Solo Travel, Sexual Assault and the Conversation We’re Not Having

Among independent travelers under 35, a majority of those taking to the road are women. This often surprises people because our narrative surrounding female travel is one which is almost unavoidably linked with the dangers, risks and fears both real and imagined that go with travel. Every travel blogger who has spent any time engaged in conversations around travel or travel safety will have had to address and discuss the topic of female safety on the road. Similarly, every time there is a violent attack or high profile assault against a female traveler, or travelers, our assumptions and fears about female travel – particularly solo travel – are confirmed with a wave of articles and news coverage.

As a feminist, I’m a strong believer that conversations about sexual assault, sexual health and sexuality are an essential part of our narrative and a core topic that we must tackle and discuss more openly. As a man, I’m also acutely aware that the world I exist in, is a world that makes it difficult for me to fully understand the trials, risks, concerns and daily tribulations that women face. However, this also is often extended to mean that outside of general affirmation with whatever narrative is being put forward by women, I’m not allowed to weigh in on the topic or to offer my own critical voice.  In recent months, I’ve mentioned the topic outlined in this post in talks with other travelers and the response has been extremely mixed and skeptical.

Despite this, I believe that a core aspect of the travel+sexual assault+women’s safety discussion is missing: context. I view this as an extension of the overall safety discussion tied to travel/solo travel.  After all, when I look at and discuss travel, I also have to tackle the fears, particularly among Americans, that the world they’ll be exploring beyond America’s borders is much more dangerous and unsafe than the US. I have to work to educate people that the United States, and the city of Phoenix where I come from, are often far more dangerous than most of the destinations travelers might seek to explore and highlight that in many ways the individual who embarks on a reasonably well-thought out trip, even alone, is very likely more safe than an individual living and working within one of America’s great cities on a daily basis.

“That is part of what irks me about this discussion: being “alone” is not the issue. Travel abroad is not the issue. The issue is treatment of women. And we should be using this media spotlight to as a springboard to discussing how we can fix it.”

– Jodi of LegalNomads on Solo Travel 

To this end, I grow increasingly more confident that the narrative we have about women, travel, solo travel and sexual assault needs to change. Not because there is not a profound and utterly heartbreaking risk of women facing sexual assault while traveling, but because that risk is very likely on par with, or potentially even lower than, what they would be experiencing if they did not travel.  Which, to more explicitly state my belief, is that women traveling is no less risky and may even be safer than women going about their daily routine.

Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to concretely say if this assumption is founded, or unfounded, in no small part because we know so little about sexual assault and because we lack any aggregate research on the reach and proliferation of sexual assault and harassment.  We do know that certain cultures have significantly higher levels of sexual harassment and others significantly higher levels of sexual assault. But we do not know if female travelers status as a cultural outside, makes them more or less susceptible. We also often neglect or misportray the sources of sexual assault because they are, to put it bluntly, complex and quite uncomfortable. One key element though that often re-surfaces is the tragic reality that a large portion of sexual assaults are not random attacks on a street or in a bar. They come from people who know the victim and are often perpetrated by individuals with whom the individual is or has engaged in a relationship with.

So, before I we get to far into the conversation, let’s look at what we do know pulled from some of the few global-facing sources.

FROM THE WHO (Fact sheet N°239, Updated January 2016):

  • Recent global prevalence figures indicate that about 1 in 3 (35%) of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.
  • Most of this violence is intimate partner violence. Worldwide, almost one third (30%) of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner.
  • Globally, as many as 38% of murders of women are committed by an intimate partner.
  • Situations of conflict, post conflict and displacement may exacerbate existing violence, such as by intimate partners, and present additional forms of violence against women.
  • Between 15% of women in Japan and 71% of women in Ethiopia reported physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime
  • Between 0.3–11.5% of women reported sexual violence by someone other than a partner since the age of 15 years
  • The first sexual experience for many women was reported as forced – 17% of women in rural Tanzania, 24% in rural Peru, and 30% in rural Bangladesh reported that their first sexual experience was forced

 VISUALIZING RISK (UNODC/Tracy Hunter):

