Does sexual harassment become more tolerable over time?
March 29, 2011 1:45 AM   Subscribe

Does dealing with sexual harassment on the street get easier or harder over time? When formal redress isn't possible, are there ways of thinking about that can minimise the pain it causes?

I am considering moving to a non-Western country where street harassment of women -- both local and foreign -- is very common. I have very sound personal and professional reasons for wanting to make the move, but an incident today left me wondering whether harassment will make my experience there unbearable.

I rebuffed a man's advances on the street, in the Western country where I currently live. He proceeded to follow me for several blocks, yelling and calling me a white bitch, a whore, a racist and a slut. I wasn't hurt in any way, yet hours later, I'm still alternating between white-hot anger and a sort of nervy, looking-over-my-shoulder anxiety. It's slowly dawning on me that in the country I'm considering moving to, this kind of harassment could be a weekly, perhaps daily experience. The risk of it escalating to physical or sexual assault will be significantly higher, and the opportunities for formal redress will be minimal. Somehow, I will have to learn to accept street harassment as a part of my new life.

So, I'm looking for answers. As a feminist, I'll never stop believing that harassment is just plain wrong, but does it get easier to deal with over time? Will it gradually become part of the wallpaper of my life? Will I ever be able to laugh about it? And are there ways of thinking about harassment -- or responding to it -- that will minimise the mental and emotional impact it has on me?

[Answers that seek to blame victims or deny that harassment is a problem are...not welcome, thank you].
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I lived in a country (and a suburb of a town in that country) where street harassment was hugely more frequent than it is where I grew up, and where I currently live. Like, right now, it happens to me once every couple of months. In that country, it was a daily occurrence. Often three or four times a day.

I did get more used to it. Right now, it takes me most of the rest of the day to stop thinking about it when it happens. When it was a daily occurrence, I'd have brushed it out of my mind within ten minutes. (Except for the few times it became physical: I never got used to that). I think you also get better at putting on your FUCKOFF face, faster to react with the middle finger, and better at not making eye contact etc in the first place, which at least lets you more easily pretend it isn't happening.

It's not that it ever becomes NOTHING, but it takes up less of your emotional energy when you are used to it than it does when it is really rare.
posted by lollusc at 2:23 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

The problem is that for the most part, places where harassment and risk of assault is going to be higher, the street experience will only be the thin end of the wedge, I imagine. I would have to assume that transacting business (perhaps not within the confines of your employment, but anything else), medical care, and all sorts of other issues that make up the daily minutiae of life will also be challenging/discouraging/miserable. Are you going to be able to conduct your life generally in a way that won't utterly suck?

If you want to buy electronics or get your car serviced, will you need to get a man to handle it so that you won't be ripped off or turned down or ridiculed? Will you be able to have a woman doctor if you want one? Is the medical profession even very knowledgeable about women's health? How many things will be nightmarish to endure? Will you be able to feel safe about taking a cab on your own? Or out alone after dark at all?

Personally, I'd really not want to live in a place with even more danger, fewer rights and less respect for women... but if you are extremely motivated to give it a try, I'd recommend a two-week or so holiday there – in which you try to live as a resident and not a visitor: get as much experience as possible doing all the normal things one does, and all on your own as much as possible. Deal with banks, retail, government agencies, eating out on your own... everything you can think of, and see what the reality is.
posted by taz at 2:25 AM on March 29, 2011 [9 favorites]

I have a friend who lived in a similar country so I know what you're talking about.

I really don't think it will become part of the wallpaper of your life. I don't really buy that there could be some kind of mental armour that will shut it out. It's not good natured stuff that you might get in another country and learn to deal with it's threatening, so psychologically it's going to be always pushing fight or flight buttons which will probably wear you down with stress.

Sorry to be negative, but IMO this is the reality of the situation. So in terms of solutions, maybe see the move as a short term thing.

I don't know if you've considered wearing a full hijab or whatever they call it. I don't know how this squares with your principles, but if it would avoid hassle which I don't know about, maybe wearing it while you're in the street could let you manage.
posted by Not Supplied at 2:26 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

What specific country are you moving to?

"Non-Western" is rather generic, as is "Western", after all there are *a lot* of local differences in these matters even within Europe and the US, or even within the same "Western" country.

I understand maybe you don't want to add details, but then you'd be missing out on the answers from women who do happen to live in that specific country already, or have lived there, or travelled there, and have had experiences they could share that could be useful to you to get a better idea. Have you been there already yourself long enough to experience the local form of harassment?

