BY ELISA WIRKALA
“I bet I’ll see you on the news…” a young man muttered negatively under his breath as he walked away after learning I was attempting to motorcycle ride around the world.
He clearly expected I’d disappear somewhere along the route. An abduction, a bloody murder, or held hostage in some far-flung mountain range by some deranged psychopath. Various scenarios flitted through my mind as I stared at his retreating back in a beach parking lot in rural Western Australia. I was already a couple thousand miles into the most recent leg of the around the world motorcycle journey, and so far so good. I’d learned from harrowing and degrading experiences in my teens and twenties, and by the time I reached 30, I was wise enough to the ways of the world and men, and perhaps jaded enough, that I’d developed a 6th sense. It wasn’t foolproof by any means, but I’d gotten better at reading situations—like the kinds that lead me to post my own #MeToo hashtag on social media. That powerful worldwide movement had brought women’s realities of sexual harassment and assault to the forefront of our society’s psyche—finally.
Of course I still worried about my safety as a single young woman wandering around solo. Every woman I know has experienced varying degrees of sexual harassment, and many others real, physical assault (myself included). Some men and women hardly recognize it as such, while others are so wary they’ll barely venture anywhere new alone. But unfortunately, sexual harassment has been so prevalent and historically and culturally accepted, it’s become part of the reality of any woman’s journey.
But while joining in on the #MeToo voice, should we perhaps do more? And if so, what?
I don’t proclaim to have the answer, but I personally would like to see women learning from the experiences of others while sharing their own stories. Because not only does sharing the experiences bring light to a dark place, and room for healing, but also because together we have the power to call out the injustices of the world, perhaps we can help to better equip other women to read situations carefully and confidentially, and not be afraid or ashamed to call out harassment for what it is, in the moment and after.
Though I’d like to live in a world where we women can hike through the woods and camp alone without worrying about anything but the bears, the sad reality is that we can’t. Now, don’t misunderstand: We can certainly undertake a solo hike, and many of us do, but we must always stay vigilant and alert, always wary of our surroundings—and not just because of the bears.
But as we raise our voices to say #MeToo, perhaps we should also share how best we keep ourselves safe when on the solitary road? Just because we’re united in our experiences of sexism, harassment and assault, does not mean women shouldn’t have the courage to go explore the world. If we want to live in a world where women can have the same freedom and experiences as men, we need to live it, promote it, share it.
We all know the dangers women face traveling alone. But does that mean we shouldn’t allow ourselves the opportunities, or that we’re irresponsible if we do choose to explore far off places? To my mind, feeding into the fear is just another level of oppression we face. Sexual harassment and assault happens everywhere, after all: In our own workplaces, communities, and homes. And while putting ourselves in new and foreign places has the potential of making us more of a target, there are so many things women can do to keep themselves better protected while still exploring: Staying alert to their surroundings at all times. Avoiding alcohol. Not wandering alone after dark. Choosing destinations more cautiously. Ensuring your hotel room is a safe place to stay. Camping near families or older couples.
The list is extensive, and we should learn from our communal experiences, instead of living in fear.
As I saw friend after friend post their own two-word tag, I kept wondering what stories weren’t being told that could perhaps help keep the rest of us safer and wiser from the threats we all face. What clues and tips could these untold situations reveal? What could our children be learning to do differently, to protect themselves further in a world that is doing such a paltry job at keeping us safe? Because if the world doesn’t care enough to drastically change, we need to take measures into our own hands. And because living in fear of the ‘what ifs’ is too unjust to bear.
So raise your voice, and share your story. Tell your children how to manage and call out harassment properly, so these acts don’t go unchallenged, and actively teach your sons not to do it in the first place. Communicate your experiences with your kids, your family and your friends, and shed light on the shadow. And commit to change, by promising you won’t remain silent if it happens again, but will turn around and smack the hand that grabs, call the police, or raise your voice in alarm and protest.
Feeling brave? Tell us, our community of women riders, the experiences you’ve learned from that might help to better prepare our fellow adventuresses or would be travelers, and to help us all feel a little braver, a little more united, and much more prepared.