Sensitivity Warning: This is a story about surviving sexual assault while traveling. I believe that it is important to share what has happened to me so we can all be stronger and safer travelers. It has taken me a year to share my story here. With the media finally paying attention to the day-to-day harassment women face around the globe it feels like a necessary time to add my voice to this conversation. My story is not meant to be fear-mongering and I think it is absolutely safe for women to travel alone, I’ve done so for years and have been mostly out of harm’s way. This has been very difficult to reflect upon. All of the #metoo conversations have been incredibly triggering, especially so close to the anniversary of this particular attack.
A year ago I was shattered, a complete ghost of the confident independent woman I had grown to be. I had just spent an amazing few weeks exploring one of my favorite countries, Morocco. It was my third visit to the fascinating nation and I was deeply enamored with the culture, customs, and locals. I felt welcomed everywhere I went. Yes, there were inappropriate stares, comments, and sometimes very quick touches that I wished hadn’t happened. But nothing out of the ordinary of the usual sexual harassment I receive as a female traveler everywhere I go.
I was in Ouarzazate exploring the Kasbah when I was attacked by a sexual predator. A Kasbah is essentially a labyrinth of narrow hallways, staircases, and tiny rooms. It was once a communal home for the local villagers. When I entered the typical local male ‘guides’ at site offered to give me a tour for a ‘very reasonable price’, I denied as usually they don’t have any accurate information to share and I would rather explore alone. I deeply regretted this decision later.
I was in a room which was once the ladies chamber admiring the colorful wood carvings when I noticed a man in the room. I only saw he was there because I was taking a selfie and he was in view of the picture. He approached me and asked me to take his photo, first in French, then in broken English. Of course, I happily said I would take pictures for him. I snapped several photos.
Then he grabbed me to take a selfie. I tried to object but his hand was all the way around my waist and right under my breast. In that moment I actually thought he was trying to rob me so I held my purse tight and smiled for a picture. My instinct in this moment was essentially to give him what he wanted so that he would go away. I thought it was my best option to play along and then escape.
He wouldn’t let me go and pulled me closer and nuzzled my neck as he continued to snap photos and reach his hand under my shirt. I shoved him off of me as he was showing me the blurry picture saying they weren’t good and we needed to take more pictures. I started shouting, “Do not fucking touch me again!”
I ran into the next room which was a dead end. He came in with his penis and testicles exposed and was masturbating. He pushed me back against the wall as he continued to touch himself. Even though he had been aggressive towards me before I could have never imagined this was going to happen. I froze and was in complete shock for what felt like an eternity. I started to kick him and he ejaculated everywhere, on my jeans and the floor. He scampered away and I just stood there.
It took me a few seconds to process what had just happened. I started screaming. I couldn’t move. I didn’t know where he had gone. The only exit of the room led to two stairwells. Which one did he take? I didn’t know if he was waiting for me. What if I took the wrong set of stairs? What if he was angry that I had kicked him and now he really wanted to physically hurt me?
A few moments later two young men ran into the room and I immediately lost control of myself and started shaking and hysterically crying. They did not speak English. They were coming closer to me. I was screaming, “NO! Get away from me!” In my terrified state I assumed that they were friends with the pervert who had just assaulted me. I thought they were there for their turn, but they were just trying to help. I was being awful to them when they were only trying to find out what was wrong.
The local men who are guides for the Kasbah, the ones that I had refused to hire before all ran up to see what all the fuss was about. One of them spoke enough English to get me to sit down and breathe. I was surrounded by around a dozen men and was certain that this is just the beginning of a gang rape. I didn’t know how to get out of the building and was completely terrified.
I finally calmed down enough to explain to one of the men who spoke some English what had just happened. When he told the rest of the men they were immediately furious. I knew then that these men were here to help me, not hurt me. They wanted to call the police. They wanted me to go outside and get some air. I told them I was afraid to move and I didn’t know where my attacker was. They said they already had looked for him and that he was gone and walked me slowly downstairs.
