I’ve been travelling for almost 4 months now. I’ve been to 42 countries in that time, 57 in my life time and people always ask me if I get scared travelling and tell me how unsafe it is for me as a trans person (and one who is often read as a woman) to be travelling alone. Generally my response is that I don’t get any more scared than I do in the US or UK because it feels just as dangerous at home as it does abroad. But last week I was sexually harassed/assaulted – I’m not really sure what to call it, harassment seems too easy, assault seems too severe, and there doesn’t seem to be anything in between that feels right but regardless it wasn’t okay. I’ve been experienced catcalling, verbal sexual harassment, and non-sexual physical contact from men while travelling before, but this time it was different.
It was sexual contact (not as far as rape, but far from okay nonetheless). It was a local guide, a person that we as backpackers are supposed to trust to keep us safe and help us navigate an unfamiliar place. And it happened in the hotel lobby where I was staying, a place that is supposed to be my temporary home. As I was leaning against a chair talking to him and some others, he drunkenly wrapped his arms around me and pulled me down into his lap where I discovered he had an erection. Every time I tried to get up and away from him, he wouldn't let go of my waist and kept pulling me back down into his lap, and kept moving his hands either towards my chest or ass. While I likely could have physically pulled myself away, I was in a state of shock. I felt like I couldn't breath, let alone fight back. But I shouldn't have even had to fight back. He shouldn't have grabbed me to begin with.
While I am grateful the tour company handled it swiftly and appropriately, the experience nonetheless triggered my PTSD, and took a major toll on my mental health. It reminded me of the ways in which men think they have ownership over our bodies. Since that night, I’ve thought a lot about sexual violence and travel, the inherent risk and reasons for not letting that hold me back. I’ve considered just flying home at times and giving up on this whole backpacking thing because for the first time I feel scared. Since departing the group tour, I’ve hardly left my hostel because I don’t feel comfortable walking around alone like I used to when I was solo travelling. It would be easy to give into my fears, pack my bags, and go home.
But I'm not ready to leave what I started if I don't have to. I realised that going home isn’t going to make me feel less scared. I would be just as scared but in a country I don’t particularly want to be in right now. Sexual violence can happen anywhere, anytime; it doesn’t discriminate. Going home would make me feel like experiencing sexual violence is something preventable by me – as if it is my responsibility to keep myself from being violated – by simply stopping what I’m doing. But it’s not my fault, and I shouldn’t have to change my life plans just because some asshole thinks he can use me. I won’t let anyone have that kind of power over me (at least I’m going to try not to).
In some ways, navigating sexual violence is second nature to me; these feelings are nothing new. But it’s strange having to navigate them when I’m constantly on the move and in a new country every couple of days. I think in some ways continuing on with my travel plans will be an empowering way for me to reclaim my autonomy and embrace my freedom. I'm going to be more gentle with myself, focus on building up my community and support network - even if that's all digital and long distance - and re-claim my body however I can. I won't let any abuser take that away from me.