When I see men hitchhiking alone, part of me always wants to hit something. When I see men camping alone, men hiking alone, men traveling alone through the back streets and open expanses of wherever. Walking the world unafraid, safe enough to be free — I’m so full of envy it makes me want to scream.
Feminism has never been a main “issue” for me, not compared to some others. I feel my life has been far more defined by the privileges I do have than the ones I don’t. Whiteness, wealth, being cis, these have shaped my life more than womanhood has. But when it comes to traveling, I feel oppressed.
I hear stories about women travelers, women who hitchhike, solo camp, train hop, but I don’t feel the same envy. I admire them, their lack of fear, their resolution that they can and will be safe; it’s beautiful. It’s empowering, or it should be, if anything should. But I don’t feel that way.
Even when hitchhiking with men, I’m on edge. Camping, I’m anxious. Walking in the woods alone at night, traveling, drinking, talking to strangers. I can’t shake the fear, not completely, no matter how many times I tell myself I’m safe or force myself to trust.
I feel confined by my gender. I feel caged by it, limited, fearful of the consequences of living the life I want to live. For all the years I’ve spent jumping through social hoops, climbing prestigious ladders and looking good on paper, the life I actually want to live looks more like Kerouac than Kennedy. But I wonder how many times the Dharma Bums got their dharma asses grabbed by strange men on the street. I doubt they thought about it much.
I loved a wanderer for a while. He would tell me stories about hitchhiking through Morocco and building a treehouse in the woods outside of London to live in. He met a girl once, he said, who hitchhiked alone. She’d decided she was safe, or whatever. She felt free, or whatever. And there always felt implied within that some kind of taunting test: You could too, if only you’d give up your fear.
I hate it.
I hate the way I don’t feel safe in the world. I believe there’s a lot to be said for unlearning your own fear and choosing to trust. I believe most people are good. But that feeling shakes a little every time I remember that in 2013, I was raped in my own apartment in New York. I count myself lucky that it wasn’t violent, wasn’t traumatic. It was still rape. I count myself lucky because it could have been worse.
It shakes a little when I remember Tangier, having a stranger come up to me, bold as daylight and grab my breasts on the sidewalk. It shakes from the men who followed me through every city in Morocco, one of them for more than half an hour, and reached for my arms and taunted me no matter how resolutely I ignored them. On the streets in Brooklyn, not being able to walk to the gym without five different men calling me sexy. Every conversation with a woman sounding shocked that I’d do anything so risky as get in a car with strangers, or walk alone at night, or live in a place like Port-au-Prince.
I hate it.
Cheryl Strayed may have made it up the PCT by herself, telling herself she was safe, and I admire her. I don’t envy her. Even she encountered a group of men her gut told her were harmful, and she walked away from them until she couldn’t walk anymore. Then she ran.
I feel full of rage at male travelers, at how free they get to be simply because they can feel safe.
I look at my own life, how many decisions I’ve made and paths I’ve not taken simply because I’m a girl. How many things I’ve not done, places I’ve not dared tread. Things I want to do, but can’t without a man by my side. If I’d just gone to Morocco with a man, it would have been different, they say. Maybe if we just didn’t have the fucking patriarchy, it would have been different. Maybe if we taught men from day one that No means No and no one’s body but your own is yours.
I am twenty-five years old and I have never raped anyone. It really wasn’t hard. All I had to do was not think for a second that I had the right to someone else’s body.
I love men. I love them so much. I don’t fault all men for patriarchy, or believe patriarchy is only the fault of men. I know patriarchy hurts men too. I wish for it to end. I wish more men felt safe to cry, to express emotions, to be vulnerable and soft. And also, I wish I could fucking travel wherever, however I wanted without feeling afraid.
I’m tired of being told stories of women who overcame the fear. Yes, they’re inspiring, but they don’t fix the fact that women in the world are so often not safe, and a fixation on those stories puts the onus on us to undo our perfectly legitimate sense of fear.
If you’re a woman who feels safe enough to travel freely in the world, that’s amazing. I really do applaud you. But I don’t feel that safe, and I’m reminded almost every day why.