Dealing with sexual harassment as a solo female traveller
*This sexual harassment post is a collaboration
Travelling solo as a woman is by far the best decision I have ever made, but as with everything in life, there is always a negative side. Sexual harassment towards solo female travellers is something that isn’t talked about enough. The Grace Millane case in New Zealand was a shocking wake-up call to mainstream media of the scale of the problem in attitudes towards women. And yet, instead of highlighting the male part in the problem, instead we were seeing huge media outlets publish scaremongering articles advising women not to travel, or to drastically change their behaviour to avoid danger.
Over the years, I’ve been subject to more than my fair share of unwanted advances, catcalling, proposals and generally gross behaviour. More often than not, you simply shrug it off and try to smile as you walk off, in hopes of not provoking them or encouraging them further. But there are some times when it does become too much, too invasive to your daily life, where you feel threatened or alone. I don’t want this post to be yet another scaremongering article that puts the fear into wannabe solo female travellers. Instead, I want it to be a resource, a way for you to boost your confidence knowing you are prepared and have the tools to succeed safely.
When have I faced sexual harassment as a solo female traveller?
Across six years of worldwide travels, it was inevitable that I would have some stories to tell about my experiences of sexual harassment. These really range in the level of aggression. From the easy breezy friendly and well-meaning flirtation of the men of Belize who can’t seem to help themselves from flirting outrageously with every woman on the street. But the truth is, they can help themselves. While it didn’t bother me too much, I know other women who felt nervous to walk alone. There was the guy who walked up to the bar and put his hand up my skirt in Bulgaria. In Thailand I woke up in the night and rolled over to see the guy in the next bed staring at me. Needless to say I checked out immediately.
Over in Guatemala, a traveller kept following me around a party and leering at me. He eventually pinned me in a corner and tried to kiss me. There was the guy in Romania who tried to follow me to my hotel room. Léon in Nicaragua was by far one of the worst places I have been. Here the men gathered in groups on the street and took up the entire pavement so you had no choice but to squeeze by them or face the busy traffic. They would leer and say disgusting things, sucking their teeth and making kissy noises. It was threatening and intimidating for a woman alone. It made exploring really difficult as I tried to plan a route that would help me avoid them. I think the worst by far was when a man jumped in the back of a tuk tuk in Cambodia with my friend and tried to rape her, she jumped out of a moving vehicle to get away.
Should I let this put me off travelling solo?
Absolutely not! Yes attitudes towards women suck and we need a huge worldwide cultural shift. But even with all of the bad stuff that has happened, I wouldn’t change my travels for the world. Travelling solo as a woman was the best decision I ever made. Bad things happen in this world no matter where you are. I’ve had just as many issues with inappropriate guys, catcalling, unwanted attention and sexual harassment in the UK as I have done abroad. It can be easy to let people put you off. It can be easy to let the media put you off!
Remember we live in a world that creates propaganda around outdated ideas of women staying at home where they belong. It’s a method of control and we massively underestimate media pervasiveness and how much it affects the way we see the world. Foreign is always presented as “other” as something dangerous and unknown. But the truth is that when you travel you see only good in the world. For every “bad” person, there are 100 great ones who are kind and friendly and so welcoming. Don’t let that 1% ruin your opportunity to travel solo.
Key methods of sexual harassment for solo travellers
I believe that knowledge is power and if you know what to expect, you can prepare for it and protect yourself from it. Gender-based violence comes in many forms. Some of the lesser ones can be precursors to much more aggressive behaviour. Identifying these early can give you the time to leave the situation before things escalate and put you at risk.
Quoting an article by Babbel, ‘violence against women begins with sexist language’. It’s a key thing to look out for – anything that demeans you or tries to make you feel inferior or uncomfortable. Gender-based violence in language can include treating you as a possession, degrading you or damaging your self-esteem, and blaming the victim. Gaslighting is a huge problem. This is when someone makes you question your own mind and causes you to feel “crazy”. Discriminatory language could include: “you asked for it”, “you’re prettier when you don’t speak”. Or “she wanted it for being dressed like that”, and “no one is going to believe you”. Perhaps guys might suggest sharing a room, comment inappropriately on your physical features or even say “I love (insert your country here) women”. It also includes catcalling – which is something so many women experience on an almost daily basis.
I had a terrible experience with a group trip leader when I was on a press trip! Visiting Romania for an English teaching programme, I was horrified to see the older man’s sexist and inappropriate comments towards myself and many other members of the group. He would leer across the table at me and even suggested he put me to bed if I have too much wine.
