A topic that I have yet to write about for this blog is my passion for exploration, perhaps because- until recently- I had not traveled since I began writing these essays. However, my current experience abroad has caused me to want to challenge a pervasive belief that has largely been left unquestioned: the assumption that it is riskier to travel as a female rather than as a male.
In the news, it is common to see sensationalized recounts of abducted, raped, and/or murdered female travelers, as they inspire emotion, fear, and intrigue in the general public. Although uncommon (it is much more likely to be a target of petty theft or aggression), such reporting does incite fear in many females who aspire to travel, and this fear does have basis, as traveling alone in an unfamiliar area can be unsettling and dangerous, regardless of your gender, size, or circumstances. However, it is important to note that the danger that female’s face when traveling alone has been publicized to an excessive amount in modern media, and the danger that males encounter has often been dismissed, which makes it so that males are encouraged to leave their homes and explore, whereas females are discouraged.
But in any case, there is one aspect that females experience to a much greater extent than males. In a world that sexualizes and submits feminine attributes, empowers and emboldens masculine attributes, and often condones sexual advances from men regardless of whether these advances are welcomed, the main concern for solo female travelers is the prospect of sexual assault. In many travel magazines, guidebooks, blogs, and government webpages, there are sections devoted solely to this particular danger. For years, the Lonely Planet Travel Guide has had its own section in country profiles dedicated to female safety that generally advises women to stick with modest attire, not to stand out, not to go to out alone, and insinuates that they should take more precaution then their male counterparts when vacationing. I cannot find these sections online anymore (perhaps they have begun to rethink the manner in which they express these issues) but that does not negate the fact that this attitude is still pervasive in society as it has been present for centuries. It can be seen in magazine articles such as the one published in the New York Times in 2014 titled Women Alert to Travel’s Darker Side[i], this Telegraph article from 2016, Queensland kidnap shows darker side of backpacking – as I found out traveling in Vietnam[ii], as well as in many government department websites, such as this one from the U.S. Department of State.[iii]
Fortunately, such limiting beliefs have been challenged lately. In a differing light from the 2014 piece, the New York Times published an article[iv] this past September focusing on the magazine, Unearth, which serves to include a female perspective in travel magazines not solely by advertising to females, but by creating content for females by females with a female-led staff. Furthermore, the travel industry has seen a significant increase in women travelers, both solo and group travelers, and about 73% of travel agents claim that women are now more likely to travel alone then men. In fact, the average adventure traveler is currently assumed to be a 47-year-old female![v] Due to this trend, travel magazines are now catering to women, especially as they find that even in a female-male travel duo, women make eighty-five percent of travel decisions. Furthermore, the engaged interest in travel media- especially amongst the millennial and baby boomer groups- is now largely female. In fact, the website Solo Traveler has just released that women represent 85.7% of their readers and 63% of their Facebook audience.[vi] Whether this is because women tend to be more active participants in surveys and reviews is hard to determine, but the overall trend in the travel industry does seem to be increasingly female.[vii]
Yet, regardless of the fact that women are now more encouraged to travel than ever, they are still viewed and presented in media as the weaker, disadvantaged gender who is less equipped to handle dangerous situations. Therefore, many cultures view females as a group of people who should be protected and advised against taking risks and enjoying novel experiences that can put one in danger. Interesting enough, another such group that is treated in a similar manner is children; a highly misunderstood population that in our society have to struggle with limited rights, opportunities, and capabilities to live life as they desire. But in our male-dominated, stringent societies, we must be reminded that women are not children and should not be treated as or protected in the same way. Women are not- and should not be viewed as- innocent, unexperienced beings. Women are not undeveloped in strength and character. Women are grown, excessively hardened by dealing with the daily struggles that come about when being the dominated gender, and capable of protecting themselves and remaining safe. In fact, women in general are highly skilled at this, as they have been trained as children to protect their bodies, and many of them have been in encounters where they have had to appease a situation that could have resulted in their harm. Their strength might in general be weaker than the male sex (although to the extent that we believe so is questionable), but their command of emotions, predisposition for caution and non-impulsive reaction, social intelligence, ability to manipulate a situation to their advantage, experience in being the subjected partner, and the increased agility given with a smaller size are all stereotypical strengths that many females have to put to their advantage.
