Thursday, 8 November 2012

An open letter to Evelynn Hanon, re: "Travel tips for women: Staying safe on the road"

Dear Ms. Hannon,

If my Facebook and Twitter feeds are any indication, you may be receiving some blowback from your recent article, "Travel tips for women: Staying safe on the road."

You may well be frustrated by these negative reactions and be thinking, as at least one poster has commented, something to the effect of, "This article is not what you guys want to hear, but it is an article about doing what is smart, not necessarily about what is right."

Here's the thing, we do want safety advice. We are desperate for it. Women are literally dying for that one-size-fits-all safety advice that will finally accomplish what we have been trying to do our entire lives and for generations before us - to keep us safe from sexual violence.

Because of this sincere want, and because so many people who are our allies want this for us, we are bombarded with various bits of safety advice our entire lives. From the time the doctor tells our parents, "It's a girl," we are treated as a separate class from men and boys and given a different set of rules on how we can stay safe from the threatening and mysterious "them".

Make no mistake, the threat is real. And the people who commit this violence against us are real. And, more often than not, this violence is committed against us by those we know and trust. But somehow, much of the safety advice that is given can't manage to put a face to this. Or, it borrows from myths and Hollywood tropes that describe this perpetrator as a "bad guy" that everyone can immediately recognize when they see him, because of the rise in dramatic music, fog machines, and tell-tale physical deformities. It tells us that these perpetrators are strangers, are foreigners, are hiding in alleys and far-away, exotic countries where "they" are different from us and go by a different set of rules.

We get lots of advice. Advice that is well-meaning. Unfortunately, most of this advice cannot keep us safe, because it relies on rape myths and on women being in control over whether or not they'll be targetted, just by virtue of their clothing or choice of beverage.

This advice does not match our realities.

The reason you are not getting perhaps the positive feedback you were looking for, is that we have heard your advice before and it did not protect us and we won't be fooled again.

Are some of the tips you provided useful? Well, sure. We don't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Women are quite capable of reading what you've written and deciding what advice applies to them and what isn't relevant to their lives.

That's not the problem. The issue is not that there isn't anything useful in your article. I'm aware that you borrowed the content from the Canadian government's official travel guide. They're not off the hook with me, either.

The issue is that your carelessly worded phrasings are all-too-often victim-blaming, and at the same time not useful.

To clarify the problems I, and other people I've talked to, have had with your article are as follows

1. Don’t stand out — The next time you’re walking in your city centre, do this short mental exercise. Look around and notice which women stand out. Who looks timid? Whose purse has an unzipped pocket? Is anybody checking a map or guidebook?

Simultaneously, you are telling women not to stand out, and not to be timid. Be aware of your surroundings, definitely. That makes for good safety advice. That one can do to the best of their ability. But don't be timid or attract attention? I'm not sure what that would even look like.
2. Insist on safe accommodation — Don’t accept ground-floor rooms with easy access from outside via a balcony or fire escape. Make sure the doors can be locked from the inside and can’t be opened with a key from the outside. Pack a rubber door stop that can be wedged under any inward-opening door making entry extremely challenging.

