“We cannot be out after six or a devil will enter our body,” Sarasi told me as we hurried to finish our rice and curry. It was almost dark and Sarasi’s secluded boarding house was a 30-minute bus ride from town. It would take me at least that long to walk back to my guesthouse, but I wasn’t too worried about being accosted by demons on the way.
“Is it only girls who can’t go out after six?” I asked Sarasi, a 19-year-old college student I’d met while walking around Kandy Lake in central Sri Lanka. She’d asked me if she could practice her English with me; we spent most of the next week together. “Boys are allowed to stay out as late as they want?”
“Oh, yes. Boys have no problem.”
“That’s not fair.”
“No, is not fair,” Sarasi said slowly, washing her rice-covered hands in the bowl of water on the table. “But I think is not good if girls are outside at night. Because if boys see us, they try to grab us.”
“That’s awful,” I said, letting the ball of curry I was about to eat fall out of my hand. I struggled to couch my objections in simple language. “In the U.S., I go out dancing until two in the morning. Sometimes I dance with boys or kiss boys. But only if I want to.”
Sarasi tilted her head and let her jaw fall open, pressing her tongue against the back of her crooked upper teeth for a moment before she spoke. “But I think is normal to be raped in your country.”
“No, no, no,” I said, shaking my head vigorously.
As I walked Sarasi to the bus, I protested that rape is never “normal,” and that keeping women locked at home is no way to combat sexual violence. It was only later that I remembered the oft-cited Department of Justice statistic that one in four American women experiences rape or attempted rape during college. While I’m lucky to be in the alarmingly small majority, I’ve certainly had sex that was harmful to myself and others because of alcohol, loneliness, or a reckless combination of the two. Like many of my female friends, I’ve also had sex when I didn’t want to to get a persistent guy to stop pestering me. Although I found it stifling to imagine being deprived of erotic intimacy outside of marriage—not to mention a fun night out once in a while—the comparatively extreme sexual freedom of the U.S. is hardly without its problems.
I was distracted by these thoughts on my walk home from dinner with Sarasi, hardly noticing the fruit bats swooping in and out of lush rain trees. Our conversation had unmoored my beliefs about sexuality. During my first few weeks backpacking around Sri Lanka, I’d felt uncomplicated rage at the general pattern of male/female dynamics, where girls’ virginity is tested before marriage and couples rarely do more than hold hands before their wedding day. Yet widows are widely seen as “easy” because of their vulnerability (few men would marry a “used” woman), and white women are taunted with jeers like, “Do you like the f**king?” Several times, men on the street grabbed my waist or put their arm around my shoulder. As soon as I yelled at them to go away, they recoiled in alarm, as if they couldn’t believe a white girl would be offended by an uninvited caress from a stranger.
Soon after leaving Kandy to travel around the hill country, I had an interesting conversation with a guesthouse owner named Sampath, a smiley bachelor with the sinewy body required to carry tourists’ packs on backcountry treks. While I was reading in his garden one afternoon, a group of red-faced men in sarongs gathered nearby and belted out raucous renditions of folk songs. It was Sampath and his friends chewing betel leaf and passing around a bottle of arrack, Sri Lanka’s dangerously smooth coconut liquor. As Sampath served me tea the next morning, he said, “I wanted to invite you to join us yesterday, but I know my friends try to hug you and kiss you. Is gross. Men here, they see a white girl, they think bad things.” He scrunched up his nose. This was the first time I’d heard a Sri Lankan man openly address sexuality in a way that was not a come-on. Eager to carry the discussion further, I told him about the time I got so mad at a man who wouldn’t stop following me that I yelled, “Just because I’m white does not mean I want sex!”
Sampath laughed. Then he explained—self-evidently enough—that men see movies in which white girls show off their bodies and seem to revel in promiscuity. But he also gave a more surprising reason for men’s unabashed sexual aggression toward white girls: “Many women come here for sex.” It was not rare, he said, for older white women staying at his guesthouse to brazenly proposition him. I had indeed noticed two or three middle-aged women traveling with (and paying the way for) younger Sri Lankan men. And Sampath said he also had a couple of friends who were devoted—and successful—seducers of younger tourists.
On a packed bus later that day, I thought of other, smaller cultural transgressions I’d witnessed: white girls wearing tank tops or skirts that came above their knees, white girls drinking beer with Sri Lankan guys. Gripping the metal seatback with both hands to keep from banging into the man standing next to me, I silently cursed American culture—and some tourists in particular—for making it more likely that I’d be harassed during my travels. I chose to forget for the moment that I, too, exploited the increased freedom my white skin afforded me. When I got off the bus a few hours later, I was thrilled to find a beach touristy enough for me to sunbathe in a bikini without being harassed by local men. While I dove and splashed in clear, green waves, women in saris stood on the sweltering shore, dipping their toes in the froth.
The problem with this dichotomous thinking became clear when I decided to treat myself to a massage. After hearing from several travelers that female massage therapists were too gentle, I found a masseur who seemed professional, trustworthy, and capable of softening the knots in my back. I asked him if I could remain clothed for the massage; he nodded and smiled beatifically in his long white skirt. But once we got into the stuffy, dark massage room, he motioned to my skirt and top and said, “Off.” I hesitated for a moment before pulling off my outer garments and lying down on the table. The masseur had reassuringly effeminate eyes and lips, and slow-moving, skinny limbs. I told myself to relax into being a tourist and enjoy this luxury I couldn’t afford in the U.S. Besides, I was wearing a bathing suit underneath my clothes.
But just a few minutes in to the massage, his heavy breathing and disproportionate focus on my inner thighs made it clear that he was not only doing this for the money. After a month of enduring catcalls and groping, I felt so stupidly vulnerable for having believed I could apply Western social rules to a Sri Lankan interaction. I knew how rare, and therefore freighted, female nudity in Sri Lanka was. Yet there I was, lying mostly naked before a man I did not know.
I kept my eyes shut tight throughout the massage, trying to pretend that the hands rubbing oil into my stomach and legs belonged to a woman. This became impossible when he put his face close to mine and whispered, “Do you want massage here?,” motioning to my chest. “No,” I said, wanting to jump off the table but compelled to see the massage through to the end, as if doggedly assuming the role of nonchalant client would make this seem like an everyday business transaction.
When I paid him at the end of the hour, he offered to drive me on his motorbike to visit some waterfalls. “No, thanks,” I said, and headed back to the beach, to let the salty waves wash the oil off my skin.
When I saw Sarasi again a few days after the massage, I thought of how horrified she would be to know that I’d put myself in that situation. She wouldn’t even let her boyfriend kiss her on the mouth. He was 23 and she was 19; they had been dating for four years. “For Sri Lanka people, the body is very important,” she’d said in response to my shock at their restraint.
“Doesn’t your boyfriend try to do more with you?” I asked.
“Oh, no!” She tossed her shiny black braid over one shoulder. “He says, ‘When we marry, you are mine. Until we marry, I protect you.’” I tightened my jaw against a sense of vicarious suffocation. But then Sarasi flashed me an excited smile, her eyes widened mischievously. I couldn’t help grinning back.
“Well then,” I said, “I hope he will be a good husband.”
Hannah Tennant-Moore is a regular contributor to The New Republic book review and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Her work has also appeared in Tin House, The Sun, the travel anthology Something to Declare, Best Buddhist Writing, and elsewhere.