I’m a traveler. A female traveler. A female hitchhiker. And, yes, I even hitchhike with my daughter.
When someone finds this out about me, they don’t ask questions like “What’s the coolest place you’ve seen?” or “Who was the most interesting driver who picked you up?” Instead, I inevitably hear:
“Aren’t you scared???”
And, from those who are direct, the question is:
“Aren’t you worried about getting raped!?”
When people hear that I hitchhike with my daughter, the comments can turn particularly ugly, like…
“There are lots of unidentified bodies found in ditches. I hope you and your daughter don’t end up becoming one of them.”
I actually heard the “unidentified bodies” comment twice from two separate strangers!
Yes, Women Are Raped and Assaulted Every Day
The rape statistics are very daunting for women. According to RAINN, 1 out of 6 women was the victim of a rape or attempted rape.
We watch rape as partly of our nightly TV ritual on shows like SVU and Criminal Minds.
Even our fairy tale characters get raped (I’m talking about you Snow White and Sleeping Beauty! The poison apple and spinning wheel needle might as well be a roofie!).
I personally can testify to how common sexual assault is. I was sexually molested twice before even entering high school.
Faced with the alarming statistics, and my personal experiences, you’d think that I would live in fear of getting raped. That I would take caution. That I wouldn’t do “reckless” things like hitchhiking… Obviously, that isn’t the case. Here’s why.
Rape Is About Taking Away a Woman’s Power
In her argument that rape is a hate crime, Laura Goode reports that 95% of rapists say they rape women “to make up for self-perceived feelings of personal or sexual inadequacy” or they find “the victim to be an easy target for release of his general anger toward women.” The other 5%? They do it sadistically because they get off on hurting women.
“Rape, in short, is a crime fueled by hatred—towards women, towards their power, towards their ability to choose their sexual partners and enjoy consensual sex.”
Yet, surprisingly 26% of people still think that rape is a crime of passion or lack of self-control. As Julie Bindel writes at The Guardian, even some prominent feminists doubted one woman’s rape claim because she was “too ugly to rape.”
Women Live in Fear of Being Raped
When I started researching for this article, I was surprisingly not-surprised to learn that there is a term for the fear of getting raped: virgivitiphobia.
Apparently, virgivitiphobia is very common.
In the book The Female Fear: The Social Cost of Rape, the authors found that:
- 1/3 of women worry at least once per month about being raped,
- 1/3 of women said that “fear of being raped” is “part of the background” of their lives and “one of those things that’s always there,”
- And 1/3 of women said they never worried about being raped, but still take precautions – unconsciously or consciously – to avoid being raped.
Basically, the threat of rape is so prevalent that nearly all women either live in fear of rape or change their lives out of fear of rape.
Think about that for a minute: Nearly all women live in fear of being raped!
What Does It Mean to Live in Fear?
Because rape fear is so prevalent and interspersed in our culture (here are just some examples of rape culture in everyday life), it can be hard to step back and see how it is affecting us. So let’s think about this through a metaphor.
Let’s say that every single day, you heard that, “Cars are dangerous!” “If you get in a car, you are taking a big risk of getting in an accident!” “1 in 6 people will have a car accident in their life!”
If you heard this message every day, the fear would eventually sink in. You might still drive a car – but only during certain times and on certain roads. Eventually, you’d stop going so many places by car. Without public transport or other alternatives, you might end up trapped at home. You’d find your options limited by fear.
Well, this is the same thing that happens with rape fear.
Of course men are also the victims of rape (though women are disproportionately likely to be victims). The difference is that men are never told to “be cautious” because they might get raped. I never once have heard a male hitchhiker be asked about fear of rape!
The Vicious Circle of Disempowerment
Yes, it is nice to daydream about a world in which women can roam freely without fear.
This is not the world we live in yet. So, it is reasonable to take precautions, right? At least I shouldn’t take my daughter hitchhiking with me…
NO, the solution is NOT to live cautiously!
When you tell me not to do something (travel, hitchhike, camping…) because it is “risky” to me as a woman, then you are giving the rapists and abusers power. You are falling into the mentality that women should stay “in their place.” So long as women don’t seek equal freedoms and rights as men, we will be safe.
With every warning to “be cautious,” you are taking away my choices and power in the same way that a rapist does.
This leads to an endless cycle where women continue to be disempowered.
Men rape -> women get scared -> women deny themselves freedom -> women lose their power in the process -> Men continue raping to further disempower women
As a mother to a daughter (and as a human being), this cycle of disempowerment is something that I can’t allow to happen. I can’t let my daughter see me taking “precautions” and not engaging in certain activities because it is more dangerous for women.
The Burden Should Not Be On Women Not to Get Raped
One of the first rape-related articles I found when searching was a Wiki How article on How to Avoid Being Raped (with pictures).
Some of its handy suggestions are “don’t get drunk,” “get drunk with a sober friend” and “watch the bartender pour the drink.” It then goes on to tell you that rape is committed by sad men seeking power, so there isn’t really any way to avoid it. Basically, live in fear.
That sure feels empowering. Or not.
When a woman doesn’t abide by the rules she’s supposed to follow to avoid getting raped – in other words, lives her lives freely – it becomes her fault if she gets raped.
She was hitchhiking. She should have known better.
What was she doing alone at night in that neighborhood?
She should have been more careful about accepting that drink.
The burden should not be on women to avoid being raped. Men simply should not rape.
I Refuse to Be Scared
In feminist and rape activism jargon, you’ll hear the terms “victim” and “survivor” being used deliberately.
- vic·tim:one that is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent; one that is injured, destroyed, or sacrificed under any of various conditions; one that is subjected to oppression, hardship, or mistreatment.
- sur·vi·vor:one who lives through affliction; one who continues to function or prosper in spite of opposition, hardship, or setbacks.
I’ll first point out that there are a lot of faults with these terms, such as the unpopular opinion that the term survivor suggests rape is some empowering event in a woman’s life, and that both terms put the focus on the woman and not the perpetrator.
However, for most people, these terms have strong connotations. I like how Rachel Waddingham wrote in her piece Who Am I? Victim or Survivor?:
“As a survivor, I have the opportunity to recognise the impact of my life experiences without being a victim. I can hold on to the reality of what I have been through whilst recognising that this is in the past. I have ultimate control of how this affects me in the present. Those who have hurt me have no power except that which I give them.”
This last part resonates with me. If I allow my fears to stop me from doing the things I love (hitchhiking being a big one), then I’m turning myself into a victim. The irony is that I’d victimize myself before anyone had even harmed me!
I’m not going to give up my power that readily!
I’d rather live as a survivor. Someone who heard all the warnings but decided that she wasn’t going to let a few shitty people change her life. She’s going to live on her terms. If any man feels threatened by that, then that is his problem!
How Would I Handle It If I Did Get Raped?
Well, there was that one time in Georgia where I had to kick and bite a guy who was getting violent. I was pissed about it for days. Yes, angry at him. Not angry at myself for talking with strangers. Nor was I thinking of all the things that I could have done differently. He is the one to blame for his actions, not me.
Yes, I still wear boots (for kicking) or sneakers (for running away) while hitchhiking, and scope out cars before I get in. The idea of getting an STD from a rape or halting my travel plans to file a police report is really angering.
But hitchhiking is something I love and I won’t give it up just because someone told me that I should be scared of being raped. I simply cannot allow myself to be scared.
So go have whatever “risky” adventures you want. If someone attacks you because you are a women, it is their issue – not yours! But don’t give away your power just because someone told you that you should be scared.
Has fear because of your gender, race, or sexual orientation ever stopped you from doing something you love? How do you deal with it?