What should you do if you experience sexual assault as a solo traveller?
I believe solo travelling as a woman is one of the most freeing, empowering things you can do. To completely throw caution to the wind. To say “I have no idea what might happen and that is both fucking terrifying and exciting”. For the past two years, I’ve had some incredible experiences from skydiving in San Diego to riding motorbikes in the Vietnamese countryside. I wouldn’t trade those memories for the world.
There have also been some less than perfect times like missing flights due to delayed connections or stares and jeers because of the colour of my skin.
But never, until last year, have I experienced something that completely threw me. Something that wasn’t in the guide books, or the blog posts, or the travel videos. Something that even today still fills me with dread. But because sexual assault as a solo traveller is not talked about or shared, is why I’m coming on here today to tell you about my experience.
So here goes.
In October 2018, in The Philippines, I was assaulted.
I wasn’t bruised or beaten, but for me what happened was worse than that, because that pain you can see and people understand. That pain you know how to deal with. But this… I can still picture his eyes, the panic that I felt and the smirk on his face. Every detail is so raw, even though it happened months ago, and I fucking hate him for it.
It had been a great day. Drinking cheap rum and singing along to acoustic music by the sea. Newfound friendships formed. I felt happy. I felt safe. Some drinks later a group of maybe five of us guys and girls decided to go swimming in the sea and stripped off to our underwear and ran in. As I’m not a confident swimmer I stayed close to the shore, I didn’t want to swim out too far and put myself in danger. Unbeknownst to me, the danger would soon swim right up next to me.
It just happened so quickly.
Out of nowhere, I felt someone approach me and reach their hand up under the water and grab between my legs, trying to pull my pants to the side and push his fingers as I backed away. You always think “Oh if this happened I’d scream, I’d shout”, but at that moment all I could muster was “what are you doing?!” before trying to escape the water.
Then, and I will never forget this, he turned and looked at me, smirking with a grin from ear to ear, and said “Where are you going? I know you wanted it.”
I’d never seen him before or even glanced in his direction. I hadn’t spoken to him or been acting in any way flirtatious. And because I found that so hard to process, I just got out of the water and sat trying to make sense of it all, trying to go back through the night in my mind to work out how this had happened. But there was no sense to be made. There was nothing to get.
Going through the motions (and emotions)
An older man from the bar had seen me coming out of the water panicked and he listened as I recounted what had just happened. He told me it was a terrible thing but the safest thing for me to do in this instance would be nothing. Having come from his experience of having killed, yes KILLED the man who raped his girlfriend, I listened to him. I pushed it down and I continued with the night as if nothing had happened.
At one point I had pushed it down so deep that I actually began to question whether it had happened at all. If it wasn’t for this looming sense of unease and emotional outbursts over the next few weeks I could have believed it, but I learned ignoring it does not make it go away.
As this happened at the start of my trip I decided to stay and continue travelling alone as I had planned. Although there were times when I felt scared and uneasy this was mostly paranoia, and by forcing myself to get back out there I was able to reclaim some of my power.
Over the weeks I very matter of factly told people about what had happened and because I was still processing it myself the weight of my emotions weren’t behind what I was saying. I was met with varied responses from solidarity to “well if I was there I would have punched him in the face”. The truth is they weren’t there. Until you’re in that situation you can never know how your body will react.
I hope you never find yourself in that situation. But if you do experience sexual assault as a solo traveller, or you already have, there are some things I want you to know.
First of all, I am so sorry that this happened to you.
You weren’t asking for it. Whether you were clothed or naked, drunk or sober.
You didn’t deserve it.
It wasn’t your fault.
How to protect yourself as a solo female traveller
It is likely you will go through a range of emotions: shock, denial, guilt, anxiety, anger. Many of these will be confusing or upsetting but it’s important to allow your body and mind to heal. You may want to consider talking to a counsellor or just a close friend. If you are sexually assaulted abroad consider contacting your embassy to work out what your options are as there are different laws for every country, including important ones that you may be unfamiliar with.
I shared this story (in short form) with someone who asked me for advice while I was in the Philippines and she urged me to share what happened so women could protect themselves. I thought to myself “how can women protect themselves?” Sure, I was in my underwear, but what’s really the difference between that and a swimsuit? A type of material?
Okay, I was drinking – but I didn’t feel out of control or unsafe. I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t dark. He came out of nowhere.
The best advice I can give is to be aware of your surroundings. If something feels off, even if you think you’re being stupid, trust that feeling and get out of the situation. If someone attacks you get away from them by any means necessary. That doesn’t always mean kicking and screaming, but be prepared to claw an eyeball if you have to.
Normalised violence and rape culture
We live in a world where sexual assault and harassment is becoming increasingly normalised, or worse, expected. Where skin colour is hypersexualised and fetishised. An accidental brush past in a nightclub, hands that are a little bit too close and we just put up with it. Accepting that it’s part of the deal, but that certainly doesn’t make it right.
When something bad happens we all do what we think is the right decision given the information and power we have at the time. Being the outsider in a foreign country, alone and outnumbered I chose not to speak up. I still believe I made the right choice for me then.
But I’m speaking up now.
Changing the narrative
As soon as I got back from my trip I started writing about what had happened. Pouring out my heart and soul, reliving again and again. Struggling for months with how to frame it in a way that didn’t tar an entire country with the same brush. Scared to be judged for the way I dressed or blamed for not taking enough precautions. And honestly, maybe worried that I wouldn’t be believed.
I still remember an incident while I was at university when late one night my male flatmate crept into my room while I slept and climbed into bed with me. Trying to fondle my naked body saying his girlfriend (my friend) didn’t have to know. And none of my flatmates believed me. In fact, they took great delight in taunting me along with their friends asking why I’d make such a thing up. It was devastating.
In the end, today I’ve settled for sharing my truth in my writing the only way I know how.
Although I can’t deny I don’t feel as free as I once did, I’m not sharing this to stop you from solo travelling as a woman. On the contrary, I hope you do it now more than ever. Yes, partly in defiance, but also because I still want you to believe in good. In the times where strangers welcome you with open arms into their communities. Where you see sights that move you to tears.
But in the height of the #MeToo era, I know without these difficult discussions, nothing changes and no one listens. The Internet can often be a vicious place. Even if people do listen from closed doors they point fingers, over keyboards they speculate and accuse and it’s always the same narrative. The same one that makes women ashamed to come forward in the first place. That spreads a blanket of doubt and shame.
Starting a dialogue
Ultimately, what made me decide to share my story is because I know how it felt to me. In that realisation, I knew there would be other women out there doubting or blaming themselves for what happened. Or women who would go on to experience something similar either abroad or at home. I wanted to extend a hand and lend a voice. To show that yes, it’s true, solo travelling as a female has its dangers both real and imagined. As does everyday life.
But the more we stand together to speak out, the stronger our voices become.
Solo female traveller resources
If you plan on travelling alone and would like some support I recommend checking out these incredible resources:
Girls Love Travel – A 700,000+ strong global community for current and aspiring female travellers
Women Who Travel – Travel group created by Conde Nast award-winning travel magazine
Female solo travel blogs
Somto Seeks – Black solo female travel
Absolutely Lucy – Adventure solo female travel
Nomadic Matt – Has great travel tips and a resident female writer
And of course the blog you’re reading now.
Do you have any stories or advice to add? If so, please leave in the comments below.
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