Love or Something Like It

 |  May 27, 2013

I still recall one of the first times I felt genuinely afraid for my safety while travelling. I was in Kuala Lumpur, and a few friends and I were waiting to catch a night bus to Thailand. I excused myself to run to a drugstore I had seen a few blocks away. As I walked, I became acutely aware of the stares I was getting, particularly from a group of men I’d need to pass on my way, and felt afraid. They stopped their conversation and stared me down as I approached. Despite trying to rationalise with myself that I’d be fine, I gave in to instinct and walked the other way.

That wasn’t the first time that day, or in the three years since I began travelling in Asia, that I had felt uncomfortable as a woman alone in a city. Even in Chiang Mai, I’ve had men pull up to me at night on motorbikes, call to me suggestively and laugh when I became visibly upset and told them to leave me alone. Each time it happens, I feel the same mix of helplessness and rage at the thought that the simple act of walking down the street or getting myself home at night alone could be considered an invitation for intimidation and attack.

Whatever the reason for this kind of behaviour – cultural perceptions of Western women, societies that hold women in less esteem than men – it’s unacceptable. I have been fortunate during my travels in Asia that the harassment I’ve experienced has never gone beyond cat calls and leering. Many women experience far worse, a fact I wrote about recently in an article for the website Asian Correspondent. My piece was about female travellers who had been raped while in Asia, and made the point that the way forward is not, as some suggest, for women to avoid certain parts of the world entirely but to try to change the tide of sexual violence around the globe.

The anger that I had felt at various times throughout my life when I felt my safety was at risk simply because I was a woman travelling alone was enflamed when I posted my Asian Correspondent piece on the notorious online expat forum, ThaiVisa,, requesting feedback on the story. The comments I received included a few thoughtful responses, but many came across as snide, flippant and outright disgusting.

A sample of the more egregious comments:

– “[The] feminist narritive [sic] has entirely highjacked the social-political framework in Western countries. Young women now think that it is their right to get well pissed. … [Would] a REASONABLE WOMAN, get pissed drunk on a lonely beach, late at night, wearing little more than a singlet and hot pants, in a country that she knows absolutely NOTHING about, and in many cases has visited for the very first time.”

– (In apparent response to a young woman observed hitchhiking in Pattaya) “We cannot say asking for it because that would be wrong however, stupidly inviting it might apply.”

I don’t disagree with the point that if women dress modestly and avoid being alone late at night, especially when out drinking, they lessen their chances of being attacked. It is sound advice, and I generally live by it myself.

But that doesn’t mean the discussion ends there. Pragmatism in order to avoid attack should be a stopgap on the road to reducing sexual violence and creating a world in which wearing a tank top or having one too many beers isn’t used as an excuse for rape.

It angers and saddens me that, as a single female traveller, I have to take extra precautions to avoid being violated. And I find it infuriating when people suggest that the victims of sexual attacks are at least in part to blame for what happens to them. Yet I found many commenters suggesting exactly this, or at least putting responsibility on the victims, not only on ThaiVisa but on many other discussion threads on the subject.

I also take issue with the suggestion that women should either not travel alone at all or avoid certain places altogether. Why not talk instead about why, in 2013, women continue to be raped, assaulted and harassed at alarming rates the world over, from New York City to Mumbai?

Dangers exist for all travellers, but the threat of rape is part of a much larger problem: the worldwide cancer of sexual violence that claims countless victims every day. Encouraging women not to travel alone or to criticize them for visiting certain countries or regions does nothing to address the real issue.

When is the conversation going to change from one that ranges from, at best, pragmatism to, at worst, victim blaming? When will we focus on changing the mindsets of societies that put the onus on women to not get raped, rather than placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the rapists?