I have now been on the road for 9 months.
After crossing 11 countries and hitchhiking for 13 000 miles, I am still amazed to think of how many different people this mode of transport has allowed me to meet. There is something exhilarating about randomly getting into a car with Spanish firefighters, meeting a woman running for Congress, playing guitar in a hippie van, laughing when hearing the surreal stories of American drug dealers, taking Irish taxis for free or listening to a 75-year-old woman telling me about her dissolute youth in her convertible Mercedes.
Yet, half of the people I meet look astonished when I tell traveling stories. Even my drivers don’t always understand what I’m doing on the side of the road. In the US, people who stop for me often imagine that I must have had an accident: “Do you need a ride to the hospital?” they ask me, panicked. “Hm, no, I’m fine.” (to Americans, not having a car is unimaginable, let alone hitchhiking). When I say that I’m a teacher, they sometimes frown, as if it was incompatible with being a hitchhiker. In Eastern Europe, people shredded their heads in disapprovement when I said that I was traveling on my own (and that I wasn’t married, even worse).
I’m getting used to people being surprised I haven’t died yet and to being looked either like an alien or a super heroin. I don’t think I deserve any of those titles. After all, I don’t see why discovering the world through spontaneous meetings with locals is something exceptional. Then why such a taboo?
There is an argument I often hear that particularly bothers me:
“It’s too dangerous for a woman”.
As you can easily guess, men are the danger. People regularly tell me about the masculine danger and how my presumed weakness couldn’t handle it. Last time, I had to knock furiously on the window of an American truck driver who wanted to call the police so that they would buy me a bus ticket (I know, it makes no sense); even though I kept telling him I didn’t want it, he insisted and he was already dialing the number while explaining to me that otherwise I was going to end up cut into pieces/raped/robbed.
This concern is well meant, people want to help me, but the message is clear: you are a woman, you are too weak to explore the world on your own. Or even: who do you think you are, how dare you not be frightened by men?
I do not pretend that we live in a perfectly safe world. Especially as a woman (or a person who was raised as such and has never questioned their gender); even if I’m convinced that the binary difference between the sexes is a myth – based on thousands of years of social constructions -, I can’t deny the reality of sexism.
But once we have established this fact comes the question: what do we do about it? Should I go home, give up on traveling because dangerous men might come in my way? Should I limit my freedom because the social construction of masculinity makes it too dangerous? Or is there other ways to deal with the risks of solo female hitchhiking?
Like many female hitchhikers before me, I thought I didn’t want to live my life as a prey. So I looked for solutions, both practical and psychological. I was tired of being scared so I stopped being scared. And I am fine, I swear. For I don’t see why the big playground which is the world should be reserved to men and because gender is only a construction which should never prevent anyone from doing something.
Hitchhiking in Spain
What forms of sexism does a female hitchhiker face?
Not long ago, I met Willow, an incredible 60-year-old woman who hitchhiked across the US to visit intentional communities in the 80s. As we talked, we realized how similar our stories were: safety injunctions told to women do not seem to have evolved much in forty years.
Short lesson about patriarchy, beginners’ level
Every day I’m confronted with how messed up the inequality of the sexes is in our society. Not only are we imposed an arbitrary division between masculine and feminine roles but this division is hierarchical; men are dominant. Physical strength, violence are part of what is attributed to men, while women are all sweetness, weakness and glitter. Among other problems, our society teaches men to become sexual predators and as us, women, are so weak, we should fear them. Indeed, we are rarely taught to develop our physical strength and to be able to stand up for ourselves, which doesn’t help.
Of course this analysis doesn’t apply to all men, it’s based on generalities that build up our reality; however I have very rarely met men with no toxic masculinity at all.
Change of perspective
Putting it like that, you might feel like it doesn’t look good for female hitchhiking. Good news: none of this is natural. This is where feminism comes in; all we have to do is to deconstruct stereotypes and to use humor to resist the fear injunction which is imposed to our gender. I always think that all the drivers who lecture me will have had at least one representation of a solo female hitchhiker; they will know it’s possible.
It’s true that I’m constantly reminded of my gender when travelling; I am seen as a weak person that should know better than being that bold and my body is sexualized more than I would like it to be. However I don’t think it’s worse than when I don’t travel; sexism is everywhere whatever you do. Sarah Gysler, a Swiss girl who traveled around the world with no money for three years, wrote:
“I don’t think that it is more dangerous to travel as a woman. At least not more than living as a woman.”
One thing is convenient: as I’m a woman, people are more scared for me than scared of me. Therefore they pick me up more easily; my average waiting time is 20 minutes. Being female is a reassuring characteristic (based on prejudice) like being white or young. Almost all women tell me:
“I would never have picked you up if you were a man.” (and sometimes they turn to instruct their daughters: “You will NEVER do that!”).
