Compliment or Harassment? Trust Your Gut When Traveling Solo.

Discerning between compliments and harassment when traveling alone.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

[TW: this article discusses verbal harassment and sexual assault]

This series is a set of firsthand anecdotes from a seasoned solo woman traveler who has traveled to 50 countries in the last decade. Priyanka Juneja is also finishing up her MBA and a Masters in International Studies from Wharton and is the founder of @hera.travel, a platform to empower women to travel fearlessly. 

Cuba is a country I was excited to cross off my bucket list; beckoned by vibrant colored buildings and the promise of energy thick in the air. Naturally, on my first day in Havana I was eager to explore as much of the old town as possible—camera ready at the hip. The day, however, didn’t exactly go as I planned. I remember turning down a bustling street, enticed by the soft music coming from an open window, but immediately stopping short when I heard someone whistling in my direction. I considered turning around but proceeded to walk, ignoring the catcalls that had been added to the whistles. The voices, almost indiscernible from one another, blended together to form an agitating buzz. And then one voice stood out from the rest, “What’s wrong lady? Can’t you take a compliment?” I smiled ironically. Did he really think harassment and a compliment were one and the same?

Finding an anecdote for this introduction was more challenging than I thought. Not because I struggled to remember one, but because I had so many to choose from. The misnomer is that this only happens in certain countries and areas and while, yes, there are places that are more known for harassment, this happens everywhere. I was in Montana recently and in the span of one day was harassed so many times that I was honestly confused as to what brought on the attention. I repeat, this happens everywhere. 

My goal is to bring awareness to a grim truth and ultimately drive change. Women should never have to travel in fear. 

So what is the difference between a compliment and harassment? I’ll explain by teaching you what a piropo is. I learned the term piropo when I was studying abroad in Spain. A piropo is meant to be a flattering comment or compliment. Here’s an example: ¡Vaya! Mi madre nunca me dijo que las flores andaban! (My god! My mother never told me that flowers could walk!) It may seem like a silly example, but I bring up piropos because my host-mom in Seville always stressed that it wasn’t the words that were said to you but how they made you feel. A true piropo is a compliment that is meant to make you smile and feel appreciated. It’s not supposed to make you feel uneasy or even sick to your stomach. What my host-mom said stuck with me and it applies here. You may think that the difference between a compliment and harassment should be common knowledge, but not everything is black and white. Forget about what you may have been told and focus on how you feel. Does the comment make you uncomfortable? Do you feel threatened? What is being said and what is the tone of it? These are important questions to ask yourself. 

I mentioned that harassment happens everywhere and, sadly, it’s certainly a common component of traveling. I’m part of a Facebook group called Girls Love Travel, and I’ve seen daily posts about verbal and sexual assault. The days that these types of posts overwhelm my feed are the days that I feel especially crushed by the cruelty of the world. The reality is that whether you are solo traveling or traveling with other women, you may experience some type of unwanted attention. There are destinations that are notorious for harassment, especially towards women. I say this not to deter anyone from traveling, quite the contrary actually: My goal is to bring awareness to a grim truth and ultimately drive change. Women should never have to travel in fear. 

How Do We Fix This Issue of Harassment?

High levels of harassment not only prevent solo female travelers from experiencing all a destination has to offer but also discourages some women from visiting an area all together. The first step towards any future changes is awareness. I’ve told travel stories to friends before and watched their eyebrows furrow and the confusion spread across their face. “It’s that common?”, they ask me. “Yes, it is.” And no, I am not overreacting. Unlike the guy who catcalled me in the street in Cuba, I know the difference between a compliment and harassment. 

Harassment towards women while traveling is so prevalent that almost every woman I know has at least one story to tell. Women’s safety can and should be everyone’s responsibility. And that’s why I’ve founded Hera, a travel platform designed with safety in mind. Through Hera women travelers have access to destination safety guides, vetted hotels, and a community of women who are traveling to the same place at the same time. It’s a start towards fixing this very problem.

Pro Traveler Corner

This section is to provide you with tips on what to do if you or a loved is one being harassed. Remember, this is not your fault. Nothing about this situation is your fault. You did nothing to bring on any type of unwanted attention. 

  1. Never ever question your fear

If something doesn’t feel right, get out. This is so incredibly important when you are traveling in an unfamiliar area. It’s just not worth it. 

  1. Ignore catcalls 

Do not engage with someone when you are traveling because you may not know the culture or the language, and you don’t want something to literally get lost in translation. 

  1. Walk away without turning your back 

If you are feeling threatened you want to remove yourself from the scene without taking your eyes off someone who may intend to cause you harm. 

  1. Loudly speak up

If you can’t remove yourself from the situation, be as loud as possible. You want to attract the attention of anyone nearby who can help.

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