Adventurous Kate contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks!
A few days ago, my attention was brought to a piece on Buzzfeed called 29 Things Women Avoid Doing Because We Fear For Our Safety. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. Go ahead, read it and come back here.
In typical Buzzfeed style, the piece was written with the goal of gaining social shares and pageviews, and it seemed to be written controversially for that reason.
Some of the more controversial items on the list that I thought were over the top:
14. Wear a ponytail, because it will make it easier for an attacker to grab our hair.
19. Eat food in public — like ice cream cones — that might attract unwanted male attention.
5. Travel solo, because there are certain places where it’s just not safe to be a woman traveling alone.
(Though, also obviously, there are plenty of places where I wouldn’t travel alone. Like Venezuela or Pakistan or Papua New Guinea. And lots more places where I wouldn’t travel, period, like Syria and Somalia.)
But at the same time, there were items on the list that had me nodding in agreement:
10. Walk home at night without holding our keys out, because you never know when you might need a makeshift weapon.
11. Wear flimsy clothing when we’re out walking by ourselves, because harassers see it as an invitation to bother us.
22. Get into a subway car with just men in it, because we’re afraid something might happen. Instead, we scope out subway cars with other women already in them.
24. Answer the door to unexpected visitors, just in case it’s someone who got into the building randomly, who might be planning to attack.
And this one in particular:
23. Walk around late at night with headphones on and blasting music, because we’re afraid attackers might come up behind us.
That’s exactly how I got mugged in Boston back in 2009.
I’m sure you don’t agree with every point on the list. I don’t think you should. But the point of this list is meant to show that the threat of sexual harassment and/or assault is woven into the fabric of our lives as women. It doesn’t control every aspect of our lives, yet it’s discreetly omnipresent.
Every day of my life, whether I’m at home or on the road, I make dozens of micro-decisions relating to my safety.
I walk home with my keys between my fingers, ready to use them as a weapon if necessary. I check to see if anyone’s hiding in the backseat before I get into my car. I reject drinks offered to me by anyone other than the bartender. I don’t cut through parks after sunset. When I move into a new place, I practice opening the door with my key as quickly as possible and memorizing the angle at which to hold my key, just in case I need to run from someone.
When it comes to guarding myself from harassment or assault, I am on 24/7. There is never any downtime. I didn’t realize that until I read the Buzzfeed piece.
Every now and then, a male traveler I know makes a comment along the lines of, “There’s no difference between travel for women and for men. Men can be attacked; men can be robbed; men can be drugged; men can even be raped. Being a foreigner is more significant than being a woman. If you’re not anywhere like India, if you’re just going to Europe or Southeast Asia or something, there’s no difference at all.”
Bad things can happen to anyone at anytime. Beyond that, though, I disagree with their overall assertion. But I don’t blame them. It’s hard to understand if you haven’t spent the last decade or longer experiencing it firsthand.
Until you’ve spent time scrutinizing your outfit in the mirror and wondering if the length of your skirt, the height of your heels, or the brightness of your red lipstick will result in you getting harassed on the street, no, you don’t know what it’s like.
The problem is that these men are making their observations through the context of travel when they should be looking through the context of life.
And so when I travel, I continue to do what I do at home. I choose not to walk down a dark street in Ljubljana by myself, even though the city center feels safe. I choose to take a cab late at night in Zagreb, even though the hotel is just a few blocks away.
I choose to be purposefully vague when being chatted up by two amiable but slightly drunk guys in Belfast, lest they follow me home. I choose to ask my Airbnb host detailed questions about what I should and shouldn’t do in the neighborhood. I choose to dress conservatively in new destinations, rather than guessing and unknowingly breaching a level that turns into catcalls from men.
Does this sound like living in fear? It’s not. I simply stay aware and make choices that will keep me as safe as possible.
One recent experience was in Cambodia. After experiencing three shockingly crime-filled weeks — although the crimes were anecdotal, they were later corroborated by statements from the Phnom Penh chief prosecutor and UK government about an overall increase in crime in the country — I decided that I was no longer comfortable hiring a private guide to take me to Preah Vihear on my own.
Between remembering a borderline uncomfortable conversation I had had when alone with a motorbike driver back in 2010 and having heard about a friend of a friend who had been nearly raped by another motorbike driver in Phnom Penh just a few weeks before, I didn’t want to put myself in an isolating situation with a local man. (Had it been a tour group, that would have been different, but that wasn’t an option.)
The chances of something happening would have been extremely unlikely. But I still didn’t want to take the risk.
One misconception is that women are only at risk in countries like India that necessitate greater caution, but you’d be surprised at what you’d find in common “safe” destinations.
A few weeks into my semester abroad in Florence nearly a decade ago, it was a scorchingly hot day and I wore the kind of outfit I’d wear on a hot day at home: a short denim skirt and a cream-colored tank top.
In the ten minutes it took to walk from my apartment to the Duomo, I received so much harassment by men in the form of “accidental” gropes, grazing hands, and catcalls, that I turned around, walked home, and changed, never to wear either of those items in Italy ever again.
