Why Travel Safety Is Different for Women

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Kate on Table Mountain

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. 

And obviously:

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.

Kate in Macau

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.

Angkor

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.

Florence View From Duomo

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.

Shibuya Sunset

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.

Kate and Pinay Readers

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.

How do you stay safe while traveling?

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127 thoughts on “Why Travel Safety Is Different for Women”

  1. Totally agree with the fact that it’s not just India etc where women have to be careful.

    I get things like this in London. My mum’s Czech and grew up close to Prague and she’d tell me stories about how on busy trams, men would feel up your skirt. Because it was crowded, it was harder for other people to notice, and harder to make a fuss about it.

  2. This is a really thought provoking piece actually. I suppose, like you I always have my safety at the back of my mind whether at home or on the road, but I haven’t given it much thought until I read this piece. I found myself nodding along to so much of what you were saying – constantly considering my outfit choices to avoid being catcalled or worse or holding my keys like a weapon when I’m walking alone.

  3. I appreciate this post, Kate, and admire you for your courage and daring to travel solo. I don’t know that I ever could. It’s disconcerting to think that there may not be a place on earth that is 100% safe. After reaading of your experience in Italy, and those of others who posted in the comments, I’m reminded of the famous photograph “American Girl in Italy”, which to some can be seen as a woman rushing away from the harassment of local men, but which can also be a woman striding confidently and independently through a group of men. It’s how I’d like to imagine I would be in such a situation, though as you mentioned, we never really know how we’ll react.

  4. Nice of you to share these information with us! I am a regular solo traveller and, fortunately, I don’t have any negative experience so far. But of course, I always research my destination prior departure, I never walk outside at night alone, I dress appropriately and I avoid drinking alcohol with strangers. Travelling is an amazing experience, be cautious but don’t make it overly stressful.

  5. Thanks for writing this, Kate. You’ve brought attention to so many great points that some male travelers don’t realize. Luckily, I’ve felt pretty safe in most places I’ve been to so far, but Varanasi, India was the first time I felt uneasy – and I’m Indian (American, but still Indian). When I was walking around dressed modestly, I still was hassled by the locals. That’s when I made the decision to not walk around by myself; I knew I’d feel more comfortable and have a better experience that way. But the rest of India – no problems at all! Like you said, being a responsible traveler and aware of the culture is key. However, I will continue to eat ice cream in every city I go to!

  6. This is a great post. Of course, women need to be smart and take the right steps to ensure their own safety – but I think that male travellers do also need to understand that very, very few of them will ever experience the kind of things we go through every day. It can be really really hard. Telling us that the issues we face are universal and not isolated to our gender can really trivialize some of the horrible experiences some women have been through.

  7. This is a hard post for a man to read. Because all these things are sane, valid responses to a general situation, and on a personal level, part of me screams, “I’m not like that!” – which was the starting-point for the male-driven backlash to #YesAllWomen…a backlash that completely missed the point.

    This is tricky stuff for men.

    And I think it’s going to remain tricky until we men and examining OUR experiences of these things, because a lot of men are behaving badly without being aware of the consequences of their actions. At heart, the issue is us. We need to be talking about our actions, not just blustering “nothing to do with us!” – because we’re the root cause of all this, and while we remain so, we have no grounds both as individuals and as social groups to complain that women feel threatened around us

    So I submit that BuzzFeed needs to run a post called:

    “29 Things Men Should Avoid Doing Because Women Fear For Their Safety.”

    Now THAT would tackle things nicely.

    1. It is very tricky territory, Mike. There was a post on AskWomen on Reddit the other day about a group of college guys who throw parties every weekend, invite all the girls they know, provide a keg for free, and wonder why girls don’t come hang out. Someone brilliantly compared it to being invited to hang out at a friend’s place, only being asked to help them move every single time. “But you just said we were going to hang out…”

      1. Yep. Many guys aren’t understanding the full picture and because of it their empathy is broken. Including me, no doubt, in many ways. That’s an awesome page on Reddit, for that very reason.

        In my experience a surprising proportion of dirtbag behaviour is born of ignorance – as soon as the perpetrators understand how their behaviour looks, they just to crawl into a hole in the ground – which isn’t excusing it in any way, but it’s saying we can do something about it, collectively.