Rape_rates_per_100000_population_2010-2012

SEXUAL ASSAULT IN THE US (WH Report):

  • Women and girls are the vast majority of victims: nearly 1 in 5 women – or nearly 22 million – have been raped in their lifetimes .1 Men and boys, however, are also at risk: 1 in 71 men – or almost 1.6 million – have been raped during their lives.
  • Women of all races are targeted, but some are more vulnerable than others: 33.5% of multiracial women have been raped, as have 27% of American Indian and Alaska Native women, compared to 15% of Hispanic, 22% of Black, and 19% of White women.
  • Most victims know their assailants.
  • The vast majority (nearly 98%) of perpetrators are male.
  • Young people are especially at risk: nearly half of female survivors were raped before they were 18, and over one-quarter of male survivors were raped before they were 10. College students are particularly vulnerable: 1 in 5 women has been sexually assaulted while in college.
  • Repeat victimization is common: over a third of women who were raped as minors were also raped as adults.
  • The majority of rape and sexual assault victims are young – between the ages of 16 and 24. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 80% of female victims were raped before they turned 25, and almost half were raped before they were 18.11 Among men, 28% were raped before they were 10.12
  • College students are especially at risk: 1 in 5 women has been sexually assaulted while in college.

So, what can we draw from this? How can it flavor how we discuss female independent and solo travel? To me it re-affirms that as both a culture and as a civilization we have a heart-breaking and utterly unnecessary problem we’ve yet to properly face. One that is pervasive, destructive, and reaches into all aspects of the globe. It re-affirms that women live their daily lives going out of their way to keep themselves safe and working within the confines of social and geographic geographies to navigate their daily lives safely (eg: this piece).  But, what it also indicates, to me at least, is that contrary to the social narrative that has existed for more than a century, solo and independent female travel does not increase the risk of assault and sexual violence.  It also re-affirms my growing suspicion that it actually reduces these risks by eliminating some of the most-common offenders – the people women know.

Female fearfulness is a cultural construct, instituted and maintained by
both men and women in the interests of the dominant, male group. The
myth of female victimhood is emphasised in order to keep women under
control, so that they plan their activities, remain in view, tell where they
are going, how they are getting there, when they will be home
– Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman, pp. 355

Of course, there are confounding and complicating factors. The alcohol, bar, and at times drug-infused nature of the hostel scene fosters an environment that is not unlike that on college campuses – a hotbed for sexual assault. The widely differing cultural and sexual norms also create situations where added risks may arise. But, I think that we can discuss these as considerations that factor into independent and solo travel, without continuing to foster a sense of fear and intimidation that keeps women from striking out and exploring the world at large or leaves them constrained to desperately seeking for travel companions – male or otherwise – who can accompany them, often at the cost of rich and rewarding experiences while likely adding only minimal added safety – if any at all.

At the end of the day, I’ve seen the devastating impact of sexual and physical assaults. It is never simple. It is never deserved. It is never justified. It is long lasting. It is horrifying. It is rarely talked about and it is profoundly shameful that for as far as we have advanced as a species we continue to struggle with the simplest of things: a common respect for each other and each other’s bodies.  This post is about furthering that discussion and making sure that we seek to change the way we discuss travel in the context of sexual assault, harassment, and violence.

So, moving forward, what will my answer be when asked if it’s safe for women to travel solo or in pairs? It won’t be the standard simple yes. It’ll be yes, it is, at least in comparison to staying at home.  That key point of differentiation saddens me in and of itself, but is, I believe, a likelihood it’s long past time we accepted.

P.S. – In the time between when I wrote this post and published it, this article, “Why is travelling alone still considered a risky, frivolous pursuit for women?” at the Guardian was published. It’s a great write up by Laura Bates that also covers similar aspects of this issue.

In Their Words – 20 Years Later – Two Years of Family Travel

It was more than 20 years ago when my parents called my brother and I into the living room. At the time I was 10 or 11 and I vaguely remember being more than a little confused. We were going to go on an adventure. In my previous post, Reflecting On Two Years of Travelschooling – 20 Years Later, I shared my reflections on the trip.  But, part of what I think makes this story special is the opportunity to also contrast those recollections with those of my parents, Ed and Jo, alongside my brother, David.

