It would be nice to think that, here in the 21st century, solo female travel wouldn’t be that much different than solo male travel.
It would be nice.
But ignoring the differences between male and female solo travel is just dumb. It’s dumb because it doesn’t properly prepare women for challenges they might face on the road, it’s dumb because it does nothing to change double standards around the world, and it’s dumb because it to portray solo female travel just as us flinging out our arms to embrace a glorious sunset over the ocean is to perpetrate a lie. I do think that solo female travel is empowering and character-developing and worthwhile, but I hope that by sharing a few (fairly harmless) anecdotes from my own travels I can help everyone, men and women, understand the challenges that come along with it. So here we go – 10 double standards that exist in the traveling community and how they separate solo female travel from solo male travel.
1. Men can lounge around in their underwear in dorm rooms with strangers.
I was hanging out in my hostel dorm room when one of my male roommates straight up undressed in the middle of the room. First his shirt, next his shorts, and then he was just standing there in his boxers. Thankfully he stopped there.
But how did I manage to control myself (and not shove spoons into my eyes)?? How did I keep my hands to myself?? How, when I was being teased and tantalized by bare skin, did I refrain from seizing him??
Oh but hey girls, if you get harassed, one of the first questions will be “What were you wearing?”
2. You actually have to plan how you’re getting home at the end of the night.
I was out with new friends in Budapest and decided to stop drinking early in the night, right after we had arrived at one of the most popular ruin bars. We were on the Pest side of the river, and I had to make it back to where I was staying on the Buda side all by myself, which I explained to one of the guys when he asked me why I wasn’t going to have another drink.
“Whoa,” he said, “I’ve never planned how I was getting home after a night out.”
Which, to be honest, sounds irresponsible and dumb no matter who you are. But yeah, I’ve always thought about that, whether I’m drinking or not. Because wandering around an unfamiliar city, sober or drunk, could go really wrong for a woman. Really really wrong.
3. Going out dancing by yourself is a total different experience for a woman.
I love going dancing. I’m totally that girl who just wants to put our purses in a circle and dance. But going dancing is not something I do by myself. Just being on the dance floor without a friend feels awkward, because I’m a self-conscious dancer without any rhythm, but then throw in the whole social environment and I prefer to stay at home.
“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” a South American traveler told me in Bucharest.
“When was the last time you met a girl at the club by herself?” I asked him.
“Last night, I met a girl from Spain by herself.” He was very proud to prove me wrong. People often are when it comes to gender issues.
Good on that Spanish girl, if she really had gone to a club by herself, but I once went to a club with three guy friends and still had a stranger trying to dance up on me within thirty seconds. So solo clubbing is not for me, thanks.
4. You scope out your hostel dorm room for creepers when you enter.
Traveling on a small budget means that I’ve spent a lot of nights in hostel dorm rooms. If I pick a mixed dorm room (the only possibility in some places), I tend to pick bigger rooms, believing there’s strength in numbers if one resident turns out to be a creeper. I understand you’re inviting a whole host of other problems, but I prioritize the possibility of having backup.
Still, whenever I walk into a dorm room, I am secretly praying that no one will look me up and down when I walk in, that no one will be too much bigger than me, that no one will turn out to be the kind of creeper who takes advantage of a sleeping woman. Because, yeah, I have heard horror stories. And experienced the kind of dread that settles in when a guy sits down next to you on your bed.
Personal space, dude.
5. People think they can just touch me.
I was walking down the street on my way to the metro when a man walking the other direction reached out and brushed his hand against my thigh.
I was so surprised by what had just happened that I turned around. He also turned and smirked. Disgusted I looked away, flipping him a sloppy bird. I wish instead I had stopped and screamed, “Fuck you!” at him.
And no, this isn’t specific to solo female travel. A very similar thing happened to me in the New York subway too. Like basically all of these topics, it’s not a problem with travel – it’s a problem with mentality.
Or there was the time that I stumbled into the folk dance party that happens outside the Kyiv Teatralna metro station each week. Few things bring joy to my heart like seeing a hundred Ukrainian pensioners repeating the same dozen steps over and over again to an equally elderly band.
But while I was just chilling, appreciating, standing out of the way next to a pillar, a man a few years older than me approached. He said something to me, and when I said I didn’t understand, he opened his arms for a hug and stepped forward. I shook my head and stepped back. He tried to pat my head. I ducked away. He looked crestfallen and tried to touch my arm. I dodged and looked back to the dancers. He walked off, finally.
And if these stories aren’t aggressive enough for you (oh big deal, Amy, he tried to pat your head), how about the Aussie in Mexico who I spent a friendly three days with, along with a Dutch girl, and when he gave me a hug goodbye, pulled me in so he could squeeze my ass?
Oh, another thing: don’t pick me up and throw me over your shoulder.
Especially not you, Swedish dude who I was not into and was walking ten feet in front of anyway in an effort to avoid any accidental touching. Just because you’re Scandinavian does not mean you’re a Viking who can charge from behind and swing me over your shoulder. And they were bad dudes anyway, despite what the History Channel has done for their image.
6. You’re still expected to pass face control.
I was chatting with a guy from New Zealand about his night out the night before. It seemed he had had a good time, especially when it came to mingling with the ladies.
“There’s a bit of a home team advantage,” the Kiwi said appreciatively. “Local girls are all in corsets, makeup and hair done, dressed to the nines. And then there are the girls who’ve just come off a plane from Germany.”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Yes, because as a woman I’m totally into the broke backpacker with the man bun who hasn’t had a real job in a year and a half. But let me just run to the beauty store and pick up some lipstick.
