubs by both locals and other travelers. Each time I returned this with a slap to their face. Because this also happens back home, I’ve made a habit of keeping my hand near my butt when I walk through crowded clubs or bars so I can hopefully catch the perpetrator in the act and turn around and give them a good ol’ slap. It’s a more aggressive response for an aggressive gesture and I know it wouldn’t be safe to respond like this in certain countries. It’s extremely frustrating that some men think women are there solely for their pleasure to use and abuse, but unfortunately I don’t have any grand ideas except for trying to educate young boys on the matter and not tolerating it as part of the culture. I plan on traveling to central and south america as well, most likely on my own and I’m blonde as well, so I’m going to have to figure out a safe way to deal with it!
Ha, I am famous with a few friend groups for slapping guys on the face after being groped in a club! I guess there it feels like a safe environment with equal footing, in a way — I did it in Greece and have done the same in the US. I fully support the face slap in response to the cheek slap!
I had it worst in Cuba. When my husband wasn’t by my side it was like I was free game to every male there. Walking down the street one tuk-tuk driver asked if I wanted a free ride. When I gestured to the family of 3 already getting a ride, he gestured to his lap as to where I should sit. Then when I was at the marina checking us out with immigration the man told me I should come back, but next time leave my husband at home. I agree with your friend on Roatan, I should learn some Spanish phrases to cuss them out. 🙂
Whoa! A friend of mine in Cayman told me the same about her trip to Cuba. She was traveling with two Latino girls though and said they loved it, which I guess doesn’t help those who appreciate it less!
Excellent post – it’s something I’ve experienced for the most part in London, but recently I’ve started challenging it. Turning round, asking them to repeat themselves, good old middle finger… sometimes it works, other times they just look bemused. Entirely understand your frustration. I don’t have the answer, apart from society’s opinion on women changing.
I like the idea of very directly asking them to repeat themselves. Might try that sometime if I feel the situation is controlled enough. Feel your pain!
I’m so glad you wrote this post and I’m sorry that these pervs tainted your time in Granada! When I saw your post on instagram, I was going to message you and say post it before you take it down a few rage levels because this topic deserves the rage!
I haven’t dealt with catcalling on such an intense level on my travels so far, but I can sympathize with your frustration nonetheless. I have also been hit on by sixty year olds though, and I can’t begin to understand why they do it, or why they expect us to suddenly find the 40 year age difference appealing when they tell us how “rich they are”. Ugh.
Don’t worry, I didn’t take it down too many rage notches 🙂 Sometimes it is good to get worked up. Can’t think of a more worthwhile topic…
I feel your pain! That is the one thing I could not put up with in South America (and you’re right, cat-calling happens everywhere, but Latin men seem to be more aggressive about it). Especially those kissy noises, or whistling at me like I’m a dog.. Ugh! I’m getting angry just thinking about it. Even when I ws with other men, I was with three male friends at one point (all over six feet) and that didn’t stop a man from sticking his hand under my shirt at a bar and physically dragging me away from them. I was furious! A lot of the girls I met seemed to just accept it as a cultural difference, and I kind of wish I was that chill… But, like you, I wouldn’t feel okay with myself if I accepted to be treated like that. This one night men were being particularly pervy, and I caught myself thinking “Well I am wearing ared shirt, so I guess I’m asking for it”. The feminist in me died a little bit that night.
Clearly, I have a lot of feelings about this…But no solutions. I love Latin America, and I know it’s not my place to change the culture there. But, I also really like being treated like a human being.
I feel you, girl. I nodded along with every part of this comment. I love Latin America, and certainly won’t stop traveling here — but this aspect of it will always keep my guard up a bit.
I visited Nicaragua a year ago, a solo female traveler, for 2 weeks. I did not have any problems with cat calling in San Juan del Sur or Leon, but in Granada, it was a real issue. I have dark brown hair and gray eyes. I have really tan skin, and for the most part I blended in. But I totally feel you, especially when you’re travelling to enjoy your own company and dealing with these things from the streets, it doesn’t feel safe.
