One Girl with a Backpack: Sexism and Travel

2013 was a huge year for sexism and feminism, mainly because of its presentation in the media. The release of ‘Blurred Lines’ caused uproar for its theme of distinguishing between sexual consent and rape, while Rihanna and Miley Cyrus shocked us with their provocative gestures. The issue of sexism suddenly seemed to be all around, with people blaming the predatory demands of males.  What concerned me most about it all was not so much the crude, perverted manner of the men in these videos  – which, in truth, is a feature of the music industry that we’ve been accustomed to for many years now – but rather the extent to which these particular videos illustrated how the presence of sexism is in fact facilitated by its acceptance by women, in the form of their behaviour. Gross as the ‘Blurred Lines’ video was, one has to remember that the ladies prancing around naked agreed to feature in such a degrading production.

Recently, a 25 year old woman was slated on Twitter for selling a story to ‘The Sun’ about her ‘stingy’ date with the Manchester United footballer, Adnan Januzaj. I agreed that it was the female who deserved the criticism, not so much in relation to the details of the story itself, but to the fact that this modern woman was so desperate to be famous, that she felt she must contact a famous football player via a social networking site, only to go and tell all (complete with sexy photoshoot of course) to a cheap tabloid newspaper afterwards, so that she could become known around Britain. Did she really believe this attack on the behaviour of a rich man was an admirable act of feminism?

Women have been encouraged to believe that a celebrity status is the highest of all. Forget entering a profession, establishing their own business, conducting academic research, or working for the government; many young women would rather allow their work ethic to drop in favour of finding money and ‘success’ through appearing as a sex object in the media. In the process of tailoring their behaviour towards only the sexual interests of men, they subsequently allow all respect for their intelligence and moral integrity to be lost. Women are guilty of helping sexism exist in society by a lack of ambition to use their brains, whether in an academic or vocational environment, choosing instead to express their values through their bodies.

I found myself associating this topic with the issue of travelling solely as a woman, regarding debates about how suited the female gender is to this. It can be argued that in travel also, sexism is reinforced strongly by the views of women, or institutions representing them. Travelling alone is still regarded as a predominantly male activity, with the implications being that this biological sex has a superior gift for finding its own way around foreign lands. The concept of a lone female rural backpacker is incomprehensible to some. Realistically, most people would probably scoff at the depiction of a female recluse in ‘Into the Wild’. Some travel sites still seem hold an idea that all female travellers want luxurious hotel resorts complete with swimming pools, and to pay for tour reps or travel guides rather than find their own way around with a map, just because of their sex. Many people question how ‘safe’ it is for women to travel alone, their beliefs being stimulated by newspaper reports on ‘horrific attacks’ abroad, forgetting that men are also often victims of such crimes.

I remember once when I was in primary school, my teacher told us about the murder of Caroline Stuttle, a British female backpacker in Australia. She had studied at college with my sister. And yet less than ten years later, I was doing the same, also at 19, but alone. Was I not scared? At first yes, a little, but this was more along the lines of getting lost and meeting nobody. I feared more that I wouldn’t be able to ‘do’ it successfully on my own and would subsequently have a terrible experience, rather than for my life. Similarly in summer 2012, I watched the film ‘Taken’, where two young American girls are abducted by human traffickers in France. A month later I went travelling around Germany for three weeks, alone. Some remarked on how ‘weird’ this was – was I not put off by the prospect of something similar happening to me?

The answer was: no. I knew that if I let such fears dominate my thinking, I wouldn’t do anything exciting in life. People who base their life choices on what they read or see in the media are simply depriving themselves. Risks to safety exist everywhere. There would be nothing to stop me being randomly attacked in the UK, never mind in Australia or anywhere else.  Of course some women will get attacked abroad and many of these attacks will be unprovoked. But there will also be cases of assault where the behaviour of the woman will have stimulated the crime, and this is a fact that should not be neglected. Whilst being a foreigner might make one appear a more vulnerable target, it is possible, believe it or not, for a woman to look after herself and reduce the likelihood of such events occurring, through her behaviour.

Ultimately, one has to act responsibly. That means you don’t take up an offer of a taxi by a random stranger and tell him your private address, as happens in ‘Taken’. And if you’re going out with people you’ve recently just met to a bar, from where you’ll have to find your way back alone, you don’t wear a revealing top and get drunk. As long as they act with a little extra precaution, there is absolutely no reason why women cannot travel alone and remain free from any trouble.

Sexist beliefs about the inability of women to travel alone safely are not simply created and maintained by males only, charming as a Spanish guy calling me ‘crazy’ was. It is in fact females who succumb to such attitudes and let them persist, through their expectations of how women should spend their time. I’ll never forget the Canadian lady who looked at me as if I had two heads when she found out I was 19, exclaiming, “But you’re so young?” I looked at her blankly, wanting to respond with, “Your point being?” The concern was almost insulting; this idea that I was breaking the accepted ‘rules’ of female travel, and not normal for doing so. Compared to what some people have to go through at a much younger age, what I was doing seemed like nothing. Then there was the Spanish lady in Iceland who said, “Ah well, why wait around for other people?” not comprehending that I may have actually wanted to travel by myself.

At first, having people remark on how ‘brave’ I was to travel alone made me glow with pride. Now I find myself feeling slightly concerned that it is such a big issue to some people. Despite us being in the 21st century, there remains a strong belief that females not only cannot, but should not want to manage in another country on their own, just because occasional news reports suggest it’s too dangerous for them. Are we as women really going to let such accounts restrict us to the kitchen, while our male peers are allowed to go meet other travellers to get smashed and act like animals in Thailand?

I am not going to pretend that I’m a completely fearless Wonder Woman; there are of course many places in the world where I would not travel alone, knowing that realistically, a blonde girl would be a victim of unrelenting attention. Likewise, I don’t travel alone to prove a point to anyone else – it’s just become such a personal passion of mine that I don’t see having company as a necessity. But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a slight feeling of smugness when I noticed a man watch me with impressed surprise as I walked past him confidently, bag on back, map in hand.

One is more likely to earn respect from the opposite sex when they show that their behaviour is inspired by an independent mindset, rather than directed by those of others that come in the form of sexual attitudes of some men, or pessimistic views about the sense in female travel. Such pandering to male desires  and media clichés only makes a mockery of feminism as a plausible concept. If women allow rumours and stereotypes to deter them from striving towards an open civil position or experience, they have only lent support to such irrational, archaic views.  Self-determining ambition is a broad means for females to challenge sexism and travelling alone is just one of the ways it can be demonstrated.

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Related articles:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/elisadoucette/2013/02/07/sarai-sierra-emphasizes-that-women-need-to-keep-traveling/

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