Heckling Abroad: Dealing with Unwanted Advances Around the World

Posted on August 21, 2011


Catcalling can be obnoxious in any language.

How do I deal with advances and heckling from men when I travel?

This article presents strategies for dealing with the advances of men during your travels. It shows you the proper attitude to take when dealing with men who heckle or cat-call and also provides useful tips to keep safe, protect yourself, and to have fun and enjoy your travels (even when men just can’t seem to help being complete idiots).

By Eileen Rush

On city streets across the world, I’ve been on the receiving end of a wide spectrum of advances from men. They’ve ranged from addressing me by random western sounding names (Hey Becky!) to offering 11 cows for my hand in marriage. At least a dozen men have professed their love for me at first sight. When I was new to travel, I wasn’t accustomed to the up-front verbal barrage so common amongst hecklers and cat-callers on the street, and I couldn’t understand why I was a target. After years of traveling, though, I’ve learned a few things about this all-too-common occurrence. And I’m not alone in my experiences.

But before I get started with some tips, it’s important to understand why these unwanted advances happen in the first place. As a Westerner, you represent a femme fatal of fame, fortune, and dreams. It’s unfortunate, but our culture is represented by exported Hollywood TV shows that portray American women as unsatisfied sexual objects: fast, loose, and rich. Even in cultures where men are not permitted to treat their own women this way, foreign women are outside of accepted sexual mores, and considered fair game.

Step back to the days of grade school teasing and you’ve isolated the root of 95% of heckling. They win when you stop, react, and give them attention, thus alleviating whatever boredom that caused them to hang out on the street all day in the first place. Catcalling foreign women is perceived in some cultures as an essential part to machismo. It’s not you in particular, but rather a larger cultural element.

In a foreign country, you have no allies or advocates, so you have to play on the side of caution. Here are some tips to ensure you stay safe and can enjoy your travels even if men won’t seem to leave you alone:

  • Dress Appropriately: Look at what local women are wearing, and wear clothes that cover similar parts of the body. I wore long sleeves and long pants and sometimes a headscarf in the Middle East. Be willing to sacrifice some fashion statements for the sake of blending in. If you’re wearing a sheer miniskirt or a tank top, you’re going to attract more attention.
  • Keep walking: Don’t turn your head. Don’t slow down. Hold your bags tight and surge on. Keep your chin up and ignore it. The wrong move is to scream, curse or attempt to give them a lesson on American feminism.
  • Clearly Say No: Lots of times women respond with “I’m fine” as a polite way to say “no” to an offer of a drink or a companion. In many countries, passive rejection is a game that women play when they like a man, and it is interpreted as flirting. Clearly say “NO!” and walk away.
  • Don’t get drunk or cause a ruckus: Especially in countries where women don’t usually do these things, men are going to think if you are wild in one way you’re wild enough to sleep with them.
  • Take a cue from the locals: How do local women handle the situation? In most cases they simply ignore it. If they have a certain phrase or action, figure it out and use it to your advantage. Just remember you need to be clear about your intentions and you might send signals, which could be misconstrued within a foreign culture.
  • Wear a fake wedding ring: In most cultures, married women aren’t fair game, and probably aren’t the perceived sexual deviants of single American women (Of course this might not work in some places, for example France, where anything goes).
  • Mention that (maybe fake) boyfriend: I’ve found that cat-calling and heckling almost completely disappear when you have a giant, burly man-friend walking beside you. When working in a slum in Uganda, nearly every day walking the streets entailed a barrage of marriage proposals (did I mention the cows?) until I started bringing along my bearded British “husband” Andy.
  • Look out for yourself: The world isn’t a safe place for women, in the United States or abroad. As a stubborn female traveler and a lover of new experiences, I don’t let this stand in my way, but I also try to be alert, diligent, and remember to take care of myself – because no one else is going to do it for you.

To repeat, the majority of the cat-calling is laughable and lighthearted, and ends up as a funny story to tell. If you understand this and take the right steps, it can actually add an interesting twist to your travels (as repulsive as it might seem sometimes). Take it in stride and respect the vast cultural differences between yourself the people you are visiting. In the end, this behavior shouldn’t detract from your experiences, but rather encourage you take some extra precautions.

Additional Resources:

– Here’s more tips on warding off the advances of foreign men from Independent Traveler.

This article outlines different ways of flirting across European cultures.

Posted in: Other