Travel

Solo Travel and The Risk of Rape – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

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Posted on / by Alex Berger

Ask Alex - Travel Question Q and A every Wednesday

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here. To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

This week’s travel question is from Emily who asks,

Q. “I want to try to travel solo as a woman, but am worried about my safety. Especially the risk of rape. Is this justified?

A. – That’s a rough topic, but a concern I hear regularly from a lot of young female travelers – especially in the US. Let me start by saying that as I try to tackle this issue I can only speak from general observation and conversations with female friends that have traveled extensively. As a 6’4″ 200 pound male the risk of getting raped is a rare issue and usually fairly low on my list of potential threats.

To the question – is there a rape risk as a solo female traveler? The answer is yes, but only because you are always at risk. However, I believe the nature of the actual risk is quite low, especially if you keep in mind several key factors when traveling. To start, let’s put it into context. For the sake of convenient illustration I’m going to pull statistics from this wikipedia article. The first thing to look at is the % break down for who the attacker is. Contrary to what most of us probably assume only 26% of rapists were complete strangers. While another 38% were friends or acquaintances. While 26% is still a significant percentage, it means that the vast majority of rape cases are occurring in situations where the victim knows and/or is familiar with their attacker. That’s pretty staggering. To me, this also suggests that in some way your exposure to situations that might lead to rape may in fact be lower while on the road where your guard is up, and most of your interactions are with strangers and very casual acquaintances.

Additional statistics about rapes in the US show that “over two thirds of all rapes occur in someone’s home. 30.9% occur in the perpetrators’ homes, 26.6% in the victims’ homes and 10.1% in homes shared by the victim and perpetrator. 7.2% occur at parties, 7.2% in vehicles, 3.6% outdoors and 2.2% in bars”. As a solo female traveler you will likely spend the majority of your time in hostels, or hotels. Again, this means that the time spent in “rape prone” situations may actually be significantly lower than your day-to-day activities at home.

Then there is the prevalence of rape in the United States which is an unspoken tragedy and huge issue. Statistics indicate that anywhere between one in four to one in six women in the United States have been raped. Putting aside the fact that this statistic is absolutely vomit inducing, it serves as a strong indicator to me that the view that the United States is somehow “safer” than spending time traveling abroad is likely little more than a misleading illusion.

With all of that said there are aspects of travel, especially solo travel which can lead to dangerous situations which you might not otherwise find yourself in when not traveling. One key consideration for women traveling is the need to be mindful of different social norms and rules. Unfortunately, women’s rights (especially sexual rights) are vastly different from country to country. While you may not need to (or necessarily want to) conform completely with the regional gender role norms in the places you visit, you should always invest some effort and time to research them and to keep in mind that you will be subject to them regardless of what you “want” or what is “right”. The same goes for a culture’s dating behavior. Sheer ignorance of how the dating/male-female dynamic in a country works can lead to potentially dangerous miss-communication and negative situations.

Another key area to be especially careful about while traveling as a solo-female is the danger of alcohol and drugs. A huge part of the social culture surrounding many youth backpacking trips and hostel experiences is the social/party scene. The rape article mentioned above notes that, “In the United States the use of drugs, especially alcohol, frequently plays a part in rape. In 47% of rapes, both the victim and the perpetrator had been drinking. In 17%, only the perpetrator had been. 7% of the time, only the victim had been drinking. Rapes where neither the victim nor the perpetrator had been drinking account for 29% of all rapes”. Which isn’t to say that you should not drink or enjoy yourself. It just means that you have to be particularly careful and take a more responsible approach to looking after yourself. If you’re the type that needs a full time babysitter to look after you, get you home, and make decisions for you when you’re drinking – then it’s either time for you to grow up, not drink while traveling, or find someone willing to babysit you for the duration of your travels.

As a footnote to this conversation also keep in mind that most male hostel-goers/extended travelers are pretty decent people. I know for my part I’ll make the extra effort to keep an eye on the female travelers that I meet through the hostel and go out to the bars with.   I know that a lot of the other guys tend to do the same. Perhaps it’s a bit old fashioned of us, but I think many of us view it as common decency to do our best to look out for each other with a little added consideration for female travelers.

At the end of the day travel (including solo travel) is much safer than many people believe. There are tens of thousands of women traveling solo on both short stay and extended duration trips every day. The experiences you’ll have and the lessons you’ll learn about how to carry and protect yourself will make you safer in all other areas of your life. At the end of the day, the risk of rape is a terrible thing that all women have to worry about. The nature of that risk, however, changes very little between time spent at home, and time spent on the road. Be smart, be careful and above all – don’t let overblown fears or Hollywood horror stories keep you from doing something amazing.

Would you like me to elaborate on an aspect of this response?  Let me know!