This covers everything from an “accidental” boob graze to a full assault. Physical advances could be almost unnoticeable if you’re walking through a crowd. Or if you’re in busy place and someone gropes you, or a passer-by “bumps” into you. Sometimes they might be long gone by the time you even realise what has happened. That doesn’t make it any less of an assault. It doesn’t make it any less traumatic and it doesn’t invalidate your feelings about it. You don’t have to have reported an incident for it to have an impact on you.
Any unwanted physical touch is an infringement on you. That could be a guy touching the small of your back to pass you – would he do that to another man? It could be someone brushing your hair out of your face. If you don’t want them to touch you, it’s wrong. If things escalate further, it could include someone trying to kiss you, assault you, even rape you. But any physical contact can be a form os sexual harassment – the key is whether you wanted them to do that.
Proposals and attempts to build connection
I don’t know when this became a “thing” but guys, if you’re reading, it’s annoying and so unnecessary. So many men will attempt to build a fake “relationship” with you to make you feel uncomfortable. Perhaps that is not their intention, but often that is the effect it will have on you. Perhaps it’s a random proposal in a bar. Maybe it’s guys singing at you as you walk down the street. Or maybe a tout flirting and saying he’s “had his eye on you”. This singling you out and overloading you with unwanted attention is a childish way of getting your attention without any regard for your personal safety. These guys don’t care if you feel intimidated. They don’t care if you’re an introvert who doesn’t want the attention. Or if you have a partner or simply if you just don’t want them near you. You don’t have to have a reason to not want their advances.
How can you avoid unwanted attention?
Ignore the scaremongering articles
First tip, and the most important one – ignore the crazy number of articles in mainstream media that advise women not to travel solo. Or that tell them to stay in at night, never drink or put themselves at risk in any way.
Fake it till you make it
Confidence is key – but if you don’t have it just yet, then the illusion of confidence will work wonders. Walk with your head held high, know where you’re going and smile at people. If you look scared, you make yourself more of an easy target.
Walk alone at night, but do it smartly!
I will never tell a woman she can’t go out at night alone, I do it ALL the time! The key is to do it smartly. Stick to well-lit streets, busier places and always have the option to take a taxi or Uber if needed.
Arrive in a new place in daylight
Not only does arriving in darkness make you a huge target, it also colours the way you view a new location. Make it easy on yourself and arrange your travel so you feel safe and confident when you arrive.
I love spontaneous travel but the key to feeling safe and confident – especially when you’re new to solo travel – is to research. Always know the distance of journeys, make sure you have a phone SIM and offline maps available. Have a plan for what you will do when you arrive and know the name of a hostel/hotel. Knowledge is power and it gives you the confidence to say no instead of being pressured.
I hate this one because I never feel we should have to change how we dress to detract unwanted attention, but the truth is we do. Dressing appropriately is so important when visiting new countries and cultures. This might mean covering up in more religious countries, but it also includes things like not wearing a bikini unless you’re at the beach. Particularly in Asia, I often see people walking the streets in swimwear or even riding scooters. Just remember the country you are in and be respectful of the local people. Some women find it helpful to wear a fake wedding ring – I’ve never bothered and probably wouldn’t bother.
Don’t be afraid to say no
Never be afraid to assert yourself and to be firm when you say no. Remember, you’re travelling solo and you don’t owe anyone anything. If you feel uncomfortable, just don’t be there any longer. Make your excuses and leave, you don’t have to explain why. I recommend being polite – I’m not always as I tend to be more blunt about it. But it can help stop things from escalating. If you’re in a situation where someone is preventing you from leaving – make noise, scream, attract attention.
Pretend you’re meeting someone
Never tell people where you are staying unless you feel happy and confident to do so. If someone is making unwanted advances or leering at you. Avoid the threat of sexual harassment and tell them you are meeting someone. It could be a boyfriend, husband or even a family member/friend. If someone won’t let you go in the street, it can be helpful to pretend like you are not alone. For example, if someone is walking towards you on a busy street and giving you unwanted attention. You can wave at a pretend person far behind them, firmly nod, and walk at a brisk pace past them.
More tips for protecting yourself against sexual harassment
If you would like more tips on how to avoid unwanted advances when travelling solo, I have created an eBook called The Solo Female Handbook. It’s the best friend every solo female traveller needs. It is packed full of tips and tricks to avoid situations and to empower you no matter where you travel! It’s about giving you the tools to feel safe and confident when travelling solo. Aimed at first-time or wannabe solo female travellers. This book contains every scrap of advice that I’ve learned the hard way. Sharing authentic travel experiences, fears and worries from real women. While providing expert advice for avoiding or coping with sticky situations.
Have you experienced sexual harassment while travelling solo?