Do I need permission to exist as a woman in the world?

Usually, when I discuss travelling, I glowingly discuss the spectacular things I have seen, the incredible people I have met, and the things I have learned along the way. And all of those things are true. Travel, particularly travelling solo, has transformed me, has opened my eyes to new ways of being and numerous wonders in the world. I have met hundreds of kind and generous people.

But I have also met others. And even though this isn’t my usual upbeat and quirky tales of a haphazard wanderer, it is really important for me to put this out into the world.

*A warning: this post discusses some situations of harassment that might be uncomfortable or triggering for some individuals.IMG_3868The thing I hear all the time when I talk about various trip, schemes, and plans is that “I could never do that.” While I hear that from some men, this response is highly gendered. It is mostly women who seem to think that the type of travelling is completely out of reach for them.

It is not just that there is strong socialized pressure for women to stay close to home while men venture out to explore and conquer. It is that there are situations that are uncomfortable and even risky, even when using common sense and having adequate skills. Regular situations that can quickly turn into something that seems deeply unsafe.

When my lady friends express hesitation or fear about travelling alone, I usually reassure them that most of the time, travelling alone is possible and even exciting. That most of the fears you have are not going to happen. That most of the people you meet will astound you with their generosity and kindness, there are, unfortunately, a minority of interactions that are aggressive, uncomfortable, and threatening.

This isn’t specifically about solo travelling or cycle touring, although these are times in which I find myself in diverse environments and where the opportunities to interact with strangers is greater. Most of the time, people are lovely, curious, helpful, and kind. Sometimes, in an instant, a neutral public space can be transformed into a threatening place. This experience is so commonplace that we don’t really discuss it, but without creating space for this sort of dialogue, I don’t think we can start to make spaces safe for all people.IMG_4330I arrived in Paris on early yesterday in the morning. I was schlepping my luggage to the storage facility that had my bike. As the facility didn’t open until 9:30, I took advantage of the extra time to sort and re-pack my panniers to be prepared for the next leg of the trip. I chose a quiet park bench in a little concrete oasis (those slivers of the city that seem like parks but don’t have grass) off a nice shopping street.

As I unloaded my bags and started sorting, I was approached by a man, asking (in French) if I had a lighter for his cigarette (which I could understand from his gesticulating and a smattering of English words). I shook my head no, said sorry, and he walked away. I thought that was the end of that.

Moments later, he reappeared, grabbed my hand, kissed it and held onto it. I freed my hand and then he thrust his hand in my face, wanting me to also kiss his hand. He insisted, so I took his hand and did the old grade school “kiss of my own thumb.” This was not amusing to him, and he seemed to get more and more agitated. He kept asking if I wanted a coffee. I said no and thanked him. He asked several times, and I always refused, to which he responded “just five minutes”, I gestured to my stuff spilling over the bench saying that I was busy and couldn’t get a coffee. He left, saying he was going to get me a coffee, despite my resistance, and that he would be back. I hurriedly tried to re-pack my bags and leave before he returned, but I didn’t clear the space fast enough, and he was back.

By this point, I was very aware that he was making me feel really uncomfortable. My gut was screaming “run”! He hands me a small cup of coffee. I thank him and hold it, thinking in the back of my mind “This is it. He has drugged this and I am going to be sold into sex trafficking” particularly because of the way he kept insisting I drink it. I had the smallest sip of the sickly sweet coffee.

He then started leaning towards me, pursing his lips and tapping them with his finger, asking me for a kiss. I shook my head and said no. He pointed at his ring finger, asking if I was married. I was not wearing a ring on that important finger, so I said no, but that I had a boyfriend. He responded: “Oh, you are not married, you have sex with me.”