Granada was definitely the worst for me. Leon wasn’t great either, but definitely less so. San Juan felt fine — a few hisses and minor catcalls but nothing that felt threatening — probably one of the reasons I loved it so much.
Thanks for sharing this post. This strikes a chord in me as I experienced a couple of sexual harassment starting when I was 12. It started with a creepy neighbour of ours who quickly touched my crotch a few times whenever we crossed our path. The experience left me really scared and embarrassed I tried my damnedest to avoid him and I succeeded for awhile after the 2rd time he did it with me. I have never told anyone and I kept the anger within me.
I found an outlet for my anger by learning martial arts with a childhood friend who had a constant kidnapping threat (yeah kinda extreme I know) but it gave me my confidence back. The 3rd time he attempted to harass me, I broke his arm even before he could touch me again. I grew up very active, exploring forests, rivers, islands and oceans and for a couple of years I was afraid to go out of my house because of that experience. And from then on, I promised myself no one could take away that freedom to do what I want from myself and never again I would allow those men to scare the shit out of me.
When I started travelling solo few years ago, I met more of these assholes from different colors and countries. I got more and worse experience with Western men. I’m not sure why but maybe because I’m Asian.
One American guy asked me to join him for a ‘quick shower’. When I gave him a firm no, he became aggressive. I was travelling within my country then so that gave me an advantage. After giving him a blank look as he was trying to corner me and I told him, “Fuck off. When a girl says no, it’s no. And one wrong move I can deport you in less than 24 hours but before that I’ll make sure you spend a night in prison and I’m going to pay local prisoners to sodomize you.” Obviously I was bluffing but my cold face and my no-nonsense tone did it with him.
I had more harassment experience as I travelled more; from asking me to join them to their hotel rooms, to grabbing my butt (and I dont even have a sexy butt but seriously some men are just pigs!) while I was shopping, from men harassing me in a local post office so I can give them my phone number while I was sending some of my gears back home to local policemen who were threatening my friends and I at gun point while groping my friends. Some of them found themselves on the floor and some backed out when I gave them blank stares and a firmed “no”.
Few things I’ve learned from the experiences:
1. Don’t be quiet, say your objection aloud. There are cultures where men are used to women being meek and quiet and if you don’t tell them what’s on your mind, they would think you’re okay with it. I also believe women should be more vocal about it, not only for ourselves but also for their next victims. Because if we just let them do it to us, it would probably just give them more courage to do it again. It’s a vicious cycle in lowest form. If you say no now, you might shattered their confidence to do it again.
2. Much as possible only say “No”. It’s “No”, “I said, no” and “Yes, it’s fucking N-O”. No explanation. You don’t owe them any explanation. And explanation sometimes makes them curious more. Just leave the scene – not because you’re afraid but because you simply don’t care.
3. Do not cower or look away when you say no. Get your message across by looking at them directly. These people will bully you more if they sense you’re scared. The policemen who detained me and my friends for 4 hours in Macau managed to harass my friends except me. That’s after telling the head of operation “Do not touch me. You can tell me what you need, WITHOUT touching me.”
4. Wear your bitchy mask when you’re in asshole-sphere. When I wear the expression (my no-nonsense face) I use when I’m in a board room or when I’m talking to the clients, I get less attention. But don’t also forget to put it down from time to time as in travelling, the nice people we meet on the road are the ones who always make it special.
5. And lastly be wise. Although I mentioned a couple of times what I have learned in physically protecting myself, I did (would continually do) it with caution. I don’t obviously just taunt these assholes to go one and one with me, and neither dare a group of 6-footer men for a hand combat with my 5-foot-3-inches size in 100 pounds body. I believe I can protect myself physically but I would only use what I know as a last resort as much as possible. I try to be the BIGGER person in any challenging situations that I come across with, although I must admit teaching these a-holes a lesson they’ll never forget is tempting. So what I can only do is be wise and stand my ground at the same time. And don’t let it ruin my travels.
