What Happens Every Time I Write about Sexual Harassment

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What Happens Every Time I Write about Sexual Harassment

Quick link: Let’s Talk about Sexual Harassment

I wrote about sexual harassment for A Life Overseas today but I still had more to say. So here is the follow-up piece.

I’ve written about sexual harassment in the past and inevitably, a friend will tell me that they’re surprised by my stories, that they have never been harassed. I immediately whip through a range of internal reactions. One, great! I’m so glad for them. Two, shame. Why me? Three, doubt. I don’t believe them. Four, anger. Why are they saying that to me? Do they not believe? Do they think I’ve “asked” for it in some way? Am I doing something wrong?

Like I said, I’m glad other women don’t experience harassment.


I think there are reasons other than that I’m just asking for it.

  • I speak the local language. It is hard to know someone is insulting you when you don’t know the language. I’ve been called a whore more times than I can count but not one single time has been in English. I’ve been told that I will be the first one someone would choose to kill, but it wasn’t in English, or that my breasts are nice and my butt is jiggling but never in English.
  • I spend a lot of time outside. I run, outside. Most of the time I am encouraged and cheered on by men on the streets. But not always. Not always. I bike, I walk. Apparently, a woman on a bike is cause for boys or men to shout, “Sex! Sex!”
  • I spend time in certain sections of town. I don’t spend time only at the upscale hotels or grocery stores or neighborhoods.
  • I understand the culture. I know the hand and facial gestures, at least some of them. I know the lip and tongue noises. I know some slang, some history. Some words seem benign but they aren’t when you know the backstory.
  • I’ve been living internationally for sixteen years. I’ve been a woman for forty years. I’ve built up a lot of stories.
  • I used to live by several schools. Never again. Things got so bad on one particular street that even my daughter was being harassed: touched, pinched, stopped on her bike, chased, mocked. We spoke to the director of the school, we spoke to our landlord, for a while a police truck patrolled the street. Eventually, we moved.

I know I’m not the only one because I’ve spoken with other women and hugged them and cried with them. I’ve been with them when it has happened, both local and expatriate women. But sometimes it can still feel like I’m the only one, especially when I hear others express that they haven’t experienced these things.

Should I stop biking? Should I drive the car two blocks to pick up a baguette? Should I move into a neighborhood with rents higher than our salary? Should I stop running? Should I wear a cardboard box from head to foot? Should I never speak or laugh when outside? Should I not tell these stories?

Should I, as a few commenters have suggested, pack up my children and leave? But where would I go? Nowhere is safe from harassment, it has happened in every country where I’ve spent significant time. Should I concede, as one commentor suggested, that harassment can’t happen to me because it happens at the American military base? As if the harassment of women in one location cancels out the harassment of women in another?

Should I feel bad that I seem to be one of the few expatriate women to be on the receiving end of harassment?

Should I say, kids will be kids, with the feel of my breast in their palm and the reality that if they actually do trip me while I’m running, I might be seriously injured? Should I pretend like these boys won’t grow up to be men, stronger and faster, with wives and daughters?

Should I pretend I was terrified when a man punched me in the butt, his fast swinging with the force of the motorcycle he rode? Or that I wasn’t disgusted when someone dumped a bottle of liquid on me and for a moment I had to wonder whether or not it was urine or something even worse?

Should I pretend it doesn’t happen here? Didn’t happen in Italy? Didn’t happen in Turkey? Didn’t happen in the United States? Didn’t happen in the UK? Didn’t happen in Kenya?

No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

I hope I’m the only person who experiences sexual harassment but I don’t believe that’s true. So I’ll keep talking about and keep hoping it stops and keep hoping other women will be willing to talk about it, even through the shame or anger.


  1. Let’s Talk about Sexual Harassment October 15, 2018 at 8:28 pm - Reply

    […] P.S. I wrote a follow-up to this piece on my blog, about what happens to me almost every time I write about sexual harassment, if you’re int… […]

  2. Elisabeth October 15, 2018 at 9:10 pm - Reply

    Wow. I was curious what happens every time you write about sexual harassment, but I wasn’t expecting that! So sorry. Ugh.

    I admire you for walking out that door and facing the risks, for going running despite the abuse, and for sticking it out in a place where even though most men aren’t harassers, those who are, are likely to target the blonde-haired foreigner.

    I too try not to let harassment (which I have to say is milder here, though still very present) keep me inside my compound walls and car, but rather to keep venturing out — and hoping that every snarky Amharic retort I make to the catcallers is a chance for them to rethink their words and actions for the next woman (probably a naive hope!). And I try to remember that for all the vulnerability I feel as an obvious foreigner, there is a much deeper vulnerability faced by many Ethiopian women, who lead far less secure lives than I do. I like your description of drawing strength from a list of other women who are walking out their doors too — so this is to add my name to that list, and to let you know that you are on mine.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones October 16, 2018 at 4:15 pm - Reply

      Love that you have a good retort planned! I often think afterwards what I should have said. But I’ve got a few pat phrases ready to whip out, too. And so, so true about local friends. I’ve heard such sad and horrible stories from them, too. So important to walk with them and draw strength from them, as well as to offer our care and empathy and solidarity.

