As a frequently solo travelling woman, I’ve had my fair share of unwanted male attention. That can vary from a rather innocent flirt and long looks to catcalling and plain harassment. Obviously, how you decide to react or handle the attention, depends on the gravity of attention and how disturbing you find it.
And of course men can also get harassed and have troubles while travelling, and women can be the ones giving the unwanted attention, but I am focusing on unwanted male attention because that is the topic I know something about and in my experience is relevant for almost all travelling women.
I think it is essential to know yourself and develop some tactics that work well for you. For example, I always want to treat other people kindly and respectfully. Therefore, it is sometimes a struggle for me when I need to turn somebody down and tell them that I don’t like their attention.
Sometimes there have been situations I have needed to be even a bit harsh and cold to be able to deliver my message. That’s just how it is – if the other person is not willing to understand that I am not interested in them and keeps pushing me, I think they should take a look in the mirror. That pushy or harassive approach is far from kind and respectful, so I’m not going to feel too bad if I’m not able to fulfil that criterion myself.
Also, being nice gets very often misinterpreted as being romantically interested. That’s something you should take into consideration if you find yourself often in a position of drawing undesired attention.
However, it is crucial to notice the cultural differences that are related to the subject. As much as I am a feminist, I think that is necessary to respect the local culture, religion, and traditions when we are travelling and visiting places. I am not saying that you should blame yourself if you get lots of unwanted attention while wearing a miniskirt and tube top in Morocco – it’s just how it will be. Therefore the way you dress and behave can have a significant impact on how much attention you will be given. You should be aware of that so you can choose how you will deal with the issue.
I have gathered together 15 tips that I’ve found useful in different kinds of situations related to avoiding or dealing with unwanted male attention. Firstly, I will tell you tips that are more related to avoiding or reducing the attention, and secondly, I will give more specific tactics that you might use when you are being approached or are already in an unpleasant situation. While I hope that these tactics would eventually become useless, in the meantime, please feel free to try them if you find yourself in an overwhelming situation.
General tips to avoid the unwanted attention
Research your destination and understand its culture and religion. If it’s different than the one you are coming from, learn and think how you can make sure not to draw too much attention and adapt your demeanor to match the local norms.
Dress locally, not to impress. How you dress is one of the most powerful ways to adjust the attention you will get. If one wants to keep the attention at a minimum level, do not dress to impress. You will draw attention anywhere with that style goal. While in some cultures it might not be overwhelming, wearing the covering and modest outfits will work best in the cultures where women usually dress very conservatively.
Observe how the local women dress and copycat them – within reason. Generally, ditch outfits with cleavage, short skirts/shorts and anything bodycon or too tight. Covering your shoulders and knees is usually a good idea, too. In some places, you may consider wearing a headscarf. Wearing sunglasses is also good because you can avoid direct eye contact.
Don’t flirt – unless you really wanna go a lot further. In many cultures, men will take your flirtatious gestures more seriously than you are intending. It’s not uncommon for men to think that the flirt is a prelude for sex. Men can also misinterpret your friendliness as a flirt.
In some places, even direct eye contact might be seen as an invitation for a closer encounter (one more reason to wear sunglasses). In different cultures, it’s probably best to cut back the top notch of your friendliness when you are in a contact with men. Be more correct and to the point than nice and friendly, and don’t smile extensively.
Be careful about disclosing personal information. That includes your real name, phone number, where you from, whether you are travelling alone, your social media accounts, where are you staying, are you married… You never know why the other person is asking that information. While I’m not telling you to lie, I am telling you to think about these things before and decide how you will deal with this issue.
I have come to the conclusion that the easiest way out is to have a cover story that I can use if needed. I often am married, or at least my boyfriend is waiting for me in the next city or flying to the place the next day. I’m sorry, but I don’t remember the name of my hotel/guesthouse. If they keep insisting, I can give them something vague like it’s quite near Eiffel tower or in the 9th arrondissement.
Making up something like that will help you get out of the unpleasant situations without explaining too much. But if you choose to have the cover story tactic, remember to practice beforehand. Otherwise, it will not work if you haven’t thought these things through. Many times I also tell that I don’t have Facebook if I don’t want to reveal my real name. Trust me, I’ve given the information too many times just because someone seemed nice and wanted to keep in touch, and they end up sending me 50 demanding love messages in a day. In my opinion, giving an email address (which preferably doesn’t include your real name) is the safest option. If somebody genuinely wants to be able to keep in touch with you, they’ll be fine with an email address. They don’t necessarily need your phone number or Facebook. You can always tell your phone number is currently not working when you are abroad…
Be careful about sharing location in social media. When you are alone in unfamiliar surroundings, it is wise to consider how much information you are sharing on your social media channels. I’ve had some unpleasant moments when somebody has stalked me through my Instagram posts – when I have shared the location of the picture or put the place name in a hashtag.
Therefore, I don’t always share the exact information, like the name of the restaurant or café I’m sitting, or the hostel/hotel I am staying at (or I do that later when I have already left the place). Especially if I use hashtags like “solo female traveller”, I can be deemed as an easy target for a stalker if they know where I sleep, eat and drink. I never thought this before I had those experiences in real life, and became more concerned about my privacy and safety. I think this is one important thing one should take into account when (solo) travelling.