By the way, kudos to you for handling it well. And anger is normal. There were times in the past that I wished my anger could transform into kinetic blast and just aim it at them. Haha. Just kidding. NOT. 🙂
Also, I just want to let you know that you have an awesome blog. Just found this blog 3 days ago and I’ve been back reading since then. Enjoy the rest of your trip!
Thanks for sharing your story and your tips, Christine. I definitely think that taking a self-defense class can be helpful, even just for the psychological benefits of feeling a bit more in control when you are in a situation where someone is making you uncomfortable.
One thing I really need to work on is telling people bluntly “Please do not touch me.” I often find myself uncomfortable when someone I need to deal with (a bus driver, for example) repeatedly touches my arm or back. It may seem innocent but it bothers me and I’m often too polite to say something — which is RIDICULOUS! Love that you have the balls to always say it 🙂
Having grown up in Panama with blue eyes, dead-white skin, large breasts and red hair to my hips, I have seen and heard it all from men. It is DISGUSTING. When I moved to the States (DC) in my 20s, I lived in a largely Hispanic neighborhood; it was as bad as Panama. Then I moved to Capitol Hill, largely African-American. The men never bothered me there. I always ignored them, just as you would ignore a crazy person on the streets of Manhattan, but if you are stationary, say working at a restaurant table, you can always say, “Soy sordo,” (I am deaf) or “No puedo escuchar” (I can’t hear). Better yet, make up little cards that say that, in Spanish and English and hand them out like candy. It is interesting you bring this up, because this has been discussed in Facebook groups by Panamanians and U.S. citizens who lived in Panama, and some of the women liked it (horrors!). Some of the men defended it (yuck!). I ended up blocking quite a few of them. Good luck – it’s a cultural thing that’s not going to be fixed in our lifetime.
I am always shocked when I see women responding positively to street harassment. Clearly, it makes my blood boil. I experienced really none of this in Panama as I was in the company of a man — what a sad statement that makes about the world.
I’ve been a reader for a while (as well as a fellow TBSer) and I commiserate with you, tremendously. I’m living in Nosara, Costa Rica.. not too far from your Nicaraguan adventures and I feeeeel this sentiment to my very core. I am not an angry person, I do not rage, I rarely cry, but what has happened to me in Central America has made me a different woman.
I’ve been held against a wall by a large Tico, drunk off his mind with other things ON his mind. I’ve been grabbed in the street, I’ve been followed, I’ve been catcalled, all outside of the times I’m walking or eating with my boyfriend. What makes it worse is that people laugh this off, they treat us as if we are whiny white girls, sad that we’re pretty.
I think it’s a lame fucking excuse to tell us that we should be proud of the attention we receive as white blondes in a predominately machismo latin culture. The problem though is that it’s not just us. My tica chicas get harassed, too. One woman, 43 yrs old with children, has been chased down on motorcycles before and had to dangerously double back and retreat to work to get help from the men.
The rage comes at random times. When I see the men who’ve harassed me driving around on the weekends, I know they’re perusing for the cheap thrill of grabbing women while they walk. I go from feeling free, light and full of enthusiasm for life in a different country… to wanting to kick someone’s face in.
It is sad, but I feel like I do need a male escort at night. Walking is out of the question. I carry pepper spray and a flashlight. I ended up organizing self defense classes for other women here who felt endangered. It all helps but it doesn’t change the reality of being born a woman.
Rage on. I encourage it. I write it down now (and recently got up the courage to publish). I talk about it with other women here. I try to channel it into physical activity to release it, but never forget that on the other side of this harassment are men who are willing to protect and change this norm. That is what is keeping me sane.
We need to keep talking about it. Change doesn’t come with silence.
Love this comment Emma — well, not the stories of horrible things you and your friends have experienced, but I love your sentiments and your attitude. Good luck staying sane out there, girl.
I’m in Nicaragua at the moment travelling on my own and reading this has made me feel a bit better so thank you. I have been in costa rica, colombia and Panama too and Nicaragua is the most full on in terms of non stop cat calling. I also find the hissing utterly revolting. 🙁
I agree, having now traveled through El Salvador and Guatemala as well Nicaragua is definitely the worst in the cat calling department. Sorry you are experiencing the same but no — you are not alone, Kate!
