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.