Complicated Feelings about Tourism, Harassment, Gender, Other Buzzwords

Screenshot_8_20_13_1_24_PMI have been thinking about this essay [trigger warning] about a white woman traveling in India a lot. Have you read it yet?  It’s making the rounds, but because I share her alma mater, it’s been tearing up my newsfeed. The gist of it is that the author, a college student studying abroad, was traumatized by the culture of sexual harassment, objectification, and assault that she experienced first and secondhand during her travels. She has since been diagnosed with PTSD. A sample:

I covered up, but I did not hide. And so I was taken, by eye after eye, picture after picture. Who knows how many photos there are of me in India, or on the internet: photos of me walking, cursing, flipping people off. Who knows how many strangers have used my image as pornography, and those of my friends. I deleted my fair share, but it was a drop in the ocean– I had no chance of taking back everything they took.

I’m having all kinds of feelings, so let’s do it this way…

On the one hand… This woman is entitled to her experience. I have also traveled in India as a single white female. I had a very different experience than the one she describes. Although I also had my picture taken a million times, had inappropriate questions asked, was stared at, and received two marriage proposals (which I politely declined), I did not experience any physical harassment. I felt that the stares were primarily based in curiosity, at my looks and at the audacity of a woman of my status to travel alone, not objectification.

When I first read this essay, I was tempted to roll my eyes. That’s a lie. I did roll my eyes, and I am now embarrassed that I did so. Part of me wanted to tell her to toughen up, brush it off. I am embarrassed by that response as well. Her experiences were different than mine (as mine are different from yours) and even if they had been similar, she is allowed to feel differently about the experience than I do. This seems obvious as I type it, but as I was reading, I was having an immature, judgmental, condescending reaction to her words.

On the other hand…She’s not a soldier. She’s not an aid worker. She’s a tourist. She can leave, so leave. She has all of the resources to stop the source of her trauma. She doesn’t live in India. She is not a resident who contends with the threat of rape and assault on a daily basis without the benefit of a return flight. Her harassment might be amplified by her red hair, but as recent tragedies would suggest, Indian women and girls are in no way immune from the the treatment she received. She is now back in the United States receiving treatment for PTSD. Her essay doesn’t acknowledge that this is a perpetual state for many; is PTSD even an acknowledged illness in India? She is lucky, as am I. We get to globe-trot, we get to explore, we get to be the solo lady travelers. We live in countries where we can vote and drive and have sex without being stoned and wear what we want and live alone and call the police when we need help and work and so many other things.

On the other hand… Sexual harassment is never okay. When one travels, there are obviously customs that are different in the countries you visit and, within reason, it is healthy and respectful to try to observe them. You should not travel expecting to recreate your experiences at home wherever you go; a Big Mac is not a Big Mac in India, it’s made of chicken and it’s called a Maharaja Mac. There may not be hot water. There might be bugs. It will smell differently, etc. etc. etc. But, sexual harassment and assault are not acceptable, even if they are more common in some parts of the world than others. While a “When in Rome,” attitude is usually a plus, “When I’m in Rome, I’ll get groped on the train,” is not cool.

I’m ashamed that I shrugged at her experience. I almost threw her the most insulting, patronizing response to her trauma, “What did you expect?” WHOA, Emily, NOT OKAY. You’re wearing yoga pants, what did you expect would happen? You’re drinking and dancing, what did you expect? You’re pretty, what did you expect? The “What did you expect” is a close cousin of “You were asking for it,” and we know that you are NEVER asking for it and that that is a line for the weak and the cowardly.

On the next hand… I can’t help but think about my own experience traveling in India and elsewhere. My experience has been overwhelmingly positive with a few blips of shittiness here and there and consequently my instinct is to declare that this makes me a “better” traveler than the author. My second instinct is to call bullshit on myself. Differentiation–“she’s not like me”–is the classic first step in victim blaming. If she’s not like me, then she’s somehow responsible for what happened to her, which would never happen to me,  because we are fundamentally different, and on and on. It’s a common defense mechanism to help calm the fear that it could happen to anyone (because, intellectually, we all know… it could happen to anyone).

There are at least three other hands to consider … (please feel free to add in the comments!), but I’m tired of talking about this. I am sympathetic for her experience. I am irritated at the essay’s “plight of the white woman” vibe. I am even more irritated that I identify with it. I feel pretty helpless in the face of the level of harassment and assault in India. If I’m honest, I feel pretty helpless in the face of harassment and assault here at home too.

So yeah, there’s that. 

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12 responses to “Complicated Feelings about Tourism, Harassment, Gender, Other Buzzwords

  1. Think that’s a detailed distillation of it all. Props for recognising the social privilege at play, while also how sexual harassment is vile, no matter who it happens to.

  2. I think my one problem with her essay is that is DOES seem really “Whoa to the White Beauty”-esque, as though women in India have never experienced that level (OR WORSE) of harassment. Novelty or not, her and her traveling classmates are not the only ones who deal with it. HELLO.

    I guess that throws me into the category of “What did you expect”-ism, for SHAME, B.I.P.!

    So my conclusion is that I really wish she would have either rounded her essay out, or waited to publish it until she had figured it out, about the globalized problem of sexual harassment and rape culture, especially in India, and how we need to be aware of it. Like, “Look, this is what happened to me, I am traumatized, can you imagine the (insert statistic) that must deal with it daily, what are we going to do about it?”