(You know what’s the worse part of all? If the gropes had escalated into full-blown assault, people would have said, “Well, she shouldn’t have been wearing a short skirt.” News flash: NOBODY deserves to be assaulted. Ever. No matter what they’re wearing.)
This atmosphere is honestly a fact of life while traveling in certain destinations in Italy, especially cities like Florence and Rome that are popular with young foreigners. Even if you dress conservatively, your appearance is part of the conversation in Italy. Men will talk about how you look; some will even touch or grab you. I could always, always tell in advance when I was being sized up by a man down the street, about to be “ciao bella-ed.” It wasn’t uncommon for me to be followed down the street by a group of men, either when alone or with female friends.
I still visit Italy often and I don’t experience as much harassment these days — I believe it’s because I’m older, I know how to blend in better these days, and I now spend most of my time in destinations where fewer tourists visit and thus have a different culture regarding foreigners.
Let’s talk about a very different part of the world: Japan. Japan is one of the safest places I have ever experienced — the kind of place where you could leave your purse on a bench and it wouldn’t be touched — but sexual harassment on public transportation has been enough of an issue that women-only subway cars were introduced nearly a decade ago.
They call it chikan. There is a subset of criminal men who grope, fondle, or rub up against women on the subway for their own sexual enjoyment.
This hasn’t happened to me in Japan — but it has in Boston. Twice. Both times, I froze, too shocked and scared to do anything until we got to the next stop. It’s easy to say that you’d scream, that you’d move, that you’d do anything to get away from him — but until a traumatizing action like this happens to you, you have no idea.
Italy and Japan have their issues. But would I tell women not to visit these countries? Absolutely not. They are both beautiful and fascinating places — two of my top five favorite countries, in fact — and their amazing qualities massively outshine the less savory ones.
What can we do?
With a list like this, it’s a reminder of just how scary the world can be. But that doesn’t mean that we should curl up into a ball and hide away, never to use our passports again. It’s possible to travel safely with conscientious preparation.
We should continue to be responsible travelers who prioritize our safety.
We should research our destinations in depth before we arrive and learn not just what to do, but how to dress and where to avoid. We should ask questions to local women or women who have recently traveled there, and we should find local communities via Couchsurfing or Meetup groups.
We should be hyper-cautious when it comes to our alcohol intake and our trust of strangers.
We should financially invest in our safety, whether that means if that means paying for quality travel gear, purchasing expensive travel insurance, or booking pricey taxis on an already-stretched budget.
We should pay attention to our loved ones’ concerns about our safety and create a plan to stay in touch.
We should always, always listen to our intuition and remove ourselves from situations that feel dangerous.
127 thoughts on “Why Travel Safety Is Different for Women”
I’m sorry all of those things happened to you but I’m grateful to you for sharing them! I’ve traveled alone before, and will continue to do so, but just like you I feel like I am in constant ‘high alert’ when I am alone.
Loved this article. I am always aware of men and people in general around me when I travel in other countries but also in America. I don’t trust anyone and I don’t put myself in shady situations. Unfortunately things happen even when you are keeping an eye out. When I traveled solo in Southern Italy I felt eyes all over me as a foreigner but I just kept walking and don’t make unnecessary eye contact and it’s fine. I never try to look like I’m lost or vulnerable when traveling alone. Once I was jewelry shopping in downtwon Athens and I walked away from my husband to go to another store. The storeowner grabbed my arm and tried to pull me inside to get a better look at his jewelry and I just pulled my arm away and walked straight away from him. I don’t think he was trying to do anything serious but I don’t like being grabbed or touched like that. It’s sad to think that if my husband walked in the store with me that he would never have grabbed my arm but I believe that to be the case.
The writer of the BuzzFeed piece seems to have decisions that may seem ridiculous to me, but I’m sure many women have thought. I’ve been very lucky to avoid much of this, but a girl was just raped and killed on the same overnight train in Thailand that I took twice. Great post, Kate.
I understand how you feel here. After living in India a couple years, when I do leave, I do NOT have my guard up at all because I kind of have even let it down here in India. Being an expat and getting familiar in a new place is definitely different than when actually backpacking. I do find myself going to less touristy places in India and forgetting that I should worry about safety. .. but then I see something in the news that happened to a women here, or a dumb Indian politician says to his opposing party “I will send my boys to rape your women!” at a press conference, and it shakes me- OR i write about a time my butt got grabbed on a bus and one of my Indian readers comments “I feel bad now that I do this to women , I didnt know it upset you so much… ” and i’m left scratching my head. Women do have more to worry about even though sometimes we dont want to admit it.
That is horrifying, Rachel. Yeesh.
Did you actually got a comment like that from a reader?? That IS so stupid. Argh!