I can’t tell you how inspirational you are. I’m an Asian American girl living abroad for a semester for the first time and I really want to travel other parts of Europe but I feel obligated to go with a travel buddy or to a country that speaks English because of my gender. After reading some of your blogs, I’m really considering travelling alone for a part of a week. What other advice do you have for a solo woman traveler?
Hey Eirene! I guess my biggest tip is basically just to use the same good judgement and common sense that you’d use at home — rarely will it steer you wrong! I know that Adventurous Kate and Twenty Something Travel have great posts about travel safety which I’d definitely recommend looking up. Traveling alone has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done! Good luck!
I stumbled onto your site today (due to Googling Waikiki pics lol), looked around, got hooked, but this post really got my attention. I felt the need to post on it.
This harassment is a really serious issue and men will never know what it feels like to have to deal with this all the time. It’s not something we have to worry about when leaving the house. I feel bad for women who have to deal with this all the time. I mean, imagine if this was our daughter or THEIR daughter(s)?
As a Canadian, with Portuguese parents, and having traveled to many parts of the world myself, I have noticed different levels of hornyness, for a lack of a better word, in different parts of the globe. Clearly not towards me, but just observing the male behaviour around me towards females.
However, I still cannot find a specific reason why it’s worse in some places than others. Maybe there’s been some research about it? Is there not enough sexual outlets for them? Are women there conservative? Do they not have access to the internet (where anyone can get laid)?
What’s puzzling is, do these guys actually think cat calling and harassment will attract women? This is what leads me to believe that guys who do it aren’t very bright and their reasoning is not controlled in their brain but in another part of their body.
Hence my personal opinion is that stupidity is the main cause of this. Therefore, Granada must have a population of really low IQ men.
Well, I tend to thing it is a nurture thing and not a nature thing (as in, has more to do with cultural teachings than IQ). But that’s just my opinion. Latin cultures are rife with the idea of machismo — and nowhere more than Nicaragua. The good news, though, is that means it’s something that can be changed with time and intention! And I love that so many people feel passionately about it, enough to share their stories and maybe even share this post. Thank you for commenting, Paulo!
Love the article, this really isn’t just a south american phenomenon.
Its actually incredibly bad in France!
I don’t feel safe as a woman, walking alone in Paris or Nice or Grenoble or Marseille, especially wearing anything other than something conservative. This is in France!
Plus its also the fear of being called a racist, as it does tend to be north african but really French men, both young and old.
Their attitude towards women is terrible, I’ll be completely covered and they just prey on you, it makes you angry and frustrated.
Most recently in Nice, I was wearing a dress, it is the south of france after all, on the famous Promenade des Anglais, a random man just followed me possibly for 5 minutes. I didn’t look at him, he just approached me, he was harmless, luckily plus it was a public place, but I just ignored him, I looked at him and acted like a mute, even though he guessed the 3 languages that I can speak and my nationality. It made me really angry, if I was a man, just walking he would have never dared to come up and talked to me. Why is it that wearing a dress, on a nice sunny day, should mean that I’m open for attention. I never usually stay mute, but it seemed to have worked, otherwise I can speak french and usually swear back to them, but this fuels their stupidity.
Also on this trip, while I was with a friend, some man just leared on us, he was very drunk, but it was a bit scary as it was at night, luckily a middle aged group were also next to us and the nice Frenchman sandwiched himself between us, he said he was harmless just probably a bit drunk.
Even in a “safe” country like France, I feel seriously threatened if I am not with a guy.
Stay safe! 🙂
I haven’t traveled much in Europe so have been so surprised by the comments that this is prevalent there as well! I wouldn’t have guessed that. Well, I guess it is better to know so I am prepared when I eventually make it there….
I also forgot these are some interesting videos regarding sexual harassment on the streets in Europe, worth a watch if you have the time!
