Even the fight in Wonder Woman won’t end violence against women. Image by Flickr user JD Hancock.

One of the things that bothers me most about women’s travel — or at least about its marketing — is the emphasis on safety. Safety in numbers! Safety on trains! Safety in hostels and anti-feminist countries and planes! Women who travel are told to be careful about strangers, be mindful of their surroundings, and be prepared to defend against any potential attacker. Some martial arts studios offer classes specifically designed for travelers and take pride in the fact that (as one case study illustrates), “We are immensely gratified that we were able to impart knowledge to this woman that enabled her to safely protect herself and her unborn child until she was able to get help. This is exactly what self defense training is all about.”

Forget that.

Why? Because all it does is perpetuate the assumption that the woman traveler who is victimized — in any capacity — is somehow to blame for her predicament. It’s the “she asked for it” argument all over again but disguised as an empowerment booster. “You’re empowered,” we say, “because you can fight back instead of being the victim.” Shall we re-frame that? “If you don’t fight back, you’re making yourself a victim.” Does that sound so empowering? I didn’t think so.

But wait, there’s more. The overemphasis on safety not only recreates a re-victimizing discourse, but builds in our minds a climate of fear. Emphasizing that women travelers need to pay extra attention to safety indicates that danger is lurking around every corner. That stranger who helped you translate the metro map? Definitely going to rape you. The bodega clerk who asked about your trip? Definitely going to kidnap you. We don’t keep ourselves safe; we worry ourselves out of seeing the good in others.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at some of the statistical information surrounding sex predators, which seems to be a favorite blogging focus for women travelers:

  • The vast majority of sex offenders prey on people they already know.
  • They tend to target victims near their homes.
  • They tend to target victims who are comfortable, relaxed, or with others.
  • Because sex offenders want to get away with their behavior, they deliberately obfuscate their crimes (i.e. minimize violence, maximize manipulation).
  • They come from all backgrounds, ethnicities, countries, and socioeconomic strata.

Let’s expand on this further, however, since dangers for women (and all) travelers aren’t simply sexual. Pickpocketing and petty theft are equally common concerns and easier for the stranger-predator to pull off. Here is some information applicable to predators as a general category:

  • They are opportunistic.
  • They are interested in getting away with their crimes.
  • They justify their behavior.
  • They look for vulnerabilities, or create them.

That last one is key. The one thing that is sadly accurate about the whole safety discourse is that there are predators out there. What we tend to miss, however, is that predators — whether they want our money, identities, or physical integrity — are experts at maximizing their chances of exploiting human weaknesses. Consider the sex predator who focuses on targets who are out in groups, not alone. The target who is alone may seem more vulnerable at first glance; what arrested sex offenders will tell you, however, is that the solo target is more guarded. The target out with friends, on the other hand, is relaxed and therefore more vulnerable (counter-intuitive, I know). Predators of other stripes are the same way; no matter how capable you think you are, they can find some vulnerability to exploit to their own gain.

A good punch might get you out of trouble, but it won't solve the problem. Image by Flickr user Rikard Elofsson.
A good punch might get you out of trouble, but it won’t solve the problem. Image by Flickr user Rikard Elofsson.

What this means is that we’re always vulnerable, all the time. This sounds scary, but try taking the journey with me: If we’re always vulnerable, what’s the point of worrying? If safety is a myth, then we may as well let it go. This doesn’t really change anything from the point of view of the predators; after all, they’re already out there. What it does change, however, is our sense of responsibility: I no longer have to assume responsibility for making myself bulletproof.

Think about it. I don’t have to take a martial arts class to be “safe” to be solo. Could martial arts help me in a tough spot? Yes. Could it give me tools and skills I don’t otherwise have? Absolutely. Do I recommend it? Certainly! But is it a guarantee that no one will ever be able to victimize me? Nope. Whether or not someone targets me for a crime and/or succeeds has nothing to do with me, or who I am, or what I have or haven’t done to protect myself. Responsibility for that lies squarely with the predator.

Imagine how empowered women would truly be if we could stop making ourselves responsible for the criminal choices of someone else.