Renuka- yes! I even approved the comment so people could understand .. You can see it in these comments: http://hippie-inheels.com/backpacking-india-alone
…I’m in shock that that commenter had no idea that touching womens asses on buses upset them. Whaaaaaaaaat??????
yes, it wasn’t exactly what was said – I couldn’t remember when I commented, but you can see the comment on the link I replied to Renuka.. just that he used to grab butts and feels bad about it and will stop basically.
Pakistan isn’t as dangerous as most women think. Yes there is violence against women, but a majority of the time it’s aimed at local women – foreign women are often let be. I know a girl who travelled to Pakistan alone and she was completely safe – she says she felt much safer there than in some countries more popular for solo female travel. According to her, Pakistan has some of the best hospitality towards travellers in the world as the people tend to treat them like they are distant relatives (especially solo travellers).
I really loved your post. I have to agree with you that I’m 24/7 aware of my safety, might it be at home or on the road. A couple of weeks ago I was in Morocco. My female friend and I walked around the Jemaa el Fna Square in Marrakech. It was already dark but we felt quite comfortable. We just didn’t talk much to the shop and stall owners and people in the souks as we didn’t want to risk something. A day after we went there with three male friends to the square. It was totally different. The owners of the stalls reacted differently to them and talked normally about this and that with them even though they said they don’t want to eat at their stall. I don’t know how to describe that but we both had the same opinion that not only we acted differently with male company but also the stall owners acted totally different.
Nonetheless I have to say that I actually felt much safer than I thought in Morocco. You take precautions of course but I’ll do that at home too. I have my bag in front of me, close it properly etc. Sure there are places I wouldn’t travel to alone as a woman, but I also think it could happen everywhere.
When I was living in Rome I got my butt grabbed multiple times. I dressed modestly- I wore jeans and pants and if I wore a dress it was with leggings. Still I had more strange hands on my a$$ than I ever wanted. Most of the time it didn’t really phase me too much but one time I was walking in a crowded vegetable market in Trastevere and this old man came up behind me and grabbed both cheeks (one with hand each) and squeezed hard (ouch!) and then when I turned around just leered at me and winked. I wanted to throw up. I was so shocked that I just froze and pretended to look at tomatoes. Ick. Of course now, I think about how I should have told him off in Italian. Or done something.
Anywho, since then my reaction time is much quicker and I mostly just say stop or “you are embarrassing yourself”
I’ve replayed the scene on the T in Boston in my mind. Next time, I’d turn around and yell, “Motherf*cker, get your hand OUT of my ass crack!” and go on the tirade from there…
I just laughed out loud in a room full of non-english speaking French people and now I can’t explain why I’m laughing haha
I feel like I’ve had this conversation with people a lot lately. This might be stretching it, but I feel like more men tend to be homophobic because the idea of an unwanted sexual advance (potentially from someone bigger or stronger than them) is a very foreign concept. And people who say that traveling is the same for men and women really don’t get it — they don’t understand what it’s like for a stranger in a bar to walk up to you and grab your crotch. (Yes, this happened to me. I was wearing jeans. Not that what I was wearing should be relevant.)
It might make people uncomfortable, but sexuality for women is just very different. For men, all (legal) sexual expression is good — it’s studly, even. But if a woman wears revealing clothing, buys her own condoms, speaks openly about sex, takes home two men, WHAT??! If it was wanted, she’s a slut. If it was unwanted, she must’ve been “asking for it” somehow. And um… did you hear about Susan Patton on Fox News saying the term “date rape” should be changed to “mistake sex” to avoid diminishing the “true horror of rape”? Yeah. I’ll tell that to my little sister-in-law. I’m sure she’ll be thrilled to learn that she wasn’t really raped — she just had mistake sex. Rape culture (and please don’t even get me started on the word “rapey” that people have been using lately — there’s NOTHING cute about rape) is a very real and prominent thing, even in supposedly “progressive” countries like the U.S. It’s just… sad.
I have a happier life when I block out Fox News altogether. 🙂 The rape and victim-blaming culture in this country is terrible.
Ha! So true. I don’t even have cable, but apparently I need to stay off of Facebook to avoid the latest Fox stupidity.
Living in Brazil, I have to be careful everyday, even though I’m pretty much “a local” now. If I see a group of men, I need to go to the other side of the street. If I’m walking down the street, I can’t make eye contact with any man or he’ll think that means I want to have sex with him. I think the most important thing to remember is that the world isn’t fair, and women have to be more careful than men.
Awful. That must be so stressful and take up so much of your energy.
Very well written post – you always do a great job putting your thoughts down in a clear and concise manner.
I haven’t a clue what it’s like to be a woman, to live under a persistent threat of sexual abuse or harassment. Visiting India, the staring we received on a daily basis left me unsettled at times, but even that pales in comparison to what women experience. I agree with Hannah that the world isn’t fair, but in this case, the world needs to do better. I have no idea how that could happen, but I’ll start by looking in the mirror .
You may be interested to know there has been a campaign on the T in recent months specifically against sexual harassment. I think it started when some perv got caught taking phone photos up women’s skirts. Anyway, the point is that awareness is growing, albeit ever so slowly!