7. Your headphones are no match for male conversation, of course.
Shortly after this article came out I experienced this myself. I was chilling out, listening to something with my headphones in, when a male hostel resident started talking to me. I wouldn’t have minded a question or two, but he was interested in a full on conversation. After a few minutes I answered one last question and hastily put my headphones back in.
Ok, before everyone freaks out about how innocuous this seems and how I’m overacting, it’s not a big deal if someone politely interrupts what I’m listening to to ask a question or even introduce themselves. I actually think the dude in the pick-up article has some good recommendations, despite his self-centered assumptions. It’s the prolongation that’s irritating, the mentality that a full conversation with them automatically trumps whatever I have chosen to do with my time.
How about this? If a woman is interested in meeting people at a bar, subway car, or dimly lit alley, she might actually have the confidence to take out her earbuds and look around, maybe even smile, thus demonstrating her own understanding of social cues. Just a thought.
8. Your romantic life is nearly always in question, despite the fact that that’s kinda personal, man.
“Can I ask you a question?” My hostel bunkmate sighed. “I’m bored.”
Well, not the most auspicious start, but ok. I smiled and said sure. We started chatting. I told him that I was moving to Ukraine to teach.
“What about your family? Your friends?”
My parents appreciate your concern, but they’ve had years to adjust to this idea.
“And do you have a boyfriend?”
A tricky question at the time, so I just said, “There’s a guy.”
And then I realized – I’ve never in my life asked a male traveler if they have a girlfriend. I’ve never sneakily thrown in a, “Wow, what does your girlfriend say about this?” or a “Is your girlfriend ok with being left at home?” First of all, how nosy would I look to that random traveler guy I had met ten minutes previously? Second of all, why on earth is that information anyone else needs to know? I know travelers are infamous for being open people, but maybe some personal information should stay personal.
9. Things that would infuriate a man should be no big deal for you.
There is a club off the beaten tourist track here in Kyiv that I used to like to go to. Locals seemed to be genuinely confused by the kind of goofy dancing my friends and I exemplify, and one night we were deep in the middle of having a good time when my girl friend went up to the bar, tried to order a drink, and had ice thrown down her shirt by two bartenders.
Unsurprisingly, this was pretty fucking upsetting. After helping her calm down and making sure she was safely on her way home with our very intimidating Marine friend, I went to find a manager to complain to. And I tried not to freak out, I really did, because the manager displayed all of Ukraine’s sophisticated femininity by holding my hand and nodding appropriately while blinking at me with sympathetic eyes.
But when she said, “It was a bad joke,” I almost lost it. Really? Would they ever throw ice across the bar at a male customer? Try to throw straws down his shirt and laugh? Of course not, because a man would punch them in the face. Because there’s nothing funny about getting ice thrown at you, and there’s really nothing funny about having ice thrown down your shirt. But my friend was just expected to laugh it off as a bad joke.
10. People demand things from you.
Once upon a time, I agreed to join a guy from my hostel on a pub crawl, and from there he made a few cognitive leaps. After he tried to put his arm on the back of my chair at our first stop, I determined to spend the rest of the night as far away from him as possible. But, as we were staying at the same hostel, we ended up walking back together at the end of the night. Which is when he grabbed me around my waist, pulled me closer, and said, “It’s International Kissing Day so you have to kiss me.”
I have to? I have to? Look, maybe this would have been suave if I had been into him, if I had given him any indication I was down for that, if he had asked instead of demanded. But no, locked in as I was, I was given an ultimatum.
But you know what makes me even angrier than the fact that he demanded that I kiss him? It was that I did kiss him. In the split second I had to make that decision, I weighed the awkwardness and indignation that would be required to make my own choices about who I did and didn’t want to kiss, and I decided the easiest thing would be just to kiss him and get it over with so we could keep walking. I’m still furious at Past Amy for making that choice.
But I get why she did it. Because continually defining boundaries and fighting for your autonomy is tiring. Sometimes you just want to go home and go to sleep, and you’ll take whatever route will get you there as soon as possible.
But here is another, bonus, double standard – I constantly have to be ready to defend my boundaries. The mental jumps that give men the confidence to judge my appearance or sit on my bed or squeeze my ass are so prevalent that I am always on guard.
Look, I know that most of these experiences, on their own, are minor inconveniences or even just awkward encounters. There’s no real problem with a guy trying to talk to me while I have headphones on or asking me if I have a boyfriend. But understand that these experiences build on each other, and we never know when a situation will escalate. It’s a guy I don’t know trying to talk to me while I’m wearing headphones but also the random guy who tried to hug me when I’m alone in a metro station. It’s an innocent attempt to flirt but also the dude in my dorm room who sat on my bed while the rest of the dorm slept, trying to angle in for a kiss while all I wanted was to go to sleep. And the culmination of these experiences has created a very thick glass shell around me as a solo female traveler, an ingrained caution and suspicion that I’m not sure I’ll ever get rid of. And that’s a glass shield solo men rarely travel with.
Don’t believe me? Think I’m too sensitive or am being too tough on guys? That I’m trying to hard to speak for “all women”? This American Life did a piece on an Australian writer confronted people who catcall her to ask them why they do it — and tried to get them to see why it makes women so uncomfortable. I can only cut out 30 seconds but the whole episode is worth the listen to get a sense of what catcalling and ‘harmless’ unwanted physical contact does to women.
What have your experiences with solo female travel been like? How would you deal with these different situations? I’m trying to get better at being more vocal with my discomfort, and any advice is appreciated!