How Sexual Harassment Changed My Attitude to (Solo) Travel

A man once asked my partner to exchange me for two fifteen-year-old girls. Another squeezed my hand when saying goodbye and rubbed his finger against my palm while looking suggestively in my eyes. Yet another one rubbed his hard-on against my butt while watching a traditional dance spectacle in a crowded square. Once, a man felt free to take a look while I showered – not on a beach, I must say. Each of these happened in a different country and distinct culture – but they all have one thing in common.

Sexual harassment is one of the least pleasant parts of travel. While we mostly tend to speak about the kindness of strangers, funny occurrences and unbelievable anecdotes from the road, the experience with sexual harassment is still there, lurking at us from that part of memories we wish we didn´t have.

As a woman who travels on her own, you are likely to deal with this side of humanity sooner than later – and sometimes even when you travel with your partner or friends.

Shameless advances, seemingly ”accidental” physical contact, verbal or even physical pressure, unwanted suggestions, inquiries about your sex life and exaggerated sweet-talking are often mixed together in an ugly hangover inducing cocktail that doesn´t look dangerous at first but leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth.

reflections in Kemer
Reflecting upon the patriarchy

Sexual harassment on the road: my experience

You´d be surprised, but I have not dealt much with sexual harassment in my home country. I am not sure if I was just lucky or if Slovak men really are that much more respectful, or (maybe more likely) I am more aware of cultural norms, able to detect weird behavior easily and react appropriately before it happens. While Slovakia is certainly dealing with gender (and orientation) inequality, I never felt unsafe walking home at night or even letting a brand new crush from a bar accompany drunken me to the door.

Harassed in San Francisco

When I was harassed for the first time (not talking about whistling construction workers here) I wasn´t sure what to do. I was staying with a couchsurfer in San Francisco and in spite of him knowing about my boyfriend, he was constantly trying to push boundaries. First, he made me believe he was gay with some remarks and then he proceeded to try to get his way.

“Sensual massage” offers, unwanted hugs and touches, intimate questions and weird vibes made me feel very uncomfortable, to say the least, but since it was all sugar-coated with exaggerated friendliness, food invites and generosity, I was left wondering; am I just overreacting? Is this guy simply being open about stuff and I am the prude Eastern European in the land of freedom? Maybe this is normal in their culture…? Asking myself these questions, I quickly undermined my own gut feeling.

Wrong. Always trust your instinct.

I felt ashamed and reluctant to tell anyone about it – but when I did, they confirmed my feelings. This kind of behavior was not right and I felt stupid for doubting myself. I left the man a long, detailed, sincere reference in order to warn other women and in the next few years, I received several messages from other couchsurfing ladies who thanked me for my honesty, saying that “they weren´t sure if they were just inventing it” and wishing they´ve avoided the person in the first place.

I promised myself after this that if there was a next time, I would stand up to it. Only that when it happened, I was struck by the same unnerving uncertainty of how to react.

Read more: What is naking and why women do it?

Harassed in Cyprus

This time I didn´t expect any problems; I carefully checked the hosts’ profile and references (as if I didn´t know that those are not reliable) and clearly stated that I am married in my message.

Anyhow, the host – a young, muscular guy – soon started to test my limits. First, he suggested I travel alone to “see other men” than my husband and that said husband should be by my side to protect me always. (Ugh, what century is it?)

Then he arranged just one sleeping place for the two of us. I took another mat and lied down as far from him as I could, but I didn´t sleep for a minute that night out of stress. The next day, he not only pulled my clothes to see “if I´m in shape”, he also felt free to take a peek while I was taking a shower, “accidentally” entered the toilet when I was in, suggested “we shave you Brazilian style” (we?!), commented that he is not “judging me for not shaving my legs because he is sure I am cleanly shaved when I´m at home” and peppered this tense situation with more massage and exercise offers. I was being polite (damn my good family education) but cold and left as soon as possible.

This time, I didn´t bother leaving a reference – I immediately reported the man to Couchsurfing support who proceeded to take his account down as soon as I was away from the island, to spare me more problems.

I beg your pardon, what century am I in?
I beg your pardon, what century am I in?

Hitchhiking in Cyprus

Although my pretext for taking this refreshing solo adventure was something along the lines of celebrating the International Women´s Day as a modern woman ought to, I must admit the first two days I was nervous as a virgin on his first date. I used to consider myself a solo traveler during my university years, but then marriage happened – I met my intrepid husband and we started to hitchhike together, hike, bike, camp…in two.

And so when the first man I met once alone for the first time in months turned out to be a sexist pig, naturally, I was nervous. Instead of freaking out and running back, I decided to try again.

