I used to hate travelling alone. Fear would swallow my curiosity and my sense of adventure. I would worry about serious things: What would happen if I got lost, drugged, followed, or attacked? I worried about silly things, too: eating alone, embarrassing myself. Often the two worries — serious and silly — would combine and I’d talk myself out of going anywhere.
It wasn’t one big journey that helped me get over the fear, but a series of little jaunts that chipped away at it and built in its place the belief that I could, that I was capable. The more I forced myself out, on my own, the easier it became to separate the real danger (walking back to my hotel in an unfamiliar neighbourhood) from the false fear (that flush of embarrassment when a server asks, “Just you?”). I packed my bags for Dublin, D.C., and, just last weekend, Cleveland.
Historically, women were required (at least by social convention) to travel with male companions, for propriety as much as for safety. And the idea that solo women travellers are inviting danger persists. When, for instance, a pair of women were murdered in Ecuador last year, online commenters gleefully blamed the women for travelling “alone” — i.e., without a male companion. The backlash prompted Guardian columnist Laura Bates to wonder why trekking alone is still considered a risky undertaking for women: “Female travellers have long been subjected to restrictions and double standards, with their gender emphasized over their capability and strength.”
That perception holds true when women travel for work as well as for pleasure. CBS correspondent Lara Logan faced victim-blaming when she was assaulted in 2011 while reporting on the uprising in Cairo. The Toronto Sun ran an article called “Women with young kids shouldn’t be in war zones,” in which the (male) author asserted that while Logan was a “gutsy” journalist, her son “should have taken precedent [sic] over her wishes to cover the world’s biggest story for the moment.” Her travel, he argued, was “a form of self-indulgence and abdication of a higher responsibility to family.”
The author failed to mention that women journalists face high rates of sexual violence while on their self-indulgent international assignments (and, until recently, rarely reported such incidents for fear of being taken off the story), but it’s an important point: women travelling alone face exponentially more risk than men who travel alone. They also face more judgment for it: women who travel alone aren’t just being risky, the thinking goes — they’re being selfish. Except when we’re Eat, Pray, Love-ing our way around the world, the message seems to be, Stay home.
And yet, the number of women travelling alone — particularly on adventure-style vacations — has risen dramatically in recent years. Marketers call them “wander women,” and surveys show more than 50 per cent of them believe their travel experiences have helped them become more independent. More than 40 per cent say they’ve gained confidence. Academic research on the meaning of travel for women has reinforced such conclusions.
One study, for instance, asked more than 30 women why they travelled and what they gained from it. The authors concluded that, for women, travel is about more than just sightseeing: “Being away from their normal environments and demands made on them as partners, mothers, daughters, [and] colleagues allowed them time and space to focus on themselves or reassess their life perspectives, to ponder their pasts, presents and what their futures could hold.”
And according to some researchers, solo travelling can act as a “platform for empowerment” for women. “In essence,” write the authors of Tourism and Gender: Embodiment, Sensuality and Experience, “independent forms of travel may provide a space which permitted the rewriting of the script of what it is to be a woman.” When the world warns you constantly of the dangers of doing anything alone, taking on the traditionally male mantle of the swashbuckling adventurer becomes the ultimate form of rebellion — and discovery.
It was in Cleveland that I finally experienced my worst fear: I lost control of a situation. By the time I’d passed through the metal detector at airport security, my laptop was gone. Sweat slicking my back, panic bubbling, I asked the security officer whether it had been taken for examination. He shrugged. Did he see anyone grab it? Shrug. What could I do? Shrug. I reported the incident to the airport police, who referred me right back to security. As I hovered there, hoping my laptop would poof back into existence, I considered leaving. I didn’t want to cause a scene. I didn’t want to be that woman. But nobody was there to bail me out — or to yell on my behalf.
So I steeled myself and asked again. I calmly explained that it was important. I asked the guards to check the emptied security bins. And when they revealed nothing, I braved the eye rolls and asked them to check all the security bins. At last, they found it. I got a lecture for my trouble — as if I had lost the laptop. “Ma’am,” they said, “this will teach you to take better care of your things.” I surprised myself then, and clapped back. Then I took a deep breath and went to board the plane. Alone and flying high.
Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus. She's the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, published by Goose Lane Editions.
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