I continued to refuse, which he pretended not to understand. He just kept making kissing motions and tapping his index finger on his lips. He then asked again if I wanted to have a cigarette. I said no. He tapped his nose and asked if I wanted cocaine. I again, and with increasing adamancy, said no. He then decided to ask me over and over to have sex with him. I said no, he seemed confused and asked why. In exasperation, I finally stated loudly and firmly “because I DON’T WANT TO” and set about stuffing the rest of my gear in my panniers. He eventually turned and stormed off. I chucked the coffee in the garbage, gathered my bags, and left.

I could tell that I was shaken by the incident, and I went into a Starbucks to compose myself before I attempted to hit the road. However, as I made my way out of Paris, I found myself fighting waves of emotions throughout the day, fighting tears – of frustration, anger, sadness, helplessness. I was so angry that this one man could transform a neutral public space into a place that I was not able to exist without feeling unsafe and afraid. Frustrated because I didn’t know what I could have done in that situation to stop his advances and to re-establish my feelings of personal safety. Paralyzed and helpless realizing that these infringements on people, primarily women’s, agency in public happens every single day and not knowing what can be done to reverse this at a societal level.

This incidence, and a variety of other factors, slowed my progress and I did not the necessary mileage yesterday that would make it possible for me to reach Dieppe in time for my ferry.  As I slowly made my way to a wild camping spot for the evening, I decided to take the train the next morning in order to close the gap to catch my ferry back to the UK.IMG_4365This morning, I got on the train with my bike. Almost immediately upon storing my bike and taking a seat, a man approached me and started talking. While I am usually quite friendly and happy to chat with strangers I meet as I travel, I was not liking this situation from the first moment. He gets uncomfortably close, takes my hand, and won’t let go. Once I am able to re-claim my hand, he puts his arm around me. I make it clear that I don’t speak French and that I am not interested in talking to him. I move his hand off my shoulders, but he  but he kept touching me – I would move his hand off my shoulder or leg and shake my head no, saying repeatedly that I don’t understand what he is talking about and I did not want him to touch me – shrinking away as he got much too close to my face. He kept pointing to his chest and saying “good” as if he wanted to convince me that the had a good heart. I even got to the point of putting in headphones and staring out the window, but he continued to talk to me, putting his arm around my shoulders and trying to touch my legs. At one point, he lifted up his shirt and began tracing circles around his nipple for an uncomfortably long period of time. With yesterday’s encounter fresh in my mind, I took care to avoid smiling and being friendly and made an effort to make it very clear with my body language and words that I was not interested and that I didn’t want him to touch me.

I could see in the next car, a man popping his head out to watch the interaction. While my obvious signals that I didn’t want to talk and didn’t want him touching me, my harasser didn’t seem to get the point, but the message was clear to the observer. He motioned for me to move to the next car, and I complied. He said he could see me moving away from the aggressor and putting up my hands like stop signs. He could see that something was not right. He asked me where I was going, asked me if I was OK, and at each station, he used his iPhone as a mirror out the door of the train car to see if the other guy had gotten off the train. He told me that he grew up in Rwanda, the eldest of 6 children. When he saw all that his mother did for him, his brother, and 4 sisters, he promised he would never stand by and let a woman be touched against her will.

And I am so grateful for his kindness – as many people would just sit by and do nothing. But I also resent the fact that I require a male protector to take the train.

My new friend and self-appointed protector talked a bit about the cosmic balance – that when there is one person who is touching someone who doesn’t want to be touched there is another who will stand up for the good.

I agree and disagree.

I think in a world where all people behave like him and aren’t afraid to get involved when they see injustice, then that may be the case. But there are times, like in Paris, where there aren’t other people around – the deserted early morning in a city, which in a few hours would be bustling with people. There are also times when people standby and ignore the situation. I know because I have stood by too.

I had many hours to myself to reflect on these incidents, but I am still at a loss as to what can be done to stop this trend – why is it that women can’t just be in public spaces without dealing with harassment.