I remembered that I had taken a selfie earlier and that the guy had been in the background. I had a picture of the perpetrator. I let the locals call the police. I wasn’t hopeful that anything would come of it, but the police were furious. They sent the photo around to other officers and sped off as quickly as they had arrived.
The local men brought me water and tissue. I didn’t really understand where the police had gone and the guides just told me they were going to go find my attacker. I thought that would be impossible. At least 15 minutes had passed and while the city isn’t large it certainly isn’t tiny. They asked me to stay and wait for the police to return. I tried to sit there for a few minutes but couldn’t shake off what had just happened to me. I couldn’t regain my strength and I just kept crying, something so unusual for me.
I needed a distraction, so the guide who spoke English offered to take me on a tour of the Kasbah. We had been walking around for about 20 minutes when the other men hysterically ran towards us shouting. My guide, Moha, translated for me–”the cops had caught the asshole,” he said. We went to the front of the Kasbah and sure enough the police van was back. I couldn’t believe that they had really found him. The picture was zoomed in and blurry and you could hardly see his facial features. But they opened the van and sure enough there he was on his knees, crying and begging for my forgiveness. To everyone’s shock, including my own, I screamed, “FUCK YOU.”
We went to the police station where it took about four hours of translating and retelling the story over and over again. The picture was all the proof I needed. The Moroccan police never asked me why I was alone, never question what I was wearing, or suggested that I should cover my head and hair. They didn’t doubt what had happened to me. If you’re grossly curious about what I was wearing the photo above was captured the same day. I realize I may have be given special treatment because I am a foreigner.
The sexual predator that attacked me was arrested and put in jail. I was told he would be tried the next day in front of a judge and sentenced. I have no way of knowing what the ruling was but I had been told that there is an official sex offender list in Morocco and he will be on it for the rest of his life regardless of how much jail time he is given. This was the first time in my life I’ve swiftly received justice when reporting sexual harassment. I have no doubt that this was not this monsters first assault. His attack was so calculated. He knew the Kasbah well, knew where to corner me, and how to escape. He took me as prey because I was alone, and kind enough to take his photo. He perceived me as vulnerable.
It is important to reiterate that all of the Moroccan men who helped were exceptionally kind to me. Especially the police, who simply believed me. With the other attacks I have survived in the States and Spain they’ve just been laughed off by both friends and authorities. This did not happen only because I was in a Muslim-majority country. What this man did is very much so against his religion. He is a bad man before he is anything else that is defined by his citizenship, color, or creed. Men like him exist all over our planet. They are predators with no respect or regard for women.
For instance, I have been followed by men who were masturbating in Los Angeles and New York City. I have been harassed around the world, assaulted in Spain, molested in Florida, and raped in Kansas. In the last few years, I have opened up about the times I’ve been sexually abused and have found that every woman I know has been sexually harassed in some way. Others are oblivious and find catcalling, unwanted touches, and hungry stares to be flattering.
In Morocco, I was physically OK, but mentally I was broken. The attack had me seriously reconsidering the solo travel lifestyle I created for myself. My confidence was completely shattered. I felt so violated. I was traumatized and incredibly vulnerable. I tried to feel lucky that I wasn’t hurt.
The night of the attack I took a bus to a coastal town for a 3-day surf camp. I stayed for two weeks as I regained my confidence. I walked around with downward cast eyes. I retracted from every man that approached me. I fought hard to recover a sound mental state. Eventually, I went on to Moroccan cities alone, something I truly didn’t think I’d be able to do again. I lost my ability to navigate the medinas and deal with unwanted attention from Moroccan men.
When a man followed me down an alleyway a few weeks later in Rabat and put his phone in my face for a selfie I threw it to the ground and ran away. When another man in Rabat sat down next to me at a historical site I told him I was going to start to scream. I have zero tolerance with men and selfies now.
I prevailed. I regained my power. I refused to continue to feel defeated. I hadn’t come this far to only go this far. I stopped questioning my lifestyle or why I “put myself” in dangerous situations like this. I left for India a few months later with a bolder stance on what it meant to be a solo traveler. I no longer went into sites alone Now I always hire a guide, they may not be super articulate about the historical facts but they’ll keep me safe as they want to get paid at the end of the tour.
