Lucky? And/or smart? Solo Women and Safety

So I’ve been thinking about the “white chicks shouldn’t” theme for awhile, now, and about how, consciously or unconsciously, most women have a strategy for dealing with the threat of sexual violence. I’m at a stage in my life where I rarely traverse the nighttime streets alone, but I do walk home from work on dark winter evenings, and sometimes the adrenaline surge I get from hearing the approach of heavy footsteps or from seeing a hulking silhouette on a lonely corner makes me almost nostalgic. In my 20s, when I roamed often alone through cities and countries, this edgy wariness was a frequent companion. My strategy was that I would not circumscribe my movements too much, that I would not always take the safest course of action, but that I wouldn’t be blindly stupid, either. I would remain vigilant; when necessary, I would trade off attractiveness for protectiveness; and I would sharpen my spidey sense of male character like a blade. Calculated risk. Cautious optimism. Bravery. Bravery that some might call stupid.

In this spirit, when I had the chance to take an indefinite solo backpacking trip in the 1990s, I went. But instead of going to Central America, as I was most inclined, I choose to go to Southeast Asia because I heard it was a much safer place for women to travel, and I wore short hair and baggy men’s clothing in an attempt to, if not pass as a boy, at least distance myself from unwanted male attention. (The bad haircut and ill-fitting clothing might also have distanced me from any chance of looking like a respectable person, but that was an issue of which I was blissfully unaware.)

As soon as I embarked for Thailand, the heightened calculations of risk and reward began. Waiting in Hong Kong for a connecting flight to Bangkok, I was approached by a man who asked me if I was headed to Khao San Road, and did I want to share a cab. He had identified another backpacker on board, too, another man, who was game to split the fare as well. We chatted a few moments before boarding, and then I had the last leg of the journey to decide: Did I split a midnight cab with two strange guys? Or, looked at another way, with two North Americans who looked comfortably hippyish in a mature, REI sort of way? Or did I get in a cab alone and get dropped off alone as well, at 1:00 AM in a strange country with nowhere determined to lay my head? (Yes, I know. I could have and probably should have arranged accommodation for at least that first night, but that’s not what I did. I was determined by budget and inclination to be a ragtag backpacker all the way.)

Not only did I end up splitting the cab with the men, I ended up sharing a room with them after we had trolled the Khao San area and found guest house after guest house filled up. When finally presented with an available quarter that was fitted with one double and one single bed, I turned to them both and said “I will share this room but I am NOT sharing a bed.” The older man congratulated me on my forthrightness and sort of paternalisticly—it was as if he’d been worried about me before—told me that I should always be as clear as that. He and the other guy bunked together in the double bed.

But still, despite their apparent deep decency, I slept that night, or half-slept, in the sweltering room with my sleep sack pulled tight around my neck.

But still, they weren’t the last strange men towards whom I had no sexual intentions with whom I shared a room on my trip.

But that’s not the story I started off meaning to tell. Khao San is sort of a half-way house to traveling, and in sizing up western white guys, I was on familiar territory. The harder calculations were yet to come, the ones I’ve been pondering on since, the ones that have been a major impetus for my writing. I’m going to post about them soon. Soon, soon, soon.

In the meantime, I wonder what the response to my travel-strategy and room-sharing would be if I were posting on a blog that large numbers of people actually read. I was not sexually assaulted in any of my wanderings, despite a bunch of “high-risk” behavior. Was I lucky? Yes, although I bristle at the way the term implies that the avoidance of sexual assault is akin to winning a prize. And how much of my “luck” do I attribute to my vibe—to my androgynous dress and my straightforward attitude—and to my ability to quickly asses character? And if I attribute my luck to those sources, if I claim some power and ability to keep myself safe while out alone in the world, am I suggesting that victims can be blamed? Does one thing necessarily imply the other? Am I being arrogant? I almost hate to type that, because of the way it evokes images of schadenfreude and comeuppance.

In mulling these things, I’ve recalled the brouhaha that occurred in 2008 regarding Lizz Winstead’s interview with Moe Tkacik and Tracie Egan, two women who were at the time editors at Jezebel and identify as feminists. They were drunk, and they said a lot of politically incorrect things, especially about rape. At one point, Tracie said that she hasn’t been raped because she’s smart. She and Moe (who talked about having been raped) were taken to task by the audience and by Lizz Winstead and all over the blogosphere, and for good reason, but the drunken, tone-deaf conversation is also pretty honest, on some level. I suspect Moe and Tracie are saying things many people think, or half think, or have done, before the knowing-better clicks on and shuts them, or us, up about it.

Now, when I sometimes quicken my pace nervously on my way home from work, and when walking home from the train at 9 or 10 PM makes me feel sort of wild and free but also like stalked prey, I’m amazed at how far out on a limb I regularly went on my own. Lucky? Or smart? Probably some combination. I hate to think stupid.

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10 Comments on “Lucky? And/or smart? Solo Women and Safety

  1. I can relate to your backpacking adventures. I’ve done things that in retrospect were equally risky, though nothing bad ever happened. While you can mitigate risk, sometimes that comes with its own price, so I prefer not to frame the choices women make as either smart or stupid. That’s blaming the victim. It’s their attackers who made the wrong choice.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Caitlin. I see our point. It makes me angry to think a woman could be called stupid for leaving a circumscribed path.

  3. The thing that worries me is picturing my daughters wondering around on their own in any city or college campus at night. It was one thing for me to do it, but entirely different to think of them as being vulnerable and at risk. I grew up in a very unsupervised way, which I liked. But now I am the worst kind of worrier when it comes to my kids.

  4. I hear you, Patti. Becoming a parent has given me a whole different perspective on my own adolescence and youth. I cannot believe what my parents let me do. Of course, by the time I went to Asia, I was completely independent and too old for them to forbid me, but I don’t know if I would have felt free to go—and to do so much else that I did—if I hadn’t gotten the message early on from them that, basically, I would be able to handle whatever came up.

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