I hitchhiked anyway – I wasn´t going to let fear stand in my way, hell no. How would I look into the mirror? The first ride went well – a man offered to drive me to the next city before I even got the chance to raise my hand. I stayed with a female host (a wonderful, amazing, badass Moroccan girl that I am proud to call my friend), calmed down a bit and got ready to hitchhike more.

Unfortunately, out of the five following rides, two were making advances. Touching my knee, repeatedly pressing me to go for a dinner, urging me to call them in order to explore together (in a sleazy way), or downright making plans with me without asking if I´m looking for company (“We will go to the Golden beach in my car and camp there, I have a tent.”) – but instead of reluctance to hitchhike more or fear, anger was growing inside of me. This anger gradually became stronger than my shyness.

Read more: How To Prepare Turkish Coffee (And Avoid Getting Married)

Change your attitude and you will change your destiny

Was I seriously having to deal with these problems? Was I going to let a bunch of misbehaved men to spoil my trip? Hell no, I decided.

My having a vagina was not going to be my disadvantage. I was not going to allow anybody to steal my having a good time on my first solo adventure in years! In the evening, I gathered all my pissed off-ness and channeled it into a new attitude.

I was going to be a woman nobody messes around with and if I was feeling small and afraid, well, then I was going to fake it til I´d make it. I trained mean looks in front of the mirror, prepared a couple of dry comments to reply to inappropriate remarks and promised the scared part of me that I would immediately slap anyone who´d as much as dared to touch me.

After giving myself a pep talk in the morning, I stood on the road and hitchhiked the 80 km to Famagusta.

I got there in three or four rides. Did I have to use my new tactics?

Not at all.

I got rides from a family and a couple on the way there and a bunch of women (who took me to their village and invited me for coffee, dinner and showed me around) plus some men again on the way back. None of them were touching my knee. All of them were being polite to me. As my Moroccan friend said, what was needed was to “Oblige them to respect me merely with my eyes.”

Hiking solo in Karpaz, North Cyprus
Hiking solo in Karpaz, North Cyprus

Insecurity, bad luck, and human behavior

The lesson I took from this was the one of self-respect. I was feeling fear and I let people (try to) take advantage of me. While I was feeling vulnerable and insecure, weird things kept happening to me.

As soon as I decided that I needed to put myself first and take better care of that scared girl inside, things changed completely. I kept hitchhiking in North Cyprus for two weeks and had zero negative experiences from the breaking point onwards.

I realized that I can influence the way people (or rather men) treat me simply by changing my mindset and therefore my behavior. When I stopped being a prey, they stopped playing games with me in turn.

Yes, hitchhiking alone as a woman can seem scary and is certainly riskier in some places than in others, or than hitching as a couple. But bad people are a minority in this world – the rest will respect you as much as you respect yourself.

Some men scared me; but I was having none of that nonsense and thanks to realizing this, I was able to live a wonderful experience meeting all kinds of cool people – from a local retired police officer to a bunch of students from Iraq, who all helped me and convinced me that hitchhiking alone is a great experience.

Hitchhiking alone is not a nightmare
Hitchhiking alone is not a nightmare – I promise!

Solo travel & sexual harassment

Unlike some, I am not going to pretend that sexual harassment is a female only issue. I have heard from men already that they have received unwanted advances from female guests or hosts that made them uncomfortable and in spite of the popular opinion, boys and men can also get raped.

Attitude only is not going to save you from the worst, unfortunately – I don’t pretend it will. But my personal experience changed completely when I finally decided to ditch fear and stand up for myself. With more respect for myself, I received more respect from the others – old and young.

Being a 165 cm tall, blond, 27 years old woman, I don’t have too many other options of how to impose myself than my attitude. It took me time to learn this – at first I felt that after all, solo travel wasn’t for me – but honestly, this journey has always been about testing and pushing my limits, not only of courage but also of trust, bodily endurance, and personal integrity.

Fear, submissiveness, and sweetness are not your friends on the road. Keep that head high and proud – and let me know if you’ve seen any difference!

Have you experienced sexual harassment during your travels? How did you react and what did you feel? Share your story in the comments!

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Sexual harassment on the road deters many female travelers from ever taking a solo trip. Annoying behavior that can be dangerous to a solo female traveler is hard to fight with and prevent. Read my essay and find out more about my experience and how it changed my attitude to solo female travel!
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We were on a hitchhiking journey from Europe to India; now I broke my backbone and have zero idea what follows – stick around to find out with me!

