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Tomorrow, I’m boarding a plane to Europe. It’s a reunion of sorts—my family is spread out on different parts of the globe and we’re converging in the middle for a week of museums, food, and booze-hunting. I kind of forgot about it until four days ago, when I realized that I needed to start doing laundry.

As I haphazardly threw my dirty laundry in to the washing machine, I started getting excited, thinking of all of the fiscally irresponsible overnight trips I wanted to take by myself. I could go to Prague! I could have breakfast in Berlin and lunch in Poland!

Fun fact: when I finally saw Eurotrip at age 23, my adolescent experience made SO MUCH MORE SENSE.

Exactly!

Then, my usual second thoughts reared their ugly heads.

“My family will totally freak out if I go somewhere by myself.”
“Where is it safe for me to go as a lone, female traveler?”
“Where does the street harassment escalate to physical sexual harassment most frequently? Should I avoid that place?”
“Where am I least likely to get groped at a bar?”

Well, fuck.

Thanks for the boner killer, brain.

Now, this isn’t my first time at the rodeo with this sort of anxiety.

I was sixteen when I first became aware of sexual harassment as a traveler. I was wearing this really fantastic dress that made me feel glamorous and sexy for the first time ever. I felt their eyes — boys! teenagers! men! — following me as I walked down the cobblestone streets of Jerusalem’s Old City. I heard their comments. I laughed at them, only a little uncomfortably. My parents later told me how nervous they were that I was being targeted so incessantly.

Later that year, in Italy, my (teenage) friends talked about adult men rubbing up against them on the crowded Roman buses.

At 20, four 17-year-old boys cornered me and relentlessly hit on me at a house party in Buenos Aires. That summer, in Brazil, men on the beaches unabashedly proclaimed how much they wanted to fuck me.

In my more vulnerable moments, this attention was flattering, even exhilarating. After so long feeling unattractive and uncomfortable in my own skin, I could laugh off that vaguely creepy sensation if it meant getting noticed. As I’ve grown older, I’ve found other, healthier sources of validation — myself, family, friends, and partners — which made that vaguely creeped out feeling grow and intensify. Now when I’m harrassed, I get the feeling someone poured ice just behind my sternum, followed by a rush of heat to my face and a clenching of my fists. My mind races with a million comebacks while simultaneously determining it is definitely NOT safe to say any of them. This feeling is even worse when it’s happening to someone I love.

Now, when I travel, sexual harassment is something I am forced to think about. I’ve been given the laundry list of places I shouldn’t go because I’m a woman. I’ve attended the workshops that college study abroad programs give to young women about “how to be a woman abroad.” I’ve heard the vaguely xenophobic rants about foreign men who prey on young American women, without acknowledging some of the interesting and innovative approaches other countries have taken to address the issue.

Source: www.gotstared.at; also known as one of the best anti-gender-based violence campaigns ever.

Source: http://www.gotstared.at; based in India, also known as one of the best youth-run gender equality campaigns ever.

My family ABSOLUTELY has a double standard for my brother and me when it comes to travel; I’m being impulsive when I want to go somewhere else, he’s being adventurous. Popular culture hasn’t made room yet for the “empowered lone female traveler” trope. Boys have Huck Finn and Jack Kerouac; we have “single white female gets murdered by evil man abroad.”  Vanessa Veselka expands on this in a super long, but immensely worthwhile article for The American Reader. [1]

What happens then, if I decide not to do those things? Would it be my fault if something happened to me? Would I be characterized as just another twenty-something girl who went where she wasn’t supposed to go? When I get angry about it though, people think I’m being overly stubborn and naïve to how the world really works. However, I know if anyone proposed such solutions to gender-based violence and harassment at home (“Dress more modestly!” “Avoid certain places!” “Don’t walk around at night!”), I wouldn’t put up with it. “It’s your fault because…” rhetoric has no place in my life.

The problem is that when I travel, I won’t always have the implicit understanding of social codes to know what’s bullshit and what’s useful advice. I won’t necessarily know the right thing to do if I experience harassment abroad, and I certainly won’t always have the vocabulary to advocate for myself.

So where does that leave me? While I did have these experiences abroad, I also discovered what real hummus tastes like, climbed a glacier, and met amazing people. Traveling is in my blood; I’m not going to let sexist bullshit stop me from going to the places I want to go. I will take precautions where I can and say fuck it to the rest.

Is this a sustainable, long-term choice? Probably not. But for now, it’s what I’ve got.


[1] DDP editor and badass human, Bridie Marie, points out some excellent perspectives on solo-female travel here, here, and here.

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