I had no idea, Sasha. That’s good that they’re doing something about it.
I’ve lived in the US for almost a year now and I feel the things you’re describing everyday. Granted, it’s not only the sole facts (rape rate 7 times higher than in my home country in Central Europe – though I do believe this may be not the best comparison because of under-reporting – and a homicide rate that is as appalling), but also that I am not local, I do not fully grasp the customs, I cannot judge the way people behave etc.
It affects my life (and life of every other woman here) greatly. I no longer can take a long walk home from a party at 2 am just because I’m feeling like it. I no longer can go jogging in the late evening (I used to love doing that!). I’m getting cautious about my belongings when I go out. And every time a hear a bang, I wonder whether that was a firework or a shot.
Quite frankly, I believe it to be an assault on my freedom.
And it strikes me that freedom is so greatly restricted in a country that takes it as its highest value. I do believe this is a great place altogether, and I am happy that I’m here, but, certainly, there is a lot of things that could be improved.
I just think of it as life in an American city. :-/
I’ve never traveled alone, but when we do travel we always do our best to be as safe as we can. We are usually guilty of trusting others a little too much, and in the past have been in some scary situations where everything luckily did turn out well.
I would have probably been one of those male travellers who would’ve made the comment about being a foreigner is more relevant than being female. I know better now, and depending how zen I am about it, it makes either sad or furious. I hate that we live in a world where women have to take these precautions simply because men are pigs. The part that stands out the most for me in this article? This:
“You know what’s the worse part of all? If the gropes had escalated into full-blown assault, people would have said, ‘Well, she shouldn’t have been wearing a short skirt.’ News flash: NOBODY deserves to be assaulted. Ever. No matter what they’re wearing.”
Sam, thank you so much for this thoughtful response. That means a lot to me — I want guys like you to be reading it!
Great post! You also just made me realize that I constantly make decisions about my personal safety- whether it be consciously or just out of habit. Sometimes it becomes frustrating because I can’t tell if I’m being paranoid or if I’m just being aware- like if I walk down a secluded trail in the middle of the day- should I keep the volume of my headphones low just in case someone comes up behind me? Or am I being ridiculous because it’s the middle of the day and I’m in my safe and small hometown?
And it’s so true that sexual harassment can happen in “safe” places. I had my guard up when I traveled throughout Southeast Asia and South Africa, but had no issues. When in Australia, I had two separate incidents- including a sketchy stranger asking me a very inappropriate question on near-empty night bus- yet this was a country where I felt completely comfortable and was the last place I thought I would have any issues.
I really enjoyed your article and I love that you’re bringing these issues to everyone’s attention.
I agreed with most of what you wrote aside from one thing… You write:
“Until you’ve spent time scrutinizing your outfit in the mirror and wondering if the length of your skirt, the height of your heels, or the brightness of your red lipstick will result in you getting harassed on the street, no, you don’t know what it’s like.”
But catcalls aren’t reserved for women in flimsy clothes or bright lipsticks. Catcalls and street harassment are, in my experience, hardly ever about that – you can get harassed in a skirt, of course, but you can also get harassed in old sweatpants with no makeup on. I’m reacting to this, because I think your line of logic is problematic – catcalls and more importantly rape is not affected by what the victim is wearing… I do agree that flimsy clothing attracts more unwanted attention of course, but not wearing it does NOT prevent it.
I know you partly addressed that in the short skirt episode, I just wanted to explicitly say it 🙂 I’m very passionate about women’s rights – don’t interpret my comment as me trying to pick a fight please, I just want to add my take!
Not at all, Sabina! I’m so glad you shared your thoughts. I didn’t mean to imply that you won’t get harassed in sweatpants — it can happen anytime, no matter what you’re wearing.
That said…here’s an experience for you. Put on a black pencil skirt, blouse, black flats and clear lip gloss. Walk a few busy city blocks. Then do it again, a few hours later, in high heels and red lipstick. You’ll see a difference! I remember a magazine that did a feature on red lipstick way back in the day (I think I was a teenager!) and she got a lot more attention with the red lipstick.
Thank you for this post!
I am so tired of hearing that we shouldn’t be wary about travelling alone. That we are “making things up”. That is it “Paranoïa”.
It is not. It is just “being realistic”.
I do also all those things (especially the key thing) and I don’t think they are ridiculous. Better be safe than sorry.
I have traveled to “risky” places where nothing happened and to “safer” places were I had the worst experiences… Everything can happen everywhere :/
Thank you again for this post <3
Cheers from a fellow woman globetrotter 🙂
This is great Kate. When I was in Chicago with Cailin last month, a few guys were giving her a hard time for taking a cab a couple of blocks to her hostel because she’d seen a couple shady looking dudes walking towards her. I told them OF COURSE that is what she should have done!
When you are alone as a woman, you have to be constantly on guard for potential threats, because they really, really do come out of nowhere. It’s exhausting and it sucks. I think it’s really important for guys to realize that these are the realities that women live under, no it’s not in our heads and that we all need to work towards the solution.