In more generic terms, yes you can get used to higher/more overt levels of harassment to the ones you were used to, and oh yes you can learn to laugh about it or at least maintain a distance from it. You can get used to anything... Question is, do you want to get used to it? What else attracts you to going there? It depends so much on so many specific circumstances - like, on how long you are moving for, would it be temporary or permanent? Do you have an appeal to the culture overall? What would you be doing there? Do you have friends there or know anyone there you can relate to?
posted by bitteschoen at 2:48 AM on March 29, 2011

ps - You did already write "I have very sound personal and professional reasons for wanting to make the move" - so I assume the appeal is strong enough, but personally I cannot imagine out how to weigh those two things, reasons to move + worry about level of harassment, if the level is as high and dangerous as you say, it speaks of a place where personal safety is very low, so, without more details, it makes me think of a place I may want to travel to for a while if there's enough to attract me to travel there, but wouldn't want to live in, no matter what job prospects or personal connections attract me there.

Then again, it may not be so once you actually live there. For instance, the kind of episode you're describing can be more common paradoxically in urban areas in developed countries, than in underdeveloped areas with less social progress and less respect for women's rights. The harassment there can take other forms than your typical urban aggression. It really depends on which country/area of the world we're talking about.
posted by bitteschoen at 2:59 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes I did assume it was an Islamic country.
posted by Not Supplied at 3:05 AM on March 29, 2011

I agree that it would help immensely if you could mention which country you're considering moving to.

For example:

- In Turkey, foreign women can be harassed because Turkish women will tell the harasser loudly & aggressively just where to shove it. In a country like that, you should make like the locals.

- In India, the guys who harass are frustrated virginal idiots in 20-something bodies who have never even spoken to a woman outside of their family. The local women may choose to ignore the unwanted attention, but as a foreigner you can use that to your advantage, because when you're a 'guest' in a country, people tend to give more of a shit if you're having problems than if you're a local.

Assuming your question is more about whether or not to move to this new country, and not knowing which country you're talking about, I'd still suggest that your default response would be to make a public scene & shame the asshole, and people will come to your rescue, or at worst, they'll stand as silent witnesses shaming the guy into submission. That's only based on a general average perception of dozens of non-western countries I've visited so take that however you may.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:14 AM on March 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

Harassment can have more than one dimension. So, where you live now, it is infrequent, but when it happens it can escalate and no one steps in to help. In another place, it might happen every day at a low level, but a severe and threatening episode like that might not be allowed to proceed unimpeded. The point being, it is incredibly hard to generalize about something like this, and things can play out in ways you aren't expecting.
posted by Forktine at 5:45 AM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

This can also be a problem where I live in NYC. Maybe once or twice a week, with the big, elevating advances and abuses. You're asking if it ever gets easier... well, I can't answer that question because I have the same general problem. Llke you, I can't shake it for the rest of the day. But I think I have a solution.

It seems kind of obvious, but... headphones. Glorious, blissfully ignorant commutes with my headphones. Now I can't hear anything. It seems like I'm ignoring them, but really? I'm just listening to Stayin' Alive really loud.
posted by functionequalsform at 6:17 AM on March 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

Some very good advice I read about street harrassment in other countries is: talk to the local women about what they do. They'll know the gestures, the phrases, the attitudes to adopt to blow guys off. Plus, this is a way you can bond with them ("sheesh, guys are like this worldwide? Gimmeabreak").

If all else fails, I've lately adopted the tactic of just not even breaking my stride, giving the guy an eyeroll and telling him, "you'd be a waste of my time, man."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:40 AM on March 29, 2011

Well, not sure if these countries are relevant, but I have spent significant amounts of time in Peru and India. In my experience in those countries (as a young, white, but dark featured woman-- someone who was obviously foreign but didn't stick out in a crowd) is that guys on the street would stare at me or try to talk to me (and in India, occasionally touch me) much more often than in the US, but in my experience American men are more persistent-- in the US if you ignore a guy who just said something to you, he's very likely to get pissed off and/or keep trying. In other countries I've been in guys almost expect that the girl is going to ignore them-- not that I never had bad experiences with guys in these countries, but the overall tone felt lighter and less personal. (This was somewhat less true in India.)
posted by geegollygosh at 6:50 AM on March 29, 2011

About the guy following you: wow, what a whack job!!! Ridiculous! The guy clearly has issues!

I'm from Brazil where being called out by men when walking around is extremely common. The best strategy: ignore. Pretend you didn't hear. Just keep walking, feigning blissful ignorance, with a pleasant smile/smirk on your face. Honestly, most time I couldn't tell if someone was whistling or honking their horn at me or anyone else. In 99.9% of the cases, the guys won't mind and everyone keeps going about their business.
I knew someone who'd smile at them and wave, but that's not something I'd ever recommend!!!

