I recently decided to try a "couchsurfacing" website to find people to stay with while I was traveling — and I was struck by all the sexual harassment I had to field before finding a couch. This, I realized, is one of many things women deal with when traveling that men may not understand. Lifestyles that involve travel are becoming more and more popular, which makes it especially important to be conscious of the people who get a subpar experience when they travel due to societal inequalities.
When I first signed up on the couchsurfacing site and announced I was looking for a couch to crash on, I got several dozen offers, all of which were from men. One told me he had room in his bed, and another called me "cutie." The one I went with, who had good references and didn't raise any red flags, didn't say anything inappropriate on the site or make me feel unsafe when I stayed with him — but after I left, he texted me to tell me I had "such deep eyes" and he wanted to kiss me when he looked into them.
As this experience makes evident, women and feminine-presenting travelers face some unfortunate predicaments, which can in turn lead to unequal opportunities to explore other places cheaply and benefit from the connections and adventures you get from that. Here are some things women deal with when they're traveling that reflect — and further — gender inequality.
1. Sexual Harassment
After my couchsurfing experience, I asked a friend who uses it about her own experiences. She said she had one host try to kiss her and another push his and her bed together. She also described being sexually harassed by a taxi driver in a foreign country, and I wasn't surprised: I myself once had a hotel staff member grab me and kiss me without my consent on my way back to my room. These situations lead us to feel unsafe wherever we go, even around the people who are supposed to keep us safe. The constant vigilance required to assess whether or not we're in danger of sexual harassment or assault takes away from our ability to enjoy a trip and gain valuable experiences from it.
2. Fear Mongering About Traveling Alone
Adding to the fear we develop based on actual experiences we have while traveling, we also receive constant warnings about traveling alone as a woman. My first time staying in a hostel by myself, I was so freaked out by every movement in the room that I couldn't sleep, even though nothing happened there that posed a threat to me. While, as I mentioned, the threat of sexual assault and harassment is real, people often exaggerate the dangers of traveling as a woman and make men feel like they're immune to being attacked when they're not. The fear that this instills is enough to deter us from even traveling.
3. Criticism Of Our Looks
One morning, I caught a bus to visit a friend after a night out partying with another one, and I admittedly looked like a total mess. I was half asleep, I was wearing a giant sweatshirt from my ex that I just can't seem to get rid of, and my hair looked like I'd wiped out in the ocean. But I figured it wouldn't matter because a friend wouldn't judge me, right? Wrong. After I went to the bathroom halfway through lunch and put my hair up, he said, "I guess you should've gone to the bathroom before lunch so you could have freshened up." This comment was totally inappropriate. We have better things to think about when we're in the middle of a trip, like not getting lost, and don't need people making us worried about our hair.
4. People Looking To "Protect" Us
People, especially men, often operate under the assumption that women — particularly women doing something supposedly dangerous by themselves — are in need of protection. This can result in insistence on carrying our bags, giving us recommendations, or accompanying us somewhere when we've already got it under control. In the worst situations, these people are entitled men who feel we owe them something if they assist us. Once, after a guy tried to sexually assault me in a foreign country, another listened to my story, told me he was so sorry, and asked for a kiss. Yet another was kind enough to walk me back to my hotel but then told me at the end that it was a shame for such a beautiful girl to be crying. Such actions make it hard for us to trust people when we actually do need protection.
These inequalities reflect other inequalities women face on a daily basis, and they all need to be rectified in order for us to travel and live more safely and comfortably.