It IS exhausting living with this, day in and day out.
I never worried about a ponytail but have walked with key-fingers many a time in many cities. It’s easy to get depressed or angry that daily precautions (even small ones) become habit out of necessity – who wants to be one of the few in THAT category? But I’d much rather be a little paranoid than end up wishing I had been just a little more so.
I saw the same piece, and it’s true that if you don’t live it, you don’t 100% get it, making guys like the one you referred to more frustrating. I was indeed surprised to read of your Florence experience – and saddened – I guess I’ve been fortunate not to experience anything so serious in Italy, just a little minor “ciao bella” from time to time. Hopefully that was a rarity – I’m interested to see how it goes on my upcoming trip.
As always, insightful and balanced!
I live in Chicago and have traveled to many different parts of the world. Whenever I go somewhere new, at least one person asks me if I’m scared or worried about my safety. I chuckle a little and tell them I’m from Chicago. I’ve learned to be extra cautious anywhere I go and trust my instincts. Take a cab when you don’t feel safe walking, don’t walk down dark ally’s, and yes, pull those keys out.
Your gut is most likely right! Listen to it.
Quite an enlightenment on Italy and Japan. The former is one of my dream destinations and I want to hear only the good stuff about it. But, I’m thankful to you, Kate. Reading this piece is definitely a trigger for women solo travelers to be more cautious. I also wrote a similar post recently where I talked about solo travel in India – the point is any place can be good or bad. We have to be careful no matter what. And yes, it’s a woman’s right to dress the way she likes, but at the same time it’s wise not to draw attention at all.
As usual, Kate, a well-written and thought out post. I have traveled alone in Italy, Spain, Ireland, Greece and Turkey and have always been careful and aware. As you well point out, some of the things that happened to you (guys rubbing up against you) happen at home. As women, we do face a different world and need to be more aware than a man – it’s unfortunate that it is this way, but it is. I think all women just need to exercise common sense no matter where they are – and they should never be afraid to travel alone. It’s one of the greatest rewards and I’d hate for a woman to miss out on incredible experiences just because she thought the world wasn’t safe.
Great post and you’re right about that article. At first I was so angered by it (ponytails, really?!) but you reminded me that a lot of the statements were quite accurate. Keys out at night when alone, always. It’s so important to be vigilant and yes, trust your gut but I just hope these articles don’t scare women into living their lives and scared hermits. There is so much good out there, as you well know. Always a pleasure following you.
Great, inspring post! I am so paranoid (both at home and when I travel), but when you talk about it more as being aware, it makes me feel better about my paranoia… ahem…. awareness. 🙂 It’s so true – trust your instincts! Every single time I don’t, I end up in trouble. When will I learn??
My bf and I just got back from our first trip together (we’ve both always been solo travlers) when we were in Italy, at a train station we saw a man come up to a girl and cat call/make inappropriate comments. I honestly didn’t even notice Bc it’s something that is so common, (not just Italy-everywhere) but my bf was really upset. He was shocked and couldn’t believe that people actually did that! It made me realize how different it is being a woman. Something that I took for granted, something that happens daily to many of us, just appalled him, and he couldn’t understand it.
Phenomenal article, Kate. Whether I am at home or on the road, it’s SO rare that I’m not on high-alert. As a fellow solo traveler I am not afraid but I am always careful and aware of the potential dangers. It does irk me when male travelers make the comment that it’s the same. It isn’t the same. Not in the US or anywhere else.
Last year I went travelling through South America, USA, Europe and Indonesia as a solo Aussie female and I took only old clothes, I rarely wore makeup and I even died my blonde hair dark brown as an extra precaution. I was very fortunate that I was safe my entire time away however, I was careful to taxi at night, rarely was I alone and I tried my best to learn at least a few words in each language. Maybe I missed out on some crazy experiences due to my need to be safe but my trip was definitely not short of experiences! I would like to see more people write about the shame men should feel from making women feel uncomfortable, and that they should take extra care to not make women feel this way. In my 28 years, I’ve seen ONE article discuss this. Everything else I’ve read gives women tips on how to be more safe. Let’s start encouraging men to act responsible! (I understand not all men are irresponsible, however, it important to spread the word to help ladies’ safety improve worldwide).
One issue with that, Rae, is that if you wrote something targeted toward these men, would they be reading it? :-/ It’s tough.
Would it be a good idea to have an article in a men’s magazine (or websites that aim mainly for men or teenage boys) about the effects on women that had been raped? Do you think men would read it?
I also went through a number of unpleasant situations with men, while travelling, and as you say, it can happen anywhere…near your house or in a faraway country. It usually only ended with staring or few weird comments, but it still made me feel really uncomfortable. Most of the time I found ignoring those men the best way out. I know we should all be able to wear whatever the heck we like, without being harrassed for it, but let’s not forget that whatever can be accepted in our own country will not be accepted in other ones. Having respect for foreign customs is very important, but sadly enough I see many girls who just simply don’t care and in these situation I really do want to say to them ‘you are just asking for trouble’!