But in a culture that places excessive importance on ‘masculine’ traits, such ‘feminine’ traits are normally not activated to their full potential, leaving many females and males unable to adequately fend for themselves amongst the large, imposing, impulsive characters whose attributes are supported and who are thus able to wield power in such competitive, aggressive societies. Yet even so, many men who believe themselves to be safe solely upon their gender, size, or intimidating comportment end up getting taken advantage of when traveling as they haven’t taken the necessary precautions in protecting themselves in an area or culture where they could no longer be the dominant targeting party, but rather the targets; because even someone as small and inexperienced as a toddler can fatally harm you with human-made weapons. And believing otherwise is something that can put you at more risk than a physically weak, submissive person who understands this.
Perhaps this is why most of the travelers that I have met who have encountered or been in dangerous situations abroad, and have either been stabbed or had a gun pointed at them, have been male, and in general tall, light-haired men who stand out amongst the local crowd in dress, appearance, attitude, and comportment.[viii] In stating this, it must be noted that many of these men found themselves in these precarious positions when walking home from a bar or club alone while inebriated or when congregating/smoking outside a hostel at night (activities that the majority of females have learned or been told to avoid, for as much as we want to reiterate that partying, drinking, taking drugs, and standing out in appearance should not be what makes us a target- the brutal truth is that those things do). Considering this, it is likely that the exaggerated belief the dominant sector of society has in their own strength and invincibility is the major detriment towards their safety, both at home and abroad.
In any case, sexual assault- a main concern female travelers have over male travelers- is much more likely to happen at home than when traveling, and perhaps solely because the majority of us are based in our home countries much more than we are abroad. According to Rain, an organization that deals with sexual violence, there are, on average, 321,500 sexual assault victims a year aged twelve and over in the United States.[ix] (However, it is assumed that more than half of sexual assault cases go unreported- and I can attest to that when I take into account the sexual assault victims that I know of personally, in which only one decided to address the matter, and it was left unresolved due to the pressures put on her to let it go by authoritative power.) Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to find the amount of travelers who experience sexual assault, especially as that can be even harder to account for due to dealing with dual-country bureaucracy. But according to reports from the United Kingdom, it is significantly less. In 2013-2014,[x] the Foreign and Commonwealth Office reported that there were 106 reported rape cases and 152 reported sexual assault cases of British nationals abroad. Compare this to the average 85,000 cases of rape that occur yearly in England and Wales, added to the estimated 85% going unreported, and you can understand that the scope of the problem- as many of us intuitively understand- is not limited to traveling or being in unfamiliar environments with unfamiliar people.[xi]
Now, due to the dark and secretive mentality most cultures have towards sex, these overwhelming statistics are both hard to substantiate and hard to comprehend. But if you ask most women, they are believable. I personally don’t know of any woman who has been spared from experiencing unwanted physical acts that range from unwarranted groping to forced intercourse. However, to bring it back to traveling, this is an occurrence that happens in any country and in any environment. In fact, in the majority of rape cases the victim knows the assailant. Furthermore, sexual harassment often happens when the victim is familiar with their surroundings, which is again something I can attest to amongst my friends and the people I have spoken to who have disclosed their sexual assaults to me. And, when you consider it, it only makes sense, as it is easy to let your guard down and be alone/intimate with someone if you 1) are comfortable with your surroundings and 2) comfortable with the person.
I guess what I am getting at is we need to rethink our fear of the unknown and novel, as it often makes us on more capable of noticing, distancing ourselves from, and adequately reacting to potential dangers. Furthermore, and most importantly, we must stop promulgating these subversive beliefs that women are the lesser, weaker sex in need of protection. We need to think of women as more than a grown child, as someone strong and capable of making wise decisions, protecting themselves, and dealing with adversity when adversity presents itself.
Fortunately- in the manner in which females feel more empowered in their abilities to travel and explore by themselves regardless of the risk this may present to them- that trend seems to be coming to light. But we still have to work on reestablishing our beliefs in the strength and capability of single females, just as we have to understand that the biggest threat to men is also male-centered patriarchy, namely the aggressive and risky behaviors that are condoned in masculine circles alongside the social conditioning of our exaggerated belief in masculine strength and invincibility, which- statistically – is an inherent cause in the decreased lifespans of men compared to women globally.[xii]
[vii] (Let’s hope that the advertising is created by and done by females and female executives- like the Unearth magazine- rather than by males, who often miss the mark in understanding their female audience.)
[viii] (It should be noted that this has just been my personal experience however.)
[x] (I apologize for the old statistics and articles, but as these topics are not addressed as often as many would assume, data and research about such matter is hard to come by for the general public.)