Overcoming Sexual Assault While Traveling

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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.

Has anything like this ever happened to you on your travels?

Share.

About Author

Kelly Lewis is the founder of Go! Girl Guides, Go! Girl Adventures and creator of the Women's Travel Festival. She loves traveling and aims to inspire and empower women of all ages to get out there!

16 Comments

  1. I’m glad you wrote this post. It is awful that women can’t travel without feeling truly free. We always have to watch what we say and do and drink and be and anything else that comes. It sucks what both guys did, including the peep hole guy. Good for you to make noise and publicly shame him.

    And I’m glad you didn’t quit.

    • Thank you Kristi. The support I am receiving from this post is giving me chills! This is an issue I don’t think we talk about enough as travel writers. It’s easy to dismiss these incidents while you’re traveling, but there is a very clear difference between simple curiosity and violation. These experiences definitely put a damper on my travels, but I don’t want anyone to be afraid to go solo and see the world. I have received so much beauty and light from being a traveler. Just be aware, so that you can find all of the beautiful things that make travel so essential and important!

  2. Sorry you had such horrible experiences – but well done for sharing them, not to mention setting up an empowering company like GGG! This is a really great article x

  3. Thanks for sharing, Kelly. Once in France, I had what I believe was a “near miss” with an unwanted sexual encounter. A female travel buddy and I had stayed one night with a Couchsurfing host (who put us up very last minute….which in itself was not the smartest idea on our part), and decided the sleeping arrangement wasn’t what we wanted to deal with for the next couple of days; he had two mattresses on the floor, one for us, one for him, in his box of a dorm room with no AC in the sweltering July heat. The next day I went to meet him to give his key back. It was daytime, so I figured it was save to go alone. He and I walked for a bit, and I began to feel very uneasy as he kept insisting that we walk further away from the hostel and city center, and then to the beach where he suggested I go swimming without my clothes and wanted to “help me meditate”. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m an open-minded person and try to relate with all kinds of people, but the vibe was just WRONG. I nervously laughed it off, trying to thwart his advances and make it clear I wasn’t interested in….well….anything! I eventually convinced him that I needed to get back, and right before he parted ways he tried to kiss me; I shoved him off and said goodbye, no longer amused in the least. I’m glad I distanced myself when I did, and consider myself lucky that he wasn’t more forceful.

    This and other experiences have shown me firsthand how important it is, especially as a female, to use the buddy system if there’s any doubt (or even if there isn’t, you never really know) about safety and well-being.

    Traveling solo is amazing – AMAZING! It’s just important to know when solo isn’t smart. Don’t let the few sickos that are out there sully your experience! 🙂

    • Well said Lindsay! I’m glad you were able to get out that experience. It sucks that some people are like this (especially on sites like Couchsurfing, which are really all about trusting that the people who host you are good people). But it won’t keep us from traveling!

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  5. I got here via a LinkedIn link, and I greatly admire your courage and strength in handling these outrageous assaults and writing so powerfully about them. It sickens and infuriates me that it’s people like these two cowards who make women wary in the presence of men, including me. If I ever see anything like this, I’ll get involved.

    • Thank you for your words Charles! It makes me feel wonderful to know this article had an impact, and that it could potentially help others to be more aware/prevent assaults. These were rough experiences for me, but nothing will keep me from seeing the world. I hope the same rings true for you!

  6. I had 2 very sketchy incidents happen to me in Thailand during my RTW trip, in just about the only 2 days of the year I was not with my male fiance. One was a man trying to repeatedly touch me on the street (until my loud yelling “stop!” finally scared him away), and another was the chef at a cooking class (who continued to try to touch me throughout a group workshop). It was such a frustrating feeling– and as a foreign traveler, I felt I didn’t have anyone to complain or report the incidents to. I’m glad you wrote this post! I’m sure this has happened to many women.

    • Ugh, that is the worst. I’m sorry you had to deal with this, and I can totally relate to feeling like there’s no one to report things like this to. The fact that women have to encounter and put up with this type of bullshit around the world baffles me. I’m sure almost every woman I know has had a man try to touch her, kiss her, follow her around, all unwanted. Yet no one seems to be speaking up about it– so thank you for sharing your story. And thank you for the support!

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  8. My husband and I were staying at a “developed campground” in a California State Park when I went to use the women’s restroom and shower. I realized that I was being watched by young males.

    I had a similar experience in Oregon when some ignorant types encouraged a prepubescent boy to wander into the restroom to take a look. I threatened to remove portions of his anatomy, and when his father confronted me at my campsite and said that they were “just having fun” and that I didn’t need to scare the boy like that, I suggested that my idea of fun would be to apply my camp axe to his head if he didn’t leave my campsite immediately.

    My husband and I now have a self-contained travel trailer. If I travel alone to developed campgrounds I take it. I remote tent camp by myself only in areas where it is legal for me to possess a camp rifle or revolver. Enough is enough.

    • I LOVE your responses to his father! It’s not ok for parents to condone that kind of behavior! What was he thinking??? There’s nothing more violating than being watched while you’re in the restroom. Ugh! Glad to hear you’ve figured out a way to keep traveling that works for you though!

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