Sensitivity Warning: This article discusses my experiences with sexual assault while traveling. This isn’t meant to be fear-mongering. I travel alone and have been mostly out of harm’s way. I won’t let fear stop me from traveling.
The possibility of sexual harassment, assault, and rape are always lurking in front of me as I travel. Is an attacker waiting for me around a corner? Can I trust the accommodation manager not to touch me lewdly? Will a friendly interaction with a strange escalate to forceful sexual advances? Does my full-coverage one-piece sexualize my body and attract unwanted attention? These are all scenarios I’ve been through and so have many other travelers. I live in fear. But mainstream travel media seems to be ignoring this terrifying risk that could possibly impact any of us, at any time. In the dawn of the #metoo movement there’s been room for Hollywood actresses, sexually harassed co-workers, and abused college coeds, but what about us, the travelers? We also say that time’s up. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month so I’d like to share how suffocating it is to continuously worry when the next attack will be.
Whenever I disclose to friends or followers that I’ve been sexually assaulted while traveling I’m often treated like an object. In the aftermath generally, men and those 50+ tend to ridicule me and ask me what I could have done differently, question what I was wearing, why I was alone, or accuse me of having an ‘irresistible sexy ambiance’. Perhaps they have the best intentions and don’t realize they’re victim shaming, but they are. All of these rhetorics are incredibly dangerous to my mental stability and self-worth. Each time that I’ve been sexually assaulted I’ve been incredibly grateful that I was physically OK. But mentally, I’m broken. After a sexual assault I question my lifestyle of solo travel, my confidence is shattered, and I feel entirely violated. It deepens my trauma and vulnerability when people start to blame me for what’s happened. I didn’t bring any unwanted sexual attention upon myself. Of course, it’s dangerous to be a woman anywhere, not just while traveling. I’ve been subject to harassment and assault more in the US than anywhere else in the world. I feel as if my entire life will be plagued by sexual harassment and abuse.
In July I updated my Facebook status after a man forcefully put my hand on his groin as I was walking down a street in Sri Lanka. A man left this comment: “Why do you think this stuff happens to you so much? My partner and a lot of women I know have been to a lot of the same places and never had any of these incidences occur…definitely not to the extreme measures you have! I know you’re respectful of cultures, when we traveled Morocco you wore a traditional Kaftan despite how hot it was. I know you aren’t consciously attracting this attention or anything, but if anyone believed in the laws of attraction they’d think it was some type of subconscious vibe or something!?”
I understand where he was coming from. My boyfriend at the time and father had similar questions. They aren’t the kind of men who behave this way so it’s hard for them to understand and they want to find a solution. My ex-boyfriend would beg me to wear a t-shirt at the beach and my father suggests that I make myself look like a mess with dirty hair and tattered clothes. Are these ideas so different than the Islamic culture that western people find so suppressing that has women wear a shapeless dress that covers their entire body to prevent from tempting men who cannot control themselves? Or the mindset here in the sub-Indian continent that until a woman is married she needs an escort at all times because you never know when a man may act on a sexual urge. These things just encourage bad men to continue to be sexual predators, they have no consequences. They aren’t held accountable for their carnal human urges.
A few other friends, both male and female, have also implied that perhaps I have this ambiance, aura, vibe, etc., that men find irresistible and that I need to learn how to control it. I don’t really think I exude this, especially not walking down the street. Maybe my confidence is a challenge that these men want to break because it intimidates them? If I do have this sexual energy, how do I turn it off? Should I walk around sad and sacred? With downcast eyes and vulnerability? I wouldn’t survive a day traveling solo like this.
I think each and every day to myself–what could I be doing differently? Why is this happening to me? How is it that other women don’t suffer through this at all? Why do millions of other women also have to deal with this abuse? When will it stop? Will next time leave me physically injured? Do these men want to hurt me? Do they know the harm they are causing? Those thoughts are more damaging than a penis being exposed, touching me, or worse because they make me doubt myself, feel broken, and dirty. They make me feel like an object, not a human.
My mom did purchase me an iMaxAlarm SOS alarm which I’ve been keeping in my bag at all times. The device is tiny, barely weighs a thing, and makes such an awful sound that you can’t even think straight. Mine is in rose gold, of course. I used to carry a Vipertex Stun Gun that a dear friend had bought me but it got confiscated by customs somewhere and I was pretty terrified that I wouldn’t be able to use it if I needed to, or that it could be used against me.
When I get into the mindset of questioning myself and if my existence is the reason for these vicious attacks it’s a dangerous downward spiral. I have to remind myself that in none of these situations was I dressed in a provocative way, but that even if I was, it wouldn’t be an invitation for anyone to harass me or abuse my body. I wonder what I can do to put a lid on whatever ambiance I’m exuding that is ‘welcoming’ these sort of attacks. My ex-boyfriend would tell me that I’m the victim of constant catcalling, passing inappropriate touches, and much worse, because I’m a curvy Latina woman and men can’t help themselves. There may be some truth in that but more often than not it’s when I look my worse that I’m attacked. Sexual predators may admire beauty but they look for vulnerability or a woman with her guard down when they attack.
I’m terrified of when the next sexual predator will attack me. Will it be worse? Is it going to be that hotel manager? That security guard? This tuk-tuk driver? I never let my guard down. I’m on the defense constantly and it is so so tiring. It crushes my soul knowing that these occurrences will continue throughout my life. The day before the cock-grazing incident a 60-something-year-old hotel manager had come into the room where I was working and made some remarks about me being a nice woman to which I nodded and said: “oh, thanks.” He then touched my chin and told me it was cute. I brushed it off. He touched one of my tattoos and said they were sexy. I pushed his hand off and told him not to touch me again and that he needed to leave the room. He told me, “ok ok you are beautiful but too fat.” He had to find a way to hurt me since he hadn’t been able to seduce me.
Even if a woman is walking down the street naked no one has the right to violate her body. Her appearance is not an invitation, whether scantily clad or wearing massive coveralls. But women are viewed as second-class items, we’re dehumanized. I dream of a world where women are no longer violated and work towards gender equality as a champion for global women’s rights. Sexual violence is not inevitable. What are you doing to make this dream a reality for the women in your life? You can start by believing survivors.
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