In the past three decades, I’ve traveled extensively, often alone, and I’ve had very little trouble or harassment from men. Part of the trick is simply not to seem helpless or vulnerable. Don’t dress provocatively. Don’t wear jewelry—with the possible exception of a wedding band. I often wore a simple wedding ring during my travels, even when I wasn’t married. Don’t go places by yourself at night. Don’t make eye contact with unknown men when you’re out and about. Men in many cultures consider that an invitation. Don’t get bogged down with excessive luggage. Keep most of your money hidden in a pouch under your clothing, and don’t try to access your hidden stash in public.
Most of all, be aware of your surroundings. Avoid dark alleys. Avoid heavy crowds as well as deserted streets. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for anything that suggests danger. And find safety as quickly as possible if you feel threatened.
Although I haven’t had any serious harassment during solo travels—other than a couple of pick-pockets that I wasn’t even aware of until later—I've had a couple of experiences that could have turned out badly. Both happened during a trip to Russia in 1992 while traveling solo.
The first was in the town of Irkutsk, where our Sierra Club Service Trip group went after nearly three weeks of trying to do clean-up on the western shore of Lake Baikal. The previous night, I had stayed at the home of a Russian woman. The following day, I planned to take a train from Irkutsk to Novosibirsk, to meet a colleague, Tatyana Korolenko, who was working at the Siberian Academy of Medical Sciences.
One of the Russians, Sergei, who had translated for the Sierra Club group, was the son of Russian author and environmentalist, Valentin Rasputin. He had invited several of us to tea at his parents’ home. I went to a museum before the tea party and then walked to Sergei’s house from the museum, guided by a map of the town.
At one point, I became aware that someone behind me was pacing me—that is, walking behind me and going neither faster nor slower, usually a sign that the person is deliberately following. I did a quick glance behind me, noticing the person and his outfit, and then stopped at the next corner and crossed the street. I then crossed at the next corner, heading back in the opposite direction. The follower continued his pace behind me. I then crossed again, and once again at the next corner, ultimately heading back in the original direction. The follower apparently realized that I was aware of him tracking me, because he didn’t cross the final time to head in the direction that I (and he) had initially been walking.
The final experience that generated some anxiety during the Russia trip was on a train from Novosibirsk to Moscow. Tatyana, the fellow scientist I visited in Novosibirsk, helped me to buy the train ticket. Tatyana wasn’t savvy enough to ask for two tickets so that I could have the whole compartment. The tickets were not very expensive for Russians. Thus, I had one ticket for a two-person sleeper compartment, which I ended up sharing with another passenger during the three-day train ride from Novosibirsk to Moscow. My compartment mate was a young man in his early to mid-twenties. This felt problematical as I was in my early fifties and didn’t speak the language very well. Nor was I familiar with the customs or culture in this country where everything had become a social and economic free-for-all since the collapse of communism.
Two of my hostesses in Russia had warned me to avoid the Russian “Mafia,” lawless opportunists who were taking advantage of the political turmoil of the early 1990s. These men often referred to themselves as “entrepreneurs.” Ex-party apparatchiks fell naturally into this line of work, as did ambitious young men without jobs, when the former state and its bureaucratic structures crumbled. My compartment-mate was just such an entrepreneur.
I had thought I was going to have the compartment to myself and was surprised when he walked in and tossed his bag on the overhead rack opposite my seat. We nodded to each other when he entered, and we exchanged a few words of acknowledgement in Russian. Russians are naturally suspicious of strangers. And I was wary about sharing a train compartment with an unknown young man for a few days and nights.
Tatyana had been very anxious about the possibility of my sharing a compartment on the Trans-Siberian railroad with “one of our Russian tiefs” (thieves). So I was psychologically prepared for that possibility. When my compartment mate turned out to be a young man who said he was a “broker,” I went into yellow alert. That is, I didn’t leave the compartment without taking my valuables (passport, money, cameras) with me – most of which I wore strapped to my body, anyway. I did not change clothes during the entire trip, wearing the same jeans and sweatshirt for two and a half days and two nights, even while asleep.
In fact, I slept quite well on the train because I had enough covers. I had brought the sleeping bag from the back-packing trip. My money and documents were strapped in a hidden pouch beneath layered clothing, so I didn’t need to worry about that.
I imagined a worst-case scenario and was prepared for that. I had brought an unopened bottle of vodka from Siberia, and I slept with it beside me, tucked into my sleeping bag. The scenario I imagined was that, if I were disturbed at night by the young man, I could bop him over the head with the bottle hard enough to break it. The alcohol would sting his eyes and nose and the jagged glass could serve as a weapon. Something about the vibes of a determined person may help to keep predators away.
Luckily, I didn’t need to implement my worst-case strategy. The young man was pleasant and kept his distance, and we offered food to one another from time to time. Near the end of the journey, I gave him my inflatable sleeping pad—partly because I didn’t need it anymore. Moreover, it would have been just one more thing to carry. Perhaps I also wanted to win his good will so that he wouldn’t feel like taking anything that really mattered.
He asked me how much the sleeping pad was worth in dollars (it had “made in USA” on the tag, which seemed to please him), and I told him about thirty or thirty-five dollars. He said he was going to keep it for his own use, which meant, perhaps, that he wasn’t going to sell it. It didn’t matter either way; we both came through a potentially difficult experience without harm.
So, this is a litany of sexually or physically threatening interactions I’ve had with males throughout my life, most of which did not end badly, and from which I do not feel any lasting damage. Several of the encounters could have gone otherwise. I know women who have been raped against their will, and it’s foolish to say it was their fault. Perhaps they weren’t as feisty or self-protective as I have been in my life. Perhaps they didn’t have the sorts of forewarnings I received from my mother. Perhaps they were just overwhelmed.
We certainly need to teach our children, and especially our girl children, how to protect themselves from predators. Boys can also be victims of sexual predation, although that is not as frequent, but it is still emotionally damaging. Moreover, boys and men suffer physical abuse in fights and wars and other forms of aggression by bullies, perpetrated on others who show any signs of weakness. Anyone can be a victim of abuse—physical, financial, or cultural. Bullies are everywhere. Abuse is what bullies do.
In the long run, it’s easier to respect yourself if you can protect yourself.