It Happened to Me: I Was Repeatedly Sexually Harassed As a Young Female Traveler and I'm Just Starting to Talk About It

I may not be multilingual, but I’m fluent in the international language of harassment.
Publish date:
June 20, 2013
travel, Italy, sexual harassment, going abroad

I tell these stories differently if I tell them at all.

I might be discussing dream vacations with coworkers, and the North African country where a man called me and a group of my friends “hot pussy” comes up. I tell the story, but spend a good deal of time making it a joke about the man and how he was dumb enough to think that kind of cat-call would work. For the record, it did not.

I don’t say that I couldn’t believe how close men got to us wherever we went and how they offered us thousands of camels to lick and fuck us in spite of the fact that we were all covered head to toe in clothing so modest and loose-fitting it could have disguised a third-trimester pregnancy.

I might share with a friend who is planning a romantic weekend in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities the tale of how I stayed up all night in that city drinking wine and whiskey and nibbling on those tiny sugar cubes to keep my energy up.

But I don’t mention how that night, when I fell behind my pals in a square, a man grabbed my upper arm and spoke to me in a language I didn’t know. Unsure of what he wanted, I struggled to break free, but he was amazingly strong. Ahead of me, one of my friends realized and stopped, starting to walk back to us. His friends shouted things, too, but still it took him a while to let go. And, in that moment, terrified, I wasn’t sure if he ever would.

I never tell the story of how once, when I was visiting my college roommate who was studying abroad like I was, a man singled me out on a subway and started screaming at me. Again in a language I didn’t know. He got more and more worked up until we decided to get up and move to another car. We started walking down the train, and he followed us, still yelling. We started running and so did he, chasing us, spitting his words louder and louder. The whole train watched this and no one did anything. We got out at the next stop and took a cab.

I know I skip that one because, even now, I don’t like to think about it. I always felt that because the man was so emphatic, so determined to catch me, that he had me confused with someone else. Perhaps if I could speak his language, I could have cleared the whole thing up, but then another part of me realizes that just isn’t true. I have no idea why he did that. I can’t figure it out and I wish I didn’t try. There is no excuse. Even if he did think I was someone else, she didn’t deserve to be treated like that, either.

I wrote about things like this, but I never would have talked about it until people started talking to me.

I recently published a book called "A Semester Abroad." There are many things I expected readers to relate to about the twenty-something characters: the general confusion of being in your twenties, depression, heartbreak and shitty body image.

But what comes up most when women talk to me about the novel is the scenes where the protagonist feels like prey. When she learns what it really is for a woman to travel -- and not in the getting-her-groove-back or eating, praying and loving kind of way.

It is when she is trapped alone in a train compartment, wishing she had something to keep the door locked and relying on her Swiss Army knife to protect her from leering, potentially dangerous men in the corridor. Many women have their own stories of harassment, groping, flashing and worse. It seems like everyone has tales like mine of traveling, studying abroad or backpacking gone wrong.

We all took precautions. We all got the same tips. We learned there are cultural differences and that getting comments on your body at major tourist attractions is par for the course. We were told before leaving in one way or another that there were things WE needed to do to avoid these behaviors of others.

Just about every guidebook has tips for women traveling alone (though being in a group doesn’t always work out that well either). The tips are very similar to what my son's karate teacher tells the class to do as self-defense steps before they let things get physical. “Travel in groups, make noise, run away. Number one, just don’t be there.”

All of this is sound advice. But it places a lot of the onus on you to stop other people. And most of it does no good. Should I have just not been there? I mean, should I have skipped the whole study abroad experience and not traveled and never left my city if I couldn’t handle cultural differences?

The fact that I even got to travel and study abroad is antithetical to anything anyone else in my family had ever done. If any of my direct or distant ancestors went to another country as a young adult, it was because they were either looking for a better life or because they were being sent off to fight a war.

To complain about something that happened when you are given a gift is a very first world problem, isn’t it? Yet I recently read (in xoJane!) that “first world problem” is often a term used to dismiss “women’s problems,” and I’m starting to think that might be true.

So, yes, I am grateful that my middle-class family was able to send me off to Italy for a semester that I then extended into a bigger backpacking trip. I managed to enjoy the sights and tastes of many countries, and I got randomly propositioned (I think) in at least four different languages.

I may not be multilingual, but I’m fluent in the international language of harassment. Can the number of times I saw men masturbating in public be chalked up to a “cultural difference?” Is there any way I should have been prepared for that? Is there something I could have done to prevent it?

When is it cultural and when is it criminal?

And if it is criminal and you can’t really communicate with anyone, what do you do?

I don’t have answers. I don’t have tips. I am only just starting to talk.

I’m glad I got to “be there.” And I’m thankful that nothing REALLY bad happened to me. I know I got lucky. I try not to think about these things that much. I choose to focus on all the things I liked about that trip. Seeing more parts of this world changed me in so many ways that I still benefit from. From how I eat, to my worldview, to the people I know, it was all worth it. I will always love traveling. It is a priority in my life and something that is a value for my young family. I’m proud of all the little pushpins on the map of the world that hangs on my walls.

But I’m worried more now because I have a daughter and I know there are things I can’t protect her from.

At 5, she is the most confident person I know. But at 5 she is closer to the age I was when I first began traveling than I am now. I want to support everything she ever wants to do and all the experiences she wants to have. Though if I could I would take away the confusion, depression, heartbreak and shitty body image that she will probably one day experience.

I expect that someday she will come to me and want to travel on her own. I will give her all the tips and her brother will teach her karate. I will make sure she has a Swiss Army knife and a bungee cord in case she ever needs to secure a door. But in the end, all I can do is hope that she is as lucky as I was and remind her that whatever happens, it is always a good idea to talk about it.