I took my first trip to New York city at the beginning of this year. I spoke of my travel plans often and with fervent anticipation, sometimes in a reserved tone peppered with palpable nervousness. I’m just a small-town girl, and this was my first experience in the big leagues. Everyone I spoke to urged the same sensible caution about traveling within the city. Never walk alone or at night, and if at all possible, avoid public transport. And while my experience with riding the subway was a weird, albeit pleasant one, it’s a would-be haven for dubious acts and people who can get away with pinning victims against their will and grinding on them.
If you have a penchant for crime dramas and other stereotypical media, it might seem obvious that a transit system situated underground in a series of dank, murky tunnels would attract ne’er-do-wells on the regular, but what about cozier transport, like planes? I fly frequently enough to have an idea of what to expect, and sexual assault is not one of them. Not only are the tickets expensive, but there’s a paper trail with regards to your identity and contact information.
That hasn’t stopped several people from attempting to get away with nastiness. One woman on a United Airlines flight awoke to the man seated next to her groping her underneath her clothes. The flight crew had assumed the pair was a couple and didn’t respond until the women alerted them to the crime. The man’s response? “She was coming on to me.” In another case last year, a JetBlue flight had to make an emergency landing after a man caused a drunken stir culminating in sexually assaulting a pregnant woman who was waiting in line for a lavatory.
Traveling can be dangerous business. As a female, we hear this often. We shouldn’t be forced to fear for our safety at all times, especially when wanderlust calls. Travel should be about adventure, business, pleasure, or anything other than feeling compelled to constantly glance behind one’s shoulder. It’s tiring and stressful and causes me to think twice when I feel inclined to venture out into public spaces, and that can’t be healthy. The predicament is that it is much easier to talk about how to stay safe and avoid attack, but our culture should be on the actual problem: how to put an end to sexual assault and rape. The former tends to favor victim blaming, while the latter addresses the root of the issue. But until the men of the world learn to keep their bits to themselves, the world can be a scary place.
Sylvia Plath wrote:
“Yes, my consuming desire is to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, barroom regulars—to be a part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording—all this is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always supposedly in danger of assault and battery. My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. Yes, God, I want to talk to everybody as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night …”
Such is the ideal world, where I could dream of travelling — backpacking, even — overseas, alone without someone chastising my naive carelessness. A woman’s sanity is called into question if she wanders recklessly and without abandon, choosing not to heed what society cautions by travelling escorted in well-lit familiar areas. I know so many men for whom the world is a playground; they travel as they please, never worrying that they are in harm’s way simply by being away from home and taking for granted the pleasure of walking by their lonesome. Is a woman wandering alone an invitation for trouble?
Maybe it’s not, and it is possible to enjoy oneself without needing to feel on edge and carrying a pair of cat knuckles clenched tight in our fists while simultaneously hoping that the guy sitting next to us on the train isn’t as shady as he looks. Maybe we fear for our safety because statistics say we have a 1 in 20 chance of being assaulted, but those results are not exclusive to travel. In fact, studies show that women are usually familiar with their attackers and attacks often occur close to home.
So what’s a solo gal to do?
Keep on travelling. Make an informed decision on your arrangements, but don’t feel you must be pressured into being with a group or restricting yourself. Don’t let fear dampen the exhilaration of experiencing something new and exciting for the first time. Hope for the best, but any traveler should be wary, always.