In Defense of Women: Solo Female Travel

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“I am a journalist and a ‘new woman’ if that means that I believe I can do anything a man can do”

– Annie Londonderry, the first woman to bicycle around the world

As a solo female traveler, I’ve proudly taken the stand that women can and should travel wherever they damn well please. When I published my story on Marrakech though, I received many emails thanking me for convincing them to find another travel destination.  I was devastated.  That is not the point!  It wasn’t the point then, and it isn’t the point now.  But because of this reaction, I believe it’s time we have an honest discussion about what to expect, what to do, and how people–especially women–should be empowered to travel alone.

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Part I: Accepting Reality

The world can be a beautiful place.  It can also be horrific.  And as much as I believe women should be able to travel the world, as much as I believe women never invite or ask for sexual harassment or assault, it does us no good to be ignorant.

See, the older I get, the more we start talking about sexual abuse, and once a story is told, it cannot be forgotten. Nearly every female in my life has been sexually harassed or degraded because of her femininity in some way. This means that some have been harassed on the street–a normal occurrence.  And the catcalling and pervasive, unwanted stares can do more damage than you may believe. And, on a darker note, some have been stalked, molested, attacked, or raped.  It has happened randomly, with friends, on college campuses, at weekend barbeques, and in the safety of people’s homes.

There are a multitude of situations in the world in which I see two sides.  I failed at the debate team because I nearly always agreed with elements of both parties, and would rather balance the two than pick a side.  But this is different.  This makes my blood boil.

However, contrary to what some may believe, this is not a traveling issue.  It’s a global one.

Sexual assault happens everywhere

On the one hand, we have travelers such as the widely popular Young Adventuress who claimed that Egypt is the one country she doesn’t need to return to.  Why?  Sexual harassment.  The sexual harassment of Marrakech exhausted me to the point where I spent an entire 24 hours holed up in my apartment after the trip, recovering.

However, a massive portion of the American population remains entirely ignorant of its own problems.  Sexual abuse is highly prevalent in the United States.  You don’t need to go to Egypt to get raped. Instead, we have frat parties and children raised in subtly misogynistic households.

To prove my point, I’ve done some research and provided the following facts regarding sexual abuse in America:

1.  Someone in the US is sexually assaulted every two minutes

2.  Two thirds of assaults are committed by someone the victim knows

3.  1 in every 6 women in America have been the victim of an attempted or rape in her lifetime

Find out more here.

No, I don’t live in Marrakech, where sexual harassment is a daily experience.  But our culture is not as advanced as many would like to believe, and until we change it, we cannot afford to be blind to what we’re reaping.

We’re still apologizing for abhorrent actions we are not responsible for

One night, my friends and I went out for a birthday/farewell celebration.  We sought shelter from the rain by huddling under a bridge, and for the most part, everything seemed perfectly fine.

Drinking wine by the river is a famous Parisian summer pastime–one we were all too eager to indulge in.  At one point, I walked the few meters from under the bridge to the nearby toilets.  Unfortunately, the toilets were locked, so I couldn’t have been gone for more than a minute.  I was in plain sight in a relatively safe area of the city, but just far away enough from my friends where they couldn’t immediately see what was happening.  Two young men who had been sitting quietly nearby approached me, and started jeering–the usual gruesome hand gestures and verbal attacks I’ve come to expect from random men on the street.

In response, I told them to leave me alone, at which point they grabbed me and started groping me.  Well, with the former US Assistant Secretary of Defense as my dad, and my own self-defense moves I’ve picked up from various black belt holders over the years, they chose the wrong girl to mess with.  But it was shocking and deeply disturbing that these men felt confident enough to sexually assault a woman in plain sight, without any visible fear of being stopped or reprimanded, let alone reported.

