Traveling as a woman in the world, without any apparent companion, is such an interesting, frustrating, empowering, often scary and awakening experience.
Before I left to teach a course in Chongqing, China this past summer, a co-worker suggested I casually head over to Thailand while I’m there.
Taking the few days I had for vacation after work to go to Thailand was something I played with in my mind. It was also an idea interrupted by the reality that there would be too many necessary taxi rides in the dark; too many men on planes beside me that travel to Bangkok for the sole reason of indulging in the exploitative sex industry that enslaves many vulnerable women and trans persons; too many eyes that would watch me wander alone.
Alone, tall, confident, excited, fierce but damn—vulnerable in this aloneness.
Weeks later, I arrived at a hotel in Beijing around 10pm after a long day of travel. I met a Canadian guy in the lobby the next morning, the first foreigner I had encountered in weeks, and he proceeds to tell me how he too arrived the previous night and went out to explore the local town, get some beers and smokes and food.
These brief comments from colleagues and friends do not offend or upset me in any way, they simply make me think—if only it were that easy.
I had a craving to venture out of the hotel at night and get some food and explore the dim-lit streets and groups of people playing cards and drinking in the dark. My mind wandered but my feet kept me in place—in the safety of my quiet hotel room. I heard the voices of friends and family who told me to “be careful” while traveling and to “make smart decisions.”
So often, the smart decision is to stay silent, hidden, alone. I couldn’t help but wonder, if anything happened to this young, tall, strong, blonde man would anyone blame him for wandering out alone at night?
Nothing did happen to him and maybe nothing would happen to me, but I’ve learned not to trust “maybe.” If I did wander out at night and was followed, harassed, assaulted, taken or even felt uncomfortable or scared, it would be my fault right?
Although I often get high off of the exhilaration of being alone on my work-grind, exploring new corners, meeting strangers and flowing in and out of spaces like a straight up secret agent, it’s also a space I’ve never truly been able to let go in.
I don’t remember the first time I wished, if even momentarily, that I was in another body.
Mostly, a male identified body. A big, strong, intimidating, male body. The kind of body that has never felt vulnerable, weak or like a target. The kind that has never had to run, sweating and scared through a metro in Paris at midnight, in transition and on its way home from visiting a friend. The kind that hasn’t had to call other men to come walk them home to their apartment because the night lasted a little longer than expected and the streets of Buenos Aires were like the streets of any big city at night—unpredictable. The kind that rarely thinks about how easy it is to go from feeling safe and strong to feeling utterly unsafe, alone and scared.
I learned to stare some people straight in the eyes when I was young. Nobody told me or taught me this self-defense tactic, it was something I picked up on. Although I was often more serious than most kids, I remember growing up thinking that strangers were capable of their worst, before trusting them.
This came from stories, secrets about what happens in your neighbor’s house, on the street, in the night, in the day, in your own house. This dark reality is something that many people walk with, but mostly one which is familiar to women. Some are more familiar with the depths of darkness, violence, fear and insecurity than I, perhaps some less.
What amazes me though, is how many people don’t experience this fear, insecurity and consciousness.
“Yeah, yeah, male privilege, we get it,” but do we? Rather than talking about how guilty and therefore paralyzed men should feel, can we start sharing the conversation about how we can transform spaces? Can we start creating more space for people to talk about what it’s like to always be on defense; to suspect before being able to welcome and trust? What it feels like to have images flash through our mind that assault us in a way we can’t even justify?
It is so different for me to walk alone at night? Night whom I love and yet mistrust. Last night, I realized how much tension and anxiety had everything to do with the blanket of darkness covering Beijing’s sky. How many screams, invasions, murders, assaults, have been silenced by the blanket of night?
Fast forward. I was walking home from a friend’s house at around 10pm, downtown London.
For a while I was blissfully alone on the street, grazing my hand on every tree and bush and flower patch I walked by, probably whistling softly, eyes wide open. Eventually, I started to approach a smaller, older woman who was walking in front of me. I was walking at a faster pace than she and I became aware of how my footsteps sounded to her, of how my presence would make her feel. I knew the feeling well.
I tried to step more softly and make my energy as calming as possible, to ease her own. Soon enough, I passed her and she moved aside quickly and abruptly and shot her gaze at me, to see who I was. I responded with a steady and assuring smile.
Her face instantly relaxed. I said, “hello” and she responded so we started chatting. I apologized for startling her. She said she was used to it, she’d had experiences that made her more jumpy than most. Though she knew she was in a safe area, she lived with a familiar tension and defensiveness, one that was not hers to hold.
We shared a few more words and went in opposite directions. “Stay safe,” she said to me softly and I nodded gently and said, “you too.” Like some unspoken sisterhood between strangers.
I want to find ways that we can get some power back.
We can feel strong and whole in our own bodies. Capable, not threatened and not like targets. Not like some little lambs that need to be protected and told to “be careful.”
As if we didn’t know. As if I didn’t know this world is not a safe place for women to roam freely. We learned that before we learn to walk. We’re not always reminded of this understanding. Some women don’t see the need to be alone. Perhaps they have the privilege and the spaces they can hop to and fro in, out of the reach of any potential danger.
Some of us are more privileged than others who may be forced into the dark, the streets, the war-zones. Others of us choose to chance what we think we have the right and freedom to do—what our brothers often do without a second thought. We travel, we live alone, we go on a jog when the night is young and deliciously fresh. Dark enough to feel hidden, but never quite.
The body of a man or an invisibility cloak, that’s what I’ve wished for.
This narrative isn’t fair for any of us. Let’s open our eyes. Let’s protect our sisters and swallow reality without sugar coating, interrupting our stories or giving people “the benefit of the doubt.” Let’s stop saying rapists are monsters, predators and creeps…or worse, “harmless.” Let’s stop blaming women for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, in the wrong clothes, with the wrong body.
Let’s make space for different perspectives and then do something about it.
Sitting here on this plane now, I’m surrounded by TV screens showing action films of men chasing women and women looking as helpless as I’ve learned to feel. This is some institutionalized, colonial, patriarchal, out-dated, power-play BS that needs to be deconstructed.
Let’s keep an eye out for our mothers, sisters, daughters. See a girl walking home alone? Keep an eye out for her. See a guy being too aggressive, non-consensual, violent, creepy? Do something about it. Notice the video/TV show/movie is highlighting violence against women, sexualizing and objectifying them? Turn your critical thinking skills on, filter that sh*t and/or turn it off completely.
Even in writing this I resist the way I’ve painted women out to be helpless. We are not helpless. We are not weak. We are not always vulnerable and victimized.
I don’t want to perpetuate a narrative that creates fear and dis-empowerment. I want to be real about what many of us face. I want us to change the dynamic of power structures and relationships—starting with creating spaces for conversations. I want us to demand better entertainment and media and to have higher standards for ourselves and our communities.
I want to see more women of color and indigenous warrior women as the stars of TV shows, the superheroes in movies, the bands and armies of people saving the world. Because ultimately, they are the ones who can.
I want us to stop shaming women’s powerful femininity and allow people the space to explore and be whoever the hell they want to be with. I want us to stop critiquing each other, stop pinning our sisters against one another, stop judging and shaming our differences and start celebrating them. I want us to all share our stories and struggles and for others to recognize and honor them.
Street harassment, rape culture, oppressive power relationships, domestic violence, the objectification of women identified bodies, the devaluing of women’s work and potential to lead, heal and write new narratives—we have to see these things before we can address them.
So…with eyes wide open, let’s talk.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editorial Apprentice: Richard May / Editor: Travis May
Photos: Courtesy of the author