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How We'll Win in 2019

Women and their allies are taking bold steps towards achieving gender equality in the workplace. Here’s how they’re moving us forward.

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Traveling alone means constantly evaluating risks
INVISIBLE BURDEN

Traveling alone as a woman isn’t necessarily more dangerous, but it is more stressful

By Olivia Goldhill

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.

Last November, during two weeks traveling solo in the Middle East, I had more conversations with male strangers than I have in two years living in New York.

Nothing threatening or even unpleasant happened, but I spent the entire time watching for warning signs. It is, after all, widely acknowledged that traveling alone is dangerous for women: The New York Times published an article last week detailing some of the recent horrors faced by female solo travelers, and there are countless articles with safety advice specifically catered to women. I have never experienced real danger while traveling, and it’s uncertain that women really do face such a heightened risk. There is, though, one real cost to traveling alone as a woman: the constant, exhausting need to evaluate potential dangers. 

There is one real cost to traveling alone as a woman: the constant, exhausting need to evaluate potential dangers. 

There’s a dearth of clear statistics on violence against female travelers, the New York Times notes, meaning it’s hard to get a definitive sense of the risks. And highlighting the physical dangers can come across as scaremongering. An article on bemytravelmuse, a website with an entire section devoted to female solo travel, argues that traveling is in fact much safer for women than staying put. Women, after all, are more likely to be raped or killed by someone they know. And statistically, it’s unlikely to be killed while traveling—on average, only 827 Americans die of unnatural causes while abroad per year, reports Time magazine, out of some 68 million who travel. Meanwhile, adds Time, one of the most common cause of deaths while traveling is car accidents—which is a major problem even if you never leave your home country, as it is the eighth leading cause of death globally.

Yet women’s wariness while traveling isn’t irrational. It’s a real response to being in an unfamiliar environment, in situations that often demand interaction with strangers. 

I spent much of the tour half listening to the guide and half inventing reasons why I couldn’t go for a drink afterwards.

My many conversations with men last November, for example, didn’t spring from newfound chattiness, but an inability to avoid them. In two days, I had three encounters with men where I couldn’t quite tell if I was being hit on. Once I asked for help navigating the bus schedule, and then felt I had to continue the conversation throughout the journey. He was pleasant enough, but I still felt relieved when my stop arrived and I could hurry away. Another time, I went on a guided tour and a fellow tourist in the group started chatting, which made me slightly tense and less able to lose myself in the history. I spent much of the tour half listening to the guide and half inventing reasons why I couldn’t go for a drink afterwards. And the third time, someone I met for work gave me a lift back to the neighborhood where I was staying, and paused briefly for a cigarette mid-route. He was incredibly congenial but, still, I was all too aware that I was with a strange man in a strange country, and he had the ability to drive me anywhere. I kept an eye on the streets, making sure we were in populated areas and following the correct route, and mentally thinking through various escape routes. 

Perhaps I found these conversations more stressful than some other women might—I’m aware, for example, that I dislike being hit on more than some of my friends. But I know my preferences and, in New York, I’m practiced at avoiding uncomfortable situations. I walk briskly, have an unapproachable manner, and can suss out and shut down potential flirtations. My familiarity with the place that I live, plus a cell phone with a data plan, ensure there’s little need to ask men for directions.

Many female travelers incorporate safety into their travels: Texting their location to friends at home, for example, or only staying in hotels or registered Airbnbs, rather than backpacking. Plenty of frequent solo travelers develop their own ways of coping with the ever-present risk, such as carrying a GPS tracker or learning a martial art. These methods help women feel safer, but they’re also tiring. 

I’m aware, of course, that being vigilant means I miss out. Part of the joy of traveling solo is talking to locals, and I’m far less likely to seek out such conversations with male locals. That’s the trade-off of of solo female travel: Faced with an unpredictable environment, many women choose to altogether avoid situations that pose a threat. This policy influences destination choices, as well as activities. “Italy is pretty rough both from the fact that people are going to be on a lot of romantic holidays and Italian men can be difficult to deal with,” Kristin Newman, a TV writer and author of the travel memoir What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding, told Time in 2016. Personally, one of my worst solo travel experiences was in Cartagena, the beautiful Colombian city featured in the novels of Gabriel García Márquez, because men on street corners catcalled me every few meters. My enjoyment of the architecture and scenery couldn’t make up for the fact that the streets were full of leering men.

Women of color carry even more of the burden of this extra vigilance. Last week’s New York Times article highlighted the travels of Jessica Nabongo, who’s aiming to become the first black woman to visit every country in the world. Nabongo, who was born and raised in Detroit and has joint US-Uganda citizenship, said she felt particularly unsafe in Europe as a black woman. “In many European cities that I’ve been in—like Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Milano—women of color are in more danger because a lot of people think we are prostitutes,” she said. “My fear is always that if something happens to me in a European city, no one will care. I could be running down the street screaming in Italy and onlookers won’t care because I’m black.” Conversely, a black British friend who recently visited me in New York said she felt her race put her more at risk in the United States: She was afraid of the police, and made a point of emphasizing her British accent as she felt this offered some protection. Given Trump’s travel ban, she felt especially at risk as a black Muslim born in Somalia. “I feel so vulnerable knowing I’m subject to abuse from so many overlapping institutions,” she said. In both cases, traveling to a new terrain heightened their sense of danger.

His description of his journey sounds stunning and personally profound—and, from my perspective, utterly unattainable.

Meanwhile, one of my male friends recently took a sabbatical to bicycle from the United Kingdom to Japan, carrying his tent on his back and pitching it to sleep, alone, in isolated fields across various countries. His description of his journey sounds both stunning and personally profound, filled with winding roads leading to mountain ledges where he could look out over empty valleys, and nights spent in the homes of welcoming strangers. It also seemed, from my perspective, utterly unattainable. Surely, there are many women who face the risks and enjoy such adventures, and make it through without facing physical or sexual violence. But for me, the worry that would accompany such a trip—the nights spent lying awake in the silent wild, clutching my pepper spray—would ruin the experience.

The constant low-level need to evaluate danger hasn’t stopped me from loving solo trips. I’ve travelled alone in South America and the Middle East, in times when I’m in a relationship and while single. I plan to continue taking trips alone throughout my life. Nagging worries certainly aren’t enough to keep me at home, or to dampen the joy of traveling solo. They are, though, always there.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.