  3. eliza October 16, 2018 at 9:26 am - Reply

    Thanks for bravely writing, what many feel they cannot. I know of the looks I receive that degrade me and the whispered comments about me. I hear what they think I cannot understand. I have had comments, looks, and “touches” on various continents. Even in the US (by an immigrant from a country where it was expected– he was prosecuted). Yet, as mad as it makes me, it hurts even more to hear the local women talk about things that have happened to them. They have no recourse. I have a friend that was “gang-raped” by a suitor and his friends hoping that the event would cause her father to give her to him as a wife. It happened to way too many women in that generation. They still are afraid to walk home in the evening hours. I know of other sexual advances that are hard to refuse and how they cannot get justice at all. They have to accept it and pray for God’s grace within it. They think it is a normal way of life along with spousal abuse and infidelity. You are right, it will not end any time soon. I must say that these women do not let these events define them and they seek to find joy and to still serve the Lord as they can even though these things happen to them.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones October 16, 2018 at 4:16 pm - Reply

      So so true and sad and important to hear from local women as well, to bear up their stories with them, to acknowledge how hard things are for them.

  4. Adam Willard October 16, 2018 at 10:30 am - Reply

    Well, I’ve only lived overseas for 10 years now, but I can’t say I know of any expat woman who *hasn’t* experienced sexual harassment. That includes my wife, which is really weird as a husband. I know the guys here do it. I know I can’t protect her from it all the time and I don’t want to shut her in the house either (ridiculous – and it’d probably eventually happen here anyway, a guest sometime or something). I just don’t know what to do when it happens. I don’t really know how to be there for her or what to say. Thankfully she can mostly blow it off, also knowing “it just happens”, and at least it doesn’t happen *too* often. Maybe that’s not something to be thankful about (that my wife can just blow it off), I have no idea. It’s just a bad situation.

    But I don’t understand how you have any expat women writing you saying they haven’t experienced sexual harassment (overseas *or* back home). I don’t personally see how that’s possible, but maybe it has something to do with some of the reasons you gave above. I’ve led a 2-year missions team and all the women on our team were harassed more than once. I think sometimes they wanted me to somehow protect them from it, but how could I? I encouraged them on how to limit their lifestyle or habits/impulses in ways that *lessen* the incidences of sexual harassment or assault (which are sometimes simply the result of cultural miscommunication)… but some of it was going to happen inevitably (and did), and had nothing to do with miscommunication. I told them all that up-front. But maybe that just made me look callous and like I didn’t care? I honestly have no idea how to handle this as a man, and I doubt I was much support each time it happened.

    Of course, it’s happened to me as well in every country I’ve lived (USA, and two places in Africa). Which is weird, because you think it doesn’t happen to a guy. In Africa, I’ve only been harassed verbally, so it’s not really that big of a deal to me, and it is very rare compared to women. But it does happen to men too. I know it doesn’t usually cause us fear like it would to a woman though, and there’s usually no sort of “threat” (spoken or unspoken) to back it up. So I really don’t know how to relate. Anyway, it sucks. That’s all I can say. But I don’t see how anyone can pretend like it doesn’t exist.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones October 16, 2018 at 4:19 pm - Reply

      I know, right? I have been so surprised by this response and it was hard to understand my own reaction to women saying that. I’m so glad for how you address this with women you work with and your wife, the value of feeling heard and supported by men is hard to quantify. Even just being willing to talk about it is important. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Christy Harrison October 16, 2018 at 3:26 pm - Reply

    Like you, I have experienced some form of harassment in every place that I have lived for longer than 3 months. My stories really pale in comparison to those of my patients though. I had a 9 year old brought in because she was incontinent of feces after being raped by an uncle. I couldn’t get anyone to tell me whether the uncle still had access to her or not. In an ultimate low moment, when discussing a rape case at our hospital staff meeting, a senior staff made a joke about her “really wanting it.” Several people in the room laughed. This was by far the most discouraging thing to me. How can we make any change in the culture when those who are supposed to be giving care are laughing about it.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones October 16, 2018 at 4:22 pm - Reply

      So true – how the stories pale in comparison. This is just awful – about the 9-year old girl. Heart-breaking. And to hear staff joking must have been devastating. May your presence be a counteracting force. Thank you for sharing, as horrible as this is.

  6. Elizabeth October 17, 2018 at 6:42 am - Reply

    I have no idea how women could not experience it. I guess language might have a big part to play. I think being out with kids makes a difference. When I’m out with all four, it’s like I’m in a different category. But go out alone and even though I don’t understand the words here yet, I know what’s being said. I’m sorry that people respond to you in this way. The right way, and there IS a right way, to respond to other people’s painful experiences is listen and hold the pain with them.

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