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On the Map: Traveling Soon? Don't Forget to Pack Your Stereotype Repellent!

"There are three sure things in life," Toni's joke began. "Death, taxes, and Aussie girls." It was Christmas Eve and there was load shedding, so a group of travelers gathered around a tiny generator-run space heater and tealight candles sipping Everest beer inside the shared lounge of our guesthouse in Kathmandu. A veritable United Nations, the group consisted of Toni, a Kiwi woman working as an urban planner in Abu Dhabi; newly dating Irish couple Garry and Roisin; Nepali guesthouse owner Pujan; two Londonites living in Dubai; a pair of Germans teaching English in Bangkok, and three Americans, recent college grad Matt from one of the flyover states, my partner, and me. Having racked up a fair amount of globetrotting amongst the eleven of us, we were swapping stories about stereotypes we'd heard or experienced while traipsing around the world.

One thing we all agreed on is that Australian women have the worst reputation--no matter what country you're in or from--for sexual promiscuity, with American women sliding easily into second place. I've written quite a bit about my own experience with this phenomenon, so I won't go into detail here, but I will say that the MTV and Hollywood contrived images of American women don't only affect the perception of who we are and how we should be treated in our own country. They also effect the perception and treatment of women from the US while traveling, studying, and working abroad.

A recent Global Post article* examined the "sexporting" of stereotypes held about American women by men and women in Tel Aviv, France, and Rome. An Italian bartender and club promoter told the journalist that his customers think "American girls are always drunk, and they are really easy, horny, and good in bed," but insists he doesn't hold that belief himself. The journalist also spoke to an American women going to school in Paris about the source of these commonly held notions in France, and Meaghan Dill replied, "A lot of French people think that America is like MTV, like 'The Hills,' 'Next' and all of that. Many French people ask me if my life is like MTV." Dill goes on to say that she was sexually harassed at the Eiffel Tower when men heard her American English accent, and my own experiences living in India mimic those of Dill's.

Unfortunately, verbal annoyance isn't the worst that can happen when cultural misunderstanding and sexist entitlement collide. The image of sexual permissiveness can sometimes compromise American women's safety while traveling in ways that don't equally affect American men--or at least not ones who are straight. I've been told by a handful of gay friends that similar stereotypes exist for them and these falsely applied notions have similar outcomes for them during their travels. It should also be said that the negative media images exported of people of color--essentially, that they're poor, violent, oversexed, and uneducated criminals--makes an impact on how they are viewed and treated as well, which my Haitian American friend experienced when she came to visit me last month.

So how are women instructed to handle these frequent so-called misunderstandings (which are really less misunderstandings than intentional misrepresentation on the part of American media)? From the Lonely Planet to study abroad guidelines, women are told to simply alter our behavior when traveling in order to reduce the likelihood of unwanted advances and hostile incidents, which is a lot like putting a band-aid on a wound that others are constantly ripping back open. Yes, behaving modestly is a harm reduction strategy that can have some degree of effectiveness for those of us who choose to enact it out of cultural respect, but if the American media machine fails to accurately represent the diversity of American women (and other foreigners confirm the stereotypes), then the overall picture that is exported will continue to remain the same.

* Thanks to Jess Frank for sending us the Global Post article that prompted this post!

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Comments

37 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Sorry to complain, but...

...I somewhat cringed at the description of "flyover states." I find that rather offensive as a Midwesterner. (I have my own issues with the region, but I've always hated that term and its dismissive connotations.)

It's a good article otherwise, though.

eep!

Sorry about the offense, Cat! A good bit of my family lives in the Midwest, and spending summers there as a kid left me with an unsavory perception of the region. ;-)

unsavory?!

Why do you have an unsavory perception of the region? I live here... its a tough place but there is a lot of good.

This quote pretty much sums up the Midwest for me in many ways and why I stand by it...

"clearly iron age beasts you can tell by the rust and the chains, and by the oil that they bleed the crew and crows fly the skulls and bones, they fly the colors of their homes i fly the cross of the blue factory flame, stitched with heavy sulpher thread/threat, they ain’t proud colors but they’re true colors of my home..." ~ Songs: Ohia ~ Blue Flame Factory

i can dig it

No doubt for the same reason other people have an unsavory perception of the South (my place of origin), a region that most definitely has its flaws, but which I will defend as fiercely as you're defending the Midwest when I hear people who aren't from the South dog on it. It's that "only I get to talk shit about my family" kind of fierceness, you know? Like, you have to love it to be able to hate on it. I can dig that.

