I remember when I first realized that catcalling was a thing. I was 24, and I was meeting up with a friend at the bar. I got there a little before she did and was nursing my first beer when she walked into the bar looking pissed off.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Ugh,” she said, “Some fucking creeps were shouting at me in the street.”
“Seriously?” I said, “What were they shouting?”
“Just shit about my hair,” she said. “Like ‘Hey red!’ and ‘Does the carpet match the drapes?’ and shit like that. Whatever, I’m used to it.”
“You’re what?” I said. “This happens regularly?”
She gave me a look. “Uh…yeah. Like every day.”
I was blown away. People did this? Did they think it was okay? More inexplicably, did they think it worked? Wait a minute, I thought — I suck with girls. Is this the secret? Just shout all the creepy things you can think of at them? “Does…does that ever work for them?” I asked.
“No, it doesn’t fucking work, Matt.”
I dropped it. For a while I didn’t totally believe it was normal — maybe redheads just brought out the creepers — but then I moved to the city, and it’s a thing. It’s a thing for every woman.
Female travelers have their own subgenre of travel writing, a genre covering a topic men never even need to think about: how to travel solo safe, and how to cut their risk of sexual assault. I’ve never had to worry about this. Sure, I’m a big, dumb-looking American, so I’ve been pickpocketed and robbed a number of times while traveling, but the precautions I’ve learned to take have nothing to do with my gender — all anyone ever wanted was my wallet. It’s never too much of a worry for me to travel by myself. I’m a big dude; I’m probably not anyone’s first choice for attacking. So it always staggers me a little bit to hear women talking about extra precautions they have to take against creepers or potential rapists.
The natural male stance regarding women and travel has two basic elements to it. The first is ignorance. This doesn’t mean we’re bad or shitty people, it’s just that we can go 24 years of our lives without realizing women get catcalled every day. That’s not my fault in any real sense — I just didn’t know because no one had told me.
The second element is the belief that travel is inherently more dangerous for women. While, to some extent, women need to worry about more potential threats when traveling than men do, this shouldn’t be the case, and it doesn’t need to be. There’s nothing in the natural order of things saying the world has to be more hostile to women than it is to men. This isn’t an unsolvable problem.
Most men I know are sympathetic to the ideas of feminism and gender equality, but they often feel threatened or offended by statements about the generalized “men.” It’s where the incredibly misguided but in most cases well-meaning #NotAllMen hashtag came from. From a desire to say, “But I don’t want to hurt women!”
In the travel world, this translates into offering advice to women on how best to protect themselves — which is silly because, chances are, they’ve thought infinitely more on the subject than most men have — and by being patronizingly protective of women travelers as if they’re our wards.
I’ve come up with two basic questions male travelers can ask themselves when it comes to the issue of female travelers, and hopefully they’re questions that can serve to help men talk about women and travel more constructively and less defensively.
One of the beautiful things about travel is that it’s an opportunity to hear about the lives and experiences of others who’ve led lives totally different from your own. This sentiment can extend across genders too, when talking to women travelers about their experiences.
In other words, if a woman is talking about her experiences with travel, it’s a good time to listen and learn, and not a great time to try to fix everything. You just can’t change your behavior if you don’t know what you’re doing wrong, and you can’t know what you’re doing wrong unless you’re willing to be thoughtful about it. Which brings us to:
This again isn’t an attempt to place the blame on you, but my guess is most men have, at some point or another, said or done something creepy towards women. I know I have. I was a teenage boy growing up in a conservative suburb, and the attitudes my clueless cadre of horny adolescent boys and I had towards women comprised a horrifying cocktail of superstition, ignorance, and misogyny. But unlike many other reprehensible behaviors children have, the skeezy behavior we little douches-in-training had towards women wasn’t frequently corrected by adults. The girls were on their own.
Eventually, a girl shouted at me that I was being a creep, and I was mortified. I felt a deep, lasting shame I still cringe at thinking about now, nearly 14 years later.
What she did by shouting at me, though, was to make me start looking at the way I was treating and talking to women, and to start asking myself if any of the stuff I said, which I considered harmless, was actually making female friends uncomfortable. It’s turned out to be incredibly useful.
All of which is to say, if forward-thinking men like ourselves want to try and be participants in the new Emma Watson age of feminism, change has to start at home. Sure, if a girl you’re traveling with asks you to walk back to the hostel with her at night because she’s uncomfortable, then do that, but the point of male feminism isn’t for “good” men to better protect women from “bad” men. Rather, it’s to rethink their own position in a world where the fight for equal rights for women is even necessary.