Sunday, 5 August 2007

Single White Female

What is it about single females that makes them so vulnerable? I always think it's interesting to compare reactions when you holiday with men and with women: the experience is invariably very different.

My last few foreign escapades have been in the company of a very close gay pal of mine. Needless to say he was normally taken as my husband (or at the very least, via a squiz at his biceps) a force to be reckoned with, so I was left pretty well alone. There was the inevitable confusion, I guess, of people discovering he wasn't my husband. Which could be kind of fun. At our hotel in Egypt the staff were having a hard time working out why this camp English playwright we met seemed to be chasing my 'man' - and why I didn't look terribly perturbed by his advances. Even being close friends with a man was considered a novel concept requiring lengthy explanation. But still, this made only for some multicultural spice. A few people tried to buy me off him for several thousand camels (their idea of a joke, I suppose) but that was as scary as it got.

Travelling in the company of women, however, is an altogether different story. I have never ventured forth on my own - and frankly, am amazed that any amazonian types do, considering the general menace of the male species. But experiencing India with a female friend really opened my eyes to how gendered people's perceptions are. You get stared at and followed. You get harassed. You get groped, even. And you feel a lot more vulnerable than with a man at your shoulder. I don't think that's country specific either. I think it is just a general trend. I had a similar experience on holiday with girl friends in Cornwall when I was 17. And Cornwall isn't exactly a threatening place.

It makes you wonder what signals women give off when they are together to attract such attention. To be honest, in this instance my friend and I dressed very conservatively. And, sans maquillage, and often, sans laver, were hardly pretty pictures most of the time. But still. I have never felt more resolutely sexually objectified. I think it is alot to do with vulnerability. It reminds me of vultures. Scavengers don't have the courage to strike when a more powerful beast is in the vicinity. But when those have left the scene, they circle and move in. It's like that with weak men, anywhere in the world. Seeing a woman 'unescorted' they take their chance and do and say things they would never dare if a stronger man were there.

One particularly insolent rickshaw-wallah I had in Jaipur asked me straight out to go to bed with him. When I refused to acknowledge him and got angry he seemed genuinely surprised and said he thought that was what 'freedom' was all about in my country. To scr*w whoever you wanted, whenever you wanted. Reductio ad absurdum. What could I say?

What's worse (and I plan to tell the Rough Guide this) these guys actually had a rooftop restaurant they took any single white females to in order to ply them with alcohol (and/or slip a date rape drug in their drink) and then rent a room by the hour to take their pleasure. Often, I heard, more than one at a time. The mere fact that this was reported as a semi-regular occurance shocked and sickened me.

But it got me thinking. Why don't others put a stop to it? If some place has a reputation for abusing tourists then why not shut it down? I wonder whether it is the image of Western woman that causes this behaviour? If the majority of people see us as fundamentally loose is it hardly suprising that they leave you in the clutches of your abusers - even if they would never dream of doing such a thing to a woman themselves.

I can understand patriarchy to the extent that its intended effect is to make good men the defenders of women. Sadly, what often happens in patriarchal cultures is that the woman gets the blame for other men's lack of control. It is possibly to do with the idea that you are 'asking for it' simply by travelling alone that permits others - psychologically - to turn a blind eye to sexual harassment.

Apparently the world has a long way to go before it learns to be civilised. That applies to both sexes however.


Michael said...

I can't talk about the Indian cases, but what I heard from talking to some of my 'fellow men' from around the globe is the image about women they get from some Western TV-series. I won't count the number of times I got asked whether I slept with female colleagues of mine, or female participants during study trips and conferences... since that's what we 'Westerners' supposedly do. These kind of questions show their weakness, and at the same time eagerness to believe that the stories they heard are true. Added to this is often a deep "cultural" notion of women as an object, which unfortunately remains alive within many men, even here in Belgium (I put the cultural between brackets, as a believer in human equality I refuse to consider this as belonging to culture... ) I this case, I can do nothing but apologise for the behaviour of some members of the male species...

Hoots mon! said...

Jings - I remember that flasher on St Ives well!

Consider This said...

ha ha can't believe we go back so far - summer of 97 I think, straight after Highers. So innocent we were, bless...hope you doing well H, lets catch up soon.