  3. It seems she had a very bad experience and that is very sad. I do remember feeling very uncomfortable in similar situations. Having been on the same program, however, I wonder how much of her shock at what she experienced is due to the structure of the program, seeing as it was rather sheltered and most of it was spent living in a hotel, with interactions with ‘the locals’ being limited to events like the Ganesha festival she mentions at the beginning of the article. That creates an environment in which you only encounter the ‘local population’ in big groups, on crowded buses and trains, and have no personal interactions with them to balance out these negative experiences. I also found her tone quite strong and don’t think she needed to make such sweeping statements about India. — Thalia

    • Josephine Cripps

      What an important point you make, Thalia: there’s a critical difference between interfacing with a culture in a crowded venue and meeting folks in small-scale settings that encourage authentic interaction.

  4. I also didn’t like the tone of the essay (especially, as blind irish pirate points out above, because it was very ‘This happened to me because I am a white woman’ while not acknowledging that this happens all over the world, to all sorts and colors of women). On the other hand (so many hands!) bringing attention to sexual harassment anywhere is important. I don’t know– I’m torn. I think I wish, as well, that the essay had been a little… fuller. But, as you say, every woman (and every person) is entitled to their own experience, and to share as they see fit.

    The part of the essay that resonated with me the most was when she talked about struggling with how to describe her time there in a sentence or two. When I think about the months I lived in Peru, the best sentence I can use for the experience is ‘It was beautiful, and I saw some amazing things, but it was also the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.’ And it was– between taking classes fully in Spanish when I wasn’t fluent enough, being out of contact with Lindi for big chunks of time, illness and some similar sexual harrasment/molestation as the author of the article describes, it was incredibly, incredibly difficult. But then, I got to hike around Machu Picchu and meet some incredible people and ride on the most beautiful train I’ve ever seen in my life. I still get squicked out when I think about my creepy creepy grabby-hands host brother and the man on the train who trapped me in a corner, but I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as having PTSD. I don’t know if that means I dealt with it better than this woman? Or that I was lucky? I actually wasn’t too bothered by the stares on the street and catcalls. I had read enough before I went to expect that as part of the culture, but those men were actually– if this is a thing– relatively respectfully (though vocally) sexually appreciative. None of them approached me or tried to touch me.

    But icky, hard, challenging parts of the trip aside… I would not give up the amazing parts. I got to walk in the desert, and see the jungle, and try alfajores, and buy mangos in the market the size of my face. And even with the horrible, traumatizing parts, I DO feel lucky to be in the small percentage of the world population who gets to travel.

    So many thoughts! Sorry for the novel-length comment.

  5. Good post. My first reaction was that the author of the CNN article was rather self indulgent? If she has PTSD then I should be a basket case hiding in a dark hole after living my life as an independent woman who has traveled alone and seen a lot of ugly stuff and YES, experienced horrible sexual taunts and attempted rape. But the goal in life is to move on and learn from your experiences, not to tell everyone “Look at me and feel sorry for me NOW. LOOK AT ME ME ME ME ME.” I’m sorry for being so cold but we need to look at the woman who have REALLY been traumatized and REALLY need our help. The writer of that article, like you pointed out so well, has no idea what women of some cultures put up with every single minute of their lives.
    Again, great post. Thanks for speaking out.

  6. E, I do take issue with your idea that “She has all of the resources to stop the source of her trauma.” I get your point: she could leave at any time. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. For one thing, leaving the scene of a trauma isn’t the same thing as leaving it behind. I think that we don’t always recognize how experiences will etch themselves onto us, or become the thing we remember most about a specific period in our lives. Maybe she thought that the good outweighed the bad; maybe she compartmentalized the experience and thought that she was over it. I thought I had moved past an assault until, months later, I suddenly realized that my memory of it affected the lens through which I viewed everything else. I don’t know if it’s realistic to assume that people possess the self-awareness to process and react to a trauma instantaneously. Sometimes, reactions unfurl over time, and I viewed this essay as an attempt to grapple with her narrative and find a sense of catharsis.

  7. Super fair point, Jess. Maybe my phrasing is part of the problem, “leaving the source of the trauma.” And while I grant you that people don’t know, in the moment, how an event or series of events will ultimately impact them, the lack of reference to the permanent state of affairs felt very self-indulgent given that she was on a temporary vacation. Again, doesn’t undermine her experience, only makes her narrative less effective (from my perspective).

  8. Alex W

    I also was on the Pune program, and I also had similar reactions to this piece. While I was there I had my picture taken and felt violated a lot and I’m not even a woman. But I talked about this with some Pune alumnae and they had similar experiences as you did in India, i.e. generally positive. Another ‘hand’ to consider (and what made me really uncomfortable) is her weird ‘othering’ tone that you sort of talked about (and painting the whole of India in broad strokes) and which correlates to the ‘plight of the white woman’ thing. But I also don’t want to diminish her experience or be a rape denier, so yeah, complicated.

    • karodactyl

      I too recognize it’s complicated and I would never hate or belittle someone for speaking out about sexual harassment. But (you saw that coming) — the delivery rubbed me the wrong away. Thank you, Alex, for pointing out that “plight of the white woman” thing. So on point.


  9. Pingback: A response to a complicated topic | Hila Mehr

  10. Pingback: Talkin’ Harassment & India on the Radio | rosiesaysblog

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