When you travel, space is an expensive luxury. And if you travel with a tight budget you kinda have to prepare yourself to cram like a sardine into shuttles, planes, bars and fifteen-bed hostel dorms for 10 dollars a night. Most of the time it’s a small price to pay to be able to see the world.
Except when people take advantage of that inescapable proximity.
Recently I was headed back to El Salvador on a full shuttle from Antigua, Guatemala, and my next door neighbour was making me deeply uncomfortable. He’d just brushed my leg for the fourth time in five minutes in a forced conversation I had no desire to participate in and all I wanted was out.
I wanted to put him in his place. But instantly, and here’s the weird thing, my mind scolded me, warned my against it. Go with the flow. Be easygoing. Be reflexive to the situation. Sometimes the universe isn’t set up exactly how we want it. I felt physically and emotionally uncomfortable, yet I was hesitant to say anything. Why?
I didn’t want to make everyone else on the bus uncomfortable.
An excellent article by Gretchen Kelly last year for Huffpost perfectly articulated why so many women smile through such blatant sexism when we really want to scream.
“We have all learned, either by instinct or by trial and error, how to minimize a situation that makes us uncomfortable,” she said.
“How to avoid angering a man or endangering ourselves. We have all, on many occasions, ignored an offensive comment. We’ve all laughed off an inappropriate come-on. We’ve all swallowed our anger when being belittled or condescended to.”
Why? Because laughing blatant sexism off or smiling through the frustration allows us to continue our day. It protects us from the possibility of an aggressive retaliation, or being labelled a bitch, a prude or a stick-in-the-mud.
Laughing blatant sexism off or smiling through the frustration allows us to continue our day. It protects us from the possibility of an aggressive retaliation, or being labelled a bitch, a prude or a stick-in-the-mud.
“We minimize it. Both internally and externally, we minimize it. We have to. To not shrug it off would put is in confrontation mode more often than most of us feel like dealing with.”
But the fifth time his hand grazed my thigh, all bets were off.
“Can you please stop touching me? You’re making me extremely uncomfortable.”
My voice shook, half with growing anger and half knowing I had started to ‘make a scene’. But at least, I thought, it would stop the creepy touching, and block any further communication at all.
You’d like to think you have the autonomy over your body that when you tell a stranger either through nuance or spoken word you are NOT INTERESTED, it should stop, but it didn’t.
He argued with me and told me that “most women liked it.” Never mind I was a woman expressly telling him no, I did not like it. Never mind I had no desire to connect with him in the first place. Suddenly I was infuriated, at how instantly this guy thought himself entitled to my time, my attention and my body. And frustrated to tears how often I see this around me when I travel, and how little people call out this behaviour.
Furious, I snapped, and everyone else on the shuttle had started to stare.
He told me to calm down. Typical tactics to reduce a woman’s anger to being ‘over the top’ or ‘hysterical.’
How many times are women inadvertently scolding for making a scene when only trying to protect their personal space?
It may look like such a tiny thing, but people who think invading space, touching someone without their consent and being sexually lewd is just ‘messing around, or ‘being a guy’ needs a fucking wake up call. When you advance on someone after they have made it clear it is not welcome you are seeing this person as an object and not a human. That is sexism.
What is it? The perceived lack of consequence? The fact so many people pass through these tourist towns that you stop seeing people as people but as numbers and goals? Something to attain then and discard, so much so you lose a basic grasp on humanity?
I saw it again the other day. A man was shovelling pizza into his mouth and loudly talking to anyone within ear shot in a well known tourist spot. A woman walked by and this man called her to come and sit down. It was a demand rather than a question, and the look on her face made it extremely clear she would have liked nothing less than to come and sit with this slug of a man.
But still, she sat.
Why? Because she was a rabbit caught in headlights, that’s why. He knew she was alone, and she couldn’t use the “I have to be somewhere” line because she was on holiday. It would require telling the truth, she wasn’t interested, and that was probably more confrontation than she was emotionally ready for. She wasn’t allowed to say: “I would rather remove my spleen with a pickaxe than spend a second in the company of your slimy ass”, even when she was being looked at like a piece of meat.
She sat. He told her he wanted to have sex with her. Invited her back to his expensive hotel “right after I finish my pizza.”
You know what she did? Laughed, politely.
Taught to cause the least possible social friction.
Taught not to be confrontational to protect ourselves, even when you are being spoken to as an object.
If you are travelling, if you are at home, see these microagressions for what they are. Don’t downplay them, don’t bite your tongue and wait for it to be over.
Don’t say ‘maybe’ and hope he gets the hint. Say ‘no’.
Don’t say ‘not today’ to some sexist invitation. Say ‘not ever.’
Don’t subtly cringe your body away from his advances. Say ‘you are making me uncomfortable,’ and if that doesn’t work say “Do not fucking touch me.”
Don’t try say ‘because I have a boyfriend.’ Say ‘because I fucking say so.’
I don’t care what friend tells you he’s “actually a cool guy.” If you feel like he’s not being cool to you – he’s not.
If you are travelling, if you are at home, see these microagressions for what they are. Don’t downplay them, don’t bite your tongue and wait for it to be over. Don’t say ‘maybe’ and hope he gets the hint. Say ‘no’. Don’t say ‘not today’ to some sexist invitation. Say ‘not ever.’
I know it’s easy to just slip out of the bar, change seats, put in your music and disassociate. But what does that allow for the next girl who sits next to this creep on the shuttle, who sleeps next to him in the hostel dorm? What kind of world will we create for our nieces, our daughters, our students, the younger generation of girls, who we want to travel and roam and discover the world?
And for our little boys too. You know how many drunk women I see smack male bartender’s asses or blatantly say sexual things to their face when they are clearly uncomfortable? It’s not okay, on either side of the coin.
Please, please always remember this: in a travel setting, your job is not to be demure and compliant with ‘the vibe’. If someone is making you uncomfortable, make a scene, damn it. Boundaries deserve to be respected. The rules don’t change because there’s a few palm trees around and beers cost one dollar.