I understand...

I totally understand. I lived in the West and I personally think it is overrated. "Alternative places often reak of privilege." No place is perfect.

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Hmmmmm

Until women stop allowing themselves to be voluntarily objectified in American media, this sort of thing will never change. No, I'm not blaming the victim. Men should be held accountable for their abhorrent behavior. Women have been led to believe that sexualizing themselves is somehow progressive and liberating. I think we have a lot of proof to the contrary.

you are blaming the victim

you are blaming the victim though. we don't 'allow ourselves' to be objectified. while some women are complacent in media objectification, it is still not american women's -fault- that they are objectified. media is not controlled by women as a group. and women who find themselves with power to affect media are, largely, only in that position -because- they are complacent with media's treatment of women.

and i'd say the corruption of the idea that sexuality is empowering (because in truth it can be, but the media portrayal of sexuality has not changed, just the idea that it is empowering has), is generally due media representations of our sexuality, which we then mimic in an attempt to feel that power.

Hmm. As a Swedish woman, I

Hmm. As a Swedish woman, I feel somewhat forgotten here - what happened to our slutty reputation? OTOH, we're also reputed to be unapproachable, so there you go :)

But seriously, even without trash-TV, there would be clashes, simply because cultural norms differ. Not as notable, perhaps, but signals will be interpreted differently and what is demure in one place is aggressive in another, for better or worse. A certain amount of culture clash has to be expected when travelling the world - but no, no one should have to put up with harassment.

American female of color

I have spoken to many people about this, not so much on a world scale but even just in America. I feel that women of color are not respected nearly as much as others while even just walked down the street. I have found that many of my white female friends have not gone through the same things(or at least not to the same extent) I have while just taking a stroll down any street in any neighborhood.

I personally am constantly on guard because of cat calls, "hey ma"s, "hey sexy"s, and more. That is common in my everyday life. Then there is the arm grabbing, I have physically pushed men off of my arm, yelled at them that they should know better, and yes at times I just curse and/or give them the finger. I have been followed for blocks, then even when I do not return the attention I am yelled at... "fuck you, you stuck up bitch!" and the like.

My point being, for many reasons, some listed in this post, many people have the idea that I am not a person. That I am just on display for them to treat as they please while in public. Many people don't believe how bad it is until they walk around with me for a day, usually they are shocked and disgusted.

-from brooklyn

I've yet to meet anyone in

I've yet to meet anyone in my travels who thinks I'm a slut or easy. In fact, I rarely even get approached. In Asia, no man ever talks to me.

Perhaps they don't think I'm American. Or I don't drink enough.

XX

Great post Mandy! I lived in

Great post Mandy! I lived in Turkey for two years and spent extensive time back-packing through Africa and the Middle East. The kind of harassment that I experienced while traveling ruined what could have been amazing experiences. Despite being modestly dressed and adjusting my behavior, I have been cat-called, solicited for sex, groped, followed home, and so much more. Unbelievably, a man in Morocco even tried to blackmail my sister and I into having sex with him. Once a Canadian I met in Oman asked me, "well what did you expect? You're an American woman. They probably think if you're a whore."

I don't want to stop traveling, but it becomes incredibly frustrating. After a month in Egypt I couldn't take it anymore and I doubt I will ever return. Fellow bitches, any suggestions? What do you all think individuals can do to stop this pervasive media myth of the american whore from contributing to sexual harassment in other countries?

Roseanne

What happened to American women like Roseanne Barr?

WTF?

WTF?

not an american problem

I'm from Germany (sorry for bad english) and I experienced the same sort of harrasment when I travelled to India and Morroco, so I think this kind of behaviour comes from a misconception about "Western women" in general.
I also suppose that MTV and pop-culture are not the only reasons for that image. In a lot of countries due to moral restrictions unmarried men almost never really get in contact to women, so when they meet "western" women they think they can make some experiences because of the image of being "easy and available".

