The first warning I received before embarking on my year abroad, was that French guys loved English girls, and so I should expect a lot of (potentially unwanted) attention. That was just a stereotype of course and I didn’t think much of it, but soon after I arrived, the attention started, and I realised that maybe there was a bit of truth to what had been said to me prior to my departure. This is my personal experience and I am not trying to enforce stereotypes, but merely shed light on the experiences of sexual harassment that I have faced since moving to France.
A simple walk to the supermarket can result in being smirked and stared at; a man in a Parisian nightclub tucked my hair behind my ear as I passed him on the dance floor; girls I know living in various other French towns and cities have even mentioned being followed home. These kinds of encounters are not exclusive to France either, a friend of mine working in Spain has been catcalled merely for wearing a skirt and I’ve heard many more stories from all over that just emphasis how universally accepted this unwanted attention is, and of course, for many of us we don’t even need to leave the UK to experience it. The behaviour of these men is totally unabashed; they have no problem walking up to you or shouting at you in the street, whether it appears to make you feel or uncomfortable or not. If I’m honest? They seem to find it funny, whilst I definitely do not.
The worst experience I’ve had took place on my third night here, with two young men who stopped me while I was walking by myself and suggested I take the bus instead. Of course, once on the bus, one of them sat next to me (as close as humanly possible, I might add), and the journey mostly consisted of him touching my legs and telling me repeatedly that I am ‘a beautiful girl’. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop once we got to the station; he invited me to his house and even asked me to kiss him, before finally leaving me be. Being alone in an unfamiliar place, made me feel even more vulnerable and concerned that I was in genuine danger. Many travellers will tell you how going to a new country can make you feel more vulnerable towards these situations of harassment. However, you should not let it put you off travelling or study abroad. Do the same as you would at home, find people and get out of situations that make you feel uncomfortable or vulnerable.
One thing I want to make clear is that, although my worst experiences of sexual harassment occurred in France, I am not labelling every French man as a pervert. It would be unfair and inaccurate to tar them all with the same brush. But, for me, the problem lies in the fact that this behaviour seems, by many, to be considered as normal. Working in a middle school, where the students range from 11 to 15 years old, I have noticed that, even from an early age, many of the French boys I taught thought it was acceptable to be very forward. Several of them have asked if I have a boyfriend, or if they can have my phone number and add me on Snapchat.
Given that boys can behave like this as young as 13, it’s no wonder they do it as adults. This got me thinking about the importance of education when it comes to matters such as sexual consent awareness. If pupils learn how to act respectfully towards the opposite sex early on, perhaps their boyish silliness is less likely to turn into more serious, intimidating behaviour towards women in later life. What’s more, this is a lesson which is not only needed in France, but everywhere, including the UK.