Saturday marked my fifth day in London, and it was bound to be a pleasant one. I was ecstatic to have a familiar face, my friend Chelsea, accompany me for a few days of my 110-day journey through Europe, during which I will mostly be by myself.
We spent the afternoon at Tower Bridge, and as cliché as it might be, it is one of my favorite spots to head to on a warm day. But the tourist hangout also brings with it one of my least favorite parts about the city: the rude, pushy men dressed in costumes who try to get you take pictures with them and then demand payment.
While living here, you develop a certain skill set in avoiding these men. Put on a stone cold face, don’t make eye contact, become intensely aware of the whereabouts of your belongings and ignore, ignore, ignore. If they get too close, tell them to back off.
I’m very familiar of the game, but what one performer did to me Saturday was beyond anything I could have prepared myself for.
As Chelsea and I headed over to the Tower of London, a man in black and white face paint, who was masquerading as Charlie Chaplin took his prop cane and lewdly smacked it across my backside and smirked at me while he did so.
By the time I was able to process what had happened in order to speak up, he was gone, but I was left to deal with the humiliation that comes with being sexually harassed.
When I told others of the opportunity I landed to travel this summer, I was greeted with excited faces. But when adding that I, a woman, would be doing it alone, eyebrows would raise skeptically.
I’ve heard the question “Are you really going to do this?” more times than I can count. Upon arriving in London, a woman who noticed my backpack approached me on the Tube, and warned me to “watch my back.” Some friends have called me brave for what I’m doing.
Most mean well when they say these things, but I don’t like to be called brave for being a female solo-traveler. It only reinforces the notion that traveling alone as a woman is — and should remain — the exception, not the rule.
Women can read maps just as easily as men. Men find themselves lost as often as women. When we’re abroad, we all fumble over the same messy pronunciations of words our tongues just don’t seem to be built for.
I know there are tons of women who would love to be in my position, and if I didn’t receive this scholarship, I would only be daydreaming, too. But I fear that even if all women were offered this same opportunity, many would still turn it down due to the threat of violence against our gender that pervades our consciousness every single day.
And though it did require a bit of bravery to get on that plane, I do live in fear here. All these “pinch me, I’m dreaming” moments come along with the terrifying reality that I might be harassed or assaulted while I’m just pursuing what I love.
I’ve greatly enjoyed and appreciated my time here — but to the fullest? I don’t know if I ever will be able to due to the fear I feel as a female solo-traveler, but I try my hardest. While travel brings with it certain anxieties about lost passports and missed trains, the daily fear of being raped or killed shouldn’t be one of them.
I want to be able to take a late-night stroll alongside Westminster Pier by myself.
I’d like to not have to worry about whether I’ll be the only woman staying in my 12-person hostel room.
And when a friendly man asked me out on a date after a warm 45-minute conversation, I wish I had felt comfortable enough to say yes and trust that his intentions were innocent.
But here’s the thing: Though I’ve become hypervigilant of my safety as a woman in unfamiliar Europe, I still live in fear about sexual violence when I’m back home in the United States.
We tend to blame rape on “the other.” We conjure up these images of rapists being strange men who don’t speak the same language as us and lure us into an alleyway of a foreign city.
But if it’s other countries with the gender-based violence problems, talk to me about how the United States has the highest rate of spousal homicide of any developed nation.
Tell me why consent doesn’t even become a talking point in educational programs until college.
How do you explain a man could go on a killing rampage in Isla Vista, Calif., leaving six people dead because “girls have never been attracted to (him)” and he felt he should punish them for it?
We’re good at pointing out what we find to be misogynistic in other cultures, but we rarely recognize our own failures. We flippantly dismiss the use of headscarves among Muslim women as blatant oppression, but we’re dumbfounded as to how alcohol-facilitated sexual assault could get so out of control on our hallowed college campuses, as if our culture doesn’t have anything to do with it.
Statistics demonstrate a small percentage of men are repeat perpetrators of gender-based violence. So, most men are good people, but the bottom line is that men are most often the perpetrators of sexual assault, and this type of violence occurs all the time and to so many women.
Just as a female survivor of sexual violence is somebody’s sister, daughter or mother, a male perpetrator of violence is somebody’s brother, son or father. These men live among us, speaking the same language, strolling along the same familiar streets of our hometowns. We bear the responsibility of teaching them about decency, respect and equality.
It’s time we stop dismissing gender-based violence as someone else’s issue. How many other terrible events need to occur before we recognize it is a problem and it is ours?
Ending the violence starts with us, no matter where we’re located on the map. And when women do travel by themselves, we shouldn’t be questioning them but instead questioning those who hurt them and — perhaps, most importantly — ourselves for giving rise to a culture that makes it OK for gender-based violence to exist in the first place.