  8. Thanks for pointing out this reality that a lot of people don’t seem to understand. I think your female readers are nodding their heads in agreement as they read about the precautions you take as a woman, but male readers are likely surprised. Of course traveling as a woman is not the same as traveling as a man. It’s a completely different reality when you’re walking down the street as a woman and you know that you are vulnerable to be physically overpowered by just about any man that you pass if he chooses to. I totally agree that as individuals we have to take responsibility for our safety and, like you said, limit risky behaviors like drinking, staying out late alone, running in secluded areas with headphones, etc. It’s just the world we live in. No assault is the victim’s fault, but as responsible travelers that doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to try to limit the risk in ways we can control.

  9. Very sensibly written. I can be quite touchy about this subject as there is a fine line between saying you should dress sensibly and blaming women for sexual harassment. I think you trod the line well.

  10. Its about staying safe more than anything. I don’t talk about it often, but I was grabbed when I lived in France by a drunk man twice my size (not really twice my size, as I’m 6 foot tall, but he was a big dude!) He shoved me up against a wall and as he did I managed to elbow him in the ribs. My friends were across the street and heard the commotion and yelled at him to leave me alone. He backed off and moved on, and I never reported it because it all happened so quickly.

    That experience has made me more careful, and especially when I’m on my own, even while out for a run, I keep one ear free so I can listen for people around me. People adjust and adapt to survive, based on their experiences. Women shouldn’t be scared to go out, but they should be sensible, because you can’t trust everyone around you.

  11. Hi Kate! I loved this article! I have often thought and talked about this myself. As much as we want it to be the same traveling solo as a women as it is for a man, it is not the same. Thank you for having the courage to share your experiences.

    I think a big thing we can do that you touched on is avoid victim blaming. If something does happen to someone it is always their attackers fault. Listening without judgement would allow more people to have a voice when they have survived something.

  12. It’s sad we have to be so vigilant all the time, even in places where we feel perfectly safe. I have my guard up all the time, even when foreign tourists are just asking me how to get to Times Square while on my way to work in NYC. Just a few days ago, I got stopped by a guy around Bryant Park (which is notorious for people wanting to participate in your questionnaire or listen to their non-profit project) asking me “Do you know where the street with all the friendly people are?” He seemed nice enough and he actually made me laugh and I felt bad for giving him my bitch face. I really was in a rush so I wished him good luck with his project or whatever it was he was going to give me a speech about and I went on my way. But I always do feel bad about being all stony faced when accosted by strangers. But it’s my survival instinct/self-preservation kicking in.

    1. I can totally relate to this, Amelie. You don’t get it quite as bad in London, but there’s a street near Tottenham Court Road where a guy accosts people in the street for an English language school. And he does it while speaking whatever language it looks like the people walking by speak. He calls out in Italian whenever I walk by. 🙂

  13. You’re right that women are always “on” when it comes to being aware of potential danger. When I lived in Philly my school was in a not so great area. At first I would get cat called and harassed by both men and women- men yelling sexual things or even stopping their cars and ask/telling me to get in. (wtf!) and women harassing me because of my skin color and clothes. I learned really fast to blend in with neutral, baggy clothes, ditch the bright colors, walk fast, leave off my makeup and practice other street smarts tactics. That was an extreme situation but it stays with me when I travel now.

    1. Karisa, I’m curious — did you go to Temple? A few of my friends were put off by Temple because of the neighborhood. I’m also not the biggest fan of Philadelphia. :-/

  14. Great post – there are so many things us women have to keep in mind that men never think about! I’m grateful that I’m travelling with my fiancé so I don’t have to worry about unwanted attention from men.

  15. Great post!
    I was asked about safety tips for traveling alone or in a group of all women. And really, I couldn’t think of any tips that aren’t applicable in my non-traveling days. Traveling or not, we have to be careful and put safety first.

    I’ve shared this post on Twitter and some of my guy friends have shared it too, I’m glad to know.

