When I went off to college, I was followed by a long series of emails from my parents, warning me of the dangers the world possessed. They were the same urban-legend emails that all the other girls in my dorm were getting from their parents. We had to look out for men who would lie down under our cars, use a knife to slice our Achilles’ tendon, and then steal the vehicle as we bled to death in the parking lot. There were men who would pretend to have a flat tire so we’d stop to help, and then he would rape us. There were men in alleys, men in the backseats of our cars, men under our beds. All of them ready to mutilate, rape, abduct, and murder us.
When I dropped out of college and started to travel on my own, the emails increased in intensity. But now instead of urban legends, approximately as scary and convincing as old campfire tales about the guy with a hook for a hand, I was getting news reports from reputable sources. American girls just like me were disappearing all over the world, and here was a New York Times story to prove it.
The year the media lost its collective mind about Natalee Holloway’s disappearance in Aruba, I traveled on my own to Buenos Aires for a month. The year a Danish tourist was gang-raped in India, I was traveling alone in Serbia. When an American woman’s body was found in Istanbul, I was in Athens, Greece. Emails came in with a clenched jaw: “Stay Safe!!!” written across the top.
I felt terrible for the women who had encountered violence while they were out traveling in the world. And yet I felt manipulated by media coverage, which felt very selective and purposeful. It was Missing White Woman Syndrome, but tinged with something a little more sinister. The media had an agenda, it seemed. They wanted very badly to convince (Western) women that the world was not a safe place for them.
When a male friend of a friend disappeared in Mexico, there were no hysterical responses. His bright shining face was not plastered all over cable news the way Natalee Holloway’s had been. He was just some white dude gone missing; it barely made the news at all. And when his body was found—he had suffered a mishap while hiking in the mountains and was unable to make it out—there was no tut-tutting by commentators about how dangerous it was for men to travel alone. His disappearance did not fit into their agenda.
I would never argue that the world is a safe place for women. Women face a disproportionate amount of physical, sexual, and political violence throughout the world. But how we choose to write about that violence matters. By sensationalizing the stories of Holloway and others, we create a narrative that distracts from the more everyday dangers that women face–and from the women who are most vulnerable to violence.
Realistically, if a woman is going to be beaten, raped, or murdered, it’s probably not going to be a strange man in Istanbul who does it. It will be someone she knows. More likely it will be her husband or boyfriend. According to the US Centers for Disease Control, a third of American women will be the victim of rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime. Approximately 25% will suffer serious physical violence at the hand of an intimate partner. At the same time, women of color are at a higher risk of going missing, to say nothing of domestic abuse. And yet the women who are made a fuss over in the media are almost exclusively white women. Tellingly, when the story is about a woman missing or dead overseas, the stories always seem to be bigger when the location is inhabited by people of color: the islands, Southeast Asia, Turkey.
Growing up, I lived in a small town in Kansas where people made a big deal about not having to lock their doors at night. Everyone still locked their doors. They just liked the idea that they didn’t have to. We were safe from the big, bad world.
And yet, the town wasn’t necessarily safe for women. There were cases of domestic violence, of girls who were beaten by their fathers or who witnessed their mothers getting hit, girls my age who were sexually assaulted by members of their families. Most people didn’t talk about it much, beyond what was whispered in hair salons or on the walk home after school. But we all knew the stories. We saw black eyes hidden with sunglasses and make-up. I knew why my friend wasn’t in class that day.
It never seemed to me that the big, bad world was the source of the problem. This was an internal issue—strangers had nothing to do with it. And yet when my sister married her college sweetheart, I don’t remember anyone forwarding her emails about the statistical probability that she could die at his hands. No one sent her news stories of the latest woman murdered by her husband.
When the report of the Danish woman who was raped in India made the news, I remember a lot of people, particularly women in the comments section, blaming the victim for going to India at all. “What did she expect?” I read over and over. It’s convenient for Westerners to think of India as a place where rape happens. It helps us dehumanize men of color, and it helps protect our unquestioned xenophobia. It also allows us not to think about our own countries’ problems with violence against women.
There’s still a large part of our culture that believes women should stay at home where they will be ”safe.” The road, the world–those are the danger zones. We hear this so often that we start to believe it, and we behave accordingly. When I head off on another solo trip, it’s often my married friends who clutch my wrist and tell me with a slightly anxious edge, “Stay safe!” I often want to say to them, “Yeah. You too.”