Excellent post Kate! Thanks for brining attention to this topic. There are times when I wonder whether I’m just paranoid or aware for practicing these behaviors whether at home and abroad. But quite simply it is different living and traveling as a female. At 22 I backpacked through Western Europe for three weeks, and on every single day of that trip I got catcalls or racial slurs thrown at me, with one guy even getting within inches of my face to verbally harass me. It’s unfortunate, but it won’t stop me from traveling, it just reinforces the importance of being vigilant.
I’ve been traveling solo quite a bit, and have had some interesting experiences – times where I’ve thought, “this could go really bad for me”. But I haven’t really had anything bad happen.
And then I went to Philly a couple of weeks back for a meeting, and a crazy, younger man, with hate in his eyes, spit in my face.
It wasn’t even the act of the spitting (which, by the way, was disgusting, and I could smell him the rest of the day – he must’ve been homeless or something) – but it was the fact that it could’ve been much, MUCH worse, and I felt helpless to stop it.
So now I’m going to take a class, learn how to protect myself (or run), so that I can feel more empowered. Because the one thing I hated about what he did was that he took away my sense of security. I know I need to be careful, but I felt helpless, and that pissed me off.
Good for you, Lpeg. I’m sorry that happened to you. 🙁
I live in Spain so I’ve had similar experiences to what you describe happening to you in Italy. It’s definitely made me a little more cautious, and now if I see a group of guys I often cross over to the other side of the street to put a little more distance between us (even though most guys are totally respectful). I also find myself checking over my shoulder a lot, just in case.
It’s so tough explaining this to guys sometimes. I was talking to a male friend about this. He said somebody had called out something sexual to him once or twice, and that he got followed home once. As a result, he thinks he gets it and that I’m totally overreacting and being an ultra-extreme feminist stereotype. I tried to tell him “Look, I’m happy in a way that that’s your response, because it means you personally don’t think or act like those creeps. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”
And of course, creepy guys usually don’t harass you when you’re walking around with a guy, so it’s not like I could take my friend out into the street and just show him what happens.
It IS different, and I’m still not quite sure how to help guys like this understand that no, we aren’t overreacting.
I have a lot of friends who act the same way, Jessica. I want to send this to them, but I think that would be passive-aggressive. Hopefully they’ll come across it on their own. 😉
I just wrote a post about this topic, on ways to keep safe while travelling solo as woman. I never felt fear for my safety while travelling in Japan, but I was definitely stopped on the street by men A LOT, and I never knew if one of them was going to try something sketchy or not. One guy even insisted on following me home. I had to make up a story about a having fiance and take him to a fake address.
But you know what? Similar things have happened to me in Canada. I always put a fake ring on my ring finger when going out dancing, to keep the creepers away. And I’ve had men catcalling and make comments on my outfits in public. You always have to be vigilant, but you can’t let fear stop you from experiencing the world, whether it’s in your own back yard or abroad. You’ll always regret it if you do.
I traveled solo in Mexico last year and am now living in Tijuana. Before I came to Mexico so many people told me the men are leery and as a blonde I would be subject to lots of unwanted attention. It’s true that lots of people call out to me – its an everyday occurrence to hear “wera wera! Que guapa!” and it can get tiring, but that is the extent of the harassment I have experienced. No one has ever come close to grabbing my ass.
Having said that, I definitely make choices regarding my safety – at times during my travels I felt greatly restricted by feeling that I was unable to go out alone at night, but usually I was couchsurfing (often with guys, without a problem) and so had someone to show me around and give me the low-down on the area. I love making chit chat with random strangers but I am always cautious and wonder if my friendliness is going to come off as something more. It’s definitely stuff we have to think about, but solo travel is one of the best things I’ve ever done and I think everyone should do it!
Thank you for pointing out a predicament that I’m not sure if I have the answer to: where does one draw the line between “it shouldn’t be the woman’s responsibility to not get assaulted, it should be the perpetrator’s responsibility to not assault in the first place” and exercising common sense? In a sexual assault and relationship violence training that I did, we learned about something called the “just world fallacy,” wherein a person believes that the world is just, and consequently if something bad happens to someone, it’s their fault. For example, if someone is a victim of a tornado, instead of saying, “Damn that sucks, I want to help that person in some way,” a person who believes in the just world fallacy would say, “Well, why did they choose to live in a tornado zone? Why didn’t they build a cellar in their home? Why didn’t they evacuate the area prior to the tornado?” At the same time, we all take safety measures in our everyday lives out of common sense; most people lock their car or their house or wouldn’t let a stranger borrow their iPone (though I did that once and he ran off with it, oops…). So it’s like, no, it shouldn’t be up to me to not get sexually assaulted, and I shouldn’t be blamed if it does happen to me. But am I going to walk down a dark alley by myself late at night? No. Ultimately, what people tend to forget is that rape happens more often between people who know each other rather than the stranger hiding in the bush. Yet that doesn’t mean that assault from a stranger doesn’t happen. Therefore, we need to change our culture so that we focus on preventing perpetrators from assaulting instead of putting the responsibility onto women. But in the meantime, it’s unfortunate that we do have to take all of these steps to try to ensure our own safety. Yet a woman can still take all of the precautions and still be assaulted. Then who are they going to blame?!