I have noticed a few typical attitudes endowed with what I call “kind sexism”. For example I am often asked what my parents think about my trip. I’m convinced that I wouldn’t hear this question so often if I were a man (my independence would then be natural). It is nice but it essentializes me as a woman, which I could do without. “If you were my daughter, I would not be okay with it” (I don’t think they are aware that if I were their daughter I would probably not wait for them to agree…). I usually shrug my shoulders smiling and use the argument I-am-a-big-girl-and-I-do what-I-want.
Some specifically masculine behaviors make me laugh. If they drive me a little further than their destination to be nice, some men will insist on how kind they are while women will just drive me without trying to prove anything. Mansplaining is fascinating to me: only men think I need hitchhiking advice and sometimes try to explain to me how I should go about it. It’s funny because most of them have never hitchhiked; their advice are usually obvious.
Hitchhiking in Slovenia
How to deal with the risks of solo female hitchhiking?
I recently talked to my grand-mother on the phone, she sounded surprised:
“You know, Lola, I can’t believe you’re doing this trip, I remember when you were little and you were scared to go further than two feet from the riverside…”
I laughed because she was kind of right: my whole childhood I was a fearful little girl. Still today, I’m scared of heights, I have a ridiculous phobia of insects (but I’m working on it), I’m bad at all slightly intense physical activities… In short, I am far from being the bold adventurer type and in that way I fit in the stereotypes of my gender. But for hitchhiking it doesn’t matter: a bit of carefulness, an ounce of cheekiness and a little knowledge of feminist arguments are all you need.
Our preconceived ideas about the risks, especially about sexual assault
The security injunctions are always the same and the futures that people predict to me don’t vary much: I will end up either sexually abused, murdered, or both (and my organs will be sold to the Japanese mafia).
People have rarely studied criminology; in 95% of the cases their fears are not based on research, not even on personal experiences, but on media fear mongering. When you only hear horrible stories and never positive news, you end up believing that there are Ted Bundys at every street corner.
Yet, the lesson from hitchhiking is the faith in humanity it gives you: you trust strangers and are rewarded with their kindness; it actually works. I’m always stunned to see how the vision of the world of most people is distorted by television. There would be a lot to write about the instrumentalisation of fear for political division. Anyway, as far as murder is concerned, you only need to compare the number of recent serial killers (or the number of murders by strangers) with the world population to reach the conclusion that I’m more likely to be run over by a garbage truck than to end up dead in a basement.
When it comes to rape and sexual abuse, there are reasons to worry as, if I believe the statistics I recently heard, 12% of women have been victims of rape. But in which circumstances and by whom? Valerie Rey Robert, a French writer who published a book about the rape culture, says:
“People often imagine that rapes happen in a parking lot or in a street, at night, and are committed with weapons or physical violence. They see rapists as lunatics, marginals.”
On the contrary, she points out that rapes rarely involve strangers carrying weapons or psychopaths in their cars. In 80% of the cases, the rapist is known by the victim (a scary amount of them are family members or boyfriends) and in 90% of them there is no use of physical violence because the victim is very often paralyzed with fear and unable to defend themselves. Therefore rapists are not psychopaths but regular guys; we all have met some of them. So here is the real danger; believing that rapists are “the others”.
To conclude, you are probably more likely to be sexually abused on your next family holiday than on a hitchhiking trip.
Hitchhiking in England
A few ideas to reduce fear
Anick-Marie Bouchard, a Canadian traveler who did a sociological study of female hitchhiking, highlights the importance of mental preparation:
“You have to imagine the worse that could happen and how you could get out of it.”
Other techniques can be considered: hitchhiking with someone else (whatever their gender is, the risks are lower and the lectures less frequent), hitchhiking on small distances, taking self-defense classes, trying active hitchhiking (you ask people where they’re going in gas stations, which allows you to choose the drivers), planning alternative transportation in case hitchhiking doesn’t work, taking pictures of cars license plates and text them to a friend, having pepper spray on you…
In my case, I don’t use any of these techniques (except active hitchhiking sometimes, it’s faster). Realistically, I can’t really defend myself. I have had a small pepper spray in my backpack for a few months but I got rid of it. As for my self-defense skills… In elementary school, I remember we did judo once and I can still hear the teacher telling me: “Hmm… It’s not really your thing, is it?” watching me failing every single exercise. I haven’t got better since then, although I often think that someday I should.
Nevertheless, I think that your attitude matters more than all these precautions. Giving the impression that you’re scared attracts danger. By contrast, being able to explain why you hitchhike, being confident and a little mouthy lowers the potential risks.