Stray story seeker. Hungry hitchhiker. Wannabe polyglot. Aspiring travel writer. Currently bumming around in Turkey.
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53 Comments

  1. It is very good to see such bluntly honest article. After all, it’s all about our personal experiences that can happen anywhere in the world. India is no different, just that 90% of the offenders will themselves get scared if you maintain a strict posture here. But India is a greatly diverse, multi-cultural country, that can overwhelm you. I am sure you will have a great time here too. 🙂

    • Thank you, Shaunak! In fact, I didn´t have any problems when I traveled in India, although we were a group of friends – apart from rude remarks from some boys, people were always kind and respectful. I am sure I will enjoy traveling in India again and really want to bring my husband there, he´ll love it 🙂

  2. I really like it that you touched this topic and also mentioned that it’s isn’t only women who get harassed! I’ve never had a really dangerous experience while hitchhiking by myself, it was my partner that once had a very unpleasant encounter with a driver… I completely agree with the fact that you should always ALWAYS trust your instincts! I traveled four years by myself and interestingly enough, the country where I got harassed the most was Australia. I learned to be though and showed them from the start I’m not a prey. It sucks though because I’m a very gentle person and I like to smile and be nice. Unfortunately I’ve learned that some men mistake my politeness as flirting with them. I’m still nice but I definitely show them now not to mess around with me 🙂 May I ask you, do you carry something with you to defend yourself whenever you hitchhike alone?

    • Sometimes it´s in the countries where you´d expect it the least! I don´t carry anything. Sometimes I might have a knife in the backpack but it´s for cooking and I wouldn´t find it fast enough, let alone know how to use it. I have a blue belt in karate in theory and learned some techniques when I was a student, but it´s been years ago and I don´t think it´d help much. Do you carry something?

  3. Brenda

    You’re definitely a strong woman! If going through this is an awful experience, speaking about it can be even worse. When I was 10 a men tried to steal me from a store -who knows with what intentions- for years I never said a word about it, because I thought it was my fault: I told my name to a stranger. I told my mother a few years ago being an adult. Being able to speak out is the first act of courage, and Im sure theres nothing wrong by admiting that solo travel was not made for you.

    • WHAT?! That´s really an awful experience! I´m glad you didn´t get stolen in the end! I agree that speaking about these things is uncomfortable, but it is also a relief to share it. I will certainly travel solo again, but I am aware that these things always recur time and again. It is something to mentally prepare for at the least.

  4. It’s so good that you wrote this article Karin. As you say sexual harassment is part of travel (and of life, in most countries), so we need to talk about it.
    I’m happy to hear that things changed when your attitude changed and you could enjoy your hitchhiking trip.
    I travel alone too and have suffered sexual harassment both traveling and at home, and every time it happens I feel very vulnerable and scared, but I won’t let this stop me from traveling.

    • Thanks for the encouragement! This happens to me almost every time I travel alone, yet there are not so many people who admit these things. It´s hard to know what to expect from some countries at times…and those people play with the feeling of vulnerability and fear exactly.

  5. Ha

    I had the same experience in Couchsurfing as well, and I reported that disgusting guy immediately. Another time I slapped one guy because he asked sexual things in exchange for money. Uggg, sexual harrassment happens a lot, but I’m not afraid to travel alone. I hitchhiked just twice so far, in Iceland and only good experience.

    • Good on you for fighting back! Couchsurfing should really do some more to prevent these issues, like educate the members instead of only providing fast support to verified members – in fact, the whole verification thing doesn´ t have much value as I got harassed by verified members both times mentioned. I heard Iceland is great or hitchhiking!

  6. Hannah

    I love your honesty in this article and it’s shocking some of the things you’ve had to put up with. Sadly, I’ve had some similar experiences and I bet lots of women have. I think your attitude towards it is amazing and strong. You go girl! I think it’s so important to share stuff like this, not just your personal experiences, but how you dealt with it since I know this issue is far too common.

    • Thank you, Hannah! For me, the experience and dealing with it go hand in hand. I know women and people in general all have their own ways of dealing with things and as long as it makes them feel comfortable, it´s great…for me, that means, facing my fears.

  7. Great article! Love your honesty, and your approach. Why should you let some Neanderthal spoil your holiday?! I’ve experienced stuff like this even though I travel with my husband. Some men have literally no shame. And seemingly no self awareness either. But not all of them as you point out! Safe & happy future travels!

    • Thank you, Nicky! As you say, it´s not just when I´m alone – I had this stuff happen with my husband right next to me at times. It is so infuriating! I hate to be belittled in this way.