You’re right, Alise. It seems like there’s nothing that can be done other than changing the culture, which is a very long-term thing to do.
Even I do the key thing, scan the parking area 20m around the car and look in the back seat and I’m a guy.
When exiting a lift or escalator scan the crowd and entering the street looking through the plate glass to see who’s there 20m out.
This came from 17yrs in South Africa and just being aware of who’s who in the zoo, thankfully I don’t have burglar bars on the windows anymore and don’t scan 20m either end of as parking space before parking but I still do check who’s loitering on the street as part and parcel of being in a space.
When I’m travelling with or without the wife, I always make an effort to converse and acknowledge women who are alone even going so far as to having “3 daughters” viewing the sights once with my wife and I in one place.
Whenever Carol travels alone for work I think of her constantly and hope she’s having a good time and is safe and others are treating her as I do them. MikeNZ
My mom and her ex did the same with a few girls in Spain! They adopted them for a few days. The girls even called them on Christmas, several months later, and their mother thanked them for watching over them! So nice.
Thanks for the great post Kate!
I think this is a very important issue to talk about to help everyone realise what women experience on a day to day basis.
I really appreciate that you don’t let any of this deter women from travelling, especially alone!
I’m a mother of an almost 22 year old and a 19 1/2 year old. Both girls and both have travelled independently recently. Always be alert and prepared. Expect the unexpected.
“It won’t happen to me” is NOT the attitude to adopt. Simple situations can escalate very quickly. Don’t drink unless in the company of trusted friends who can care and look out for your best interests.
Always take a cab when in doubt. Money can be transferred to you. Your personal safety cannot.
Be adventurous with travel but not with your life.
Excellent post, Kate! I just sent this to my 15-year-old daughter who is leaving in a month to study in Japan. Cheers!
I definitely agree that men and women have way different experiences when traveling. And I do understand that a lot of men simply don’t get it, because obviously that can’t completely relate. I typically travel with my boyfriend. I tend to be less on guard when we’re exploring new cities and I don’t fear things like walking around a strange city at night. However, if I were on my own I would probably never walk down foreign streets in the middle of the night. I would take a cab. Traveling with a man definitely changes the way I travel. It’s also interesting how different my experiences are when I’m not with my boyfriend. Simple things like walking down the street can get really uncomfortable. I never get catcalls when I’m with him, but it happens way more often when I’m exploring foreign countries by myself. And things like that can make me feel really on edge. You give some great advice here. As a woman it never hurts to be too cautious.
I remember one time in Istanbul I walked two blocks down to breakfast with Mario. Totally normal. Walked back by myself and got constant catcalls. Jesus. I just walked by you with a guy!
My mum actually got me a personal alarm last time I went overseas, I didn’t have to use it fortunately but when I was walking home in Avignon at night I’d hold it in my hand because the town which is so charming and post-card perfect by day has no nightlife, so the streets are deserted after sunset apart from the clearly mentally unwell homeless on the street, who were quite scary and aggressive – one man followed my friend and I for a bit and it was quite unnerving, in those dark little alleyways, so having a realllllly loud alarm that’s difficult to reset reassured me a little. There didn’t seem to be any cabs as it was so tiny.
Normally I err on the side of caution and take cabs, however once in Paris I was leaving the Moulin Rouge quite late at night, and my friends had got in a cab to their accomm on the other side of town. They made sure I got in a cab first, but shortly after we started moving the police pulled over my driver. I couldn’t understand the conversation because it was too fast (he wasn’t speeding at all), but it seemed very tense and the policeman told me to get out the car and then said “It’s okay, you’re safe now.”
Safe…NOW?! It was pretty scary then walking alone around the red light district ( do not. ever. at night) and then having to get another cab straight away. I keep my usual phone plan when overseas so that in an emergency I can call or text home or details to someone – even if it costs me a bomb, I won’t be stuck without phone credit.
The first time I was in Italy I was with a group of guys and noticed nothing…when I was recently there with another girl I was shocked at how bad the harassing was. The French guys try to talk their way into your bedroom, the Italians are worse – they were handsy, gropey, wrapping their arms around me and trying to kiss me, following me home and trying to push their way into our hotel…disgusting behaviour. I’m not really sure what else I could have done because I was so clear I was not interested, so I just started avoiding Italian boys like the plague and locking arms with a friend whenever walking through clubs.
I loved Italy & France though, so it doesn’t stop me travelling there! I just have my guard up and appreciate Australian culture so much more when I get home.