One small step is to try to call people out when they propagate damaging or problematic ideas. For example, I was recounting the Paris situation to a friend, mentioning lightheartedly that I had bought a lot of whipped cream to try to buoy my spirits. He joked, asking if that was what had got me into trouble in the first place. Instead of responding with a “haha” and tongue in cheek comment about whipped cream bikinis, I decided to call him out on it. Because these tiny little jokes support the idea that there is a way of being, of dressing, of existing in the world that invites these violations of personal agency. And as long as I keep laughing along, I am not doing anything to confront the problem.

I wish I had said something to another friend, who said he would deal with these situations by calmly cleaning his knife. I didn’t confront him about that comment, but I am all too aware that in aggressive situations, weapons often don’t make a woman safer.

Statistics show that all too often, weapons which make a woman feel safer are turned against her. The argument that weapons, particularly guns, are the “great equalizer” between the sexes has proven to be completely false. In a study of women who had experienced domestic violence in women’s shelters showed that a very small percent (7%) of women had successfully used a gun in self-defense, but the majority (71%) had the weapons in their homes used against them, usually threatening to kill them (Sorenson & Wiebe). This study showed that battered women were much less likely to use a weapon against their partner than to have it used against them, soundly debunking the myth that keeping a weapon, in this case, a firearm, in the home makes women safer as an avenue for self-defense  (Ibid). A systematic review and meta-analysis further showed that the odds of homicide victimization was significantly higher among those with access to firearms (meaning if you have access to guns, you are more likely to die by homicide than those without access to guns) and further, that this association was much stronger among women (Anglemyer et al, 2014). Again, much of the research is focused on firearms, but the idea that weapons which are purported to be there for “self-defense” are more often used to initiate violence, not for self-defense (Hemenway & Azrael, 2000).

Thus, for most women existing in the world, the option to face an aggressor with a weapon to increase safety is completely unfounded, as weapons in these situations make women less, not more, safe.

No wonder psychologists have describe the predominantly female alternate to “fight or flight” as “tend and befriend.” In a situation of threat, the reaction is to placate, to befriend, to seek the social group, be friendly to, try to diffuse the situation. I definitely see this as one of my patterns when facing an aggressor – I try to befriend them into being nice to me, into calming down.

Both of these situations made me feel deeply unsettled – like I am not free to exist in public without the expectation that anyone who wants can touch me or force me to do things I am not comfortable with. I spent much of the day yesterday feeling on the brink of tears – upset to feel so helpless, that I don’t know what I could have done to mitigate that situation. This morning, I noticed my hands were shaking as I sipped my water in the second car.

I know the silver lining in this situation was getting to meet a kind soul, like my friendly protector this morning on the train. Despite my poor French, his English was good enough for us to have a great conversation, for him to describe how the Rwandan genocide had changed his country, and about his life and family.

But I can’t help wishing we could still learn peoples stories, talk generously, and be kind, without there having to be a catalyst of someone being inappropriate and taking over public space, turning it into a battle field where I can’t be sure if I will win the ability to do what I want with my body, the choice to say no. It is as though by being a lone woman in public spaces, I am transgressing a social code – that I don’t have permission to be there in that way. And if I don’t smile and acquiesce, the men get more aggressive when I refuse to allow them to do what they want.

So what can I do about this? What can we do about this? Is the best I can do to revive my fake wedding ring and discuss my husband when dealing with male aggressors who seem to understand that “no means no” only if I already belong to another man? Should I just grow a thicker skin and accept that “it is no big deal” and “these things happen all the time” and to “stop being so sensitive”?

I think some major societal shifts are needed but I am at a loss at where to start – how can we ensure public spaces are safe for all people?

A few references:

Anglemyer A, Horvath T, Rutherford G. (2014) The accessibility of firearms and risk for suicide and homicide victimization among household members: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine: 160(2).

Hemenway D, Azreal D. (2000) The relative frequency of offensive and defensive gun use: Results from a national survey. Violence and Victims: 15.

Sorenson S, Wiebe J. Weapons in the lives of battered women. American Journal of Public Health.

 

 

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