I set off backpacking when I was 37 with great excitement. I didn’t realize that in addition to seeing some of the great sites the world has to offer I would also be sexually assaulted numerous times. In fact sexual assault was so commonplace when I travelled throughout South America it was almost like I became desensitized to it and didn’t connect some of the incidences as sexual assault for some time. But the comments and innuendos as I walked in the streets, the constant attempts by men (sometimes married) to get me to go back to their rooms with them from taxi drivers to hostel owners to men I walked past in the street it was relentless. And it was sexual assault – verbal and then a couple of times physical.
The first major incident was when I was staying in a hostel in Bolivia. The showers were unisex and the cubicles too small to get changed in. I was in the showers at night changing under a towel when I looked up and saw a man standing in the doorway staring at me. When I glared at him he ran off. I went into the shower and locked the door. While taking a shower I was suddenly aware of a bright flash of light. I looked up to see a hand holding a camera thrust over the shower door then the sound of footsteps running away. I was so startled I didn’t know what to do – I didn’t expect to have someone try to take a photo of me while I was taking a shower. I finished then went to the hostel reception and told the guy there. He said; Oh no, well we’ll do something about it tomorrow. I said: No, we’ll do something about it now, he must be staying here in the hostel (there was very tight security at the door). He reluctantly walked around the hostel with me and sitting at the bar was a local man drinking beer with a camera nonchalantly placed on the bar beside him. When the hostel guy confronted him the guy just casually said there were no photos on his camera still and I was welcome to check. He didn’t even see the need to deny what he’d done – it was as if he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. This is what bothered me the most. I checked his camera and saw nothing but said that wasn’t the point – he couldn’t just go and take photos of women taking showers. I went back to my room, grateful there were others in it with me, crawled into bed and cried. The next day the woman who owned the hostel apologized to me. I told her I wanted to go to the police. I wasn’t sure if what he had done was technically a ‘crime’ but I felt that he didn’t realize the seriousness of it and I also felt that if he got away with things such as this one day he might try to rape a woman if he hadn’t already. If telling my story could get him into enough trouble so he’d think twice next time and I could prevent another woman being attacked I had to go to the police. The hostel owner begged me not to go and said he’d been banned from the hostel. But I did go to the police. I lined up with other tourists complaining of having passports and wallets stolen then told the policeman a man had taken a photo of me while I was in the shower at my hostel. He licked his pencil, wrote everything down in a report and piled me into a police car back to the hostel. At the hostel he started telling off the woman who owned the hostel – it was her job to keep tourists safe. I said it wasn’t her fault – he needed to go after the man who had done this as she knew him. I’m not sure what happened after this as I left the next day. I’m not sure if the police merely used it as a way to extract a bribe, which is what I suspect. I just hope they did follow it up with the man and so he realized that a woman he victimized might cause trouble for him.
The second incident was more terrifying. It happened while I was in Peru. The sun was just starting to set so I decided to walk back to my hostel so I would arrive before the light got too low. I turned into a path to my hostel and suddenly heard footsteps running behind me. I turned around and saw a guy jogging. He’s come out of nowhere but he had a shirt tied around his waist so hopefully he was just exercising. There was no one else around so I had to keep going down the path. I walked quickly and immediately felt a hand in between my groin. I was terrified – there was no one around so if he wanted to rape me there would be nobody to hear – but managed to spin around and confront him. I told him I didn’t have anything for him to steal. He took a step back. I then asked if there were any tourist police around. He took another step back. I spun around and marched off hoping he wouldn’t do anything else. Before long I saw a security guard sitting by the side of the road. My attacked jogged past. I asked the guard if he knew him. He shook his head. I told him I’d just been attacked. He did nothing and by now the guy was far off in the distance. I went back to my hostel and told the owner. He said ‘Did you enjoy it?’
Unfortunately backpacking around the world has made me realize one thing – women are still treated unequally and at times violently in most of the world. I don’t know if the guy who attacked me in Peru meant to rape or just molest. I was certainly lucky to escape anything worse happening to me. Many women are not so lucky.
I suspect a part of preventing attacks on women is educating the ones doing the attacking. As women could we start speaking out about the little things? For example recently a guy made a pass at me (putting his arms around me) and when I told him I didn’t feel comfortable he stopped. Later he tried again though. I left and felt angry. Why didn’t I say anything when he did something I’d already told him I didn’t want him to do? Why did I feel like I had to be ‘nice’? So the next day I told him that if a woman says no she means no. He tried to make out there had been some ‘misunderstanding’ but I told him there hadn’t. I just felt like if I didn’t tell him that no means no – whether it’s a hug or something else – he would do it again to someone else and maybe the situation would escalate to a full on attack one day. I felt better after talking to him even though it was awkward at the time. But it did make me wonder why as women we feel like we have to be so ‘nice’ all the time even when men are doing things to us we don’t like? Why did I feel embarrassed when he was the one that had done something wrong? Why are we conditioned to feel we have to protect everybody’s feelings but our own?
— Karen, age 43