It’s been almost two years since Sarah Everard’s murder at the hands of policeman Wayne Couzens. It angers me to see his name splashed across the news every day, as the inquiry into whether more could have been done to prevent Sarah’s death is carried out. All this is to a backdrop where countless other women continue to ‘not make it home’, a sad state of affairs where women are not safe and certainly do not feel so. As the important discussion continues about the safety of women on our nation’s streets, we should equally be concerned about the risk that women face when they travel.
A few years ago, I noted a significant spike in the number of female readers on OutThere’s platforms. At the time, I felt it somewhat odd, considering we were originally founded as a magazine for queer men. When I found out why, I was incredibly humbled. These women – who were overwhelmingly straight and cis-gendered; but also lesbian, bi and transgender – were turning to us for travel inspiration, primarily because of the heightened need for safety when they travel. They were telling me that their experiences, and moreover their needs when it comes to travelling safely, were not at all dissimilar to those of gay men.
In an age of perceived gender equality, it is easy to assume that women can holiday safely. I will never know what it is like to live life as a woman, and I recognise my privilege as a man, but as a gay person and someone who is passionate about inclusion, I can empathise.
Despite being out and proud, there are times when I am guarded about my sexuality when I travel for want of not ending up in a socially awkward, or worse, dangerous situation. LGBTQ+ travellers are very aware of where they travel to, particularly because in most of the world, it is still illegal to be who we are. Personally, I believe in boundless travel, but I say that with the privilege of having the option not to disclose my sexuality – or come out – should I choose (as challenging as that is for me). I would of course much rather have a world where harassment or discrimination of any kind wouldn’t ever be a problem, and I’m not saying that LGBTQ+ people have it any worse than women or vice versa, but I have learnt and am increasingly aware of the risks women are exposed to when they travel.
I don’t want to recount the numerous horror stories I hear about women being abused, or worse, on holiday. It is a harrowing truth that makes me sick to the stomach. It’s the same feeling I get whenever I read of an LGBTQ+ person being hurt or prosecuted just for being who they are. And I’m very aware that it is just the high-profile cases that we hear about, and that we often don’t see a majority of the cases that only make it to the bottom of the news, or those that go completely unreported.
Nothing has changed in two years. Surveys show that two-thirds of women have experienced harassment when they travel; and in nearly all cases, that harassment has been sexual, a stat that remains the same as compared to when I looked into it a couple of years ago.
77% of women feel unsafe when travelling solo. 80% of women have considered personal safety issues related to potential assault when they plan a trip. 60% of women take steps to discourage unwelcome interaction on an aeroplane when sitting next to a man. Nearly all transgender women can recall a time when they have been harassed when travelling.
SHe Travel Club – a new label (as well as being the first and only such platform) in the travel space that grades properties by their efforts to meet the needs of female travellers – have found in its research of some 5,000 women worldwide that 90% of the respondents were not getting what they require from a hotel stay. The programme, founded by Valerie Hoffenberg, a gender equality expert, aims to empower women to travel ‘safe and happy everywhere (SHe)’ by challenging hotels to adapt their offering to meet the safety, comfort, service levels and facilities needs of women (inclusive of those who identify as women – we checked!). In my mind, it is not just a ‘nice to have’ but a ‘need to have.’
The challenges that women who travel face don’t just lie in forceful aggravation. Women are still discriminated against when they travel. When I tell stories of ‘travelling while gay’ where I’m regularly asked if my wife will be joining me in the hotel restaurant, or when the children of my friends who are gay dads are asked where their mother is when on holiday, I am no longer surprised when it is women who pipe up to say that they have encountered the same issues: solo-female travellers especially, or single female parents.
Our industry (perhaps our world, even) is still so trapped in the antiquated notion of what a person should be like – a prevalence of ‘traditional family’ or heteronormality – that they often completely miss the distress it can cause. Transgender women have it far from easy too (and it seems their rights in some places in the world are actually worsening today), from the discrimination imposed by people of all genders over subjects like restrooms to overly aggressive airport security pat-downs, to being repeatedly misgendered by tourism staff.
Everyone deserves the right to feel safe and respected, at home and abroad. We owe it to women, no actually, we owe it to humanity, to do better. And I say this particularly to our gay male, readers. Many of you may understand what it is like to walk in their shoes (sometimes even literally), but I can’t help but be disturbed by the many gay men that I see on social media, conforming to the ‘not all men’ argument. Just because you are not sexually attracted to women, it doesn’t exempt you from the need to improve this situation. As I’ve said, despite what we as gay men fear of the world, we also need to understand our privilege as men.
I considered editorialising the things that women can do to feel safer when they travel. But I realised that I’m not qualified, nor do I think we should be working just to protect women. Instead, we should be trying to educate men and also our industry on the steps we can make to try and change the narrative. It takes a village, you could say. So instead, here are some starter tips on how we as men; and as an industry can help, gleaned mainly from my experience of the challenges that LGBTQ+ people face when it comes to travelling safely. My hope is that we can all take the leaps that are needed to make the world much safer for the OutThere women who love to travel.
Things men can do…
Check your privilege. Firstly, be ready to listen to the concerns that women have when it comes to their safety on the whole and in travelling safely. Don’t be one of the ‘not all men’ brigades. Yes, you’re most probably not one of ‘those men’, but trust that women already know this. Going on the defensive doesn’t help you listen and learn.
Keep your distance. Weigh up a situation and don’t always think that a female traveller wants your company, especially on a plane. Your actions could be easily misconstrued and she may feel uncomfortable. And as embracing a person as you may be, realise that being touchy-feely can be unwelcome.
Watch for the signs of a person being subject to unwanted attention or being harassed when travelling. Let them know with eye contact that you are there if they need you. Intervene if you have to and if it is safe for all to do so. Or speak to a member of staff if you don’t feel that it’s right to get involved.
Speak up and feedback to travel providers if you encounter situations in your travels where you or others may feel unsafe. Point out a broken CCTV camera, or a lack of key-card access-only elevators. Beyond practical tips, it will help them think further about how to create a safer experience, and furthermore also how to market safety as an asset.
Have a continuous conversation about this with men in your life. Getting to a good place where women are travelling safely is as much – perhaps more – about educating men, as it is about protecting women. And in general, do your best to be a better ally.
Things the industry can do…
Provide as many resources as possible for your guests when it comes to safety. Travel advisors and consultants in particular take note. It pays to be clued up on what you need to know – from destination-specific information to personal experiences – as to what travellers can do if they encounter any issues. Also give your guests the opportunity to check in with you regularly, if possible.
Develop practical solutions to help your guests travel safely. For example, provide an option to ‘check out’ with reception when guests go out so you know their rough movements, or a taxi registration policy. For drive-up hotels, an after-hours valet service will help if there’s no on-site parking. Respect their privacy, but give them the option.
On transfers and tours, give guests an option to book a female driver or one driver for the entire trip. Ensure that drivers are registered and security-cleared. In destinations where security cordons are the norm, prepare your guests, or ensure that your suppliers can provide female security staff.
Train your staff on sensitivity, how never to discriminate, or even be overly familiar. The world is far from ‘traditional’ or heteronormative. A female traveller may be travelling solo, a single parent, travelling with her same-gender partner, or transgender.
Create opportunities for women to meet other women on their journeys. Female travel itineraries would be fabulous, but so would be interactions with local women, guides, fellow travellers and local community groups for or run by women. Not only are you creating empathetic travel experiences for your guests, but also empowering local women.
Photography by Kai Pilger, Lee Robinson, Juniper Photo, Tobias Keller, Ivan Vashenko, Sven Fischer and Jurica Koletic