Experiencing the World Through a Female Lens

The Frugal Traveler, a great column in the NYT, had an interesting article last week focusing on what it’s like to travel as a woman alone. It’s a good article, but the author Seth Kugel, seems amazed by the fact that, yes, women often have a different travel experience than men.

That’s funny, because as a woman I’ve had plenty of opportunities to reflect on how my experiences have been influenced by my gender.

Over the past year I’ve traveled in a variety of combinations: as a couple, with a female friend and yes, solo. The three experiences were pretty different, both in terms of how I traveled and how I was treated. Most enlightening was traveling with my boyfriend. As he is also an extensive solo traveler I got to have the unique experience of comparing the ways we travel.

On his last solo trip through South East Asia, Mike had a pretty great time doing things that I, as a solo female, would probably never have attempted. Things like accepting an invitation from a man on the train in Bangkok and spending a week with his family, sleeping on the beach in Ko Phi Phi because he couldn’t find a cheap enough hostel room and partying like a (very drunk) rock star in Vang Vieng.

I am a feminist and an egalitarian, but I’m also a realist with a mom who worries a lot. Sleeping alone out in the open or getting piss drunk on my own are just not reasonable or safe things for a wi=oman to do in the world we currently live in. They’re not exactly safe things for a guy to do either, but the threat level is higher for women.

When I am traveling alone, I have to be constantly aware of my surroundings and be able to assess the threat level of any situation. That means sometimes I miss out on really neat opportunities. I would never hitchhike alone (sounds like a good way to meet a serial killer) but my buddy Dylan did just that all summer long, and had an awesome time. I would never have gone home with a random man I met on the train like Mike did. As a result he got to spend an awesome week with a local family while I probably would have just switched train cars.

For women there’s always the threat of harassment, or worse. This is even more true outside of South East Asia. I was routinely followed down the street by creepy men in London until I learned to look meaner. In Italy there were constant catcalls when I was out sightseeing. It’s not because I’m some irresistible Hottie McHotpants, it’s because for some frustrating reason, some men around the world still think that kind of behavior is acceptable.

It’s not just when I’m alone either. When I was in Australia, camping with a female friend, we were cornered one night by a very drunk Ozzie dude who demanded to know if we were lesbians, with a kind of crazed titillation in his eyes. It was a pretty tense couple of minutes until his friends appeared to drag him back to their campsite. Nonetheless he reappeared several times over the next few hours to leer at us drunkenly. You can bet we triple checked the locks in our camper van before falling asleep that night.

This is not meant to discourage people from traveling, in fact I really hope it doesn’t. When you get down to it, this isn’t a problem with travel, this is a problem with the world we live in. Creeps live everywhere; just last year two girls were attacked and raped mere blocks from my quiet suburban home in Arlington. In her recent article on the same subject Jodi of Legal Nomads mentions a terrifying incident that happened to here in Marseilles. As women we’re taught to constantly be aware of our situation and to watchful for our safety. We’re told to watch our body language, to be sure we aren’t sending anything that could be interpreted as a “signal.” And sometimes that isn’t even enough. So ,until women can stop feeling unsafe in their own homes, there’s always going to be a hyper-vigilance involved with traveling the world. And I’m sorry but that blows.

There are silver linings though. As a woman alone you sometimes have access to certain cultural experiences men might not. In South East Asia I noticed that local people were much more interested in talking to me when I was solo, which lead to some really interesting conversations. This was a big part of why I loves Cambodia so much whereas my boyfriend didn’t care for it when he visited: I was able to connect more with the place and the people.

Additionally, much of my experiences in Asia were colored by the lens I use to look at the world: that of a woman who is concerned with women’s issues. I felt safer in Asia then I have most anywhere in the world, yet you barely have to scratch the surface to uncover so much disparity. There was the unreasonable beauty standards of Japan and China where women bleach their skin and tape their eyelids. There’s the exploitative sex trade in South East Asia and the ubiquitous human trafficking. Then there’s the sex-selective anti-girl bias in China which has lead to an entire generation of missing girls. There were so many things that made me feel fortunate that I even have the ability to be a solo traveling observer.