As part of the prep for my post, I asked each of them to write down their own recollections and reflections on our trips. Focusing on the 1995 trip to Europe, but also elaborating where inclined about our 97 trip through the US. I asked them to write down their musings independently, without talking to each other and without reading my more in-depth piece. In this post, I compile their thoughts and share them with you un-edited and in their own voice. Due to the extended nature of David’s response, I’ve made the decision to post it as a stand alone. Jump to it here.

Jo Berger

MOM – Jo Berger

As I think back to the time 20 years ago when Ed and I were contemplating a year of travel schooling abroad with our two sons, I find I don’t have a lot of planning memories. One thing I know for certain is that it was absolutely the best child-rearing, family-bonding, life-altering decision we ever made.

I had the good fortune to be raised in a family that valued education, history, literature, art, music and travel. As Ed and I raised our own family, we continued to instill those values in our own children. I had traveled to Italy in college twice to study Italian and art history. Ed and I had traveled there together before having a family. Ed had also traveled extensively on a year-long, around the world adventure. Both of us were teachers. As a result, we didn’t have a lot of fear about traveling abroad in Europe without a fixed itinerary and teaching the boys from experiences in the real world. We were pretty confident we could handle most anything that came our way.

Once we knew we wanted to do it, we had to figure out how we could afford it. We planned for a year-long break from working. We had some small savings to cover our airfare, our 3-month Eurail passes, and our travel gear. We were able to find renters for our house and we used that income to help defray our travel costs. Food was basically food no matter where we were. Ed managed most of those details as he is the one in our relationship who keeps track of the finances.

Reflecting On Two Years of Travelschooling – 20 Years Later

It was more than 20 years ago when my parents called my brother and I into the living room. At the time I was 10 or 11 and I vaguely remember being more than a little confused.  We were going to go on an adventure. The specifics were still being hammered out, but we’d be packing our lives into backpacks, renting out the house we owned in Sedona, and striking out for a year-long exploration of Europe.

I remember a tumultuous combination of emotions. A mixture of excitement, of confusion, of wonder, and of fear. But what about our cats? The house? My friends? It was all a lot to take in. I knew that there were things I loved – knights, medieval history, mythology, fishing and exploring and as the son of travelers, I’d been exposed to travel before.  When I was six we re-located from Southwestern Colorado to Sedona and since birth I’d grown up familiar with road trips and visits to the Sea of Cortez in northern Mexico.  But those were month long trips…this? This was something different.

How does a 10 year old wrap their mind around an entirely different continent … one full of alien people, foods, smells and languages? Shadows of sensations stir in my mind as I try and recall that moment nearly 22 years ago. And time? What did a full year mean to me then? I know it seemed daunting…but how daunting? It has softened with time and the glossy shades of fond memories and rich experiences. Yet, it still stands out vividly in my memory – a tribute to how intense the experience was.

It is only as I’ve grown older that I’ve truly started to understand the incredible undertaking my parents chose to take. Sure, they were veteran travelers and experienced educators … but even to consider a similar trip today is daunting, and that with an amazing wealth of technologies, the rise of the internet and a (mostly) unified Europe.

On that spring day in 1995 the world looked very differently. Echoes of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the First Gulf War were still recent history. The nations of Europe were only beginning to contemplate the concept of the European Union and the internet was in an infantile state.  Though I know many of my parent’s friends were supportive, I’m sure many others looked on wondering and convinced that their bold abandon was instead dangerous recklessness.

NOTE: This post is Part One of a Three Part series in which I compile and share reflections, independently written and then compiled, from my parents, my brother and myself. Jump straight to Part II in which I share my mother and father’s reflections or to Part III where my brother, David, goes in depth and shares his thoughts, reflections and memories.  Have your own personal experiences or questions?  Don’t hesitate to post them in a comment!