I would also love to hear insights from female readers to have or are currently traveling solo.  Please feel free to post your advice, suggestions, experiences, or general comments.

Have a question of your own? ASK IT! Want to see previous questions? click here.

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.

12 Comments

  • Natalie
    May 3, 2012

    My last solo tour lasted for a month and during that time, I would not go out at night and would only drink a couple of beers if outside of the hotel. I was careful with my dress code and never showed above the knee or cleavage. I had one incident with a man who pulled up at the bus stop and would not except that I do not hitch hike and he was getting very annoying.

    My one mistake then was that I should of shouted police earlier. I was so busy trying to be polite that I did not tune into my feelings that he was scaring me and they only kicked in later. It was thanks to another woman who had come to the bus stop and she shouted “police’ that the situation ended. On my next solo tour, I will not hesitate to shout police if I feel my personal safety is threatened.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      May 3, 2012

      Yikes, yeah. Definitely better to be safe than sorry and pre-emptive when going on the defense. Where was that?

      Reply
  • Natalie
    May 3, 2012

    It was on the main Antalya highway just outside of Kemer. I was waiting to get the bus to Cirali.

    Have just read my comment back and want to add a couple of things as I have made it sound like solo female travel should not be done. This is not what I was trying to say.

    I just feel that responsibility lays with the female to look after herself. Ie wearing clothing that does not attract unwanted male attention. Not getting drunk in places where you lose a sense of responsibility or control.

    At the end of the day, I could get attacked or raped just walking from my home to the local shop. This is a sad reality of our times but I refuse to let it put me off.

    On that tour, I traveled the whole of the south west coast in thirty days, that was the only time that I felt uncomfortable. Every one else was so friendly and helpful so I will not let one tainted memory, take over all the good times that I had. Sorry if the first comment sounded so negative.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      May 3, 2012

      Good context and added info. Had a hunch that was more along the lines of what you meant, based on our past conversations =)

      That was one of the things that really surprised me about Turkey. In Taksim, the bouncers were actively screening against Turkish guys unless they had a lot of girls with them already. When I asked why, a friend mentioned that it had to do with aggression and behavior issues. Which isn’t to say that is representative of all Turkish men – quite the opposite I imagine – but may highlight some of the challenges the clash of cultures in Turkey is bringing to light?

      Reply
      • Natalie
        May 3, 2012

        Most Turkish men are very polite towards women in bars but there is always the odd one so they just take precautions. They do it in all the coastal resorts as well. Before I married my husband and was dating him, I could not meet him in any of the bars or nightclubs as they would not let him in without me!

        Reply
  • Monica
    May 3, 2012

    Wow, a really detailed answer, good one Alex! It’s scary that women have to think about this but Natalie has a great point – as soon as you feel uncomfortable, do anything and everything you can to draw attention to yourself. And do everything you can to make sure you’re not in the kind of situation where there is no one else around to help.

    Brilliant answer Alex.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      May 3, 2012

      Thanks Monica, and it really is unfortunate. I definitely don’t envy you girls the added stress of having to worry about it. Then again, on the upside at least you don’t generally have to worry about getting pulled into a bar fight, lol.

      Reply
  • Kelly @LifeOptimist
    May 3, 2012

    Great article! I’m all about encouraging women to travel solo despite the risks. I’m Canadian, but often people don’t realize that the US is actually more dangerous than a lot of other countries. And when you put in the context that the FACT is, most women are raped by someone they know, well, you start to realize strangers might actually be safer to hang out with! (Sad, but true)

    I actually do this myself and advocate it: bring along a prescription of Plan B with you in case you do get raped (or a condom breaks during consensual fun). Most other countries either don’t have it or it’s hard to get. I have more tips here: http://www.solowomantraveler.ca/2008/09/tips-for-naughty-bits.html

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      May 4, 2012

      Great tips Kelly, thanks for weighing in. As a guy it is always easy to forget that there are a lot of extra considerations you all have to worry about and keep in mind. Informative post and good suggestions.

      Reply
  • Leyla from Women on the Road
    May 3, 2012

    As someone who has spent most of her life traveling solo, I appreciate your advice – it’s pretty spot on, although I’d be a bit firmer in telling women to please conform to local customs. In most countries women will be respected and at least as safe as back home – unless they flout custom by wearing clothes that are culturally unacceptable or behaving in a way that sends unintented signals to men. This isn’t to say that I AGREE that culture should excuse poor behaviour, not at all. But we’re not talking comfort here, but rape, a vastly more serious experience. I’m all for taking the necessary precautions – and if that means covering my shoulders, not wearing shorts or staying out of bars when I’m on my own, so be it. Thanks Alex – a difficult topic, well-addressed. Will share.

    Reply

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