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How to Address the Misconceptions and Hyper-Sexualization of Black Women Abroad

Expressing empathy can kickstart the healing journey.

One of the reasons I travel so often is that I often feel safer than I do back home in New York City. It’s an uncomfortable notion to come to terms with, but sadly, there are occasions when people with melanated skin are seen as more of a novelty than human beings.

It’s important to remind ourselves that what we see on TV or hear on the radio is only a glimpse into some people’s lives and that the concept of Blackness is as diverse in customs, interests, appearance, and vernacular as the gradience of melanated skin.

Before I ventured to Palermo, Sicily, a Sicilian friend warned me that I should be hyper-aware of my surroundings because I would most likely be mistaken for a sex worker due to my dark skin. There isn’t anything about me that says sex worker, I thought, as I rolled my eyes in disbelief. By the end of my three-day trip, I had been followed by several men and had each meal interrupted by men making lewd gestures in the window or approaching my table. Terrifyingly, one of those men reached through a crowd and tried to pull me into an alley on my last day. Despite my clear discomfort, nothing seemed to dissuade this salacious behavior. I left Sicily feeling like a commodity. Not once did anyone come to my defense, not even the waitstaff.

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According to Melanie R. Wallace, in a piece in the Georgia Journal of  International and Comparative Law, there’s a history “on both the African and European continents [where sponsors] lure African women and girls to Europe, promising them a chance to study at a university or take advantage of job opportunities. These women are often promised jobs as maids or au pairs or given loans (with or without their knowledge) to finance their passage and are then forced to repay the loans through prostitution when they arrive.” Other times, African migrant women could arrive in Western European countries of their own volition only to be forced into sex work for many reasons.

Too often, Black women are forced to harden their demeanors or tone down their looks to avoid sexual advances—and to no avail. Every Black woman I know—no matter the culture—will say, “call (or text me) when you arrive” or “send me your location.” I am sure it happens with other cultures, but the sentiment is not as commonly shared among my diverse group of friends and family—if something happens, we are the ones that will find you.

Teach Them While They’re Young

A moral foundation starts at home. When I was a teacher at an Instituto in Spain, one of my colleagues asked if I could present myself to her class so they could interact with a native English speaker. Halfway through my presentation, I allowed the students to ask me questions. Sexually suggestive questions soon flooded my ears:

Do you prefer men or women?
How much do you cost for one night?
Can I kiss you?
Can you twerk?

My emotions shifted quickly from disbelief to disgust, anger to disappointment. It was not the first or the last inappropriate comment I’d experienced at that school. I lost count of how many times I considered quitting, but I was determined to make a difference, even if it was one student at a time. To start, with the help of the teacher who invited me to the class, we explained why their comments, expectations, and disrespect were unappreciated and unacceptable. They unhesitatingly admitted their opinions of Black women were imparted by family members that regarded African women as sex workers.

After giving two warnings—and to no avail—I let them know how hurtful and degrading their behavior was and that I would no longer return to their class. It was imperative to set clear boundaries and adhere to my word. At the end of the period, I heard a knock on the lounge door and saw 18 cherubic faces smiling at me, singing a chorus of apologies. I accepted each one of their hugs but held firm about not returning to their classroom. From that day on, I received jubilant hellos, polite talk, and high-fives from many students in the halls.

It can be draining to educate others while managing your inner turmoil—and no one is obligated to do so—but one thoughtful conversation or interaction can alter a person’s perception enough to challenge their beliefs and change their behavior.

What Role Does Media Play?

Black people are still perceived negatively because of negative media portrayals. The media has stereotyped Black women as hypersexual monoliths for most of history, from the Blaxploitation movies of the 1970s to the video vixens and famous entertainers of today. We’re incessantly being over-policed for our demeanors and the way we speak. We’re shamed and fetishized for the very features that make us unique and beautiful.

Black women are the recipients of unprovoked solicitation, vulgar gestures, groping, and even sexual assaults based on negative stereotypes or “exotic” features so often that a common question asked in online communities is: “Is it safe for Black women to travel to [insert location]?”

Take the time to search through diverse topics and mediums to learn more about Black culture worldwide, which varies from country to country and across cultures. Enjoy poetry, novels, essays, and food from different nations. Visit neighborhoods that are predominately Black for authentic and unbiased cultural exchanges.

Respecting Boundaries

Here are some common issues that Black women may encounter while traveling abroad:

– Being stared at, followed, or groped
– Being subjected to vulgar comments, questions, gestures, touching, and moaning
– Strangers petting or tugging their hair without permission
– Receiving dismissive or incredulous responses or comments after being victimized

How You Can Make an Impact

Back in the United States of America, one study shows that “57.5% of all juvenile prostitute arrests are Black children” and “40% of human trafficking victims were identified as Black women.” The study also reveals that “in an interview with the Urban Institute, traffickers admittedly believe that trafficking Black women would land them less jail time than trafficking white women if they were caught.” And these are just the numbers that are on record. Countless more crimes go unreported due to fear, intimidation, distrust, or rejection.

If you see a Black woman getting harassed, you can help out in a multitude of ways:

– Speak up! It can be scary handling intimidating situations by yourself.
– Seek out an authority figure (police, security guard) or alert more people to the trouble.
– If possible, try to guide them away from danger and to safety.
– (Re)educate the people around you because those who know better do better.
– There are countless cultures and subcultures around the world. Take the time to learn more about people that extend past the pages of a textbook, magazine, or through social media.
– Be mindful that sensual or sexual comments, questions, or gestures can be considered disrespectful or operate outside someone’s boundaries.
– Offer a kind word. Expressing empathy can kickstart the healing journey.

While being admired is nice, curiosity can sometimes cross a line. Travel allows others to learn more about different cultures, debunk stereotypes, and show appreciation for the world we live in. While differences can be attractive, respecting boundaries can mean all the difference to someone experiencing a new country.