HOWEVER: if you not only acknowledge them AND refuse/reject them, that would ruffle their feathers and you could get cussed out or whatever. Do not roll your eyes! Do not let on that it bothers you.

Just remember, there's nothing you can do to get someone else to not acknowledge you (for good or bad), no matter how much you dislike it.

I agree with the headphones idea. Great way to get used to ignoring. Pretty soon, you won't even notice it anymore.
posted by Neekee at 7:17 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have lived in a neighborhood where this is a problem for the last three years. At first, I blew it off or laughed about it. Now, after having been worn down and exhausted by it for so long, it's a major contributing factor to my decision to move, and I avoid going out on my own.

Have you spent any time in this place you're planning to move to? Did you feel safe? If not, are you okay with feeling threatened every time you leave your home? Because, in my experience, the low-level dread only gets worse.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 7:23 AM on March 29, 2011

Sorry, I don't have a solution for you, but I do think that wearing headphones on the street when you are worried about people harassing you verbally and possibly physically is not a smart thing to do. If you really can't stand to hear it, find a way to take private cars everywhere or walk with a man. As a lone woman, I would NEVER walk around the street with one of my primary senses blocked, especially if I was worried about being harassed.

I dealt with this while traveling in Vienna. On one day, I was followed and talked to by three Turkish men (separately). Only one persisted for more than a few minutes, and when I turned around and yelled at him to get away from me or I'm going to the police, he finally backed off. I think that ignoring first is good, but if someone is clearly not backing off, turning around, yelling at them, and threatening them with the police might work, especially if you are a foreigner. Or, walking into a shop and asking the owner for help. Basically, this person does not respect your autonomy as a woman, so you need to appeal to another man for help. Fun times. I hope it's worth it to live there. Good luck!
posted by tk at 7:41 AM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's my undocumented impression that the level of allowable harassment is on par with the level of tolerance for/punishment for violence towards women. I've had a similar experience, in the US, which stopped only because someone came by in a car and stopped. because we were in the middle of the road, waving frantically. I'd re-ask, and be specific about the country.

If you do choose to move, carry a mobile phone, with a private car # on speed dial, and learn some self-protection. Things that make you feel stronger change your body language in a useful way.
posted by theora55 at 8:23 AM on March 29, 2011

First of all, what you experienced (being followed) to me, went way beyond usual street harassment. You don't specify where you lived, but if this had happened to me in the U.S., that would have been notifying the authorities time. Catcalls are one thing, following for several blocks is quite another. Feeling freaked out by that is totally understandable.

Second, PLEASE get thee to hollaback. It will help you put things in perspective and feel more confident in your own power. These are women all over the world facing down to street harassment.

Third, headphones. While studying abroad in a Latin American country, my walkman became my best friend when walking anywhere. I never felt particularly unsafe (and if it's a matter of safety -- obviously keep the headphones off to be better aware your surroundings), but just to drown at the daytime running commentary from men on the street that seemed to be de riguer in this city, I loved being able to just listen to music and ignore it.

Take care!
posted by pantarei70 at 9:26 AM on March 29, 2011

Headphones, or better yet, pretending to be on the phone (or actually being on the phone if I have someone to call at the time) works for me. If guys see that you're busy, they generally don't want to catcall as much, they'll move on to someone they could actually get a response from, get a rise from. Don't actually listen to music on the headphones, at least not loud, because as someone pointed out, you want your sense of hearing working for you, in case someone starts following you. Also, if it's the type of place where headphones = "she has an iPod I can steal" then don't connect them to an iPod or anything, just tuck the end into your pocket. Same with the phone, if you think a fancy phone would get stolen, find a crappy phone and either call someone to chat, or if you don't want to actually bother your friends 50x a day, just hold it up to your ear pretending to talk to someone, when you see questionable men a block ahead of you. If they think you're too busy to answer them, there's a chance they might not even bother you.

But even if this helps with the sexual harassment, talking to yourself might drive you a little crazy after a while too.
posted by at 10:17 AM on March 29, 2011

err, I mean, you can find an old phone that's not on any cell phone plan if you want to just pretend to talk, if you're concerned about taking out an expensive phone in public all the time, if you have one of those.
posted by at 10:20 AM on March 29, 2011

In my experience (and I think it varies hugely from country to country), it was more or less non stop, but at the same time far lower level. Lots of whistling, kissy noises (uggs), lots of yelling hello trying to get your attention, but far less individuals aggressively and seriously trying to hit on you. At least in my experience, (while subject to other violence and unpleasant situations), it was never the result of street harassment. It also helps because if they don't speak the greatest English, it's far easier to tune out and pretend like you don't realize they are talking to you. Not to mention they can't really initiate much of a conversation if they don't speak English, so you aren't in any way put in a situation where you have to reject them. In the US, I've found that's when situations tend to escalate, when a guy has made a pronounced effort to engage you in a conversation, hit on you, ask for your number and you rebuff them, they will flip out on you. It doesn't really get to that stage when you don't share a common language (or even if you do speak the language of the country where you are, you don't need to let them know that.)