  8. This is a really interesting read and I am glad I came across it. I think it’s great that you have this attitude to not let bad experiences stop you from travelling solo. However, I can’t help feeling that to hitchhike alone with a strange man in a car could have ended up a lot worse…I think as independent women we have to find the line between doing what we want and taking care of our safety at the same time.

    • Thanks for reading and finding time to share your opinion! You see, there are places where I would certainly pass on hitchhiking alone, however, Cyprus is a very safe place and the local culture is one of respect. “Don´t hitchhike as a solo woman” sounds quite close to “don´t travel as a solo woman” – but I try to live and create a world in which it is normal for women to do things on their own, not the other way around. Many times I am harassed in spite of my husband being right next. For me, this is not an issue of being alone or not, but of respect for women as equal human beings. Having a male companion doesn´t automatically shield us from sexism, sometimes quite the opposite…

  9. Meg | MeanderWithMeg

    Holy sh*t, my jaw was on the ground when I was reading this! I can’t believe you have had to go through so many awful and traumatic experiences. It makes me so angry that your travels (and your self-confidence) should be tested by pitiful excuses for men who feel like their behaviour is acceptable. I am so inspired by your strength to keep going, travel on your terms and push your boundaries. So many others would let this become an excuse and retreat back into themselves. Good on you for speaking out on this issue and I am completely in awe of how much of a bad-ass you are! Happy and safe onward travels. I hope you recover from your injury quickly and continue to explore and enjoy.

    • Thanks a lot, Meg! I always feel that if I retreat back because of things that scare me, I will never be able to live freely. I am trying to reach the point of no fear but I think it´s still a long way to go! Also, thanks for your well wishes, I´m doing a lot better already 🙂 Wonderful how a body can recover in such a short time!

  10. Karin, you are one badass lady! Thank you for bringing attention to such a serious topic. But my favorite part is the overall message. I truly believe in the power of positive thinking and how your mindset (and consequently behavior) can influence people and situations around you.

    • Thank you! I´m trying hard! The truth is I am often terrified and my experiences are both good and bad, but in the end, it is the way I choose to live to explore not just a country, but also myself as a person. Thank you for your nice comment!

  11. This was amazing to read. You’re a great writer too! It’s really interesting to read your perspective, because I hadn’t thought of it before. I get hit on a lot while traveling, and it used to terrify me, as I thought that it meant I was seen as a weak, easy target. I’ve never heard anyone talk so honestly about what it feels like *not* to have that experience and I feel like I learned a lot from reading this. It sounds like you’ve learned a lot from these experiences, thanks for sharing such a vulnerable post with the rest of us!

    • Honestly, these experiences (of which many go well further than just being hit on) make me feel terrified too and make even a simple conversation with men something I avoid, especially when I´m at a low point in mood or similar. I don´t like to approach people with a suspicion but I often do, although it is unfair, same as it is unfair to approach women with a supposition based on their gender. It is tricky to find balance in all this. Thank you for reading and commenting with your thoughts!

  12. I think I’ve read this story like 3 times now and am just getting around to commenting. It’s such a powerful and brave piece, so thank you for sharing. It’s crazy how many events happen and you’re right we often think in our head we’re being ridiculous. The more we are confident and stand up to these issues on the road the better we will be. My friend’s always said I looked like I had “fuck you” written on my forehead and it scares guys away. I’m strong willed and determined, but things have definitely happened to me too. I hope by sharing your story other women will follow in your footsteps!

    • The issue is also that many times when you point things out you are being ridiculed by other people who perhaps just don´t share your experience. That happened to me too and it´s part of the problem of feeling like you can´t trust your own feelings. I wish I had a “fuck you” written on my forehead too – maybe it would deter a few people from taking advantage! Thanks a lot for taking the time to read this, I´m not sure if it is a very inspiring piece (I guess women who are considering taking a first solo trip might not feel so) but my first rule in writing is to say things without embellishing them…Thank you again for taking the time to read and reflect on this and sharing your opinion with me! It means a lot to me.

  13. Kelly

    Thank you so mcuh for relating your personal experience and I relate so much to this. I have been followed, massaged, harassed, and it is scary because you never know if the intent of these men is malicious. And if you are alone, you feel like you have no one to turn to. But it will not stop me from traveling alone. I have accepted this but I have also accepted that I do not have to put up with it. Thanks for such a great post.

    • Sadly, I enter most of these encounters with a suspicion – guilty until proven innocent mentality. It doesn´t make me feel great, but it works better than the other way around. Thank you for reading!

  14. What a fantastic piece Karin. I am so sorry to hear about all this but having such a well reflected, honest look at what we all go through in small and larger ways is very brave. Thanks for writing this!

