Reclaim Your Power After Harassment (or Worse) as a Solo Female Traveler
*Ed. Note: if you have been injured or the victim of a serious crime while abroad, please seek immediate help from a medical professional, police, and/or your local embassy*
- A man chases me down an empty street on a Sunday afternoon…
- A group of six men surround me in a market, not harming me but not letting me out either…
- A once-friendly man grabs the back of my head as I go to flee his hotel after realizing his disgusting intentions…
In each situation, I escaped relatively unharmed – I fought, I fled; gratefully I did not freeze. I can’t claim that these incidents happened because I was on my own, or because I was on my own and female. But I do know that my fear was one that accompanies being on my own and female. It’s more than a fear of being robbed or hit; it’s a fear of being completely violated, of being raped. This is not an anti-solo-female-travel diatribe – I even left out the country names to avoid creating unwarranted fear of those places – but it is a reality check. While a lot of advice focuses on how to be prepared, it’s equally important to have strategies for recovering if harassment, or worse, happens on the road.
Practice caution but not paranoia:
Solo female travel safety advice
When it comes to solo female travel safety, the advice ranges from the absurd, “never travel alone anywhere!” to the ineffective, “wear a ring so people think you are married” to the relevant, “always look like you know where you’re going.” You know most of these – popular solo female travel bloggers have covered the topic in depth:
- Trust your instincts.
- Seek to understand and respect local culture.
- Always look like you know where you’re going.
- Be aware of your surroundings.
- Practice caution at night.
- Stay connected.
- Err on the side of dressing conservatively.
- Don’t flaunt your valuables.
- Watch your drink(ing).
- Pay for safety when necessary.
- Learn some self-defense basics.
- Pack some small safety gadgets like safety-enhanced bags, rubber doorstops, and safety whistles.
As we say in the indie travel manifesto, practice caution but not paranoia. In my experience, there have been far more situations where locals and other travelers have helped me out than when my safety has been threatened, but I also know being informed, prepared, aware, and confident have contributed to my overwhelmingly safe and successful exploration of more than 60 countries.
Reclaim your power:
What to do if the unthinkable happens
And yet, despite traveling on my own for fifteen plus years, last year I reached a point where I felt broken, constantly on edge, hypervigilant, quick to cry even when there was no longer a threat. A series of violations, including uncomfortable looks and aggressive physical assaults, left me feeling powerless, helpless, and I realized that all my reading on solo female travel safety had neglected a very important step – what to do if the unthinkable happens.
Everything from street harassment to physical assault to sexual violence can have physical, emotional, and psychological consequences. Anxiety, depression, shame, not feeling comfortable in your environment, not feeling comfortable in your body, losing your sense of trust, post traumatic stress – the effects vary by person, but all deserve loving attention. After last year’s incidents I kept pushing myself and denying what happened, and I realize now that made it harder to process and recover. Eventually, I was able to patchwork together support and return to my travels, but here are some strategies for managing the effects of threatening incidents that I wish I knew about before I started traveling:
- Acknowledge what happened. Once you are safe, admit what happened and how it is affecting you. How do you feel physically and mentally? What is coming up for you related to the incident? Write it down or talk about it with a trusted friend, family member, or professional.
- Determine what you need to do to take care of yourself right now.
- Take care of your body – Seek medical attention if needed, but once physical ailments are cared for, take steps to feel safe in your body again. Consider gentle yet strengthening physical activity, make sure you eat well, and get plenty of sleep – basic self-care is even more important after an assault.
- Take care of your mind – Who are the friends or family members you can reach out to who will provide you with a safe, nonjudgmental, and supportive space for you to share what happened? Ones who won’t tell you to come home immediately or victim-blame and shame? You can also reach out to helplines such as RAINN (Rape Abuse and Incest National Network) or National Street Harassment Hotline and apps like BetterHelp or TalkSpace to supplement the support from a kind friend with that from a professional. How do you support yourself and make sure dark events don’t sentence you to a dark place? Does meditation help? Does prayer? Are there groups you can connect with who lift you up? Are there resources that inspire you and remind you of the good in the world? How do you cultivate joy?
- Check in with yourself and your trusted confidantes periodically after the incident. How are you doing physically, mentally, and spiritually? Do you need additional support? Be honest and be kind.
The most valuable thing in my bag:
My Power Recovery Plan
As I was getting ready to fly to a new country the other day, I came across something that I forgot I had in my bag: a pin from the Women’s March on Washington D.C. in January 2017 that reads, “Our Bodies Our Minds Our Power.” While the artist designed the poster for a monumental time in US history – the nation’s response to the chronic, systemic mistreatment and undervaluing of women – I can’t help but see its relevance to my life as a woman traveling solo around the world. My Body. My Mind. My Power. No matter what happens while traveling, I know now that I have the resources, tools, and knowledge to take care of my body and my mind and reclaim my power. With the pin as inspiration, I develop a My Power Recovery Plan, a simple but powerful collection of reminders and resources to help me reclaim my power after harassment or worse. I encourage you to develop one too. I hope you never have to use it, but if an incident occurs it may become the most valuable thing in your bag.