Mind you, this is one of the more mild experiences I’ve had/witnessed, but it’s one that speaks volumes to the abhorrent rape culture.  Someone close to me was so concerned we turned in early for the night.  It was his birthday.  And in that moment, it didn’t matter what kind of feminist views I held.  It didn’t matter that I was speaking to one of the least judgmental people I knew.  I felt overly compelled to apologize, feeling as if I had entirely ruined the evening by allowing it to happen.  So, I expressed how sorry I was and he looked at me, rightfully so, like I was a lunatic, and said, among other things, “No Alex, they ruined the night. These awful people who thought it was okay to hurt someone I care about ruined it. Don’t fucking apologize.” And then I started crying.  Not for myself, really.  Sure, I might have been shaken up but they hadn’t inflicted any lasting physical damage. But it’s so much deeper than just one person.  Random people, friends, and family, from Wisconsin to Paris, Istanbul to Melbourne, ruin people’s lives, shatter self-worth, and disrupt a woman’s comfort with her sexuality.  Some of this is personal, some of it isn’t.  That’s the point.  I’ve both experienced and observed many facets of this culture, as has nearly every female I know.

But we’re bred to understand these incidents as our fault.  A recent article written by a former high school classmate discusses another former classmate’s experience going to trial after a random attack.  “Were you drunk?” the Jury asked.  “What were you wearing?” people always question.  Questions subtly, and not-so-subtly, aimed at the woman to “make her understand her obvious role.”  Her part in “inviting” these advances.

Because if I’m being honest with myself, yes, if I had said nothing that night, those two men most likely wouldn’t have grabbed me.  I could have walked past, ignoring them all together, which I have done countless times.  It would have been safer to be silent, rather than to tell them off for crudely jeering, “pretty girl, come sit on my dick.”  But if every woman is silent, nothing, I repeat, nothing will ever change.

If you want to be a solo female traveler, or a solo male traveler, do it.  Do not, I repeat, do not allow these stories to deter you.  But be aware of this global issue, in our backyards and abroad, and be part of the change.

Part II: Overcoming Reality

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I truly hope that people–and women in particular–feel empowered enough to go accomplish whatever they so desire. For one girl, this may be trekking across South Korea.  For another, this may be pouring herself into work and becoming the best in her field.  For another, it may be having children by the age of 25.  It really doesn’t matter.  That’s the point of empowerment–we have autonomy over our own lives.

“I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves”

-Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women

And in the generations to come, we will cater our education towards teaching men not to be rapists, rather than teaching women how not to be raped.  But right now, in the world we live in, women need to protect themselves.  Go travel, go be independent, and don’t be afraid.  But don’t be stupid, either.

For women and men alike, traveling alone is an exhilarating experience.  It’s a lesson in independence, a time to listen to your own thoughts, a time to discover a culture without the distractions of other people.  Women are often told they cannot travel without the company of men because it’s unsafe.  Don’t be told you can’t, but don’t throw caution to the wind and travel recklessly either.  If you want to step out your door and see the wonders of the world, you need to at least be prepared to encounter possible dangers.

This is my advice to you, fellow traveler. 

1.  Do not be afraid

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More often than not, I hear women citing fear as their main reason for refusing to travel solo.  Again, sexual assault happens everywhere, as do theft and other crimes–we just have this skewed perception of everything being more dangerous abroad.  The amount of times I’ve felt in danger is actually higher in the US than a foreign country.  Yes, we need to be smart, but no, we cannot let fear dictate our lives.  If you’re observant and intelligent, there is no reason you can’t travel with the best of them.

But let’s be honest.  This fear goes far beyond sexual harassment.  When we discuss traveling alone, people look at us with this ghastly, shocked expression.  How in the world could a woman dream of traveling alone?  When I’ve confronted people who know others who’ve gone on similar adventures, the response is generally, “Well yes, but he’s a man.”

Don’t be afraid of this reaction–you will most likely encounter it.  Expect it but understand that these people are entirely wrong.

“I can’t understand why men make all this fuss about Everest”

-Junko Tabei, the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest

From exploring the rugged Welsh mountains to looking out across the sea at Mont Saint Michel, some of my favorite moments have happened while abroad, and alone.

2.  Take a self-defense class

I never invested in a proper course, though I plan to this year.  Before I left for France though, I had someone with a black belt teach me the basics of how to punch, break your nose, and escape from an arm grab from behind.  Pro tip: the bristles of a comb can be quite effective in a quick getaway.  If you carry one in your purse, whip it out and slice it under someone’s nose. It’ll distract the attacker enough to run away (though as I’m not certified and I’d suggest in taking an actual course).

Watch out, I can be sassy.