I've found the staring to be far more obvious abroad, however, simply being a foreigner in some places will get you stares from both sexes no matter what. I was able to successfully tune that out though.

Of course, I was in a country where the street harassment never involved any sort of touching or grabbing, so ymmv hugely depending on the country. But, for me at least, it did to at least some extent become just part of the background noise of life, but I should put the caveat that I was much younger and more I guess naive, which allowed me to be a lot more oblivious to a lot of the dangers around me. I just don't know if I could tune it out now, the way I did then.
posted by whoaali at 11:57 AM on March 29, 2011

i agree with tk - headphones/talking on the phone is a bad idea, even if you are only pretending. muggers often make targets of people that appear to not be paying attention. so while you may deter catcalls, you open yourself to other types of danger.

another thing to do may be to find out how local women deal with the harassment in their country. does it help if they travel in groups? do they need a male companion or hired guard to travel in certain areas or late at night? what about apparel, is there a cultural problem against exposed skin or face? sticking out at a foreigner may make you an even bigger target, so learn what you can do to blend in while you adjust.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 12:08 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

muggers often make targets of people that appear to not be paying attention.

Never said you shouldn't pay attention. Duh. Pay more attention with your eyeballs, if you have headphones on. Common sense.

But I've found (and we're not really talking about muggers, so much as gross-attention-seekers) that Gross Dudes Who Verbally Accost will not even start trying to holla if they think you can't even hear them. Because it's a power thing.

Don't feed the trolls. Don't even give the trolls a chance to open their mouthsBECAUSE WHAT I CAN'T HEAR YOU.
posted by functionequalsform at 12:23 PM on March 29, 2011

Sorry, that sounded snarky. Dang. Bad, busy copywriter.
posted by functionequalsform at 12:24 PM on March 29, 2011

As a feminist, I'll never stop believing that harassment is just plain wrong, but does it get easier to deal with over time?

I can only give you my personal experience, which is no, it gets worse. Like, when I was younger, it made me really angry, but now that I'm older (36) it makes me so angry I didn't know it was even possible to be so angry. I yell and scream at guys who bother me, though. I can't live with ignoring them.
posted by Violet Hour at 1:41 PM on March 29, 2011

About a decade ago I looked at moving to a south east Asian Muslim country with my boyfriend. At the time I was young and very blonde. We went there for a few weeks to get a feel for the place. My experiences were not good. They involved being followed by gangs of men jeering and calling, even when covered up, even whilst holding my boyfriends hand. Not being able to walk the street by myself. Not able to go out after dark without a man. Basically I felt like prisoner.

I asked an older expat man living there if things would get better and how to handle it. He told me it wouldn't and to expect never to get respect in the office. Leading a team, men would never follow a white woman.

My experiences were that men constantly asked if I was married. I stupidly told them I was living with my boyfriend which led to constant harassment as it meant not only was I available, because we lived together, I was easy! I obviously had sex before marriage so they all thought I would put out. The other thing I was told was that blonde hair=Sharon stone=prostitute. Supposedly blonde hair made me American and a tramp. Neither of which was true.

I found it depressing and scary. It was ten years ago just at the cusp of September 11 so maybe things have changed. But needless to say I never moved there.
posted by Jubey at 3:28 PM on March 29, 2011

I think headphones are a fine and necessary option when you are walking outside in a busy city during daylight hours. Blocking out this kind of thing with headphones is what keeps me sane and I don't feel at risk.

( I think it also depends on the type of harassment though- in some countries it is mostly vocal with little danger of actually being grabbed and that's where the headphones come in handy.)
posted by bearette at 6:17 PM on March 29, 2011

Traveling in countries where I was harassed (India & Egypt) I found wearing sunglasses helps—don't make eye contact! It will definitely depend on the country, as others noted above. I was once followed by a man in Istanbul and tried to get him to stop but he kept following me. Finally, when I started to make a scene a group of young men came over and defended me.

Does it get easier? No. Although you can tune things out to an extent I found that the irritation bubbled under the surface until I exploded in rage at the next guy that pushed it just a little far.
posted by Bunglegirl at 7:47 PM on March 29, 2011

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