Trigger warning: The contents of this article include a discussion of sexual harassment and may be triggering to some individuals.
While all my friends were moving into college, I packed what I needed into a 65-liter backpack and boarded a plane.
I was eighteen years old.
It was the first time my twin sister and I would go abroad on our own, sans parents. We had grown up traveling, and now, our gap year marked a new phase of independence. Rightfully so, my mother had been lecturing me all my life about sexual harassment and traveling as a woman. Until then, though, I had never encountered anything further than being catcalled on family trips. So I was really in for a ride.
I learned a lot of things the uncomfortable way — through experience. Supposedly, walking next to a male friend could lessen my chance of being groped by drunk strangers. Wearing more conservative clothing and swimsuits could stop people from taking pictures or filming me. Tracking the route of my taxi on an app could prevent kidnapping.
I wish I could say these things helped. In reality, none of them are groundbreaking, and none of them are guaranteed to work.
Of course, the harassment happened anyway. I was groped by a boxing coach who told me to “pose sexy” for a picture. I was filmed at beaches and rivers by multiple different men. I was spoken to in an extremely vulgar manner about penis sizes by a stranger in a car outside a club. Random men have teasingly yelled “ni hao” at me, assuming I spoke Chinese (I don’t). Sometimes I was alone, other times I was with a group of friends. But it didn’t matter.
Rape whistles, pepper spray, modest clothing, being rude, learning self-defense — women have tried it all. And sadly, my one consistent observation about what deters sexual harassment while traveling is being with a man. A husband, a boyfriend, even a father. Someone who makes you look taken, protected. Like there will be a conflict if someone tries something. And truth be told, that’s often the only way I have felt safe.
All women, of course, experience these problems; all women have their guard up when they travel alone. But there is little data about violence against female travelers, especially solo female travelers or female travelers of color.
In countries made up of a homogeneously non-white majority, white people stick out as the “rich tourists” or “hippy backpackers.” But being a person of color, I presented some confusion. I obviously wasn’t a local, but I didn’t fit the mold of a tourist.
Telling people I lived in America led to some interesting questions. How could I possibly be from America? Was I from China? Americans are white. You are not white. Can you teach me Chinese? What kind of name is that? Yeah, but where are you really from?
I understand that for a lot of local communities in Asia and Africa, where I have done much of my traveling, seeing a person who looks different is simply a novelty, and will sometimes lead to being stared at. However, it has been extremely difficult for me to walk that line while also feeling exoticized or fetishized. How do you tell the difference between an innocent stare and a creepy ogle?
The one-dimensional image of Asian women as submissive and delicate is an intricate topic for another day. But it has saddened me to find that that stereotype has permeated so far across the globe that it will always be something I grapple with when I travel. The same goes for other stereotypes surrounding other women of color. Even now, women of color can never rule out the possibility that an unpleasant travel experience was due to their gender or race.
Many countries have different perspectives on sexual harassment, with some being very permissive of it. However, “when in Rome” does not apply here. I cannot stress this enough: sexual harassment is not a matter of culture. It is a matter of having respect for women.
Adventures and wanderlust have become increasingly trendy in the past several years, but there needs to be a more open conversation about why women are perceived as more “high maintenance” when they travel. Biological females cannot urinate standing up as biological males can (unless you get a urinal funnel!). People who menstruate must plan for that in advance. Women are often assumed to not be able to handle their own luggage, maybe because they packed “girly” things like a curling iron or a bunch of makeup. And some women have to make sure they have enough birth control for the days they will be away.
For women of color, taboos around some of these topics, like contraceptives or feminine hygiene, can cause them to have to figure a lot of it out on their own. Even socioeconomically privileged women of color may not be educated in these areas and can face similar and potentially dangerous problems.
With all of this in mind, you might think I’ve had enough of travel. However, quite the opposite is true. I still love it, and I always will. I need the spontaneity, flexibility, and change of scenery travel offers in order to stay sane.
Female travelers contribute significantly to many sectors of the global economy. It is a wonderful thing for women to learn independence, support themselves financially, and save money to broaden their horizons through travel.
Of course, we are not there yet. I struggle with the idea of sexual assault being inevitable, something that “comes with the territory.” This kind of thinking can often prevent change. A distinct “don’t let that stop you” mentality exists as well, but I refuse to claim that, despite sexual harassment, travel is “worth it.” No one should have to pay a price like that. Just because something is tolerable doesn’t make it okay. We do not have to accept the prevalence of disrespect for women.
But at the same time, resisting or intervening in instances of sexual harassment or assault can be dangerous. Adults, and society, taught me to keep my head down and ignore it.
That leaves us in a tight spot.
I don’t have all the answers. But I call on female travelers of color to please support each other. Raise men that know how to treat women. Women of color have a right to experience what it’s like to be on the road with the confidence that their bodies belong to them and only them.