Once I didn’t see any guides at the Amer Fort in Jaipur, India. The old living quarters were eerily similar to the Kasbah in Morocco where I had been attacked. I was lost and couldn’t find an exit and was starting to cry and was having trouble breathing. I was in a complete panic for the first time since I had been attacked. Everything came back to me vividly and I hated myself for being alone in a similar place. I asked two guards to show me the way out, instead, they took me down some stairs, I turned and ran away. I found a quiet corner to sit down and breathe. A man approached me in a yellow shirt. I looked away and stood up and walked the other direction. When I lifted my head he was standing in front of me and pulled me in for a kiss. I hit his windpipe hard and ran. Another guard stopped me and asked if I was okay, briefly I told him that a man in yellow had tried to kiss me, but didn’t mention that his associates also tried to trick me.
When I tell these stories to male friends, family members, or lovers they find them hard to believe. Maybe because they themselves would never treat a woman in such a nasty way. Most men have never been objectified or harassed like this. But all women have, whether they want to admit it or not. Globally there is a stigma that surrounds sexual harassment as something acceptable. But it absolutely it’s not.
I am an activist for women’s empowerment and naively had thought that my days of being assaulted were behind me. I don’t know if they ever will be. This particular assault in Morocco felt ironic as I had been working with women’s empowerment groups in the country. This year I spent three months in India working with a women’s empowerment NGO. I have been trying to reroute my story and use my pain as fuel to be a part of a global movement for women’s rights.
The attack in Morocco brought up a lot of anxiety from being raped as a 15-year old virgin. I didn’t speak my truth about being a rape survivor for nearly a decade. I never properly dealt with it. But somehow the attack in Morocco has made just as big as an impact on my life. Perhaps because it happened while I was doing something I love, traveling. Perhaps because I was in a foreign place and didn’t know where to go or who to trust.
I used to be defensive when people go on about the dangers of being a woman traveling alone. The reality is it is dangerous to be a woman anywhere, alone or not. Sexual harassment makes most other things that I’ve thought were difficult in life seem trivial. I am so tired of being dehumanized by men who view women as second-class items. It is hard work not to lose my confidence and to remember each time that I did not bring this upon myself. I did not ask for this unwanted sexual attention. Going ‘home’ to the USA, wouldn’t mean that I would stop facing sexual harassment. In the current political climate in the States, it seems almost celebrated by the President who is an alleged sex offender.
I overcome sexual abuse by sharing my experience with other travelers, men so they can learn how difficult it can be for women and start to speak up, and women so we feel less alone in the vicious violations so many of us have been through. What got me through Morocco was talking to complete strangers online that I met through the Girls Love Travel, Travelettes, and Go Wonder Facebook groups. I felt safer talking to these women who loved travel than I did my own friends and family who wouldn’t understand.
I am incredibly saddened by the other stories of sexual harassment that have surfaced through the #metoo movement. It is a very heavy burden we have to bare as women to be the keeper of our stories and others. When I shared my story in those Facebook groups this time last year dozens of strangers shared with me the sexual harassment they’ve overcome with while traveling.
While it makes me feel less alone and question less why this keeps happening to me, it makes me not feel very hopeful for the future of our gender. Now that sexual harassment is being publicly discussed by Hollywood and mainstream media perhaps we’ll see a change, but probably not. It will be old news by November. The Las Vegas shooting was barely three weeks ago and no media networks are covering it anymore, Puerto Rico is still suffering on a massive scale and the media have moved on to other topics. The media has a huge responsibility right now to start a paradigm shift in the States and around the world to educate the masses about sexual harassment and put pressure on politicians to pass laws that make it illegal to cat call, for starters.
I don’t know if a day will ever come where I will stop wondering if my whole life will be plagued by events of men sexually harassing and abusing me. Thank you for listening to my story. If you have one you’d like to share I am always available to talk. I am sending love to each and every one of you who relates to these stories. We’re in this together.