    • Thank you, Toni, I really appreciate your praise! I wish to live in a safer world where the random relationships we form daily with strangers would be a lot more balanced. Thank you for reading!

  15. Thanks for being brave enough to share this story! Men need to learn that this sort of behaviour is unacceptable, regardless of the kind of women you’re dealing with. But I definitely get your point on how you were treated better when you changed your attitude. I hope this will be the end to your negative experiences!

    • I wish it would be so! Sadly, I think I (and many other women) will be dealing with this for many years to come. However, I am learning to address it in the right way. Thank you for reading and sharing your opinion with me!

  16. I can’t even express how much I relate to this post and maybe one day I’ll make my own sexual harrassment compilation piece lol. I admire you a ton for hitchhiking alone though, I really don’t know if I could although I’d like to think so. PS. I’m intrigued as to what order you’d take the orgasm and the ice cream in hahahaha

    • Hahahahaha, well that is a question I haven´t resolved yet! But hey, how about at once? Or the icecream first so that it doesn´t melt? 😀 I´d be really interested in reading your harassment compilation, each female traveler seems to have a wide array of crazy stories!

  17. Eulanda

    Thank you for sharing your story. Women constantly have to deal with this sort of behavior when travelling, and it’s important that we create spaces where more women can be transparent about their experiences.

    • Thank you for reading! Yes, I feel most of the time like it is not “appropriate” to speak about certain parts of my experience as a woman, be it traveling or back home; I think that is potentially harmful to other women who then think they are alone with an experience just because it is sort of a public secret. Well, this blog is definitely not the place where women are expected to filter anything 🙂

  18. Kar

    Thank you for sharing this post. It is true like you said that there are not many articles about women harassment during traveling. I am also always traveling solo and encountered with harassment only two times. It was not too bad just someone who grabbed my bad and someone who masturbated in front of me. Although, it made me feel sick and unsafe. I think it is brave that you are still hitchhiking after your bad experiences. I would also love to hitchhike but I am a bit too scared for now. Well anyway, good luck with your next travels 🙂

    • I´m happy you find the post interesting – let´s hope we don´t encounter any more harassment in the future! I´ve had negative experiences while hitchhiking and perhaps many people would have stopped, but for one reason or another I stick with it. I haven´t quite understood why even for myself, but it´s something I do and feels like quite a chunk of my life that I don´t feel like just ditching it, in spite of the risks. I know all the arguments why NOT to do stuff…well, but we all decide for ourselves, right?

  19. Eve

    Hello Karin,
    Your experience with couchsurfing sounds familiar to me. I think it’s special and wonderful how you changed your attitude in only one night! I mean.. the way you describe your personality and your upbringing regarding (damn) politeness sounds like you had to pretend to be totally someone else and be aware of your facial (?) expressions all the time, in order not to let the (natural?) mask of politeness drop.
    I was wondering how you did that – the change of attitude? Was it really “just a matter of looking into the mirror, practising facial expressions and idiomatic phrases with a certain tone?
    Thanks for sharing your story!

    • Hello Eve, first of all, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment! Perhaps I could have written that part more clearly. I haven´t been forced by anyone to pretend too much – my family is as harmonic as they get and although nothing is perfect, I really couldn´t ask for a better one. I meant rather that I was lacking this kind of experiences and people haven´t treated me like this (in my country at least) before. People who harass others like this usually put on a mask of friendliness and it was hard for me to react appropriately because of it – I had this instinctive reaction to reply in a friendly way as well although I´d feel uncomfortable, instead of calling them out directly. My family members weren´t harassing me so I obviously didn´t have to deal with that at home – but I was still brought up with an emphasis on being honest and polite, what you´d call a “good girl”. The change I describe in this article has been brewing inside of me for a longer time – I was reading things that made me think differently, but I also gained more experiences when it comes to traveling with a man as opposed to traveling as a woman alone. These situations described in this article have taken place in course of several years but this year in Cyprus I simply decided not to take it anymore. I really did train in front of the mirror and prepare a rude answer to an envisioned situation though and it helped me a lot because instead of freezing, I felt more prepared for whatever could occur. Obviously, this goes with digesting the kind of experiences we all have as women (or don´t we?) first and then evaluating an appropriate reaction. Appropriate in this case would be to tell the person to fuck off, if I may say so. Do you have similar experiences? How did you deal with this kind of situations yourself?

    • That’s the difficult part. I find it hard to navigate between politeness, different cultural norms and a firm stance of demanding respect! Hopefully, I’ll get there at some point. Thank you for your support, Fred! Really appreciate it.

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