Documentary by a student in Belgium and how she was treated where she lived in Brussells:
Oppressed Majority, a day in the life of a woman but as a man?
Thanks for sharing those!
When I was on my own in Argentina, the only response was stony silence. American politeness meant yes, Eye contact or “No” meant “try harder”. I became found of spitting out the phrase “Dejame” (pronounced day-ha-may) which is a command that means “Leave me”.
This is where I learned to stop worrying about hurting anyone’s feelings and to lose the American politeness and be really direct.
I think that’s a very important lesson for any woman who wants to travel the world alone to learn. Being perceived as impolite needs to move waaaaaay down on the priority list, feeling safe and secure needs to move way up.
Just saw your website now and thought I would comment.
Me and my blonde, young girlfriend travel quite a bit together and I feel like I always have to fight off guys when we go out. Not that she can’t handle herself, but sometimes the harassment makes me uneasy and guys getting a little to close for comfort.
We noticed even in SEA that the Philippines had the most harassment out of any country.
Many men don’t even care if I am there or not, but it far less frequent when I am around.
Just the general harassment I’ve seen towards women abroad makes me sad, many women have to deal with this there entire lives and are subject to being treated like property(although this happens back home as well).
I’ve never understood the whole machismo thing, I’ve always hit it off better with women by being friendly and just interested in them as a person.
Hey Jason, thanks for sharing your experiences! I had to wrack my brain to try to remember if I dealt with unwanted attention on my Philippines trip and I don’t think I did. Maybe because I was traveling in somewhat remote areas, maybe because I was just lucky? Wherever it happens in the world, however, it’s totally out of line.
10 hours of walking…
Loving all the experiments and projects that are attempting to bring attention to this issue.
Bit late here but learning some sort of defense was one of the best things I have ever done. After beginning to play rugby (yes I know it isn’t actually a form of self defense but hear me out!) it has given me a safe haven in the fact I could probably take this guy down or at least hit him hard where it hurts giving me enough time to get away or get help if he tries anything. It doesn’t make cat calling any more pleasant but at least I feel a bit safer!
I took a class maybe over a decade ago? I’d really like to take another, that’s a great idea. Definitely would be a great psychological boost to know you COULD take your harasser down if necessary!
The cultural aspects of this sort of behaviour are really interesting to me, and part of a wider debate about cultural imperialism, tourism, and human rights. On the one hand, it’s important to respect other cultures. On the other, there are some cultural practices that breech basic international human rights.
Obama gave a great speech in Kenya the other day, and said something like “there are some bad traditions, and they’re holding you back.” he was talking about atrocities like FGM and child marriage, but I honestly think this sort of street harassment is a much milder version of the same sort of thing – bad traditions that treat women like property and objects. Just because they’re traditions doesn’t mean they’re good, or ok.
As for what to do, I go with stoney silence and very cold language, keeping sentences short like just saying no or yes or something. I’m rude without being aggressive (or passive aggressive), and just ignore as much as possible.
Wow I’m so happy Obama made a point to say that. I’m always terrified of offending anyone’s culture but you are right — tradition does not equal okay, especially when it comes to violence or intimidation against women!
Thanks for this article! I am currently planning a solo trip to South America, but as a 21yr old blonde petite girl harassment is one big thing I am worried about!
While (travelling solo) in Amsterdam I was on a group tour, and I caught a creep taking photos up my skirt! I was 19 at the time… We were all crowded around listening to the guide, and I felt him bump against my side twice, and the third time I looked down just in time to catch the flash on his camera facing right up my skirt! I confronted him straight away, he obviously denied everything until I asked to see the photos on the camera. By this stage I was getting quite loud, the rest of the group had noticed. He decided to run, I tripped him up and the boys in the group held him down. In his gallery he had several really poor blurry pictures of the tops of my thighs.
I took great satisfaction in smashing his camera on the ground right in front of him!
Ugh, that sounds terrible… glad you were able to get a satisfying conclusion. I’m sure he learned a lesson that day!