  16. There’s a real difference in the level of awareness you have to have as a guy vs. as a woman and I don’t think everybody realizes that. For either a man or a woman, yes, be aware of your surroundings, don’t go down sketchy streets or alleys by yourself — don’t do things that would really set yourself up to be a ‘victim’. But, as a guy, I don’t have to be as hyper-vigilant because I’m less likely to be victimized. Both my girlfriend and I are experienced travelers, we’ve done extended and multi-country trips (she lived in SE Asia for 8-9 months), and when we talk about the extra things you have to be aware of or cautious of as a woman traveler, it’s almost mind-boggling (and also discouraging — no one should have to worry about being a victim).

  17. First, thank you for sharing your thoughts!!! I once had a pair of American men call me brave for traveling alone. I was all at once flattered, annoyed, and angry. On one hand, doing anything alone (especially in your 20’s with all those social pressures) is definitely brave. But like you said, employing the same street-smart actions as you would at home can help keep you out of a lot of trouble. I think the best way to stay safe abroad is to always have an awareness of your surroundings. Pretty buildings are great, but so is not having your purse slashed. Keep up the awesome posts! I look forward to getting to know your blog better 🙂

    P.S. I am SO sorry that you were mugged in Boston. I’m a student at BU and the past two years have heard of many attacks and muggings on campus. The problem should be under control now though. I hope it didn’t affect your opinion of the city!

    1. Thanks so much, Maria. I was actually attacked in front of my apartment — on Charlesgate East, right by Boston Conservatory and Berklee. And Fenway Park. 😀 It’s still my city. These things can happen anywhere. But I don’t listen to my headphones at night, anywhere, anymore.

  18. It is so sad and disappointing that we’ve been living like this since we can remember, but what really shook me was this one time I was followed by a man on the train until I got down the station. I hurriedly walked out of there and got home safely. Phew, right? When I got home and tearfully told my brother about it, he said something like, “What makes you think men actually want you?” My dad said the same thing on another occasion. I’m sure they love me and all, but men just don’t get it! Being harassed, or catcalled is not in any way flattering. It bothers me to this day.

  19. I’m not as young as most of you so I don’t get the “attention” as much BUT I agree with Kate and always advise every traveler to ALWAYS be vigilant and to practice personal safety everywhere! I practice at home here in California – I’m always mindful so that when I travel it is a habit that comes naturally.
    I just can’t stress this enough – it can be that one careless moment when you turn to dry your hands in the train station restroom and your purse gets snatched (I know someone, a very seasoned traveler that this happened to).
    To me, it’s about blending in, always looking like you know where you’re going and maintain your personal space as much as possible. I also agree that when you go certain places and dress in a certain way (flimsy, see through, short shorts, etc.) you are drawing attention – wanted, perhaps, but…
    I wrote 25 tips for solo travelers on my blog and Kate, you included many in your article. Good advice!

  20. As a middle aged solo woman traveller my key advice for young solo female travellers is to watch how much you drink unless you are out with people you know you can trust. Go out, be young, go wild and have fun, but make sure you know someone will be looking out for you.

    Thanks so much for dissecting out some of the sillier advice that gets dished out – don’t wear a ponytail – puleeeze!

  21. It’s really pretty hard to travel alone especially if you’re a woman. Your tips on how to be prepared for any possible danger on the road are too practical. Thanks. Love your blog! Keep on inspiring travellers around the world. 🙂

  22. Not growing up in North America, I have always had my guard up. I am always aware of my surroundings and people around me, I am always watching for pocket thieves. It probably sounds crazy but that is how I am brought up and it is something I am completely used to. Since we moved to Canada, I am learning to have my guard down a little bit (I can’t believe women here walk with their purses not zipped)! When I travel I follow common sense precautionary measures. I want to go to Peru but I decided not too because I read it is dangerous and opportunistic theft is very common. I know I just wouldn’t feel comfortable and I decided to leave it for later…

  23. When I first started reading this blog, I thought you were going to say everything had always been fine for you while traveling. Thank you for being so honest! As a world traveler myself, I find it a bit unnerving when going to a new place alone for the first time. It’s good to know I’m not paranoid ;). Thanks for the wisdom and tips!

    http://truthandtravels.blogspot.com

  24. Great article, Kate. Situational awareness is something all of us should practice whether travelling or at home.

    One sore point for me – don’t stereotype Pakistan based on what you see on Fox news! As a travel blogger with such a massive following I would expect you to be more open-minded about places with ‘perceived danger’. Believe me, we embrace tourists like manna from the sky..

