As if having to cart 30kg suitcases around European transit systems isn’t tough enough, add on the added fear of strange men – which is a reality lived by many femme presenting women who choose, like writer Ruby Staley, to travel solo. But is this fear only present when travelling? And how can we continue to solo travel in a safe way?
0 minute read
From my hometown and the city I live in to all the countries I’ve travelled on my solo trip, the feeling of being watched never ceased, because sadly, it wasn’t a feeling - I was being watched. Constantly.
And even worse than the eyes, although less frequent but frequent enough for it to be an issue, the intimidating body language, the unsettling words, and worst, the wandering hands have made themselves even more apparent during my travels.
Although I wouldn’t change the fact that I decided to travel solo, I love my own company and being in charge of my own itinerary was great but travelling alone as a femme presenting person was, a lot of times, a huge issue of safety.
With a wealth of unsavoury experiences á la Australian men under my belt, I felt I was somewhat equipped to deal with the kind overseas. But, in just a matter of weeks, I accrued a long list of instances of harassment, some minor, some more major that impacted the enjoyment of my travels.
Just to name a few; I was followed and gawked at a music festival in the Netherlands, had my hair pulled in a club in Amsterdam, had my exits blocked and intimidated into chatting to men on multiple occasions, and one of the most unsettling by far was an older man in Greece striking up a conversation which I had no interest in taking part in who told me - flat out - I shouldn’t be travelling alone looking the way I do and proceeding to ask me out while physically intimidating me.
I’m not even including the countless times I endured cat calling from cars, bikes and across streets, unwanted touches in moshes and on public transport, obvious stares and even being followed on the street both during the day and night.
Typically, I don’t mind being confrontational but in 90% of these interactions, I had to either walk or run away, fearing my safety because I was alone and in unfamiliar territory. And, sadly, I’m not alone.
Founding editor of Astray and a road trip enthusiast living down in Lutruwita/Tasmania, Gemma Clarke, admitted she’d felt unsafe while walking home, on transport or in hostel rooms.
“All of the strangers I felt threatened by or were actually impacted by were men,” she said. “I've felt shaken and nervous for days afterwards, not able to stop shaking, focus, eat or get the courage to go back outside. I also had to make sure I separated my experience from the culture it occurred in rather than resorting to racist tropes and xenophobia as a means of coping.”
Image credit: Gemma Clarke
Although, I noticed an increase in my fear in men while travelling solo, Gemma said she’d felt arguably more unsafe when in her own country.
“Especially walking home late at night, in the company of so-called male ‘friends’ and in my intimate relationships, the latter of which is actually where the very vast majority of violence against women occurs,” she said.
Former travel writer and veteran solo traveller, Eliza Sholly, echoed these sentiments admitting she also had endured a few really shit situations while travelling, although, she’d experienced worse within kilometres of home.
“Being a womxn in society is hard, no matter where you are, and thinking about our safety is labour we have to undergo every time we leave the house. I’ve been catcalled in Paris, and I’ve been catcalled in Prahran - the difference being that, as a solo traveller, you are left without a sense of community to lean on for allyship,” she said.
For me, these situations triggered memories of past trauma - things happened to me at the hands of men, often ones I loved and trusted, and often when my guard was down. With my defences up and over the other side of the world, this sort of treatment seemed more frightening.
Without negating my own experiences, these issues clearly impact me marginally different from BIPOC and queer folx. Although I identify as queer, my proximity to whiteness and ability to ‘pass’ as cis and hetero is a massive privilege that affords me a higher level of safety in general.
While lucky to have travelled solo with such success, Eliza said, “it sucks that it doesn’t come so easily for such a large portion of the population… For non-white people, people with English as a second language, people with disabilities, the LGBTQIA+ community, travelling brings with it a whole new set of complications.”
Gemma added, “Queer people often have to hide their sexuality when they're travelling; trans, intersex and non-binary people have to take all sorts of extra safety precautions; BIPOC are likely to experience systemic racism.”
Thanks to the patriarchy, it’s common for womxn all around the world to feel unsettled in the presence of certain men but gendered standards differ slightly from place to place. This difference is something Eliza explains is often rooted in the complex historical and political contexts.
“Even in countries with relatively low crime rates for travellers doesn’t diminish the underlying microaggressions that many expats face when they go there,” she said.
There’s also the notion of sheer physicality, that men are often more physically overpowering and therefore, threatening, even in the most innocent of scenarios.
“Both from things like pickpocketing, as we tend to present as easier victims, and from more serious crimes such as rape and sexual assault,” Gemma said. “Just recently, walking around a posh part of Washington by myself in the afternoon and then again with a male friend, I was astonished at the difference in leeriness I experienced from the men I passed. It was palpable.”
Obviously, the disproportionate issue of violence against femme people is far larger than me and my experiences so for those of us who can speak about it, its super important to. Though every femme person I know have stories of these kinds, many men I’ve been travelling with admitted they were unaware of the severity and frequency of this behaviour.
I hope speaking clearly and openly about it will give even guys who have ‘good’ intentions pause to consider their physical impact on a femme person who’s alone. A few good ways of doing this is crossing the road when walking behind a femme person, talking stock of disinterested body language and actually listening when they draw boundaries and say no.
And for the femme people who wish to go travelling alone, I’m reluctant to recommend any kind of behavioural changes to prevent an attack from occurring – but sadly, this is the world we live in. For me, turning my headphones off and ensuring I walk home in crowded areas was helpful, but obviously, we can never completely prevent an attack – that’s on the perpetrators, not us.
For Eliza, listening to her gut instinct is key.
“If something hasn’t felt right in the past, I listen to that niggling voice in my head and try to eject myself from the situation as quickly as possible.” At times while on the road, she has even resorted to wearing a wedding ring.
“In our patriarchal society, men tend to value other men over me, and this has been a simple, overt way to explain myself out of situations in the past,” Eliza said.
For Gemma, having a working mobile with a sim is key. “They hadn't expected my phone to work overseas, so left me and fled,” she said.
“As women and femme-presenting people, we are obviously and very unfortunately at risk from men wherever we are, and I could cry at the number of horrific #metoo stories I have heard from fellow travellers. However, people who are the most vulnerable to human trafficking are those who live in unstable conditions with limited options for safety and survival. Rather than being kidnapped by strangers or giant syndicates, they are coerced by friends, relatives, romantic partners and other acquaintances who exploit them.”
While I wish the world was safer for womxn to move around freely, both Eliza, Gemma agree on the point that solo travelling is an enriching and exciting endeavour – one we would encourage anyone who is interested.
“I love solo travel is because it connects me to a version of myself that I really like; someone who is independent, capable and open to new experiences,” Gemma said.