Yeah, in the beginning this makes sense. I mean, this is safety advice that I definitely keep in mind when I'm travelling. The bit about not being able to open a door with a key from the outside doesn't make as much sense. Do you mean when I'm in the room, or also when I'm out of the room? How would I get in in the first place if I can't get in from the outside? The rubber door stop's pretty good, to. That could fit in carry-on luggage.
3. Carry a local shopping bag — At your destination, make a small purchase in order to have a shopping bag with the store’s logo on it. Now carry your camera and maps in this bag. Thieves are far less prone to steal a local’s shopping bag than to grab a tourist’s backpack.
Ok, you've lost me again. You want me to put all my valuables in a flimsy bag that only goes on my wrist, as opposed to one fastened to my back, because tourists don't carry shopping bags? I'm sorry if I'm starting to get a little sarcastic but... 
4. Watch what you wearTight fitting clothes are always an invitation—any woman in form fitting clothes will attract attention both good and bad. Especially if you are traveling solo it is the negative that you should be guarding against. It’s not worth gambling with your safety for the sake of a wolf-whistle.
Read the parts I have bolded and put in italics, and you tell me with a straight face that isn't misogynistic victim-blaming. If you are able to say that with a straight face, then we will have a conversation about internalized misogyny, because that's not cool.
5. Choose early morning exploring — In some cultures, a woman alone after dark is considered fair game by the local men. Often it’s best to have your big meal at lunchtime and to picnic in your room in the evening. There’s no harm in going to bed at a decent hour so you can be up bright and early ready for sightseeing in broad daylight.
I'm not sure what areas of the world you're referring to (because you never say it explicitly), but this can be impractical to the point of absurdity. In the winter here, in the Northern hemisphere, it can get dark as early as around 4pm. Are you honestly, with a straight face, telling women to "picnic" in their rooms from 4pm to 8am when they're on vacation? Honestly? Seriously? "Hey, what did you do on your vacation?" "Well, I ran out quickly for a couple hours a day, and then hid under the covers in my hotel room, shrieking in terror any time housekeeping or room service knocked on my door. Totally worth it."
6. Leave your expensive jewelry at home —Unless you are attending a fabulous wedding or Society Fashion Ball, leave all your jewels at home. They will always be a hindrance to your safety.
And here we have something practical again. I have no qualms with tips that actually make sense and can do things that are practical and tangible in terms of safety.
7. Watch for pickpockets — These people generally work in pairs. As you sit waiting to board your bus or train, one engages you in conversation while the other lifts your backpack. Foil them by bringing a Chinese newspaper from home. Pretend to be reading it. Unless would-be pickpockets speak Chinese, they’ll avoid you completely.
Yes, the advice about looking out for pickpockets is sound. I'm a little perplexed by the newspaper advice. It's not usually too difficult to spot tourists, and I don't see how this would help in that regard. But, sure, if people have reported that this works, then I guess there's no real harm in trying it. 
8. Don’t drink irresponsibly — It’s best to enjoy your alcohol in a pub or well-reputed hotel. To combat date rape drugs added to your cocktail there is now a product to test your own drink and foil any one who’s targeting you. www.drinksafetech.com
You may have predicted that this advice doesn't sit well with me. Not because I think everyone going to unfamiliar places should go ahead and drink to excess until they're unconscious. In general, I think that we need to have better alcohol-abuse education to help people learn how to enjoy intoxicants responsibly. I consider that more of a safety measure to keep someone from giving themselves alcohol-poisoning, than of preventing rape, however.

For starters, there's no guarantee you won't be targetted in a "well-reputed" pub or hotel. So, that's a false sense of security. Same with with date rape straws. The most common date rape drug is, actually, alcohol. So if you're being served doubles or triples when you're expecting singles, it really doesn't matter if your straw doesn't change colour.
9. Make lots of noise —Point your finger and shout, “Go away” at any male who is touching you or invading your personal space. The language you speak is not important. What affects these men is the negative attention being drawn to them. You also should consider carrying a personal security alarm or whistle that emits a piercing sound.
I have no issues with people loudly calling out harassers or attackers. If they feel safe doing so, by all means yell, whistle, blow your fog horn, etc.
10. Don’t divulge personal information — When other travellers ask you what you do for a living and you’re not sure if they can be trusted, tell them you’re a policewoman on holiday. Wrong doers won’t stick around very long.
For me, this doesn't just relate to going away to far-off places. You don't owe anyone your personal information, even if you're just on the subway on the way to work.
11. Keep emergency money well hidden — Save your empty vitamin pill bottles. Roll up five 20 dollar bills, put them into the bottle and add some loose pills. Shake this container and it still sounds authentic. Nobody will consider looking inside; your money remains safe for when you might need it.
Now this sounds practical, too. There's no problem with having a Plan B, or even a Plan C and D, etc. Emergency funds and ways to hide them make a lot of sense when travelling.
12. Check Global Travel Alerts — Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada posts information regarding safety and security, local laws and customs as well as health issues in foreign destinations. A savvy woman traveller will take advantage of this service by doing her pre-trip research at www.voyage.gc.ca.
Researching where you're going before a trip absolutely makes sense. I have nothing negative to say about taking the time to learn about where you're going and what health and safety issues you need to mitigate or be aware of before leaving.

I know that people are so earnest in their caring about women's safety, that they can often take extreme offense that people would dare to not take their safety advice as being well-meaning. I am absolutely giving you the benefit of the doubt, and believe (until such time as I am proven wrong) that you mean well.

Your good intentions will not protect women from your rape myths.

Please take some time to learn more about these myths so that you don't inadvertently keep passing them along, and about the totally tangible, practical, and immediately implementable things that we really can start doing right now, today, to help stop sexual violence. Your readers deserve better from you, and you deserve to know the difference, too.

No comments:

Post a Comment