Trigger warning: this post contains discussions of sexual assault and rape.
I was sitting by the side of the road in Kota Bharu, Malaysia, when I saw that a man was sitting on his motorbike and masturbating while staring at me. I froze in place. I didn’t know what to do. I was only 18 years old and I had luckily never encountered this kind of harassment before. I moved quickly down another road, but he continued to follow me and stare at me. I ran to my guesthouse and locked myself inside my room, heart thumping and nausea rising up in my chest. Kota Bharu is a deeply conservative state in north-eastern Malaysia that doesn’t see many Western tourists, let alone solo female travellers. Men regularly stared at me as I walked down the street, especially because my hair was uncovered and my skin is so pale. However, this kind of harassment has happened to me countless times, both in my hometown of Adelaide and in various places overseas.
When I told people that I was travelling to South America, some warned me to watch out for the men. I found this pretty ironic, considering the amount of times that I have endured harassment, sexual assault, and even rape at the hands of Australian men. I did experience a lot of sexual harassment in South America, that’s a fact. In Buenos Aires, I was regularly catcalled when walking down any street of the city. In Medellín, I had one day where I was catcalled 30 times in one day because it was hot weather and I was wearing shorts. This wasn’t because I am foreign or white or Australian. This is because I am a woman.
One of my friends in Buenos Aires taught me how to tell a man to go fuck himself in Spanish, a phrase which she regularly has to use. A deep culture of machismo prevails in Argentina, but it would be foolish to assume that Australia is any better. Statistically, 1 in 5 Australian women will experience sexual assault in her lifetime. I would run out of fingers if I tried to count on my hands the number of women I personally know who are survivors of rape.
I have had countless men grab at my body in nightclubs and bars. I have had a man yell at me that he hoped I would get hit by a car because I told him to step off and stop harassing me. A group of men in Melbourne stopped me on a staircase in a bar so that they could grope at my body, before walking off as if nothing had happened. A man in my local bar forcibly grabbed the back of my head and tried to force me to kiss him. When I shoved him away, his friends started getting angry at me for not just letting him kiss me. I have watched a prominent Youtube celebrity forcibly stick his fingers inside of my friend in a nightclub and then deny everything when I called him out on it. That same friend has had a man try to force her into a taxi outside a bar, and when she cried out, no one came to help her. I used to be friends with a man called Frank until his best friend raped me. I had to stop talking to him after he told me how ‘inconvenient’ the whole situation was for him. I have had to stand by in silence as all of my ex boyfriend’s friends made rape jokes in front of me, despite all of them knowing about my history. All of this happened in Australia, at the hands of Australian men.
I have actually suffered less harassment overseas than I have in my home country, so why are people so quick to assume that foreign men will be more dangerous? I think this comes down to some ingrained racism on their part and an unwillingness to associate the men they know with sexual harassment. It can be difficult to admit that the issue of sexual assault is not specific to a certain culture or country, but rampant all over the world. It can be difficult to admit that so many people who you know are guilty of committing harassment or assault, and just laughing it off as a joke.
I don’t want this to be the kind of article where I give tips for how to avoid sexual assault or harassment while travelling overseas. While those articles can be practical, it fosters an environment of victim-blaming, where women are solely responsible for their own safety. None of it would have happened if they had just stayed safely at home with people they know. Nevermind that 7 out of 10 rapes are committed by someone who was already known to the victim. So what do I think can be done?
Proper discussions about consent. Too many people still believe that consent is simply the absence of a ‘no’ or that an act couldn’t have been rape if the victim didn’t try to fight back or scream. Too many people believe that saying something sexual to a woman on the street is a compliment, rather than harassment. We need to start proper education younger and include detailed explanations of consent and respect for women in both school and the home environment.
People taking action within their own social circles. It can be really difficult to call out friends who are making rape jokes or harassing women in an alcohol-fueled social environment. But this is so important to do because people tend to regard the opinions of their peers higher than that of strangers. The problem with rape jokes is that it makes survivors feel deeply uncomfortable, invalidated and unsafe. The second problem is that it normalises rape. By turning rape into a joke, it makes perpetrators more comfortable with their acts. We need to be taking action at a peer level to foster respect for other people, especially women.
Looking out for other people, even strangers. So many times either one of my friends or I has been harassed or assaulted and people just look the other way. People don’t want to get involved in situations that have nothing to do with them, but this is so harmful. If a woman is alone and drunk and looks afraid or uncomfortable with what a man is saying to her, just step in. You would want someone to do it for you or your loved ones.
Sexual harassment and assault are so prevalent in all cultures that I find myself feeling disheartened with every new story that comes up in the media. With every rapist given just a few months of jail time or let out on bail, my heart sinks. I guess the lesson to take from all of this is that sexual violence against women happens literally everywhere and we can take steps to try and eradicate it within our own communities. We don’t need to solve the whole problem at once, but there is something that everyone could be doing.