3.  Adhere to the cultural norms

Just be safe. Look, whenever anybody ever tells a woman not to wear a short dress in order to avoid possible unfortunate encounters, there’s a severe backlash.  So I won’t go that far, particularly because if anyone were to look through my closet, I’d quickly be shamed as a hypocrite.  But here’s the deal.  In places like Marrakech or Egypt, where your skin or hair color may already distinguish you as “different,” you will receive significantly less attention by covering up.  Do it for yourself, not for them.  Traveling through places where women are culturally seen as degraded objects will be a more pleasant experience for you if you wear longer layers.

4.  Bring a doorstop with you

This may sound paranoid, but sometimes, you need to be overly careful.  It’s small, effective, and easily stuffed into a backpack.  Pepper spray can be useful as well.

5.  Hostel Options

If you feel uncomfortable sharing a room with people, opt for a single room in a hostel, or splurge on a hotel room.  Many hostels have women-only options as well.  Honestly though, I never had a single issue with hostels.  Sleeping in a large room with a bunch of strangers, including males, some from New York, some from Brazil, and some from Paris, felt safe.  Even in Liverpool with a small room of three young men, I never once felt remotely threatened (and we changed in the bathrooms).  If a coed hostel makes you uncomfortable though, remember you have options.

6.  Research

Whenever you’re traveling, research the area ahead of time.  You don’t need to know where you’ll eat or what you’ll do every day, but I’m a firm believer in finding a safe place to sleep.

Of course, over-planning can be stressful and dull.  It can take the serendipity out of an adventure!  However, I always need a place to sleep before I arrive. If nothing else, it gives me some peace of mind that I’ve at least done something to plan my trip (because I rarely do much else).  It always depends on where you’re traveling to as well.  For example, when I went to Bayeux, Normandy, the entire town seemed safe enough that I felt comfortable choosing a hotel solely based on price.  By contrast, in places like Chicago, location is immensely important.  As a frugal person, I’m not one to indulge in hotel rooms.  But never let your desire for frugality threaten your safety.  Opt for the slightly more expensive hostel/hotel in the safer area.

7.  Don’t believe everything you hear

This is where research comes in handy.  People who’ve never traveled alone are generally the ones perpetuating the stereotype that women shouldn’t travel alone.  We’re better than that!

8.  Tell people where you’re going

No, this doesn’t make you childish or any less independent, it makes you safe.  My parents always had a basic itinerary, so if they didn’t hear from me for days, they’d have my flight numbers and hotel contact information.

9.  Don’t be afraid to travel with a friend

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Many solo female travelers feel like they’ve failed when they ask a friend to accompany them.  Personally, I enjoy traveling alone and with people, depending on the situation.  When I hiked Mount Snowden, I knew I needed to venture to the rugged hills of northern Wales on my own.  I will always be my first and last companion, so I may as well be comfortable with my own thoughts.  However, traveling with friends and family can be delightful.  If, for whatever reason, you feel uncomfortable traveling somewhere on your own, that’s alright.  Too often I see solo female travel bloggers shaming women who don’t do everything on their own.  That’s not okay.  Yes, go be adventurous, go travel on your own, and don’t be afraid to be a solo female traveler.  Own it and let it empower you.  But don’t be afraid to ask for a friend, either.  Just be safe, mes amis.

10.  Trust your instincts

The more we travel, the more attuned we grow to our surroundings.  If you feel unsafe in a supposedly safe area, leave.  If you research a city beforehand and, for whatever reason, feel uncomfortable, you don’t need to go.  We have nothing to prove.  Yes, I believe we should always strive to test our limits and deconstruct our comfort zones, but accepting your own limits is just as important.

11.  Remember that most people will support you

Most men in my life are feminists.  They respect and support women in every way.  Be smart but please don’t be afraid to see the world.  Please don’t listen to my stories and burrow deeper under the bed covers.  Listen and learn how to be the best solo female traveler you can be, and to encourage others to do the same.

I will continue to support solo travel, and for myself, solo female travel, until I die.  Nothing, especially not our sex, should prevent us from seeing the world.  Just be safe about it.  Be cognizant, be prepared, and don’t fucking apologize.

There may be tragedy in the world, but there’s wonder as well, and kindness, and beauty, and respect.  So go experience it.

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