I’m 62 and have traveled extensively but never by myself. I will be in Mexico by myself for 3 months this winter and Asia by myself for 3 months next summer. I have been thinking that since I’m older I would probably be left alone, but then I remembered that assault and harassment are all about power, rather than attraction. I’m thinking about taking a self defense class this fall. I want to make it more hassle than it’s worth for someone to attack me.
You are absolutely correct, Ruth. It’s about power far more than attraction. I think taking a class would be great for you.
I totally agree with your post. Men don’t understand what women have to go through to avoid harassment. I traveled through Japan solo, and never encountered any bad behaviour from men, although I’m sure it happens. I have to say I never took the subway at night….
Great post! 🙂
I first came across women only cars in Malaysia. When I saw them again in Japan, I was pumped. Unfortunately I didn’t see any regulation because men were still sitting in the women only compartments. Also, I would see signs at some of the stations telling women to watch out for up skirt photos. The signs would have a picture of a cellphone being held under a woman wearing a skirt.
I think in Japan that the women-only car rule is only supposed to be adhered to during rush hour, but the rest of the time is fair game. Not quite positive on that.
I agree that you should take precautions anywhere as a woman – whether at home or travelling. There are definitely some countries where you need to take more precautions (ie India), it’s just using common sense. You are right, Men don’t understand.
This was a really good post. I don’t actually do most of what is on the list, although I do do some. I’m not sure if that makes me brave or clueless. 🙂
I totally agree and love this. It’s important, especially, for solo women travellers to realise that even in ‘western’ countries these issues are rife. I went on my first solo trip when I was 18, and I totally put myself into a potentially dangerous situation through my naivety and the manipulation of a local who was working at the campsite i was staying in. It’s important to realise that it is much safer to distrust rather than trust men’s intentions, and to realise that it is just as unsafe if they work for a seemingly trustworthy travel/hospitality company or live in a western country.
It is such a pity that a culturally rich country like India is viewed so negatively by globe trotters. Being and Indian and having spent my entire life here, the inner patriot in me wants to strongly oppose such statements…but the woman in me knows that there is truth in the matter!
My two cents….when in India, dress modestly and don’t trust people when you are alone. Also, just because India is a budget destination, don’t stay in the lowest category of accommodation available – the areas might not be the best. Everything is cheap…so spend a little more, stay in better places and book trusted tours and groups.
Also, I highly recommend carrying a pepper spray – a little can does not hurt, does it? Hope you never have to use it!
We Indians are a loud, colourful, friendly and expressive lot…glad to welcome everyone!
I occasionally take risks I probably shouldn’t just to save on cab fare, but having a black belt in taekwondo (which I haven’t trained in for 13 years) makes me feel more invincible than I probably am! I would recommend a bit of self defense training to women who intend to do a lot of solo travel as you do learn some great releases from grabs, as well as techniques to avoid being the victim in the first place.
Great piece and I hope lots of female travelers get to read this for 3 reasons:
1. When I (or any man) give any such advice like ‘As a female please be careful’ and ‘female travelers need to be more cautious’ it is generally branded as sexist and chauvinistic, so much so that I rarely dole out any such words of caution any more. Hopefully coming from people like you it might hit home.
2. I run a travel company in India that works with foreign travelers and the recent press about ‘female travelers being more unsafe in India’ is hitting the industry hard. Yes we have some issues here that need to be solved and urgently, but the horror stories from the travels of my female friends from Europe sometimes dwarf what happens in India. From groping, to catcalls in Barcelona to being pulled into dark alleys to be felt up and almost getting raped in a small town in Poland….the list is endless. It is important for people to know it can happen anywhere.
3. How important it is to be sensitive to the culture of the country you are traveling to and dress accordingly. Some years ago there was a piece in the news here of how 2 female tourists had to be escorted back to their hotel by the police because they were wearing bikini tops and wrap-arounds and shopping in a busy street in Delhi on a hot summers day. I am not disputing the right of women to wear what ever they want or saying that what women wear makes it ‘OK’ for men to misbehave(women in my family have been groped etc even when they were wearing the most ‘Indian’ clothes in India) but as a tourist not gelling with the local customs will only attract unnecessary attention.
Until all sick and perverted men on the plant are cured of their disease, women will have to walk around with this caution sign in the back of their minds. I hope this can change and my kids grow up in a better world, but until then more power to you and many more adventures.
Thanks for sharing, Udit, and I’m glad you touched on subject number three. Nobody deserves to be assaulted because of what she is wearing, but that’s not saying that people should wear whatever they want without consequences. It’s our responsibility to research what to wear in certain destinations.
Another very interesting fall out of the recent situation in India is if I even see some female tourist(or women in general) in need of help I don’t offer any as the first advice given is ‘not to talk to strangers’ or ‘be careful of people you don’t know’. I know of a lot of guys who feel the same…..there is just so much overall ill will.
Really sucks that women have to deal with this, and not just while traveling. Sure, I have be aware of safety while traveling, but it’s not the same. It’s one reason I try to befriend other solo travelers–always better to go around with others for safety.