Don’t look like you are lost or have no idea where you are going: Keep walking. This is related to general safety, too – if you look like a lost tourist, you become an easy target not just for enthusiastic males but for scammers and pickpockets, also. If somebody yells, whistles or whatever, just keep walking. Look confident and like you are walking with a purpose – even if you have no idea where you should be heading. If someone starts to follow you, don’t look back at them but try to get to a direction where there are more people or public places, like cafés and shops. You can even make a fake call.
Follow your instincts. We should learn to trust our gut feelings more often. Because usually, we do get the hunch – the person you just met is somehow a bit too interested in your personal life or acts overly friendly and helpful for a taxi driver. But then – especially women – feel they need to be polite, people-please, and be friendly, and end up ignoring their intuition that something is not right. I am telling you – follow your instincts! If you start to think that something is not right, get out of the taxi or leave the restaurant, or whatever the situation you might be in is. It is better to be safe than sorry.
Practical tips about tactics to tackle the unwanted attention
Wear earbuds/headphones. This can be a good tactic and especially useful when you are travelling in a bus/train/aeroplane. Usually, people will leave you alone if they notice you are not hearing what they say. However, this is also a bit controversial one: If you listen to music when you are walking, be careful to not get too distracted or even unaware of someone who might be walking behind.
Read a book. Reading something like a book is a good, too. I was once in a train where a man constantly wanted to talk to me (things like you are so beautiful, what are your plans for tonight so I knew he was hitting on me). I started reading a book. The man intervened me a few times, but I explained him very to the point that I am sorry, but this train trip is my only chance to read this book, and I really must do that. I hope you understand that. Finally, he left me alone. If necessary, you could even tell that you are reading for a test and really must concentrate.
Fake call. Sometimes a fake call is a solo travelling gal’s best friend. It is a very convenient way to get out of sticky situations. However, sometimes you are more likely in need of getting the saving phone call and not able to make one yourself. Don’t worry, you don’t need a telepathic connection with your best friend – there are apps for fake calls.
Download one to your mobile and test them before the real situations. For example, if you are in a middle of an overwhelming discussion that is getting very uncomfortable for you, you could use the fake call app, answer the call and then say after a moment “I’m sorry, I need to go” to the person and just leave the situation when still on the phone. While they might doubt your call, usually they would still just let you go. You can either speak English or some other language, like your native one, to the phone – depending on whether you want the troublemaker to understand what you speak to the phone or not.
Wear a wedding ring. Sometimes this is one of the easiest ways to cut down the amount of attention you are drawing. In many cultures, men respect women’s marital status and are more willing to leave married ones alone. “Just” having a boyfriend or being engaged might not be enough in these situations. The good thing about this tactic is that you don’t need to explain too much, you can just point to your ring and tell that you are married.
However, if you are not wearing a ring, you might want to tell you have a boyfriend. This is usually a good way to turn somebody down if they ask you out or your number. Might be a good idea to even carry a picture of your real/fake boyfriend/husband…
Wear sunglasses. People are much more likely to engage with you if they can see your eyes. Wearing dark sunglasses is a good, simple way to make yourself more distant.
Speak another language. Sometimes you know already when you are approached that you don’t want to get engaged with the person – for example, if he was whistling or groping you. Then you can pretend that you don’t speak English or the language they are speaking to you. You can reply them in some other language, like your native one (if it’s uncommon) or learn a few words of something very random or rare (like Norwegian).
However, that is not always working. I had a guy that didn’t speak English, only Italian, and he still tried to hold a conversation for half an hour with me, although I did my best to show him I wanted to be alone. Actually, I think he might have been using this tactic for me – pretending he didn’t understand any English.
Look to other women. If you get harassed in public places, like in a train or bus, try to look to other women. They might notice your struggle and come for help. If you are in the street, approach a group of local women or a mixed group if you are stalked or harassed. And if you are ever witnessing someone to get harassed or think that the person looks like needing help, step up. You can just simply go to the person and say “Hi, Lisa!” If they are in trouble, they will reply to you and start talking with you. If you have misinterpreted the situation, and they don’t need any help, they will probably just ignore you and think you made a mistake.
What if you decide you actually want to meet with someone?
Of course, you can come across a man whose attention you don’t mind. If you choose to meet the guy, do it in a public place, like in a restaurant, bar or café. You can tell them that you are staying in a hostel where there is a curfew – let’s say at 10 or 11 pm – that way you have an excuse to leave and be somewhere where you expected to be. And it’s a good idea to tell someone about meeting the new person and where you are going, and when to expect you to contact or come back.
I have shared here lots of tips that might help to deal with unwanted male attention you get while you are travelling abroad. Personally, I think that the meaningful encounters I make during the travels are one of the best things. I have made wonderful new friends. I also think that generally, people are good, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are creeps and idiots – in every culture and country.
It takes lots of experience and practice to find the right balance between trusting new people and being careful, and still, we make misjudgments now and then. However, when I am travelling solo, I’ve learned to value my safety and privacy, especially when I am in unfamiliar cultures. It is more of being aware of the possible risks and having a toolset of different tactics I can use in different situations.
Have you experienced unwanted attention while travelling? How do you try to avoid it or deal with it?