Was it possible that the shopkeeper had just complimented me on my nice eyes? Or – and this seemed more likely – had he really just complimented my ass?

This moment of confusion, which occurred in the Marrakech souk this past summer, was the seed of an essay on street harassment that published this past weekend in The Washington Post.  I think the incident stayed with me because I’ve reacted much differently — and more decisively — to similar incidents when they’ve happened to me at home. One that stands out in particular happened many years ago, when  I was standing on a corner near my apartment, chatting with a friend. A man walking past us reached over and squeezed my behind. I was stunned for about a half second — and then I lost it. I ran after him in a purple-faced, cursing, apopleptic rage. I almost hit him.

But in Marrakech, I did not fly into action, I wondered what had happened: had I’d actually heard “ass” which would warrant a harsher response than the more polite discouragement I’d communicate if he’d said “eyes”?

And even if this man had enunciated his words crisply, I’d still be fuzzy on what had happened and what to do about it. After all, in my travels, I’ve witnessed behaviors and customs that are certainly outside my own sense of comfort, propriety and how things ought to be done – from horking and spitting on the street, to snacking on bugs.   I’m aware that cultural differences do extend to “haptics”, or touch –  international etiquette books are packed with information on simple gestures that have complicated meanings: Don’t pat a child on the head in Indonesia, the head is thought to be spiritual. Don’t pat your stomach in Italy, it means you dislike someone. Don’t point with an index finger in Malaysia, it’s bad luck.

And yes, there are body parts that seem to be universally off-limits for touching by strangers without permission –  a woman’s breasts, anyone’s genitals – but the backside is not always in that category, not around the world, and not here in the United States. Children are spanked on their bottoms, athletes are televised patting each other’s butts in congratulations for a good play, and none of this constitutes fondling. Context is everything with the derriere

In fact, in the workplace, context is dwelled on extensively during a sexual harassment investigation.  A key question is whether the the conduct was unwelcome. Compliments, flirting, innuendo, suggestive lip smacking – it may be harassment, it may not, it depends. But there’s a whole corporate and legal factfinding apparatus that grinds into gear after an accusation is made.

When I’m traveling on a foreign street,  it’s just me and my American point of view.

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Alison J. Stein

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