Being suspicious of men began when I was twelve and a classmate walked up to me, outright groping my emerging breast.
This story already shows the seeds of a dynamic I still experience and tried to properly put into words only yesterday when a male friend asked me to. There is: the shock and disbelief that someone just invaded my private space, without even hesitating. The perceived helplessness, which is hard to admit for someone like me who thinks of themselves as strong. But apparently, I can be able to articulate what I want in many areas and still feel helpless in other situations. A comparison: the same kid threw snowballs at me on the way to school and I had no problem at all reporting that. In the groping situation, a teacher was even closer, in the same room. Yet, it didn’t even occur to me to say something.
I can’t fully reconstruct what happened in my head nearly ten years ago, but I can try to understand better what is now happening to me and probably many other women on a regular basis.
This post is not only about travelling. But we travellers need to talk about it.
The discussion I had with my friend was sparked by internet articles around the theme of “sexsurfing” – couchsurfing being used for hooking up with travellers. I hadn’t heard the term before, but was aware of it happening, at least through my share of creep messages through the platform (“Come to my place. I only have one bed, though. *wink* “).
And, yes, there are actual people writing guidelines on how to find “naughty couchsurfing chicks”.
I had a hard time explaining to my friend all the things that made me angry in there, and how my experience might be different from his.
One reason for this is that it is really hard to talk about moments in which men did things which made me feel helpless and ashamed. I’ll try with a small selection: someone trying to force a kiss, or masturbating while watching me sleep, or following me around the streets. Some of my experiences are more coercive and manipulative than this, some less, but they contribute to the feeling of perpetually having to guard myself. Maybe you should ask a female friend about this if you want to empathise, I assume that many other women spend a lot of time taking precautions for their safety, even in a subconscious, automatic way.
If there are reasons to be afraid, why not tell (other) women to be careful?
When I think about all these moments, I don’t want to talk about them. Because. I have this horrible feeling that it’s kind of my fault. Even after knowing what victim-blaming is and that it’s wrong, I just can’t help but immediately relativise my experience. “This guy did this disgusting thing? Well, yeah, but I did put myself into a bad position there” (insert: I shouldn’t have smiled at him/ I shouldn’t have been out on my own/ I shouldn’t have fallen asleep on his sofa … In my head, I can hear a chorus of relatives: “You shouldn’t have travelled alone!! We told you it was not safe!”).
This is why it makes me sad to hear so much well-meant advice, even from fellow female travellers (“Of course, you have to be extra careful as a woman. Here are ten ways to guard yourself”). Adventurous Kate, for example, writes a post that explains the background of why travel safety is different for women better than me, but her conclusions are just as disheartening.
Summary up to now:
- Sexual situations are different from others. I might be a self-confident person otherwise, but still less able to assert my limits in front of men (especially if they are hormon-driven, not particularly aware, or don’t care*) and to assert my rights afterwards. The feeling of guilt/shame is part of that, but also some other dynamics I’m finding too hard to explain right now.
- Perpetually telling me to guard myself against men makes me feel like it’s my fault when men do things to me.
*I have met many many men who are not like this, who are sensitive and kind and able to respect me as a person whatever conflicting interests we might have. (You know. Not all men…) Keep trying everyone.
So. What should we do?
I don’t like fear. The logic that tells me to not go to other countries is the same that would like to keep me inside, confined to what a “decent girl” is supposed to do or be (what even is that nowadays?). This logic takes away my agency, because I only have the choice to react to the world, and to be defensive about it.
That doesn’t mean that I would recommend someone who has just started travelling to put themselves alone next to a road in the night if they have never hitchhiked before. That doesn’t only apply to girls.
For the record, I’d tell anyone who asks me about hitchhiking to try it in daytime with someone who has done it before, or just with another friend, and in situations where they have a chance to chat to the drivers before entering the car, e.g. by asking in service stations. This is mostly because I think you should be able to feel in control (so that you kind of know what you’re doing at least most of the time, in a very broad interpretation), and that this is more likely to be the case if you proceed in small steps. Just like bicycle travellers recommend novices to first try to do a day- or week-long trip before going for around-the-world adventures. Kind of sensible.
I think: women, like anyone else, should get the chance to discover the world and grow doing it, because there is no other way to get equipped dealing with it.
If I were to stay home, I wouldn’t have had as much exposure to these disagreeable situations, but I also wouldn’t have learnt to tell men when they ought to better back off. The balance between exposing yourself to the world, learning step by step, and doing something outright foolish and putting yourself into great danger is delicate. I wouldn’t recommend anyone to be reckless, even though I think I should be able to be foolish if this is a right accorded to men, too.
At some point, I will explain in more detail what we can learn from my namesake Ronja Rövardotter and her philosophy of how to guard against danger and fear.