About two years ago, I found myself on a bus in India, traveling from the village of McLeod Ganj in the lower Himalayas to Pathankot in Punjab, a distance of little more than 60 miles. But the narrow, switchbacking road, rattletrap condition of the bus and the crowd on board made the going slow and uncomfortable. Except for me, all the passengers were men, sitting five to a hard bench, trapping me against a window. The slim, middle-age man at my side had his thigh wedged against mine, which I understood--until the others on our bench got off.
Gradually, I realized that my seatmate hadn't budged. His leg was still touching mine. I gestured for him to move away, and he complied. But before long, he was back again, pressing his thigh into mine, even though, by this time, there was plenty of room for us both. Only after a good deal of time had passed did it finally sink in that this was the way he wanted it. But I was too amazed to do anything, and got mad only after the man had left the bus.
I've been groped in India, grabbed in Marrakech and propositioned all over Mexico. In India, they call such behavior Eve-teasing, and it can range from touching and intense catcalling to molestation, rape, even murder. (Legislation passed last year in India's Tamil Nadu state provides for up to a year's imprisonment or a fine of up to about $300, or both, for Eve-teasing.) So, as things go, my experience on the bus was a relatively harmless form of sexual harassment. But it was a violation, nonetheless, and the man knew he could get away with it, which makes me mad all over again just to think about it.
One young woman I spoke with was groped on a jammed bus while visiting Rome with girlfriends. Moreover, whenever they left their hotel, men made off-color remarks and followed them. Nothing new in that, of course, given where they were. But after a time, it simply wore them down.
This kind of harassment has become a cliche in Italy and in other (usually Latin Catholic) "testosterone cultures"--as Paul Tobias, a Santa Monica psychologist puts it--where women are seen as either madonnas or whores. Women travelers fit into the latter category, of course, particularly if they are on their own. My friend who was so constantly plagued by men in Italy speculates that in such cultures this is a sort of punishment men inflict on women who dare to go out alone.
Debra Borys, a clinical psychologist in Westwood, observes that many American women don't understand the rules of sexual repartee in foreign countries, which can sometimes include teasing and even benign forms of touching. But she also says we've got to be firm, to the point of hostility, when trying to discourage unwanted attention, taking a cue from local women who don't put up with such behavior. "Many American women are brought up to believe that it's not ladylike to get angry," Borys says. But when you're groped on a bus, sometimes your only recourse is to scream and make a scene.
Budget travelers, who walk and take buses instead of catching cabs, often risk harassment--especially if they are young. Gropers and catcallers love to prey on young women because they seem defenseless and too naive to protest. A colleague of mine tells a story about being groped on a cable car years ago in San Francisco. She was a teenager and was sitting on an outside seat with her mother, father and a girlfriend. But that didn't stop a guy in front of her from reaching up her skirt, while her eyes got wider and wider and her girlfriend kept nudging her. The man chose his target well because she was too surprised and embarrassed to cause a stir.
What sort of a man gets his kicks this way? Tobias says that it often happens when men have been drinking. Borys suspects that intense verbal abuse and groping also could have to do with such a man's need to dominate and "the rush they get from intruding and invading"--which is frightening, because these are some of the compulsions that drive rapists too.
So is the guy on the corner who makes humiliating remarks to you and reaches for your backside just a gorilla beating his chest or potentially something worse? "Any woman traveling alone has got to wonder," Tobias says.
Being street-smart when you travel is a good way to avoid harassment. This includes studying your map before you go out, making a wide detour around groups of men hanging out by the curb and looking as if you know precisely where you're going. Always dress in a way that's appropriate in the culture you're visiting, and learn how to be forceful about telling gropers to get lost.
The trouble is, these things often happen so fast--as another colleague of mine learned when she was still in high school, visiting Waikiki with her family. She was in a market near the beach, leaning over to look at the wares, when a man reached out and pinched her. Whirling around, she saw the man, who smiled at her lewdly.
The episode had no long-lasting psychological effect. But if you're young and naive, or traveling alone, far away from the comforts of home and your normal support system, having your rear end pinched by a stranger can get to you, taking the joy out of sightseeing.
And all the women I talked to who were victims of harassment on the road clearly remember it, no matter how long ago the incident occurred. As one of them told me, getting groped on a bus in Rome when she was in her teens had no deep impact on her. "It just taught me that there are stupid, boorish men in the world."