I usually keep it pretty light here, but in recognition of International Women's Day this past Saturday, I want to take some time to talk to you about an issue that's near and dear to my heart.
As a young woman, I've gotten the side eye from friends and strangers alike when talking about my penchant for solo travel. Family members have expressed sincere concern for my safety; strangers, both male and female, have implied that solo travel for a married woman demonstrates a desire to seek out extra-marital affairs (a comment typically accompanied by a leering smirk and other times whispered in earnest); female friends have told me they would never have the confidence to travel alone; strangers have called me "brave" with a tone and expression that belies a compliment.
Depending on the situation, I don't typically begrudge the person on the other end of the comment, but it bothers me that we live in a culture where these reactions are deemed reasonable.
For centuries in Europe, it was considered a rite of passage among young, upper-class men to embark on the "Grand Tour:" a meandering journey around Europe designed to widen the perspective of and educate a young man. And to this day, time spent travelling during those formative, post-high school years is considered part of the experience of becoming an adult for middle to upper-middle class youths. Are young women excluded from this? Absolutely not. It's the word "solo" that scares people when it comes to females travelling. While men are free (perhaps even encouraged) to wander alone from place to place with no real plan or agenda in mind, women require the company of friends, supervisors, organized routines and connections that provide companionship as well as protection.
If my Facebook feed and the internet in general are to be believed, women who venture out alone are willfully placing themselves in harm's way. We are told daily that it is our responsibility to protect ourselves: through bathroom-stall PSAs, women's self-defence classes, news stories shaming the victims of rape at frat parties, entire articles telling women how to protect themselves from strangers and even to practice sliding underneath cars to avoid perpetrators.
Am I suggesting that women (or better yet, all humans) shouldn't exercise reasonable caution and trust their gut in potentially dangerous situations? Absolutely not. The trouble with all this coaching we provide to young women on how to stay safe and the judgement we reign down on females who take what are considered "unnecessary risks" is that a woman harassed, raped, or made to feel uncomfortable is a woman found at fault. "She should have been more careful." "She knows better than to be out on that street alone at night." "She shouldn't have worn that skirt." "She's just being sensitive." We're laying the blame in the wrong place. We're depriving women of their independence and confidence by creating a culture of shame around sexual assault and harassment and it needs to stop.
I like to travel alone, and I genuinely enjoy the pleasure of my own company. These experiences have largely been positive ones: I've met new and interesting people, received assistance from kind strangers and have generally felt safe, happy and confident while travelling alone. Although I've certainly been the recipient of lewd comments and inappropriate advances from strangers, the greatest offences have been close to home by people I knew. As a teenage girl, these instances made me feel exposed, strange, guilty. But as a woman, I know where to lay the blame. It's not me who needs to change, it's those people and the culture that enables them.
So humans, no matter what biologically-given or surgically-formed genitalia you happen to be in possession of, the next time you are the target of or overhear a sexist comment, know it's your right to speak up. The next time a woman tells you about a negative experience, solo or otherwise, express sorrow and lay the blame in the right place. The next time a woman tells you about her solo journey, smile and ask her about it.