This summer I travelled alone for the first time in Brussels, Belgium. As I have mentioned in previous articles, I have always been resistant to the notion that, as a woman, I should not walk alone at night. This same defiance informed my refusal to listen to warnings that it was not safe for me to travel alone. While I have experienced various forms of cat calling throughout my life, it has become so normalized to me that I never personally felt threatened by it. I felt safe enough in my communities that I could ignore it and therefore never critically looked at it. Experiencing it alone in a foreign country was an entirely different experience.

While traveling I had a blog. My final post began with “Encounters I have had with creepy men since being here.” I then go on to detail numerous experiences I had walking alone, (during the day) in the city for the three days I was in Brussels. The most extreme occasion was just around the corner from my host’s apartment. I was returning from beer tasting. A group of four men were standing on the street corner talking. When I approached, one of them came up to me and began speaking to me in French, to which I responded with something along the lines of “Oh sorry, I only speak English.”

To my surprise his entire face lit up. “Ohh! English! American!” he said while coming closer to me and flipping up the collar of my leather jacket. He then grabbed my face with both of his hands and proceeded to attempt to make out with me, tongue and all.

Instinctively I started to laugh and pushed him off me. I walked away, checking over my shoulder to assure I was not followed and waved goodbye, smiling. I would not say I felt threatened. I was caught off guard, definitely. But the man was friendly and interacting with local people is my favorite part of traveling. I also have to admit that I was slightly tipsy.

When I reflected upon the encounter later however, I wondered if my reaction was appropriate. What made this man think he had the right to just grab my face like that in the middle of the street? It also caused me to reflect on all the other encounters I had listed on the blog. Falsely attributing this common female experience to Brussels itself, I began to wonder how the women that actually lived in the city dealt with it. I started observing the women I assumed to be locals and realized a key difference between them and me: they had a clear destination and focused solely on arriving at that destination. These local women did not smile at the people passing by. They ignored them. I, on the other hand, smiled at every stranger I saw on the street, essentially inviting them in. It was a valuable lesson for me on ways to preserve my own safety as a female traveling alone in a foreign country.

But it wasn’t that simple. I mentioned earlier that my favorite part about traveling is interacting with local people. As I mentioned, the interaction I detailed above did not actually make me feel unsafe, unlike a few of the other encounters I had (one which included a middle-aged man telling me I could go back with him to ‘sleep’). I enjoy stranger interactions. I make a point to smile at people I pass by on the street. It’s part of who I am and it didn’t seem fair to me that I had to give that up.

I then thought back to the local women, and even beyond that to all the women that are considered more generally to be standoffish. I began to see that in the same way growing up in a small town had a significant impact on my tendency to be friendly to strangers on the street, their experiences growing up in a city where they are constantly being cat-called and having their safety called into question had a significant influence on their tendency to be less open to strangers. This same experience was now also teaching me to close myself off to strangers on the street while traveling alone abroad.

I saw clearly for the first time how we as women are pushed into certain behaviors by our social experiences, and then later ridiculed for those very behaviors we have adapted in response to those experiences. Women who have had to learn to stand up for themselves in the work place in order to gain respect get labeled bossy. Girls who are told that their self worth is equated with their sexual appeal are then blamed for being assaulted because they were dressed too provocatively. It’s a vicious cycle that can be seen everywhere you look.

The oppressive experiences that not just women but every historically disenfranchised group experience, robs them of the freedom to be who they are. It pushes them into certain behaviors as a response to something they cannot control. What would the women in Brussels’ street personas be if they did not have to fight daily cat calling from men? What other freedoms are we as a society taking away from people through the oppressive behaviors and language of the dominant culture? And what can we do to help break them from their chains?

 Emily Potter won’t let cat-calling stop her from traveling the globe.