“But it’s easy for a pretty girl like you, to travel. You think people would stop for a big dark man like me?” asked the driver that was giving me and my friend a ride to the city of David in Panama.
There were five people in the car: the driver, two acquaintances of his (also burly local men), my friend Siracha and myself. The question was a complex one. Whether he was aware of the terminology or not, the man was talking about privilege, and identifying race and gender as factors that might give someone an advantage or disadvantage when travelling. In some ways, he was right: it is easier to get people to stop for you as a (cis) female hitch-hiker. So I agreed with him that, yes, travelling was easier for me. I was biting my tongue: for one thing, because the conversation was in Spanish and it’s difficult to convey feminist concepts in a language you’re not fluent in. The other reason was because I already felt uneasy in the presence of these three big men, one of whom persistently touched my arm and incessantly asked of mine and Siracha’s relationship status, and I didn’t want to say anything that might upset them and threaten our physical safety.
It was a situation I had gotten used to whilst travelling: I’ve been on the road eight months at this point. From Guatemala to central Panama I paid for transportation only a handful of times as I covered nearly all the ground by hitch-hiking. I was mostly with various people along the way, but hitched alone for short distances in Mexico and long distances in El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama. And in these countries, female drivers are like a rare gem lost in a pebble beach. In other words, if you’re hitch-hiking in Central America, you’re almost always getting into a car, taxi, truck, lorry, boat or police car with a male driver.
I didn’t want to say anything that might upset them and threaten our physical safety.
But before I begin to express my experience of gender bias in travel, let me return to the assertion made by the Panamanian driver, particularly when he was referring to race as a factor influencing how smooth someone’s travels are. Privilege is a real thing: able-bodiedness, race, sexuality, gender, nationality and socioeconomic background all play their part in shaping and influencing people’s experiences. You only have to take a quick look round a backpacker hostel to see the demographic of the clientele and realise the role privilege plays – there is an obvious lack of an ethnic minority and queer presence, for example. If you’re able-bodied you don’t have to plan your trip in the same way that a wheelchair user must – which I imagine is extremely challenging. Having a passport from a Western country helps too, in facilitating easier passage. It’s the shameful truth that when you travel you really feel the ominous shadow of colonialism: for one thing, it’s so much easier to cross borders into countries that your passport’s nation once ruled over.
So, yes, I absolutely benefit from privilege, and in a multiplicity of ways. Of this I am aware, and I feel incredibly lucky to be able to travel as I do. But for (cis) men to claim hitch-hiking is easier for women on account of our sex and attractiveness is an alarming misconception – and is harmful because it overlooks the struggle female travelers face as a direct result of patriarchal gender stereotypes.
The fact is, a male driver who pulls over for female hitchers but not for their male counterparts is stopping for one of the following reasons: 1) he is sexually attracted to her, 2) he sees her as a fragile and vulnerable female he must save. Now many men I have spoken to about this subject claim, adamantly, that the reason probably is that: 3) the male driver wants to help people out but is hesitant to take male hitchers because they might be dangerous whereas female hitchers seem to be harmless. This could well be true – but is this not the same, really, as reason 2? Hitch-hiking is different for men and women because of the gender stereotypes that exist, and it’s the same one-sided view of women being non-threatening and harmless that makes people both fear women less than men and see them as weak. (Many male hitchers have also told me that if they were driving, they would be more likely to pick up a female hitcher than a guy because they would be worried a guy would rob them or harm them. Are these people not doing themselves a disservice?) And so, I return to the former two reasons, because many drivers have admitted this to me in some form or another during the ride. In Panama, out of the male drivers who picked me up when there was no other woman in the car, 100% called me a variation of ‘beautiful’ or ‘sexy’, and a good half or so warned me to be careful because ‘it’s dangerous out there’ and ‘there are bad men out there. Not everyone’s a good guy like me.’ Almost all asked my relationship status, and a big proportion asked if I was scared travelling alone (I would reply, as confidently as I could: “No, I know how to use a machete, I’m not scared,” to put them off if they were thinking of trying anything).
Now let me just state that the majority of these men did seem to be nice, genuine people and I have made it this far unscathed and safe. The people I describe didn’t necessarily have bad intentions, nor acted inappropriately. But their words and actions highlight how hitching alone as a woman is a different experience to hitching as a man (or even as a woman with a man). As women, we are already subject to harassment in our everyday lives; however, I’ve found the harassment I’ve experienced while travelling to be suffocating because I have no home to go back to and some days nobody who shares my language, literally and metaphorically, to empathise with the feeling of putting up with patriarchy’s shit. And I’m one of the privileged ones.
The kind of travelling I’ve been doing obviously involves risk and potentially feeling unsafe for anyone who participates in this lifestyle. But it’s the specific risk that comes with being a woman that has eroded some faith in the world with me – and, paradoxically, has indirectly empowered me, because I have been daring to do what everyone has told me isn’t possible, or is too dangerous. During this journey I’ve had to move dorm rooms in a hostel because an older man was harassing me; I’ve gotten out of a car because the driver made me question his motives; I’ve put up with being followed, stared at, wolf whistles, honks, catcalls and gestures of fellatio; people trying to touch me; people taking photos of me without my consent. When you are a budget traveller, you relinquish the privilege of being able to control where you sleep and rebuild for the next day’s trials.
Additionally, one thing I must point out is that getting rides is not necessarily synonymous with travel being easy. So while being offered a place to stay or a ride might be easier as a woman, the risk of sexual violence is proportionally higher. As are other risks – once a very friendly, gun-toting racist who picked up a female friend and I, played the ‘you’re lucky I’m a nice guy’ card and warned that someone of worse nature would pick us up and sell us into white slavery – followed by him jokingly adding, ‘I’d buy you!’
the people that stop for me just because I’m a woman are not the kind of people I want to get in a car with
Of course, it’s mostly fine or we wouldn’t do it. You learn how to assess situations, read the driver’s body language, plan an escape route for if things turn sour, and only get into cars with people you trust won’t harm you. It’s a huge lesson in trusting your own judgement and I find hitching alone to be a profoundly empowering experience. Hitch-hiking in general is one of the best ways to travel: it’s environmentally friendly, you get off the beaten track, you interact with more locals. But as a female solo traveller, it’s not always easy. To all the men who tell me, enviously, that it’s easy, because you’re a woman, I say: the people that stop for me just because I’m a woman are not the kind of people I want to get in a car with. And for that reason, I am so much more selective about whom my ride is with when hitching alone that it usually takes longer. Furthermore, having to exude confidence during car rides (because showing vulnerability makes you more likely to be seen and treated like a victim) can be extremely draining. So for all the people out there who’ve told me about how lucky I am, yet never had to experience everything I’ve mentioned, I would respectfully suggest you go check your privilege.