This is one of my main concerns when travelling…I’ve yet to go solo out of Canada or the US. I don’t blend in well at home- I’m just under 6 feet tall and I have big crazy curly blonde hair so I imagine it would be 1000 times worse there…I’m fairly fit and not very petite in stature so that I understand may be intimidating (but this normally just triggers little man syndrome the way it does at home) but I can tell a dude off here and it’s all good. I’d hate to end up in a fight in a country where I don’t know the area and don’t speak the language very well!
I’d highly recommend Southeast Asia for a big first solo trip, D. I have always felt safe and comfortable traveling solo there, and in my experience sexual harassment is incredibly rare in that part of the world. It would be a great place to start!
Thank you for this post that hits so close to home. I am an American (of Indian descent) currently on assignment in Nicaragua for a couple of months and when I’m not working in Managua during the week, I like to travel during the weekends to explore the beautiful country. However, I have been completely put off by the harassment I’ve experienced thus far. Although seemingly minor, it is incredibly infuriating and has discouraged any motivation I have to travel alone. While I understand that this is a culturally inherent issue for this region, the feminist inside me dies a little bit every time I step outside to run a simple errand. I struggle with staying enraged vs. accepting it for what it is, since it affects me so much. However, I admire your courage to travel solo for so long and your ability to move forward, and wish you luck in all future travels!
Thank you Divya! You summed up exactly how I’ve felt. It is a struggle, much of it internal! Thankfully I have found areas of the world where street harassment is rare to non-existent, and I do quite a bit of traveling there.
I am not sure what the experience is for white women, but as a young black woman who likes to be by myself it happens to me quite a bit in the United States. And it usually happens with black men who are between the ages of 50-65. There is a group of them who hang out a few blocks from my apartment building. When I complain about it to my alderman (in Chicago we have alderman who deal with certain issues in the neighborhood), I get blown off. I can’t explain how insulting that is; the insults and the being blown off. Why in the world would a man that old think I would be interested in *him*.
I am always left extremely angry because I want to kick them in the balls but know if I do it would be me going to jail. It’s me who is expected to change my behavior by not walking that way or ignore them.
Personally, I have never had any issues with men from other races. Although when I did go abroad I got some cat calls. I would love to hear how woman handled this types of situations.
I feel for you Katie. There are tons of amazing suggestions in these comments — I definitely suggest giving them a thorough read-through! It’s upsetting to hear the alderman blew you off 🙁
Hi Alex, I’m an Italian expat living in Central America. I’ve travelled for a couple of months in Nicaragua with my boyfriend and in Granada I had to stop him from fighting a couple of guys badly cat calling me in the streets. Having lived in Costa Rica and Panama I can tell you that yes, machismo is unfortunately a problem but what I’ve seen and experienced in Nicaragua has no comparison. Talking to an older Nicaraguan woman she sadly told me that that same morning she slapped in the face her son-in-law for teaching his 8 years old son to whistle every woman calling her names because ”that is what a man does”. It is a cultural problem that will not unfortunately change. I speak Spanish fluently and when it’s too much I answer them and ”politely” tell them to f*** off, but still I always need to make sure there’s people around. I hate that feeling of having to defend and protect myself for being a woman.
I agree — I wrote this in Nicaragua, and have since hit the milestone of visiting every country in Central America over the course of a few years. Nicaragua is in a league of its own when it comes to street harassment. Interestingly, it’s still one of my two favorite countries there (tied with Panama!) But wow — you need some thick skin.
I feel your pain! I remember being 19 and in Italy. Myself and two girlfriends were walking around and were shocked by the catcalls from Italian men. Looking back, that was nothing compared to the men that I experienced in the Caribbean. I had the chance to study for 6 months in Barbados and the catcalls never became normal. I always felt irritated by it and one time I actually yelled at someone, who backed down and told me not to be such a bitch. Because I’m the bitch for not wanting to deal with harassment every single day.
Ultimately, I agree, ignore it. There is not much else you can do. You don’t want to put yourself in any danger when the majority of it is harmless. If people touch me, I always say “Please don’t touch me,” but I never stop, I always keep moving.