    Do read this:
    http://www.dawn.com/news/1148311

    Might change your mind 🙂

  25. Hi Kate,
    I definitely agree that women should continue to be aware and do research about where we are traveling to ensure our safety. I also agree that we should not let others’ fears distort our perceptions into letting us think we shouldn’t do what we want. If we want to travel, we shouldn’t let the hype stop us from going where we want.

    It’s unfortunate that women still have to worry about being harassed anywhere in the world, and I hope that through more awareness of gender equality these perceptions can be changed. That’s why I think women should continue to travel, to build up confidence, realize one’s strengths, and change standards of what’s “acceptable” for a woman to do.

  26. There needs to be a mindset shift.

    Rape/harassment isn’t just a woman’s problem. It’s humanity’s problem. Countries all over the world are trying to do more to get men involved – because really, they’re key in stopping this.

    For instance, here in Brazil, they are trying to get legislation passed that would make EVERYTHING rape, unless the woman expressly gave her consent. The old “no means no” is changing to “yes means yes” which is huge. Even if a woman doesn’t say no, if she is too drunk or passed out etc.. it will automatically be considered rape.

    This is a step forward in thinking, in which a woman must give her CONSENT for sexual behaviors, rather than being a passive participant.

  27. Hello there! im a 24 year old women who is investigating as much as posible to start traveling solo. I am from Panama in center America, and im quite shock to be honest with the list of buzzfeed. The thing in my country is this: you get plenty of catcall but that a guy grave your ass in public and is not your boyfriend, is not common at all, thanks God. Yes in public transportation sometimes there is a sick man that rubb with yourself but is not that common and you can move and give him a bad look and he will step away. I went to Colombia recently and for my surprise, there is a lot less catcall that in my country.
    As i say, thanks God here in Panama rape is something real but not something we here often in the news.
    It actually gives me a little bit of anxiety cause im a very clueless person, i mean, im a person who sometimes is up in the air when it comes to attention, and i found really exhausting been alert all the time. But i understand that you have to change your mind ship when it comes to travel.

    Thank you very much for your post. I’m still learning.

  28. I love to travel but so far I’ve never found the courage to go alone. I went to a bunch of places with my boyfriend and during our trips I often ended up thinking: I wouldn’t do this alone.
    Interestingly I got a bunch of catcalls and guys grabbing my ass etc. at home. I live in a really small town, you know, the kind of place where you’d expect never bad could ever happen. When I go to the next bigger town Innsruck I always feel so uncomfortable. While I never felt unsafe anywhere we travel (not even in Vienna where I’ve been living for three years on my own now) I wouldn’t dare to walk around alone in Innsbruck – not even during the day.

  29. Perfect post for International Women’s Day, thanks for sharing and of course writing it!

    I have been thinking about that a lot lately. In Munich I know which places are safe even during the night, but I make sure to rather take a cap or the tram instead of walking and risking anything late at night.

    In other places I still love to walk home even when it is dark, however, I not always dare to. It’s really sad…
    There are also a few things I do:
    1) Always have a taxi app or a number to call.
    2) Always have enough cash for a taxi or the subway fare with me.
    3) Never get too drunk when I’m alone or with people I don’t know well enough.
    4) Have working internet connection on my phone and a charged battery so I can look up things online.
    5) I try to look determined and not like a tourist, i.e. I try to dress appropriately and adapt to the culture. I don’t mean that you’re not allowed to dress a certain way but that it sometimes helps to watch locals.

    I’m sure that there is more that I do subconsciously…

  30. The Marble Ryes

    I travel to quite a few different countries for work, some safe and some not so safe. The ironic thing is that in all of the supposed safe countries, terrible things have happened. For a while I lived in Japan for work. It was ranked as one of the safest countries in the world for a couple years. Everyone I knew really took advantage of this and really lost awareness of their surroundings. A few of my coworkers were mugged and/or assaulted walking home and even on the trains. No matter how safe a place is, don’t take it for granted. Don’t live in fear, but just be aware.

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