I’m a young woman traveling solo-
and I don’t want your concern
In a little over a week, I’m going to be backpacking through Central America — all by myself. I am a woman; a tall, blonde, 24 year old woman. My loved ones have a lot of opinions on my travel decisions. Mostly fear, terror, and condescension of my naive trust in a world that wants to hurt me. In unpacking these reactions, I needed to break them down. Because no one, not a single soul, has expressed fear that I will die in a traffic accident in Mexico (the number one cause of death of a traveler in any of the places I’m going). We might as well be honest about how much of that fear is about gender based violence, specifically rape. And murder, and harassment based on my gender and race. And drug cartels that will kidnap me, and probably rape me too.
Now let’s get one thing straight to start with, fear of rape is a legitimate thing that women reckon with every day. While walking along at night, when a coworker starts to harass us — it’s an ever-present threat as a woman. I’m not downplaying that it is a real fear, and something that absolutely could happen to a traveler. But here’s where I’m a little concerned.
No one in my family expressed a fear that I would be raped while going off to college. A recent study done by researchers at Brown at a large university found that 19% of women, almost 1 in 5, had been victims of an attempted or completed rape in their freshman year of college. No one was so deathly terrified that when I joined a sorority and moved into my sorority house I would be the victim of a rape, despite the fact that women who live in sorority houses are nearly three times as likely to be raped.
Statistics don’t really seem to exist on rape of international travelers, but it seems to me that I’ve just left one of the most dangerous phases of my life, from a sexual assault perspective, and now all the sudden everyone in my life is up in arms in fear. Statistically, this newfound terror makes no sense, and I can’t help but wonder if, on a less than conscious level, that fear comes from the change in my would-be attackers.
I can’t help but think back to one of America’s ugliest scars — lynching. White fear of the humans they enslaved and oppressed manifested itself in unsubstantiated terror of black men’s supposed voracious appetites for white women. The other, spoiling that precious, protected white purity. Ida B. Wells, a suffragist, activist and investigative journalist exposed the falseness of most of these lynchings in her pamphlet “Lynch Law in All It’s Phases.” The majority of sexual encounters between black men and white women were consensual, she found. Truth aside, this narrative became a powerful vehicle for hate and violence.
Let me be clear, I do not make this connection because I believe my loved ones are terrible, racist, lynching, evil people. They love me dearly, and it is absolutely fair to have gender-based concerns, particularly in countries that have more substantial problems with misogyny than the US. But the depth of their concern makes me wonder how this fear plays in to the other-ing narratives we have developed when looking at countries with less wealth than we have.
To understand my hesitance about their concern for me, we need to unpack those narratives a bit, so bear with me as I veer of course for a moment. Central America has some pretty substantial and legitimate crime problems. The vast majority of those problems tie in to our demand for drugs. It’s a problem I’d love to spill pages of ink on at another time, but suffice it to say that most travelers report that if you stay away from drugs and the worst of the cartel controlled regions, you’ll be fine. But I think there’s a little bit more to it. There’s a narrative in the media of Central America, poor, violent and unstable. It’s about drugs, but it’s also not.
In that poor, violent, unstable idea, there seems to be a general impression of political instability without much understanding of the necessary background. For example, a surprisingly large amount of people are not aware of the actions US government in Nicaragua in the 70’s and 80’s, and most of those aware aren’t nearly furious enough (for a little background, read here). The US has a long, inglorious history of intervention with our nearest neighbors, most of it pretty indisputably focused on protecting our own interests.
There’s even less acknowledgment of the successes Central America has had. Somehow, the whole dirty, poor and violent thing I’ve been sold on doesn’t jive with the fact that Costa Rica ranks as the happiest place in the world, with Belize coming in 4th and El Salvador 5th. Six Central American countries rank in the top ten of the Happy Planet Index.
But poor, violent and unstable works better with the narrative of a country with a history of violence towards, and continued opposition to left-leaning policies. And so, my beloved family members see an image not so dissimilar to the deeply resented poverty porn that dominates our narratives of Africa (check out the hashtag #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou).They love me and they want me to be safe, and see a very specific media image of my chosen travel destination. As a pretty young white girl, it’s assumed that I, in particular, will be the certain target of violence.
Here’s the thing, I understand the legitimate risks of my travel. But I am not a naive, delicate thing that needs your protection. I have done my research; I have read statistics and travelers accounts, meticulously calculating the real dangers and the reasonable precautions I need to take. I am a badass, capable woman, and I fear that subconsciously, you have been made to believe I am something else. I want to see the world and understand it, and I am not so young that I cannot make an evaluation of risks on my own terms. I don’t want you to tell me “I wouldn’t be so worried if you were a man,” I want you to have faith in my competence and respect my independence enough to let me take my own risks.
If you want to keep me safe, why don’t you start with keeping me safe at home? Why don’t you confront rape culture and assault on college campuses, why aren’t you clamoring to deal with the untested rape kits piling up at police stations around the country? Until you are fighting for my safety every day in my own country, I don’t want your concern when I leave it. And until you seek to understand the dynamics of the complicated global issues behind what you see on the news, I don’t need your media fed hysteria.