Stop Telling Women Not to Travel

Prague

I once attended the local premiere of the documentary, “Give a Damn?”, in which the filmmakers attempted to travel to and throughout Africa by living off of the world poverty rate of $1.25 per day. As St. Louis natives, they both attended the premiere and answered questions.

A friend with me, an ardent traveler herself, asked the three men how they thought their plans might have differed if they been three women instead of three men completing the project.

One, the notably pessimist personality of the film, had the grunting, crass response, “I wouldn’t do it… it’s pretty rapey.” Another was more thoughtful and talked about a female friend of his who had traveled solo in South America and initially inspired him to go on the trip. But the takeaway remained underwhelming and that it didn’t really matter in the end, because they were men.

Traveling is often remarkably safe. But the way media outlets portray it, you wouldn’t know that. Movie narratives from the “Taken” franchise to “Turistas” to “Hostel” have a message for young women: Don’t travel. Rare, sad incidents and unfortunate accidents like those of Natalee Holloway and Elisa Lam get sensationalized by the evening news.

“Taken” especially peddled the narrative that young women on their own are in serious danger, even in the richer neighborhoods of Paris. While I’d like to give the film credit for shining light on the prevalence of sex trafficking and slavery, it did so under the guise of it being the ultimate threat from foreigners to white daughters, rather than exposing who is more typically vulnerable.

Even some of my favorite podcasters, Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff of My Favorite Murder fame, make me cringe when they utter one of their famous phrases, “Stay out of the forest!” The revolutionary podcast celebrating true crime is largely popular among young women, with mottos about how not to get murdered. And while they use decidingly feminist language about avoiding the female socialized need to be polite toward men, when it comes to empowering women to explore, they fall short.

All of these discouragements don’t just ring in the ears of those deciding whether to take that solo backpacking trip or go off to a foreign country, it’s what they hear from the parents and colleagues. It frames how we discuss travel. And it is almost always directed at women.

Travel, especially outside of the main tourist strip, is so important for learning, broadening your worldview, and bringing people closer. It helps strip away stigma and increases empathy. And when you choose to travel, it doesn’t just affect you.

The most surprising part of the shoestring trips I’ve done wasn’t what I learned, all the wonderful people I had the pleasure to meet and have deep discussions with, or all the incredible food I ate — it was finding out distant friends and young cousins had vicariously explored with me. Teenage family members I’m not particularly close with watched my statuses and commented, “I want to do that too!” or “I need to go there.” Because they had seen me do so, it suddenly entered into possibility for them.

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Go eat. Explore. Do. And when you get back, encourage someone else to do the same.

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