AlexandNate1995

Preparation

Over the following months we pulled out an atlas and world map.  We sat as a family, my younger brother David and I leaning in and treated as equals as we planned. This was important and an incredible difference between my parents and most adults. We were co-learners and in it together. We were at the center of the trip and they truly meant it when they asked: What did we want to see?  Where did we want to go?  How silly and naive some of our requests must have sounded to our parents, and yet, they included us and structured our trip in-part around our interests. Mythology? Yes, we’d have to go to Greece.  The Eiffel Tower, that stunning feat of architectural accomplishment? Of course, Paris then was a must.  And what of Normandy where my Grandfather fought in WWII?

Slowly a plan came together. It was a casual plan, one that was fluid, free formed and largely limited to the first three months during which we’d have unlimited Eurail passes.  As ideas erupted before slowly evolving into their final shape we adapted – my father’s sister would join us in France for several weeks, we’d wander Western Europe and then end our three-month sprint in southern Italy at the conclusion of our Eurail pass. Then we’d hop to Greece by ferry, spend a month on Corfu and then continue southward aiming to travel slowly and winter where it was warm. Then from there?  It was all uncertain, except for a return ticket booked from Amsterdam 11 months after our initial arrival.

Holy Shit, I Just Ate A Massive Cockroach

One of the semi-cliche things to do when you visit Southeast Asia is to eat bugs.  In some ways it’s a bit of a coming of age sort of thing. Heading to Florence, Italy? You’ve gotta eat Gelato on the Ponte Vecchio. England? Fish and Chips. Thailand? A portion of creepy-crawlies. But, more than that, it’s also a great opportunity to push our boundaries and try a future-food. What do I mean by future-food? Moving forward bugs will be an increasingly important part of our diets as they’re a valuable, easy, and slightly more ethical alternative to other types of meats. We’ve already started to see bugs pop up in high-end supermarkets such as Denmark’s Irma chain, and dried caterpillars and termites are cornerstones of Sub-Saharan African diets. So, I decided to push my limits and give the bugs a go. Every crunchy, goose-bump inspiring, bite is covered in this video, so…enjoy!

P.S. – I hope you’re hungry!

For this video I found a small food cart at Bangkok’s Sunday Market. The cart was situated in the very back of the market where few tourists go on the other side of the pet/fish section. It was an old woman selling the bugs which I purchased from the vendor immediately after a local woman had picked up a hearty bag of crispy eats. Are bugs a regular part of your average Thai’s diet? Probably not. At least not in Bangkok. But, at least it brought with it some semblance of local flavor.

Unfortunately, as is the case with a lot of fried food around the world, I suspect the bugs could have actually been quite decent if not cooked in a rather old-tasting shrimp sauce and oil. Either way, some were surprisingly good and believe it or not, the cockroach was one of the best! Next time, I’ll be aiming to get them fresh and to try cooking them my way. After all, there’s nothing a bit of salt, olive oil, butter and garlic can’t fix! Still hungry? Don’t miss these videos about bizarre foods here, here and here.

Cambodia in 20 Instagram Photos

I’m currently hard at work sorting through the 4,000+ images I snapped during my visit to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. However, while the final “National Geographic Standard” shots are starting to go up on flickr (view them here) I’ve been posting Instagram edits taken during the trip. For those that follow my photography, for Instagram I post unique images, a blend of dSLR and iPhone 6 captured shots and/or HDR edits of the photos you’d see on flickr in a more true-to-life format. So, without further delay, here are 15 of my favorite Instagram shots from Cambodia.

 

An old Cambodian gentleman resting in front of Aangkor Wat.

A photo posted by Alex Berger (@virtualwayfarer) on

Vietnam in 15 Instagram Photos

I’m currently hard at work sorting through the 4,000+ images I snapped during my visit to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. However, while the final “National Geographic Standard” shots are starting to go up on flickr (view them here) I’ve been posting Instagram edits taken during the trip. For those that follow my photography, for Instagram I post unique images, a blend of dSLR and iPhone 6 captured shots and/or HDR edits of the photos you’d see on flickr in a more true-to-life format. So, without further delay, here are 15 of my favorite Instagram shots from Vietnam.