Sounds like you handle it as well as it can be handled. The Caribbean can be intense, though I know some islands are worse than others. The Cayman Islands is pretty tame for street harassment, which I was grateful for when I spent a summer there.
Great post! So reassuring to hear your experience was so similar to mine – I have been traveling Nicaragua almost two weeks by myself now and have seen and done some pretty incredible things, but the vibes from the people here (particularly men) have really deterred me from enjoying the experience of traveling here. From traveling from city to city (dreaded taxi drivers) to booking tours, I have felt so vulnerable to be taken advantage of, harassed, and somewhat threatened, especially traveling alone as a young woman. I have solo traveled in South America and never had these insecurities or feeling unsafe – not that I think I will get physically harmed but just the threatening/tricking attitude I get from the locals. It seems you can never get a straight answer from anyone. Anyway, it’s nice to hear I’m not the only one who shares these sentiments!
Hey Jessica, sorry to hear you are struggling with this as well. Thankfully, I was able to leave Nicaragua having had an overall positive experience, but I did frequently get overwhelmed by all the unwanted attention I received. My advice, if you haven’t already, would be to head to a beach town like San Juan del Sur for a few days! It might be touristy, sure, but you’ll blend in, get less attention, and have a little break form all the catcalling and creepy vibes. It did wonders for my mood 🙂 Best of luck!
I found your blog today after googling “harassment Granada Nicaragua” – I’m here right now. I’ve been traveling solo for four months, and arrived in Nicaragua by way of SJDS after spending time in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Costa Rica. I spent the morning walking around by myself Granada and just got back to my hostel feeling like I wanted to cry. The harassment here is ridiculous. I’m brunette and was wearing conservative clothes (more to keep out of the sun than anything else – after SJDS I had no idea what I was in for here) I can’t even imagine what it would be like as a blonde. The things that drive me the most crazy:
– I start thinking I should be doing something differently but know that I can’t. I did literally nothing to try to look pretty – but I should be allowed to do so without feeling like I’m inviting gross comments and unwanted attention. Ugh!
– Men were making their comments in my ear after I’d already basically passed, so to react with a dirty look or a “No” I’d have had to turn around. And the staring is horrendous.
– Granada is so pretty and I feel cheated out of being able to appreciate it because of this. At this point I’m just gonna lay low and head to Leon tomorrow. It’s frustrating to know that my experience could have been so different if I’d been with a man, or even with another person of either gender or a group of people. (Or if the men here learned not to be assholes.)
The other thing that drives me crazy generally is people making excuses – it’s a compliment, it’s cultural, it’s not violent, nothing *really* happened, etc. No. What happened is that these men assert their power over women and the space around them via these comments. It’s unacceptable and it is not complimentary. I’m left feeling horrible and with all these negative thoughts in my head, both towards them and myself.
I’ve traveled a lot and lived a couple years in West Africa. It bothered me there too but today was just brutal. I was glad to see I’m not the only one. Omg. I really appreciated your writing about this (and I now feel strangely fortunate that so far I’ve avoided attention from dirty old white men). Luckily there’s delicious juice, wifi and good books at my hostel to take my mind off it now… ?
Oh, girl, I’m so sorry — I returned to my hostel several times throughout my week in Grenada feeling the exact same way. I’m glad you had this post and its hundreds of comments to not feel alone! I know reading each one has been a comfort to me. Wishing you peace, respect and happiness on the rest of your journey.
Whoa, that’s not only unacceptable by any means but flat out scary! I know a girl who’s been traveling across Central America solo and she mentioned obnoxious street harassment in those countries. I guess it’d be best for a woman not to travel solo in those areas…not least because you can’t expect the authorities to do anything about it, nor the situation to improve in any way. I know it’s unfair and frustrating, still some things are just beyond our control :/
I can tell you I experienced some minor harassment in swanky Dubai, minor compared to your experience, yet any less unpleasant for me. It happened on two occasions.
