A few years ago while traveling through Argentina, I had a couple of terrible experiences that almost made me abandon traveling all together.
In the three years that I have been running Go! Girl Guides, I haven’t felt comfortable enough to share this story with you, until now.
I was sexually assaulted. Twice. In some of the oddest circumstances, that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around.
The first was a friend of a friend. We were all hanging out at a local hostel, sharing a bottle of red wine and laughing in rapid Spanish. One man in the group never once spoke to me, nor did I feel him paying any particular attention to me, but as we began to leave the hostel he grabbed my hand, jerking my body back inside. In a flash, he threw me up against the wall, and pushed himself on me.
My body’s first instinct was to lean into the kiss. My next instinct was to knee him in the groin.
In the span of 10 seconds I realized how tightly he had me pinned, and my only choice in that moment was to allow him access to my body, and then work to worm my way out from beneath him.
It felt like I was there forever. It was a terrifying feeling, having someone putting their hands down your pants without permission, while they whisper “you’re coming home with me,” over and over in your ear. Not a question, a statement.
I remember thinking: What did I do? Did I cause this? What signal could I have possibly given him that would make him think I’m interested? He had a girlfriend! I couldn’t understand it.
When my friends came back to find me, I took my chance to rush out the door. But the feeling of violation stayed with me.
Then It Happened Again
A few weeks later, I was on a long-distance, 22-hour bus ride from Buenos Aires to Bariloche with two other friends, one of which was male.
An employee on the bus named Christian started talking to me (per usual), and I made sure to send clear signals that I wasn’t interested in anything more than friendly small talk.
When I went to the bathroom, Christian was standing right outside the door, and when I walked out he asked “Is everything okay?” I thought it was odd, but dismissed it. Hours later, after several more trips to the bathroom, I went downstairs again to attend to some lady business and realized there was a hole in the door that someone could totally look through.
I put my eye to the hole in the door, and his beady, squinty eye was looking right back at me.
In some ways, this continues to be more of a violation than being physically molested. The idea that someone could find pleasure in watching you at your most vulnerable is disgusting to me. I curse my body everyday for that memory, because: he saw me change my tampon. How absolutely disgusting is it to think about that? It still makes me sick to my stomach.
So, what did I do? I screamed. Loudly. I woke everyone on the bus up. It was 2 am, and I was sobbing, waving my arms around and describing the horror to my friends. I felt so violated, so ashamed of my body.
And then I got angry. I made sure that every single woman on that bus knew that there was a hole in the door and that he was a pervert who liked to watch women use the bathroom. How do you say pervert in Spanish? Pervertido!
Of course, he denied it, up and down. When I told every other bus employee, all they did was ask me, “Are you sure?”
I asked for a complaint form. Christian gave it to me and offered to take it to his boss.
After a fierce debate I was woken up at 5 am and personally escorted to meet the big boss. I told him the story, crying yet again, and rolled my eyes while he asked me “Are you sure?” Again and again, I told him, “I don’t care what you do about Christian, but fix the hole in the door.”
And this is the painful thing about being a foreign woman in South America (or anywhere): At times it feels like you don’t have a voice.
If I were on a bus in the U.S. and that happened, something would’ve been done about it. Instead, I had to remain on the bus with him for an additional 18 hours, while he served me meals and looked at me knowingly like we had something special.
These experiences, combined with a few others (half of which involved bus employees) almost made me give up on traveling and head home to my boyfriend.
But I kept going, and I’m glad I did.
I have been running the ship at Go! Girl Guides for almost three years now, and I haven’t told you this until now. Why?
This has to stop.
Too many women are victims of sexual assault while traveling, because being foreign makes you vulnerable. The barrier in communication, the lack of structure and consequences, the fact that it’s “not your country”–all of these things make you a prime target for assault.
Does this mean it will happen to you if you travel? Of course not.
I firmly believe that most people in the world are good, but the best thing we can do as women is to support one another by sharing these types of stories so that others may become more aware. I’m sorry it took me this long.
What to Do If You’re Sexually Assaulted While Traveling
- If you can, try to find someone you know to support you. Unfortunately, in countries where police corruption is common, it’s not always the best solution to turn to the police.
- Make noise. Make a lot of noise. In my case, the only resolve I felt was the public shaming placed on Christian by everyone else on the bus.
- If you need to, try to contact the nearest sexual assault service or crisis line. This may be available through your embassy.
- Remember that this is not your fault. That’s something I think I still struggle with.
- If you need medical attention, be sure to seek it immediately.
- If you’re still struggling with the awful feelings that come after an assault, try writing. I wrote pages and pages of poems, notes, and angry black letters in the wake of the bus incident. It helps me to process. Can’t write? Paint. Do yoga. Stretch. Run. Do whatever you need to do to help get the ugliness out from inside of your chest.
I hope that none of you are ever assaulted while traveling, but the truth is, it happens. Sometimes it’s done by locals, other times it’s your fellow travelers. In any situation, it’s never okay.
Our mission here at Go! Girl Guides is to empower women to travel the world, and to give them the tools they need to stay safe. Be aware while traveling, but don’t forget to enjoy all of the beauty and wonder that comes with taking on the world.