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.

David – 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 two-part 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. View my mother and father’s responses here. You can also view David’s fantastic blog here.

 

David Berger

BROTHER – David Berger

I wasn’t sure what was happening. I didn’t quite understand. We’d been talking as a family about a great adventure, about exploring the world and seeing new countries, but I wasn’t sure what it meant. I knew I’d need my favorite toys. We talked a lot about what to pack, what to do. I remember having to pack up my room, we were renting out the house… someone else was going to come and live in our house in Sedona. Someone else would stay in my room. I understood that I would not see my friends for a while, but I didn’t think about it much. It was all too exciting.

I was excited, new clothes, new backpacks, thinking about what I needed to take with me. We got our packs, and I remember watching Jo and Ed packing their big Osprey Packs, Dad’s highlander carrying the most important gear, the kitchen, and the necessities for travel. Mom’s strategically stuffed with the extra toys I knew I’d need. We started walking around the block, getting used to the heft of our packs. I remember thinking mine was big, but I was strong, I could carry it. There was a lot of encouragement from my brother and parents. We were going to do great, it was heavy, but we’d get used to it! We only walked around the block a couple of times. We’d learn the error of our ways later on.

We talked about Europe, we talked about our first destination. I remember talking about the trip, about what it would be like, as we walked around our neighborhood. The smell of the red earth, the dry Sedona air, and juniper pinions. I wanted to go and play, the pack was heavy, but it wasn’t too bad. Ma and Pa took a lot of our weight in their own bags, so we weren’t overburdened… Then it was time. We packed up and we headed out to Denver and then to Europe!

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.

Backyard Lilies in Bloom

During my US road trip I had a quick stopover in Prescott to see my folks and old friends. One of the highlights of the house in Prescott is the incredible yardwork my folks have done which has transformed the back yard from a rock strewn chunk of hillside, into a wonderful oasis full of life, vegetables, and gorgeous blooms.  Of the many flowers in the garden, my favorite are always the lilies which, as luck had it, were in the midst of blooming.  The mixture of whites, pinks, and yellows combined with the sound of the water and the sight of the fish lazily making their way from lily pad to lily pad always soothes and centers me in a way few other things can.  Here are a few photos of the back yard garden and lilies with a brief non-lily cameo.  You can see the rest of the photos in the flickr album, including black and white versions not included here.

The Backyard Garden - Water Lilies

Cameron Trading Post – Weekly Travel Photo

The sound of sun-scorched Arizona soil crunching beneath your boots is a unique one. There’s just something about how millennium of sweltering heat, clay, sandstone, and tumbleweed roots come together to give it that special sound. It’s no coincidence that when the time comes to prepare for the next mission to Mars or shoot a space odyssey all directors turn to the same part of Northern Arizona and Southern Utah for testing and filming

Open Roads and Changing Aspen – Weekly Travel Photo

With one arm resting half-in, half-out of the diver’s side window of  our white Chevy Crew Cab pickup truck the wind raced over my skin, cooling it, while tugging gently at my arm hairs. A periodic errant gust would collide with my skin before diverting inward to tickle my face and fill my ears with the sound of the fresh black tarmac whizzing by beneath rugged truck tires. My eyes locked forward on the road, one hand on the wheel casually navigating the high mountain two-lane highway that threaded through the passes near Silverton in south-western Colorado.

Cherry Blossoms – Weekly Travel Photo

Smithsonian Gardens - Washington DC

Spring in Washington D.C. is a magical time.  The weather is starting to change. The city is slowly coming out of its winter hibernation and both tourists and residents alike start to wander the sweeping boulevards and monument filled parks.  One of spring’s highlights is the annual cherry blossom festival when the city’s small forest of cherry trees cover the city in a layer of rich pink and white blossoms.   This photo was snapped outside of the Smithsonian museum, but a walk through the FDR monument is a definite must.

Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.

Would you like to see previous Weekly Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon G11, however I typically shoot on a Canon T3i (600D).