on being an American woman in Ghana

I completely connect with this post! I studied and lived in Ghana, West Africa for two years, and the slutty American stereotype was so rampant that I felt like most men saw me as a giant vagina bouncing down the street. Men were incredibly aggressive with their advances, and I remember guys screaming out their window " I want to f--- your blonde pussy!" and other such comments at me. However, what I learned during my time there is that many of these stereotypes had little to do with the media and a lot to do with patriarchy and the incredible inequality of sexual relationships in the region. Most [married] women were expected to be the passive recipients of their partner's advances. Being the initiator of ANY physical advance (be it kissing, hugging, or even dancing), openly enjoying sex, or sadly, even believing that women are entitled to sexual pleasure was considered dangerously close to prostitution. As a deeply religious country, women who had sex for any reason other than procreation were considered immoral, loose, or promiscuous. And since many American women in real life and on TV do have sex for pleasure, initiate sex, and have sex before marriage without apologizing for it, we are considered big-time whores by Ghanaian standards. This of course doesn't excuse the sexist stereotype or make it any less deplorable. But at least in Ghana an aggressive rejection (i.e. "no chance in hell!") is acceptable, whereas in the United States women are expected to gently and nicely reject men's advances (who hasn't said "oh, I'm sorry, I have a boyfriend.")

Totally Agree

I totally agree w/ how you say the reason has more to do w/ patriarchy and the devaluing of women vs. the media representation. I think the media representation of women is a symptom of the patriarchy we live in, but not the source of the problem.

Haven't had the privilege...

I haven't had the privilege of traveling outside of Turtle Island (US & Canada) so I can't really relate. But, I have dealt with enough sexism in the US to know it probably is worse in other parts of the world. I almost did Peace Corps but realized that I would be dealing with intense sexism - marriage proposals and random whistling at me, etc. I had a friend who did Peace Corps and had a few marriage proposals so that is why I mention that example. Plus I don't really agree with the imperialistic and colonizing effect of Peace Corps and the idea of "helping," when so much needs to be done in the US.

Sexism is everywhere and I happen to live in a state where women make on average .67 cents (not women of color or Native women) per the mans dollar. I've got enough to deal with here in the Midwest as a Anishinaabe Native woman.

imperialism, colonialism, and institutional sexism = boo!

A friend of mine dropped out of the Peace Corps after just a few weeks in Morocco b/c the daily sexual harassment she received from men was so intense. The Peace Corps staff she sought help from did nothing except tell her to try harder to conform to cultural norms, which she was already doing, and when the abuse continued, she quit.

I also know a woman who was doing a fellowship in India who was attacked while walking home after work. Fortunately, she was able to fight off her attacker and get away, but when she called her fellowship program (which was based in the US) to report the incident, the first thing the *woman* asked her was not "Are you okay?" but "What were you wearing?" and then "Was there some sort of cultural misunderstanding?" I think it should go w/out saying that attempting to rape a woman who is a total stranger in public goes beyond the realm of cultural misunderstanding (for those who may think what she was wearing does matter, it was a salwaar kameez and dupatta), but I think the fact that it was a question says something about the staffperson's own assumption about what American women abroad are like and what sort of behavior makes them deserving of abuse, even in the eyes of their own country(wo)men.

My point is that when the onus is put on individual women to alter their behavior instead of systemic change in ones own country to alter perception internally and abroad, even the most legitimate institutions are flawed by victim blaming and sexism.

(On a related note, I agree w/ what you're saying about some of these programs' imperialist and colonialist tendencies, and I wish these kinds of conversations would happen more b/c it's not an easy issue to sort out.)

The "colored" perspective

I didn't go through all the comments, and it is possible that what I have to say is a repetition. Having lived the first 26 years of my life in India, and having interacted almost exclusively with "brown" people from India and abroad, I do know that this stereotype is a rather sad reality. But there is another point to be added here ... something I realized while talking to an acquaintance, a French girl in her mid-20s ... the stereotype is the "white woman". For most Asian people, it doesn't matter whether it's Aussie or American or European (forget about further subdivisions such as mid-west, etc.). It's just the white woman. Perhaps the roots of this flat view lies in colonial history, but a more plausible explanation is the projection of women created by the media. This projection of women as uniformly sexy (sexy as per what men consider sexy, mind you) and devoid of any other facets is something we have learnt from the western world (and I include Australia here, ignoring the geographical location). You may argue against my opinion, and even win with academic splendor, for my view is not mine, and not inferred from factoids .... it's what I have known to be an unfortunate consequence of a thoughtless objectification that has taken place over the last few decades. I hope we accept this mistake, and take serious steps to ameliorate the circumstances.

for india, i totally agree

I absolutely agree with you that in India the stereotype is along race lines and not nationality. White is white is white, no matter what accent you have. For other countries, that's not the case. I also agree with you that there is probably a colonial element to it (that is where the term 'eve-teasing' comes from, after all) in that some of the aggression from men is a result of/resistance against colonialism.