I truly believe the world is not an unsafe place and I live my life by that philosophy. I do think though, that the world is a very different place sometimes for men than it is for women, and often times in a detrimental way. Someday that will change, but not until the world learns to recognize the meaning of respect.

Has your travel experience been influenced by your gender?

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26 thoughts on “Experiencing the World Through a Female Lens”

  1. Great post. I hate feeling restricted when travelling because I’m worrying about my safety but it’s so important to be aware of potential dangers. I do tend to take a few risks when travelling but much less when I’m travelling solo.

  2. If anything, I found that traveling solo made guys that I met almost adopt a big brother role. I always had people wanting to look out for me, help me and keep me safe. On the (very) rare occasion when a guy would cross the line, I had enough decent, respectful and helpful guys around keeping an eye on me that it never became an issue!

    1. Yeah I had a similar experience when I was in London living with 3 dudes. They became my Australian big brothers! Thank goodness there are more good people than bad out there.

    2. I think we get it beaten into us by society, that as men we’re supposed to look after and protect women. Sometimes it’s hard to ignore that programming even when we know you can handle things yourself.

      I’m a pretty laid back and non-confrontational guy and in my 25 years on Earth I’ve never been in a single fight. My last day in Madagascar some of my group decided to hit the town that night as our last hurrah. There were 3 or 4 guys (including me) and maybe 5-7 girls. We ended up in some night club this band was playing in. Some of the girls started dancing and these two older Malagasy guys who were obviously at least slightly drunk approached them wanting to dance. It was obvious the girls didn’t want to even if the guys didn’t understand their English (not many people in Madagascar speak English, especially the older generations and none of us spoke French or Malagasy).

      The guys wouldn’t take the hint so I got between them and the girls and said something like “they don’t want to dance.” and tried to indicate no by shaking my head and using hand motions since I knew they probably didn’t speak English. The one guy must have gotten the hint or just got tired of trying because he left. The other guy left but kept coming back and trying to dance with them and I kept getting between them and indicating no. After a few times of this I got so pissed I was ready to slug this guy so I got in his face and just about yelled something like “You need to back the fuck off or we’re gonna have a problem asshole!”. He must have finally decided it was a bad idea to keep trying because we didn’t see him for the rest of the night.

      As I said, I’m usually a very calm and non-confrontational and in the states when I’ve been out with girls I usually let them handle drunken men themselves. But I’ve never had a guy who didn’t take the hint from the girl like this Malagasy guy and him harassing them really hit a nerve and set me off.

      1. We had a similar incident in Quito with an older man who couldn’t take the hint and kept trying to dance with the young ladies in our group. Finally Mike had to tell him (in spanish) that he was being inappropriate, and even then he still didn’t really quit.
        I think it’s great when guys stand up for girls (when it’s warranted). I also try to stand up for people who look like they need help whenever I’m in that situation. Anything to make the world a safer place.

  3. Traveling as a woman does have its disadvantages, but there are advantages, too – as a documentary filmmaker, I’ve noticed that people are way more likely to drop their guard with me than with male counterparts. They don’t view me as a threat, so they’ll open up more; maybe they just don’t take me as seriously. In any case, it works to my advantage.

  4. Traveling as a 6’5″ guy is entirely different. I take a lot more risks than I would otherwise. I wouldn’t have hitchhiked in Iraq, for sure, or even Turkey, probably, if I was a girl or potentially even a smaller guy.

    I dunno if I agree that it’s a ‘problem’ with the world, per se, as I see problems as things we should try to resolve. I just think it’s how the world is. It sucks, but it needs to be accepted, in some ways. You just can’t control individual behavior out in the world.

  5. I have tried to explain to male friends in the past the way that the threat of sexual harassment and assault shapes my life as a woman, and they just don’t fully get it (how could they?)

    I don’t let that threat keep me at home, but I do let it keep my wild impulsiveness in check. I think what it comes down to is for women, the worst case scenario (rape, assualt vs. robbery, scams) is usually much more devastating.

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