Briefings for my semester abroad glossed over a key issue: how to ward off unwelcome sexual advances
"We pass now under the bridge of Casanova. It is tradition to kiss the man who is in the boat with you for good luck. Since I'm the only man here," the gondolier tells us, abruptly halting the boat and lurching forward, "I will be your Casanova."
It was cute. A good laugh. But, it turned out, he was serious. He wanted my three roommates and me to kiss him because of some stupid tradition likely made up to entertain lovers on the Venetian canals. I gawked as my friends giggled nervously, then gave in. He made out with each of them. Glaring at him, I permitted just a kiss on the cheek. A perfect photo op. I snapped it, as little keepsake for the police. Just in case.
I was spending the spring semester of my junior year in Madrid, and exploring the rest of Europe at every opportunity. Orientation didn't include a briefing for deflecting this sort of attention. Looking, later, at other study abroad prep packages, I noticed the perfunctory blurbs on women's rights and the snippets of info on how to file complaints. But I saw very little real information on how to cope with aggressive sexual harassment.
Which, somehow, seemed to follow us everywhere. Most American girls have to get used to the catcalls and overly obvious whispering that some Europeans take to when they spot Americans. For some reason, just being American seems to suggest you're promiscuous, and receptive to exhibitionism and flirtation.
My first experiences with European male advances were at Madrid's hottest nightclub, Kapital. I saw Madrileño men following a four-step process. One: get girl to dance. Two: make out with her. Three: have sex with her somewhere, anywhere, now! Four: Repeat. Soon, I refused to dance with anyone. I grew blasé about the vulgar ways my friends were treated.
My friend's roommate, Wendy Hu, 21, a College of New Jersey senior who studied at England's Kingston University, recalled being waylaid by an aggressive French-speaking stranger at Notre Dame in Paris. He complimented her on her beauty and asked her where she was from. Even as she ignored him, he concluded: "Oh, I know. You're from America." As she tried to walk away, he asked her for a date. "The guys know we're not used to this type of behavior, and they think we'll be flattered or something," Hu said. "They like messing with us and seeing if we'll respond."
To be fair, sometimes women - knowingly or not - invite such treatment. Even though European men can be more "pushy," as Maki Hirose, 21, a British guy studying in the United States, put it, "sometimes American girls can give mixed signals, though just because they can be very hyperactive in a foreign country." These women "are not necessarily [acting like] their usual selves," he added.
I knew what he meant. What's more, my female friends didn't always share my perception of guys having crossed the line. No one around seemed put out when the fortyish, Antonio Banderas look-alike owner of our hostel rammed his tongue down the throat of one traveling college student, right there at our table. Gossip the next morning was that she hadn't slept in her bed. I guess she'd had her fantasy Italian affair. But what if Antonio's advances had been directed toward someone a little less open minded and carefree -- like me?
I think universities should offer female students headed abroad realistic seminars about what's in store for them when it comes to mingling with the locals. Those vague lines in school brochures lecturing you to "educate yourself" about a destination culture just aren't enough.
I found the specific approach of Nancy Newport, a George Mason University adjunct professor of counseling and development, more on the mark. Inviting a man into your house is "symbolic of letting him enter your body," she wrote in a study abroad newsletter of the Los Angeles-based Center for Global Education. Right: college girls let guys into their dorm rooms all the time. Unaware of how it might look, some even choose co-ed apartment living while abroad. Newport also states that the American equivalent of having a male friend may mean something more for a foreign guy. Such cultural distinctions need to be made obvious, even if they sound like common sense to the older generation running the programs.
Of course, it wouldn't hurt if all women reacted the same way to crude male advances. One evening in Paris, stepping into a hotel elevator on the way to meet a friend, I startled another guest already inside. I apologized profusely. Realizing I was American, he switched from French to English, and took up a stance near the door, potentially blocking my exit. "I'm going to the fifth floor," he told me. "My room is 5-0-5. 5-0-5, okay?" he repeated, locking eyes with me to clarify his intentions.
Downstairs, I bolted from the elevator and speed-walked to the restaurant.
"What did he look like?" Jesse asked enthusiastically.
"Kind of like Sean Paul, but French," I responded, waiting for her disgusted reaction. But she slapped my arm and asked: "Why didn't you go with him?"