Confronting Unwanted Sexual Attention in Sri Lanka
In 2011, pop-singer Rihanna released a video clip for her single ‘Man Down’, in which she plays a regretful fugitive after shooting down her rapist in a busy train station.
Contextualising her Barbadian vocals and the electro-reggae beat, the clip depicts Rihanna as the local sweetheart about town, who, in lacy white apparel, strolls through sun-filtered lanes, rides bikes and kisses her elders, plaits swinging and coconuts in hand.
Later, after rejecting his advances, Rihanna is raped by her former dancefloor partner outside a house party. After deliberation, she shoots him dead. Her lyrical exploration of remorse raises questions about consent, rape and revenge.
In response to North American parent groups who criticised the video clip for its sexually violent content, feminist writers argued that Rihanna’s portrayal of rape, which causes isolation and self-annihilation among survivors, emphasises female moral agency; ignoring a woman’s refusal to sex should be punished.
Not a Rihanna fan, I didn’t discover ‘Man Down’ until the beginning of a recent trip to Sri Lanka, where, on the southern coast, I was drinking with a group of multinational acquaintances in their guesthouse, where it played full-bore.
Here, I listened as their host – a trim, blonde-tipped Sri Lankan in his early 30s – explained a complex of his: with a wife and two toddlers at home, it was difficult to maintain promising holiday flings with his foreign guests; the distance between Europe and Sri Lanka was simply too great.
It seemed a curious problem for a married man from, in comparison to the liberal sex and drinking cultures of his western guests, a conservative social backdrop. Did he think I’d approve of his behaviour? I resisted judgement. He was hospitable and well-liked by his guests, an all-round nice guy.
That was until some days later, when I ran into one of those guests at the beach. She told me that this host had, following the night’s heavy partying at a local surf hostel, let himself into one of his female guest’s rooms while she slept, climbed into her bed and tried to kiss her.
Of course, she explained, he was paralytic on drugs and mojitos, and wouldn’t have done it sober. Besides, her friend had quickly removed him. Nothing untoward happened, and he felt very remorseful the following morning.
Right, I thought. And thus began to sharpen my awareness of Sri Lanka’s incipient relationship with western culture, and a disconcerting interplay between the local men and tourist women.
Now, I was only in Sri Lanka for nine weeks: hardly enough time to understand the country’s sociosexual tendencies. Nevertheless, via observation and anecdotal evidence, I sensed among the local men – especially those who worked in the beachside hotspots – a blatant experimentation with boundaries.
Sri Lanka, a South Asian island southeast of India, is a place of explosive fertility and warmth, where fruit falls from the sky and people endeavour to welcome you. Good surf, religious and ethnic diversity, and some 3,000 years of recorded history – including 133 under imperialist rule – make Sri Lanka ideal for leisure and adventure.
Just beneath the gloss, however, is a country emerging from a 26-year interethnic civil war that ended in 2009 when the Sri Lankan military defeated the separatist Tamil Tigers, deemed a terrorist organisation by the European Union in 2006, in a ferocious and controversial offensive that killed most of the group’s remaining members and leaders, as well as Tamil civilians.
Explanation of the Sri Lankan Civil War is beyond the scope of this article, but one should note that the then-Sri Lankan government, under President Rajapaksa, stands for war crimes and that the military, still occupying parts of traditionally Tamil territory, have expanded into the tourism industry.
Meanwhile, it seems today we foreigners are approaching Sri Lanka’s post-war tourism boom with the same #holidayz mindset as we might, say, Kuta or Phuket. One feature of this is, naturally, female tourists enjoying the beach in bikinis and going out drinking. But I’m unsure whether Sri Lanka is ready for it.
Firstly, besides the hissing and catcalls, I watched on several occasions local men approach female tourists on the beach, either to “practise their English” or stare lewdly. After one week, the constant handshaking, requests for selfies and questions on my relationship status grew loathsome.
This uncomfortable dynamic manifested more outwardly for two North American girls I met, who’d been invited to a barbeque by two local guys on friendly pretences. On the girls’ arrival to an empty house, the guys offered them rum sprinkled with ecstasy.
A particularly troubling display of unrequited sexual attention was inside the aforementioned weekly surf hostel party. Here, I watched a fun night turn perilous as unwitting female tourists tottered outside to leave, where a buffer of eager tuk-tuk drivers waited. I even saw one young woman pull her inebriated friend out of a tuk-tuk apparently bound for the driver’s home.
The case of the guesthouse host sexually assaulting his female guest upset and enraged me: how deserving he must have considered himself to make an unsolicited advance on a woman, no less his guest, and while she was so vulnerable. How utterly perverted.
Equally concerning was her friend’s response – “We all make embarrassing mistakes when we’re drunk, right?” –, a grim reminder that justifying perpetrator’s actions is alive and well, home and abroad.
My accumulated frustration and disgust at this behaviour erupted during my final day in Sri Lanka, when a local man followed me down the street in Negombo on his scooter, stopping occasionally to block my path and initiate conversation, smirking.
My temper, after some minutes of this, boiled up until I hurled myself at the man like a freight train. As his smirk disappeared I deployed hellish flames from my wrists and incinerated him on the spot, sending a swirl of human ash into the tropical ether.
Not exactly, but I let my imagination, influenced by my recent viewing of Rihanna’s ‘Man Down’, play with ideas of unquestionably violent revenge. I don’t consider violence the pathway to punishing rape or dealing with unsolicited sexual attention, but Rihanna’s message made me think what the world, and Sri Lanka, would be like if it were.
Eventually, a more enlightened Sri Lankan male explained how, in the absence of formal sex education in Sri Lankan schools, western boy-meets-girl films have led male viewers to infer that attracting and bedding a western woman is possible with good hair and a few drinks.
And while I appreciate that this is confusing for them, I’m left to wonder how this misinformation might manifest among female tourists as the boom continues, and how it might ultimately impact the perceptions and treatment of local women.
Cover by Geoffrey Mitre
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Lizzy is a freelance writer on a year-long trip from Bali to Iran. As a graduate of journalism and Spanish, she’s interested in language and culture, and dreams of being a foreign correspondent.