The news and events around Sarah Everard’s homicide sit heavy in my heart and thoughts. She and the countless other women that ‘haven’t made it home’ are evidential to a sad state of affairs: women are not safe and don’t feel so. The commentary has been largely about the safety of our nation’s streets, but over the decade since I co-founded OutThere, I’ve come to learn that women also feel at risk when they travel.
A few years ago, I noted a significant spike in the number of female readers on OutThere’s platforms. It was odd, considering we were founded as a magazine for LGBTQ+ men. When I found out why, I was incredibly humbled. These women – who were overwhelmingly straight and cis-gendered; but also lesbian or bi; and transgender – were turning to us for travel inspiration, primarily because of a 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 where 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 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, we often don’t see a majority of the cases that just make it to the bottom of the news, or those that go completely unreported.
A recent survey shows that two-thirds of women have experienced harassment when they travel; and in nearly all cases, that harassment has been sexual. 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 airplane when sat next to a man. Nearly all transgender women can recall a time where they have been harassed when travelling.
The challenges 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 constantly 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 completely miss the distress it can cause. Transgender women have it far from easy too, 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 be 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 at the many gay men I’m seeing 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 about 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” brigade. Yes, you’re most probably not one of ‘those men’, but trust that women already know this and 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 an 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, be clued up on what you need to know – from destination specific information, to personal experiences, 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 too.
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 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, Jurica Koletic
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