First on the subway. I was with a female friend (she’s Christian but has lived in the UAE all her life and knows Arabic), I don’t know if it was an all men car, but there were only men around us and they just wouldn’t stop leering at us. I was wearing a long dress, so nothing too showy, still we got those stares real bad. Then we got off the train on the souq district and started walking around the main alleys …that’s where things got even more unpleasant cause the men started whispering -in the best case- cat calling in Arabic and ultimately coming up to us trying to lure us into their shops and stuff like that. We would keep walking because the moment we stopped to take a picture they’d approach so you had to walk off very quickly.
However the most unpleasant part happened in the most crowded and supposedly safe place, the open area within the Dubai Mall where the fountain show takes place. I was leaning against the bridge along with scores of other people watching the show and recording a video, when all of a sudden I FELT this dude’s thingy pressed against my butt …and he kept moving as well. I was squeezed between him and the bridge, my friend was waiting for me at some other place, and I didn’t know what to do. My first reaction would have been to insult him and walk off, but being in a country so different I was scared …didn’t know what to expect. In the end when the show was over we all walked away, still it was horrible. My friend scolded me later and said I should have gone ahead and insulted him, but yeah right then I didn’t know…
Oh my gosh Silvia, that sounds horrific. I’m so sorry that happened to you. I think it is totally normal to freeze in those kinds of situations, I understand. I’ve been in them too and chided myself later, but it’s so unexpected to be treated like that, it can take some time just to gather yourself. Wishing you safe and comfortable travels from here forward!
As somebody who is half-Japanese and has invested a ton of energy being in and living in Japan, I need to give you this counsel – Japan is the one nation where it’s ideal to stand up to this sort of occurrence as opposed to disregard it. I know by and large overlooking this conduct has the best result, however in Japan in the event that you physically pivot and slap the person appropriate in the face – no dithering – I can ensure he will simply be stunned and not do anything further. Numerous Japanese are exceptionally easygoing, and this left of focus state of mind will return him ideal in his place.
Interesting that multiple people have given this advice now in this comment section. I feel well prepared now if I ever head to Japan! Thank you!
Thanks for this!
I live in Granada and I never put up with harassment. I find that exploding doesn’t work as well as facing them and asking why they need to harass women. I also ask them if they would like this to happen to their mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, girlfriends. I tell that it is against the law and to never do it again or I will call the police. If they are Nicaraguense they are usually embarrassed.
Today I ran into those same disgusting old gringo types you mention — they were catcalling a Nicaraguan teenage girl, which made me sick — just another form of US colonization. When I said the same thing to them, they called me a bitch and got in my face yelling at me. I told them that women on the street were not their property and I spoke with the manager at the bar where they were sitting.
FYI, there are Nicaraguan women’s groups, like Grupo Venancia up North in Matagalpa that fight this and other forms of rape culture on a daily basis — doing protests, humiliating men who do harass, passing legislation, etc. We need to keep calling people out. And we need to tell them to call other men out who do it — it is their problem, not ours.
Hey Tara! Awesome to hear the insight of a local. You have great advice — I’m guessing you do all that in Spanish. I need to get to the point where I am fluent enough to feel comfortable doing so! Thanks also for giving the names of some groups to support!
I can only say I relate from my youthful trips to Europe, especially Italy, and yes being a blonde with long hair does seem to play a big role. Like you I don’t plan on cutting or coloring my hair to avoid it, but for sure having a male travel partner (the female friends didn’t seem to scare them off) and of course getting older helped. 🙂 Very frustrating, but also I think makes us stronger.
Maybe this is one thing to look forward to about getting older! Hadn’t thought about that as nature’s unstoppable tactic, but I agree it’s probably pretty effective 😉
American bitches littering the Latin America. You get catcalled because you’re fat and ugly. Can’t you stick to your own cuntry (no misspelling)? Other countries don’t need fat ugly graceless and entitled bitches like in America.
Well, I think this comment sums up exactly the kind of person who has caused the distress that women in this comment section have spent 184 comments commiserating over. Congratulations.