Posted by: Jessie Kwak | November 20, 2009

On Damsels in Distress

Earlier this week, AJ over at lets.go.girl wrote a post that got me thinking. It’s a really thoughtful look on solo female travel and unwanted male attention from a guy’s point of view, drawing on his experience in the Peace Corps in South Africa. AJ relates a few situations where his presence helped diffuse unwanted attention toward his female friends, probing this question:

Two girls and a guy walk into a bar. The bartender proceeds to mack on the women while a crowd of inebriated, touchy men fall over themselves to introduce themselves as intimately as possible in the cramped space. As the two girls try to make themselves as small as possible, their male friend puts his arms around both of them, and loudly orders drinks for himself and “both his women” as the crowd begins to back off.

This story is entirely made up, but it’s no joke. I could easily have encountered such a situation while I was in South Africa, out with other volunteers. And in certain contexts, I definitely would have had the same instinct as the guy in the story. Now, we may all agree that the situation the girls were in was definitely not a good one. But the reaction of the guy may have left you upset. How did his friends become “his women”? If he’s trying to help them fight the patriarchy, why is he playing into it?

At best, it’s incredibly annoying to travel alone as a woman. At worst, it can be dangerous. Latin American men are hearty cat-callers, but they rarely approach you directly, and when they do they’re easily fended off with a polite smile, a reference to the husband you’re about to meet, and a firm dismissal. I rarely have gotten approached as aggressively as some of the situations AJ describes in South Africa.

When I was volunteering in Venezuela there was a definite difference between walking alone and walking around with one of the guys, and since I’ve been traveling with Rob here in Peru I almost forget about the cat calls. I’ll go out alone some days and think “jeez, what’s gotten into everyone today?” Then I realize, oh yeah, today I’m an “available” woman.

It bothers me that I get less attention when I’m with Rob. Can’t men just behave themselves without me having to prove that another man already “owns” me?

As a woman you learn the lies to make unwanted attention go away. In South America, at least, I’ve learned that you can’t just have a boyfriend, you have to have a husband who’s meeting you at the bus station or on the next street corner. It’s not enough to just be uninterested in your solicitor, or to have nothing in common. “I just don’t enjoy your company, you have bad breath and we don’t have anything to talk about” are just not good enough reasons for a man to leave you alone. You have to prove that you already belong to another man.

Traveling with Rob has been amazing for all the right reasons—good company and partnership topping the list. But there’s also the fact that now I can finally relax and just enjoy a city without walking through it at breakneck speed (if you slow down to admire a piece of architecture, that’s a come-on to any man within a half-block, didn’t you know?).

Even a breakneck pace doesn’t always work. Crossing through the Plaza de Armas one day in Trujillo a man caught up with me. “Hello, beautiful, how are you?”

I didn’t break my stride, but I smiled politely. “I’m fine, you?”

He struggled to keep up with me and quickly sleazed his way into a pickup conversation. Quick quiz: what’s the common theme running through my replies? “Yes, my husband and I like Trujillo. I’m here with my husband, we’re volunteering. No, I don’t think we should meet for drinks, thank you, my husband thinks I’m beautiful, too. That’s very kind of you to offer to wait, but I’m meeting my husband in this building right here. Goodbye.”

If you caught that I referenced my husband four times in a 30-second conversation, you’re spot on. A subtle flashing of the ring is all that’s needed to seal the proof that I’m already taken. The question AJ asks in his article is this: “If you’re trying to fight the patriarchy, why play into it?”

Why don’t I just say, hey dude, you’re annoying me. Leave me alone, leave that woman over there alone, and realize that staring at my breasts is not a compliment. And if you want to to know why you can’t get a date it’s because you’re creeping us ladies out.

(On that note, a full 50% of your city’s population is female. Stop staring at every single woman who walks past like you’ve never seen one before.)

I can walk at a leisurely pace when I’m with Rob, looking at architecture or browsing store windows without getting hit on every four steps. I can sit in a park without being disturbed. I can walk by a group of boys on a street corner or a construction site without tensing up. Rob is my protective charm, and though I wouldn’t say feel I feel safer here with him than I did in Venezuela alone (as I said, the cat-calling men here are mostly just talkers), I’m certainly able to enjoy myself more than when I’m constantly being singled out by every man in South America.





  1. That is the unfortunate part of traveling alone for women. That is why so many don’t travel at all, the attention they receive is unwarranted, unwanted and really creepy.

    But I hope women hit the road at least once and find that the positives outweigh the negatives, as you have found.

  2. Brian, I definitely think that the positives outweigh the negatives. Sure, Latin American catcalls are annoying, but so are the ones I get walking to work in Seattle (admittedly rarer).

    I think that too often women are told that it’s too dangerous for them to travel alone, and eventually it starts to sink in. Of course it’s dangerous. So is sitting next to someone on the bus with a bad cough.

    Traveling alone is merely one more thing that any woman can do–most of us have developed all the skills we need (keen awareness of our surroundings, the ability to brush off unwanted attention, privacy of personal information, etc) just by living as women in our every day lives.

    The cat calls are just annoying.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: