I’ve spoken out about sexual assault once before on this website and I now need to revisit it, because it has revisited me. Two years ago I was held against a wall, against my will, by a man twice my size. This year, two men grabbed me on my street. These occurrences are either terrifying or benign, given what your experience and tolerance levels are.
Far worse things have happened to women over time. Sarai Sierra was a famous case in 2013. She was murdered abroad in Turkey for supposedly refusing to kiss a homeless man. The reactions to her death swung widely on the spectrum from “Why was she traveling alone” to “Don’t travel to Muslim countries” to “I would never let my wife out of the house”. The New York Times reported on the case as “This is a terrifying case of what can — and does — happen to female travelers abroad.”
Do women abroad always get murdered for refusing to kiss homeless men? No. I’ve denied many a homeless man a smooch and I’m still here, writing frantically from my soapbox. Using Sarai’s case as an example of what happens to women abroad is simply fear mongering.
Here’s my problem: we treat each instance as a matter of “why didn’t she avoid that”. The victim’s clothing choice, time of night, whether they were drinking, their location in a city or on the planet are all called into question. We are not given a choice about what body we inhabit, but we do choose how we act.
Why is it that we ask women to avoid violence and not that we ask the violence to stop?
Why is the blame placed firmly on the top of the victim? Why must women cocoon themselves into a small, tiny world of “protection” and stay home? I have heard many people, close friends included, utter the sentence “I would never let my girlfriend/wife/friend do x/y/z” as if it’s their place to decide. Sure, some places aren’t safe at night and there is something to be said about the way women are treated when they are with men vs. without. But the fact of the matter remains: the issue is not what women wear, where they travel, or if they’re with someone, it is that violence against women occurs worldwide.
Behind every picture : a story.
The night I arrived in this particular beach town, men raped a woman at knifepoint. She was not alone. They held her boyfriend, also at knifepoint, and made him watch.
Assault abroad is not the only issue. Violence against women in my home country is rampant; every 107 seconds someone in America is sexually assaulted. One in three women will be abused or sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Would you look at those cases and claim them “irresponsible” for leaving their house? Or their city? Sometimes, the violence occurs within the victim’s own home. 93% of juvenile sexual assault victims know their attacker. 
Any solo female traveler [edit: any female. Anywhere] will tell you their tips and tricks of the trade. How where they are traveling is no less dangerous than their streets at home. How they always walk facing traffic, to see who is coming. How they always tell people where they are, don’t wear flashy jewelry, and stay in well-lit areas. Pepper spray, whistles, rubber door jams and pocket knives are all on many a travel blog gear list.
I do all the above. I am a card-carrying member of the safety for women club.
And yet, sexual assault still occurs. It happened to me. It happens to many. I was in a well-lit area. Fifty yards from my home. Aware of my surroundings.
When I was considering speaking out about my incident, I was worried about the response. I prepared myself for the usual blame game you see these days, especially on social media, where the lack of face to face interaction leads to looser lips (or finger tips). I posted in two small community groups here, telling my story, describing the men, my location and a warning to all other women and tourists who visit.
I waited for the backlash, the questions about my choices that evening. The truth was, I was walking around the block, no farther than a few hundred yards just after sunset. I was close enough to my house that I could have been taking the trash out. I’ve walked farther, in more “dangerous” neighborhoods, later at night when I was a teenager in Connecticut.
The response was overwhelming.
Women and men alike thanked me for sharing the story. I received emails and messages from women sharing their stories, relieved to have someone to talk to. Men vowed to protect and make our town safer for their women counterparts to exist and thrive. I received emails with contact numbers for ex-military “Guerilla” groups that track down rapists and assailants.
I felt, and still feel, lucky to live in such a supportive community. We truly have to look out for each other, it is common knowledge that the local police is reluctant to take these cases seriously, let alone respond. It is no mistake that this same community was the one I came to two years ago with bruises on my arms from my first assault.
Life is not only what happens to you, it is how you react to what happens to you.
Dealing with the aftermath of Sexual Assault is difficult for anyone.
A woman feels many things after being violated. Victims of sexual assault suffer an onslaught of repercussions, from depression to paranoia, and anger to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sexual assault victims are four times more likely to contemplate suicide. 
I write this for every girl, teenager, or woman who does not know how they should feel after an incident: you will feel a lot. Do not let anyone tell you how you are supposed to feel. Speak up about all of it. Find a friend, a loved one, a professional and let it out.
I felt at a total and complete loss of power over my life. It felt as though someone took away my independence. The setting sun was my curfew. Nighttime was off-limits without an escort. I jumped at every touch, I felt uncomfortable in my body. Sleeping was out of the question. Any motorbike that sounded remotely like the one the men drove, I felt everything in my body go cold. As a normally non-voilent and compassionate person, the amount of anger I felt scared me.
My main concern about sharing my story was that this could happen to someone without a support system, without friends and loved ones nearby to care for them. It could happen to someone less hardened-by-experience than me.
My story has a happy ending.
No, the men haven’t been locked away, in fact, I’ve seen them patrolling my block at night since then. Though I do feel an immense urge to castrate them, I can not stop them. However, I can stop feeling helpless. I am powerful and I do have control. I used my story and some well-aligned acts of the Universe to organize a free women’s self-defense class here in Nosara, Costa Rica. After hearing of so many other stories of attacks against women, it was time to make a change.
It just so happens that a Wing-Chun trained fighter traveling around Central America giving self-defense classes to women and children contacted me. We rushed to organized a class. Costa Ricans, Canadians, Argentinians, Brits and Yanks alike formed a group of eager participants and learned the art of self-defense together.
It was an awesome experience, to give victims, and those who are close to us, the tools to successfully deal with an attacker. By the end of the two-hour class, everyone was smiling, sharing stories and laughing.
I know not every story will end this way. I know many more will suffer the consequences of being born into a body that is female. I know that we will be blamed for our actions, our dress, our demeanor, when truthfully the blame must lay elsewhere.
What we all need to remember is this: being alone is not the issue, traveling abroad is not the issue, being a woman is not the issue.
The issue is treatment of women. When a woman dies, or is attacked, or is raped abroad, the media highlights the fact that the incident is due to the location or some component of culpability lies with the victim. What we should be doing instead is educating our communities, our friends, our families, our children on the importance of respecting one’s body.
Respect is all we need, globally, for this phenomenon to stop.
Until then, keep your wits about you, trust your intuition, and never be afraid to reach out for help.
For more on Solo Female Travel see these big name bloggers talk shop on the issue:
Jodi of Legal Nomads talks about the Solo Travel Experience
One of my favorite posts, ever, by Stephanie at Twenty Something Travel
The Difference in Female Travel as seen on NomadicMatt
Tips & Tricks for Solo Females AND Males
Because we can’t change the treatment of women worldwide in one swoop, it is wise to take some well-traveled women’s advice on how to keep yourself safe home and abroad.
Use a rubber door stop in your hostel, hotel or bungalow bedroom door. Cheap and easy to carry, it will be just one more barrier between you and the outside world.
Carry a whistle. It has an abundance of uses, as well as deterring or scaring off an assailant, alerting someone that you’re locked in a bathroom, you name it.
Carry a small flashlight, even in the light of day. During our self defense class, our teacher had us punch our own fists with the flashlight in the clenched hand. The difference in density of your hand with and without the flashlight is alarming. Pack a punch. Literally.
Pay a bit more to stay in a well-lit central area, especially at a place with a 24 hour help desk.
Watch your drink while you’re out. Leave to go to the bathroom? Buy a new drink. Be easy on the booze, getting slammed drunk puts you in a vulnerable state, home or away.
Know the local culture’s view on women and dressing conservatively. A quick google search will provide you all you need to know about local customs, say, wearing a sarong to cover your legs in Indonesia and a head scarf hijab in Morocco. Let’s not get into the “but it’s not my culture” debate, because let’s face it, if you travel with respect for local customs, you receive respect.
Answer questions about your accommodation vaguely. It is easy to slip into the habit of answering “where are you from? where are you staying? where are you going?” truthfully. It can be innocent conversation or a very scary experience. Trust your gut and keep tabs on yourself. Who are you talking to? Do you know where THEY live? Why would you tell them where you’re staying?
Conversely, tell anyone- staff, fellow travelers, travel companions, trusted confidants– where you are going if you’re venturing out alone. Leave a note for your roommates. Let people know where to find you. This is especially helpful in the worst possible situation. A woman recently went missing in Nicaragua and they tracked her through conversations she had with fellow travelers and eventually found her(alive and well, if you’re worried).
Experienced assault or attempted assault?
For advice and help after an incident, see RAINN, the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network in the United States. As well as a helpful resource, you will learn that you are never alone in this experience.
Talk to someone, anyone, that you trust. This can be a friend, a spouse, a trained professional. If they don’t listen, find someone new. (And someone’s- if you’re reading this.. always listen. Be gentle, be understanding, be patient. Never, NEVER blame the victim.)
It may and probably will take a long time to heal. Don’t be afraid to reach out.
To refrain from ranting and raving on this topic, I’ve carefully edited and purposefully linked to various sources on here. If you have any questions regarding anything mentioned in this article, please do not hesitate to comment.