The divide of gender experiences. Image by Flickr user nevil zaveri.
Two months ago I wrote an exploratory article about the harassment female travelers often endure. One topic that resonated with readers was that of trying to relate our experiences as women to our male counterparts: travelers, friends, significant others.
Sometimes it feels like men just don’t get it.
If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s an unanswered question. So I sat down with a friend and fellow Peace Corps volunteer Jay (name changed to protect his privacy) to ask about the relationships and experiences of male and female travelers. For reference, Jay is a straight, white American male from Colorado.
As a caveat to this interview, Jay wanted me to tell readers that he finds all harassment of women to be abhorrent. In this interview he takes the perspective of a male bystander observing a female being harassed by another male.
What differences have you seen between the male and female traveling experiences?
Well, here in Peace Corps Zambia there’s a pretty pronounced difference. Female volunteers face a lot more harassment and attention than male volunteers.
A lot of it is generally petty, albeit uncomfortable, but occasionally it can get really serious, and I know it affects female volunteers and, I imagine, all women who travel. I am aware of it and sensitive to it only because I’m very protective and want to catch it before it happens.
But, even though I am sensitive to harassment, that doesn’t mean I can easily empathize with my female peers. I don’t have women grabbing me at all times of day telling me I should be their husband, whistling, or hissing behind my back, or leering down my shirt.
I personally intervene when I see it [harassment] because I know from personal experience that women don’t want that sort of attention, and I feel some responsibility to show that it isn’t okay.
Why don’t all men help when they see harassment?
I think a big part of it is a lot of times men will feel like, “She could get out of it [the bad situation] if she really wanted to.” Because that’s what a man would do; we are direct and say exactly what we feel when we don’t like something.
If someone is bothering me, I get right back in their face and drive them off. In my experience, women tend to be indirect in how they communicate, and men tend to be very forward.
Guys don’t necessarily see or understand the subtle signs that women show. Men can often miss those signs that indicate a woman is feeling very uncomfortable. We may not intervene even if her every non-verbal signal is asking for help simply because we can’t read those signs, or we don’t know whether we are misinterpreting those signs and over-reacting.
Do you think reluctance to intervene is all based in ignorance?
No, definitely not. There are plenty of guys out there with the “not my woman, not my problem” attitude.
Some guys think that if a woman “put herself” in a bad position, then that’s her own thing to deal with. Like, for instance, if a woman gets really drunk and then wants to walk home by herself at night, that can be a tough position for a guy. Like, should I walk her home even if I wouldn’t otherwise because I know it’s safer for her? Is her choice to get drunk my responsibility? It’s a bad attitude, but some guys view it that way.
That’s different from harassment, though. I think sometimes men do want to help, but they’re not sure if their help is really wanted. Female travelers in my experience are often really tough and independent and seem like they can handle things on their own. It’s hard to know if she would want me to intervene on her behalf or not.
What role does your culture play in how you see harassment of women?
Oh, a huge role for sure, and I also think culture has a lot to do with how men behave toward women.
When I was living in Europe, I noticed that men are much less aggressive toward women than they are in the States and that women can actually be the aggressors of harassment in day-to-day life. So, it can be really different.
I think in America men are much more aggressive because we have that very masculine mentality and aren’t as comfortable with our sexuality as a culture. Women, in turn, put up more defenses against that aggressive behavior, and the cycle just sort of compounds itself.
Here in Africa, the difference between my beliefs about women and what I see everyday is enormous. Here I see harassment occur everyday where I feel disgusted by it, and I’m not even a part of it. It’s really troubling, and it’s hard to know how to intervene in a foreign culture on behalf of Zambian women. With fellow volunteers it’s easier, but it’s still not easy to know how I should act.
I think female travelers tend to be pretty independent and self-reliant but would appreciate their male counterparts have a better understanding of the harassment they sometimes face on the road.
How should we better communicate our problems to the male traveler community?
It’s definitely a challenge. I think it really stems from a lot of different problems: On one hand, most guys have nothing similar to draw from in their experiences. It’s so rare that men face the sort of harassment that women do. They can’t internalize the danger and panicked feelings of harassment.
If I were to suggest something, both in terms of communicating with male friends and aggressors, I would encourage women to say what you mean and be straightforward. Don’t leave any doubt. Tell us your intentions up front. If you come to bat with “No, I’m not interested,” the book is closed for most of us as aggressors.
If it’s someone harassing you, don’t be polite in brushing him off; don’t worry about hurting his feelings. Chances are he knows that what he is doing isn’t okay, and a straightforward “no” leaves a lot less room for him to continue.
The same goes for asking men to help intervene with harassment. Don’t leave us in the dark; if you want us to help you, tell us when and how, and chances are we’ll be able to recognize it when the time comes and step in.
What do the men in your life think about sexual harassment? Do they intervene or are they unsure how to react? Let us know in the Comments!
Want to read more about women traveling abroad? Check out Hannah’s blog!