Under a tree I sat, brow inevitably furrowed. My eyes felt red. I looked around at the greenery. It was not too cold, not too hot. Large flowers, and an avocado tree, were not far. I was in Kenya. But I was miserable, I seethed, I felt trapped in this place, in my skin. I picked at a piece of grass then threw it as far as I could.
Sexual harassment had, long ago, gotten very old for me. I would say I was used to it—the waiting to cross the street while men leaned out of a truck and hollered, the walking home from class briskly and hearing whistles despite my headphones, the shielding my face as men laughed, sticking cell phones in front of me to take my photo. And worse, the stories from others, whispered, whose invasion ran more deeply, more physically. The trepidation. But, of course, you never get used to it. You fill up and then you overflow.
I was overflowing.
I was in Kenya, and the only safe place was in my tiny room, locked. Walking with my male colleagues was better, but that didn’t end the catcalls. Walking alone was worse. I sat under the tree with the phone card I had just purchased from the village shop a ten-minute walk down the road. I was followed halfway home by a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
And people tell me I walk fast.
On the bus, a man moaned about my hair blowing in the wind and masturbated while no one said a thing. In crowds, men grabbed me, trying to draw me to them. Anywhere, men shouted at me. At work discussions, men would ask questions about me, about my age, to my male colleagues since women supposedly can’t answer for themselves. At work, I was sexually harassed by my boss, who would make lewd comments, who would grab my hand to shake it as is custom, but then would pull me closer to give me a slurpy kiss on the cheek. On the institute’s campus, I would act politely toward the men who worked with us, but then would be bombarded with creepy phone messages.
I was in Kenya, and this is when I started to feel as if I was becoming a bad person.
There was nothing I could do to protect myself, but projecting a defensive aura of rage helped. Scowling at all men helped. Walking as fast as I could, sunglasses on, keeping myself closed, never open, helped. I shielded myself from all the bad as best I could, but that meant I was also blocking the good.
Emanating waves of negative energy sucked me hollow. Good people like other people, right? They’re compassionate, right? They’re open, right? And I walked around hating half of all people as the best defense I had. Never, ever smile.
Of course, this story doesn’t end. I would run at home and trucks would follow me, would honk. I would step out of the door at my homestay in Peru, clothed in black, sunglasses on, head down, and the kisses and the deliciosas and the shouts of you fucking cunt I’m going to rape you would rain down. I would walk, holding hands with my boyfriend, and men would shout, shout, shout. And laugh.
I live and I walk and I look at things and I feel a man approach from behind and stop and repeat “hi hi hi hi” until I turn and tell him to go away, I clearly don’t want to talk. I sit outside on a conference call for work, notebook in my lap, and a man places himself in front of me, “hello beautiful,” standing standing standing there until I shoo him, still on the phone, still trying to work. I leave an event, I see a man leer at me and I know, I grab the pepper spray in my purse, enter my car and lock the door, and he peers down at me, having followed me there.
I hate them all.
I feel guilty. Maybe good people don’t hate. But I hate them all.
How to deflect? I try to live and I am assaulted. I absorb.
Tagged: fear, feminism, gender, harassment, Kenya, men, Peru, sexism, sexual harassment, travel
i have been flooded in all those ways you describe right here in the states. I often think about how to write about it. men don’t have a clue what it is like to be hunted. how it comes at you from every angle, and begins when you are the smallest of girls. I am thinking of how to fit it into the memoir that is in my head. I think that part of the book will be called, “surviving men.” maybe it is true that men have to survive each other as well. that there is no real safety when it comes to men.
as always, nice work.
Thank you. And I hope you write about your experiences too. Not only is it eye-opening for those who are willing to listen, but, at least for me, it helps me process things and wring out some negative feelings. And yes, some of the instances described in this post happened in the States… you really can’t escape, can you?
Leah, thanks for posting this. And hrosson, you’re right, we really DON’T have a clue what it’s like. But some of us are trying to slowly learn. Thanks to both of you for speaking up and out.
Thanks for reading and caring, Steve. I’m so glad to have had professors like you who not only helped shape me but also provided positive examples. And thanks for listening. I’ve have some men respond to my tellings with “what were you wearing,” and when I assured them I could be wearing literally anything, I’ve been flat-out told I must be lying. There are certainly guys like you who are great and do their best to understand and do well, but there are also others who refuse…
Thank you for sharing, Leah. This is something we do live with every day on various levels. I have not been abroad enough to have really taken it in there, but have certainly been followed down the street by men in Indianapolis as recently as last summer. Ridiculous. Keep on sharing and educating!
Thanks for reading, Katie! Miss you! And ugh, yeah, and I have seen your posts about getting bothered while running too. It’s such a drag.
You write so well, Leah!
I have had a lot of the same experiences when I have travelled in countries in Africa, South America and Asia.But also back in Norway. I have felt hate as well to these mens. Why they cannot just leave us alone? I have felt tired and exhausted as well! Overflowing!
Thank you, Hanne! And yeah, I am not surprised at all you have had the same experiences. For me, it was more common in certain places (like Kenya and Peru) but it is still not uncommon at all for me to get harassed at home in the States. In fact, I think I have been harassed in nearly every country I have been in… it is exhausting! I wish you strength though!
This is probably the most deeply personal and relateable post I’ve ever read on what we all experience, breathe, cry, think, hate, live every single day. Thank you so much for sharing this!
Awww, what a nice comment. Thanks, Lucia!
Wow, I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through these horrendous experiences. It really is sad how so many women around the world have to put up with these kinds of violations.
Your story reminded me of the time I once rode the subway in my home city (Toronto, in Canada — definitely not a place most people are afraid of) and there was a guy staring at me masturbating in his seat. And when I, in shock, got up to leave at the next stop, he also got up to walk out the door. He did walk out and I ended up staying on the train.
As Katie said, keep sharing and educating. It’s at least one step in this slow process towards improvement.
Take care *hugs*
Ugh what a gross story. Sorry that happened to you! But yes, thanks for sharing and let’s keep it up. Stay strong!
You too, my dear! xoxo
You’re such a talented writer! This post is so touching and relatable. Thank you for sharing this!
Thanks for the kind words, and for reading!
I am deeply sorry that your travel experiences have been so negative.Harrassment of women is growing becuase men often feel threatened by the advancements women have made throughout the world. It is a base attempt to intimidate and debase our sense of worth. The floodgates have opened with regards to gender rights and cannot be closed again. Keep your head up and realize that hatred of these illiterate male representatives will damage you further. Not all men behave like that.
My travel experiences haven’t been negative – quite the contrary. But they do not negate the fact that I experience harassment both at home and abroad. It’s just everywhere. I agree that harassment is used as a tactic of intimidation. However, it is far from only “illiterate male representatives” who do this. I have been harassed by men with their PhDs, by men of all types. Of course, not all men behave like that – I know men who do not – but it is not much of a salve when so many do it that it consistently intrudes upon my daily life, when it shouldn’t.