Communication is a weapon
Only one thing is necessary to learn, it’s how to communicate. As my trip went on, I have learnt how to clearly define my limits and to demand that they should be respected. If I feel uncomfortable in a car, I will say it and I know that I will not hesitate to give up on politeness if the driver doesn’t do anything about it.
I never trust anyone instantly and, when my driver is a man, I am twice as careful. I try to be clear all at once because I can only have an interesting talk with a man if I know that there is no ambiguity about the end of the drive: I am not going to have sex with them or give them my phone number. So I communicate, I explain why I chose to hitchhike and I give them a speech about feminism in a firm way if I see it necessary.
Throughout my trip, I have acquired a few reflexes. 95% of the time that I get into a car with a male driver, I know after five minutes that it’s going to be fine. In 5% of the cases, I can feel that they might try to hit on me so sometimes I say: “It’s annoying how guys think that I want them to hit on me when I hitchhike. Can you imagine?” or I communicate in a direct way: “Hey, sorry, I don’t like to have guys hit on me when I hitchhike. So you either stop or you let me out.” In general, they back off pretty fast.
In a few rare situations, it wasn’t enough or my communication was too subtle and I had to decline sexual propositions. Every time I said no firmly and the drivers apologized and let me out when I asked them. These experiences annoy me but they are not specifically associated to hitchhiking, as Anick-Marie explains:
“It’s nothing shocking when you’re used to it. Waitresses in bars have to deal with this shit every day:”
Another reflex that I have is to say “does it matter?” when people ask me if I’m married or if I have a boyfriend in their first questions. I was advised to say that I have a partner to avoid this kind of solicitation but I don’t. I refuse to pretend to have an imaginary partner; I demand to be respected as a single woman, not as someone’s girlfriend or wife.
Since a few months ago, I have started to say “I don’t like comments on my appearance, I need to not feel objectified when I meet strangers” every time that I’m told “what’s a pretty girl like you is doing on the road on her own?” (do they only know how many times I have heard that?). It sometimes leaves my drivers astonished: “You don’t like being told you’re pretty?” If someone touches me, even if it’s just a small shoulder tap, I say that I don’t like to be touched without being asked.
I don’t often have to use these precautions: most of my male drivers are nice and respectful. And even when I use them, the talk generally remains friendly. These reflexes don’t prevent me from forging links with men, they are safeguards that make further connections possible.
But what if something really happened to me?
So what would happen if this annoying driver didn’t let me out of the car when I ask him? It would get a little complicated, for sure. There is a real possibility that something might happen to me, I always keep it in mind. But let’s be clear: a life without risks doesn’t exist. I agree with Sarah Gysler on this:
“Maybe it is true that with my lifestyle I am more exposed to danger than other people. But if the alternative option is to carefully stay at home, I would rather be exposed to it. I would rather come across a psychopath than get old being constantly afraid of the other and of the unknown.”
Risks exist, we have to deal with them. Camille Paglia, an American feminist writer, suggests to consider rape as “a risk that we have to accept because it is inherent to our conditions as women”: this is how our society works for now but there is no reason why sexism should control our lives.
Even if something did happen to me – except if I got killed, which is unlikely – I would try to deal with it so that it wouldn’t ruin my life forever. When she writes about how she was raped at age 17 when she was hitchhiking, French author Virginie Despentes says how she wishes that rape hadn’t been such a taboo. Indeed, it’s considered as something that will change the rest of your life: “you have to be traumatized by rape” and it’s “so horrible” that it’s not socially accepted to talk about it.
I don’t want to minimize the potential impact of a rape but I think that, if it happened to me, I would spend more time trying to get over it than regretting the risks I took traveling on my own.
Hitchhiking in Ireland
As I mentioned the rest of my trip in South America, Willow told me:
“You’re not afraid and you’re adventurous, I’m not worried about you.”
Yet, even last year, my current traveling mode would have seemed terrifying to me; traveling changes people in surprising ways.
Today, I have come to the conclusion that indeed hitchhiking is risky, but living in a sexist society not being a feminist – therefore not having the means to defend yourself – is probably even riskier. Obviously I’m not trying to say that all women have to experience it but only that we have to get rid of the taboo about female hitchhiking; it’s a right. When we keep telling women that the world is too dangerous for them instead of teaching them ways to defend themselves, we accept masculine hegemony as the only possible reality. For the security injunctions made to women as a response to the danger of a society dominated by men reinforce the inequalities instead of fighting them.
And, after all, when the world is a play in which we are forced to play roles we haven’t chosen, why not try to improvise instead?
(Special thanks to Olwen Pearce for correcting this translation!