 

The mighty Mekong | Vietnam

A photo posted by Alex Berger (@virtualwayfarer) on

 

Planting cow grass in a freshly harvested rice paddy one stalk at a time. #vietnam #mytho

A photo posted by Alex Berger (@virtualwayfarer) on

 

Preparing and Packing for a Year of Travelschooling

In the late summer of 1995, Jo and Ed Berger commenced their final preparations for an 11 month backpacking trip which would take them and their two sons ages 8 and 11 (hey, that’s me!) through roughly a dozen European countries. Just one short year after returning, they’d once again find themselves packing for a very different type of trip. This time, the trip offered more space: A 32 foot 5th-wheel trailer and crew-cab pickup truck, but came with added challenges such as different academic needs for the boys and a high-energy border collie which shared the back seat with two teenage boys.

In this interview I sit down with Jo and ask her to reflect on what ultimately worked, what didn’t, what she wished she had prepared differently, and gain insights into the thoughts and doubts she had before leaving for the trip with the unusual insight to weigh in on how those panned out now that the boys have grown up and 20+ years have passed.

You can view my interview with Jo and Ed where we discuss the trip and they reflect on their fears learnings and key pieces of advice in the full interview here.

The Human Safari

As children, we often assume different roles while re-enacting grand fantasies. All hail to Cesar, riding atop a palanquin, or to the Astronaut floating above the world looking down at it.  The doctor saving lives, or the war photographer documenting the rawness of the human condition and the horrors of society as it fails. Then, we grow up.  We settle into our role within our socio-cultural strata and send subtle ripples across the fabric of the society that surrounds us.

As tourists, we recapture some of that wonder.  We gain the opportunity to stand in the midst of the Coliseum, to stride casually down the halls of grand empires and to snap photos of exotic peoples, destinations, and in some instances candid moments.  These rich experiences add to the substance of who we are and let us get back in touch with the beautiful sense of exploration which defined our youth. They are, for many, what make travel wondrous, expansive and oh-so addictive.

But, what happens when that sense of exploration leads us to moments and experiences which carry with them a taint of exploitation or dehumanization?  What happens when we suddenly become a modern incarnation of the aloof Roman dictator, well fed, wealthy, and separated by an invisible but nearly impenetrable wall from the people we’re visiting?  It’s something that happens easily, innocently and far more often than we’d like to admit.

The Stirrings of Realization

For me, two instances stand out. The first tickled my awareness with a mild sense of intangible discomfort. The second brought clarity slamming into place combined, strangely, with a sense of helplessness.

Faces of Zambia

The first was during my time in Zambia.  We’d elected to do a Safari with a fantastic company in the South Luangwa region. They invest heavily in protecting the animals, a light footprint on the land, and in the local community.  Yet, as we sat in the back of a large safari Landcruiser rolling along the pockmarked blacktop I looked out at the hundreds of locals that could readily be seen along the side of the road working their yards, walking the road, or going about their business.

Faces of Zambia

Often they’d look up at the four of us, often smiling, and in the case of the children, waving…then bursting into laughter when we’d smile and wave back.  We stuck out like sore thumbs, and not just because of the color of our skin. It was nearly everything about us – from our clothing, to our glasses, camera, and the way we were traveling. Just as often as I waved back, I’d sit, camera raised to my eye, set in sports mode snapping away while watching the landscape race by through my extended zoom lens.  Each shot allowed me to capture a candid photo of daily life. And, if I’m to be honest, each shot was much more comfortable than had I been on the ground, walking from house to house, snapping photos.  Just as fast as I snapped the photo or they looked up, the Landscruiser had spirited me away, erasing any possibility of a confrontation or interaction.

Faces of Zambia

It was only as I sat in that same vehicle the following days, snapping photos in the same fashion of wildlife that I started to register the stark and uncomfortable similarities between the two situations. Somehow, without intending it, I had gone from great explorer on a grand exploration to Dictator atop my palanquin utterly separated and detached from the local people who I was there to meet. True, I was there, but in this instance it would be far more accurate to say I was in actuality just seeing them, not truly meeting them.