The only disagreeable thing I find in your comment is the line about arguing "with academic splendor," though I don't think you intended it with offense. I'm not nor have I ever been an academic, and the reason I'm sensitive about being called an academic is b/c I find that some people use it as an insult to insinuate class privilege and being out of touch with 'regular' people, and as a woman who comes from a working class background, being accused of being an academic is actually insulting b/c the assumption at work is that poor and working class people wouldn't be that smart. So it's important to me to establish that complex thought isn't bound to the ivory tower.

Exactly

This is what I was afraid of and I had been through enough in my life. To stay in the US which was more safe for me in many ways. I am sorry to hear about both of your friend and that woman who was attacked. It is sad that they asked her what she was wearing because it is never about that. Victim blaming is never right.

Yeah its not an easy conversation about some of these programs imperialistic and colonialist tendencies. Peace Corps is selling "volunteerism" coated with the facade of helping others. When in fact, behind these efforts are to go in a community, "help" and leave with making a partial effect in the community. I am not even sure if it leaves behind anything positive for the people or communities.

legacy

Yeah, I was talking to a couple who run an NGO in Kathmandu and they were saying that even though Nepal has the most NGOs per capita in the world, hardly anything has changed in the country in the past 20 years. The two things that brings to mind are quantity over quality and lots of poorly executed good intention.

Doesn't Stop There

Western stereotyping doesn't stop at sex or at women. If I wasn't aggressive and oversexed I must be in the throes of domestic bliss, extraordinarily wealthy, and in the market for various mind-altering substances.

To be fair, the guys I knew while living in Bangkok probably faced as much, if not more, sexual stereotyping. They were frequently aggressively approached by men and women who assumed they were interested in one or another of several aspects of the sex trade. They were also sometimes looked down on by older members of Thai society who assumed they were in the country to exploit the sex trade.

Of course, many of the people I met also showed signs of having developed negative impressions from actual encounters with Western visitors. Every time I visited a country and encountered a resident who was utterly flabbergasted that I'd taken the time to learn a handful of courtesy words in his or her language it made me a little sad. When I attended the funeral of the Thailand's Queen Mother and saw quite a few Westerners who hadn't bothered to dress more modestly than booty shorts and bathing suits (let alone in the traditional black that the population of the ENTIRE city had been wearing for three days) it made me more than a little embarrassed for them.

Not Because she was American!

I think to say that your friend was sexually harassed in France because she they heard her American English accent is taking it a bit far...those men were probably ready to pounce on any female foreigner who couldn't speak English well enough, not because she was American. And I'm sure French people can tell the difference between bad reality shows on MTV and real life.

Sorry, I meant to say, they

Sorry, I meant to say, they were ready to pounce on any female foreigner who could speak French *not American*

I agree with Cat, however

I agree with Cat, however without the apologies. The whole "I can dis my own people" argument doesn't wash with me. "Flyover states" is completely offensive, and the need to trash one part of the country generally reflects a kind of self-hatred, as I've never heard an actual native of one of these "better" (aka non-"fly-over") locales feel the need to use these terms. I also don't see the need for women to continually apologize or "soften" their disagreement...

Perhaps the author can refrain from casually stereotyping a particular group of people when attempting to point out the negative effects of stereotyping a different group of people. It's a good topic to discuss, but it seems counterproductive to include such a major flaw.

It would also be nice if many Americans can get over their unfounded beliefs that somehow American women have it so much better than other women in the world. It's a kind of self-medication to avoid working for real change. It's important to try and see the whole picture when attempting to compare cultures, and it may be worse in one aspect of life yet dramatically better in another.

That said, stereotypes do, of course, affect women when traveling to other countries.
As a 13 year old in France, I was approached by men who were telling me that American girls were easy (as if when hearing that "reminder" I would suddenly find them irresistible!), and that was before the Girls Gone Wild garbage was everywhere.

Many times there is also a beneficial aspect (of "otherness") granted to travelers, too. Often women travelers become an "other" figure, and have more freedom than "woman" in both her own and her host country.

Women who are afraid to travel to other countries are voluntarily living in a cage due to perceptions of women having less freedom elsewhere... Fear of imagined danger is far worse than any reality. Much of the world is very different than a Peace Corps experience. There are also woman-centered organizations around the world if one chooses to do service. If you are afraid to visit countries where women have political power, guaranteed child care, no fees for having a child, etc, then you are missing out.

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