Why I won’t tell women to be “extra careful”

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.

ronnie-pic-2

Spoiler: Won’t stop doing this and more.

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.

But for now, I wish you a great new year, with all the adventures to learn from, all the freedom and love…!

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How it began II

Well, okay, I’m back already.

My post last week made me remember an article I wrote in Morocco but never published anywhere. Going back a bit further back, this will introduce and expand on one of my big themes: trust. Enjoy and discuss! (Seriously, I’d like your views: do you think I’m being stupid doing what I do?)

Morocco: tales of trust

Sexual assaults and terrorist attacks – these and other fear-laden buzzwords pop up in the minds of many when talk is of anything Arab. This is why I decided to hitchhike and couchsurf my way through Morocco, all alone and female and suchlike. If not a rational way of convincing others, this journey was meant to at least confront and hopefully overcome the creeping fear of the unknown within myself, by countering my own distrust with openness.

Hitchhiking – from the Sahara…

My solo journey began in the Sahara, on a long and unnaturally straight road with view on bright orange dunes. From there, I started hitchhiking all across Morocco, through heat, rain, and snowstorms. On that first day, the director of a youth centre picked me up and gave me something of a guided tour on the way to his destination, including views of the most extensive oasis in the world, wedged into a landscape of red sandstone. A young man, who I was first very weary of, surprisingly did not try to rape me, but instead helped me find a café with an internet connection. That night, I was adopted by a family who shared their enormous plate of couscous with me, bathed me in generosity, laughter, and music, and urged me to stay a little longer and to bring my family the next time.

…into the snow.

The following day saw me stuck in a snowstorm when trying to cross the Atlas mountain range. While still waving my finger Morrocan-style on a spot where road conditions weren’t too bad, I was approached by a man about the age of my father who convinced me in his native-like French to take the bus instead. For the two hours we spent on the bus, we talked about the bombings in Brussels which had happened that same morning, but also about apple trees, painting and life philosophy. He encouraged me with these words: “good things always attract good things, so if you believe in the kindness of others, you will be met with kindness yourself”. One view he held was that to be a proper Muslim, one had to be kind and generous towards others – something I saw implemented throughout my journey, be it with me, the elderly, or beggars on the street.

After the Atlas experience, I spent some days getting lost in the labyrinthine alleyways that make the medina, the old city of Fez, the biggest of its kind, to then move on to the sky blue lanes of Chefchaouen. After two whirlwind weeks, I finally left the country on a ferry towards Spain, clutching my last Moroccan oranges as if to keep them as souvenirs of this place and the new friends I was leaving behind.

merzouga-tanger

There also were moments when I did not feel at ease, like when I was spoken to in Arabic while the car seemed to take strange back roads –  moments which always resolved themselves when I safely reached my destination.

Assaults and conclusions.

Only one encounter, on the last of all days, was able to intrude into my picture of a place filled with openness and generosity. Just before leaving his car, a middle-aged men started groping my butt, which didn’t end with me being physically harmed, but left a strange aftertaste. I was baffled about this even more since he was the only person who kept telling me “you know, it’s dangerous to hitchhike!”. I couldn’t help but wonder whether there was a link between this distrust and his own behaviour, as if believing in the badness of other people somehow made him feel licensed him to be disrespectful himself.

He left me on a tiny roundabout, and while I watched the cars driving, a question started circulating in my head: Can I still trust? I decided that I could, and that I had to. Risks are real, but fear would ultimately result in me adopting a worldview way too similar to the one of this guy.

If nothing else, the heartfelt generosity I encountered in Morocco convinced me that trust is something we need if we don’t want to drown in a world of fear. I decided that I want to be one of these who trust, and hopefully inspire trust. And so I set off to hitchhike the 2.500km to Strasbourg.

[….which brings us back to last week’s story. I start liking retrospect-storytelling]