Women who travel solo have to make many decisions by themselves, sometimes under trying or confusing circumstances. We interviewed several women travelers about their sexual experiences abroad, particularly in regards to any stigmas they face or any safety considerations they have to take that they wouldn’t necessarily have to at home. How does all of this affect their travels? Here, real women tell us their stories.
Trigger Warning: Sexual violence
Choosing a destination
Dating as a woman in the United States comes with many of the same concerns you’d find abroad: are your partners free of STIs? Do you have reliable and affordable access to birth control? Is the stranger you’re meeting on Tinder a serial killer? Just as we trust our gut instincts and take precautionary measures at home, women can do the same abroad without many other added issues. And yet, the idea of dating or being sexually active while traveling abroad seems to come with an added layer of concerns (we’ve all seen the movie Taken, and so have our overbearing parents).
These concerns are often due to misunderstandings of cultural norms, as well as tragic (albeit rare) stories of female American travelers abroad who encounter sexual violence. The Thomas Reuters Foundation conducted a survey that identified the most dangerous megacities for women, with a focus on sexual violence, as well as access to functional healthcare. While cities abroad like Cairo and Karachi top the list, it’s worth noting that cities like New York and London also appear in the top 20. So before you think somewhere like Mexico City or Lima are totally off-limits, remember that in several cases, these risks are present in other Western cities as well. While it’s true that sometimes women decide it is easier to just avoid locations that might result in dangerous situations, most solo female travelers would tell you that no destination is off limits to women, provided you take the necessary precautions.
Meeting up with strangers
At home, the ease of informing roommates, friends, or family members of where you might be going and when you’ll be back adds an extra layer of security. Even in countries that are traditionally considered “safer,” it’s a good idea to do the same thing. Jennifer says that she gets any potential partner’s contact information and photo and sends them to a friend, even one she isn’t traveling with. “If he makes me feel weird about taking precautions for my health and safety, that’s an immediate red flag. It doesn’t mean he’s a predator, but it means he doesn’t understand that men pose a threat to women — especially single women traveling alone.” You can also do the same with your hotel front desk. And just like you would with any Tinder date at home, it’s always a good idea to meet up with potential partners in public places.
It’s also a good idea be knowledgeable of when public places stop being heavily populated at night, or when transportation is harder to come by. Maria says, “My behavior when traveling alone is far more restrictive. I will schedule dates or meet-ups earlier, and not go out post-dinner time.” If you are going to stay out late, have a game plan for transportation, whether that means scheduling a cab ahead of time, or making sure you’ll have wifi at your date night destination so you can call an Uber if you don’t have a data plan abroad.
Traveling increases everyone’s access to a larger pool of potential partners; anonymity and isolation can also increase a desire for connection. Compound that with the fact that we tend to stay out late and drink more when we’re on vacation versus at home, and you may find yourself taking a more lax approach to safe sex. As a result, STI risk is higher in those engaging in international travel than those who stay home. And again, just like we would advise if you never even left your hometown: always practice safe sex.
Ivy says, “Condoms are a MUST! You can seriously never be too careful.” Barrier methods are the only reliable way to protect against most forms of STI — although some can be transmitted even using barriers, such as herpes. Carry condoms or dental dams as part of your essential travel kit, and don’t take no for an answer with new partners. Jennifer says, “In places I went, a lot of guys tried to ditch the condom midway through without letting you know — which I’m pretty sure is classified as sexual assault in America.” Be aware of your partner’s actions, and check to make sure this hasn’t happened.
The big three fluid-borne STIs — gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis — can be symptomless in women, which means that you (or your partner, if you have sex with women) can have them and not know it. You can encourage potential partners to get tested before you engage in intercourse, but this may be impossible for them to do, depending on where you are. You’ll have to trust your gut and possibly do some research beforehand. Jennifer says, “When I travel, I always look up any available information on STI rates where I’m going, especially HIV…A lot of countries still have a ton of stigma surrounding STIs, so people often aren’t tested or aware of their status.”
No matter where you are, if you have new partners regularly, you should get tested for STIs regularly. The CDC recommends testing every 3 to 6 months for those who have multiple new partners. Be aware that HIV can take up to 6 months to show up in your blood, so you may need to be retested to ensure the most accurate results.
You might find that it’s easier to access and use contraception while traveling than it is at home, especially given restrictive and expensive US health insurance. Jennifer says, “Contraception in other countries is usually a breeze compared to the US! There’s lots of airports that sell three- or six-month supplies of the pill. And the pill is available without a prescription in a lot of places — South Korea, Taiwan, and Saudi Arabia included.”
In other destinations, you will need a prescription, and finding a doctor to do so can be a very time-consuming process. If you do have health insurance from home, stock up before you leave. Maria said, “I typically bring 1-2 months extra birth-control with me as an emergency. It came in handy when I was stuck in Ireland for 2 weeks on standby.” Long-term travelers can also consider getting an IUD or a hormonal implant before they leave; IUDs provide birth control for up to ten years, while implants can be effective for up to three years.
Additionally, you may encounter trouble getting the morning-after pill in some countries, where it may not be available entirely, or (in places like Ireland) you may have to be interviewed by the pharmacist about your sexual history and consume the pill in front of them. If you find yourself in a situation where emergency contraception is unavailable, look to online services like Women on Waves. “One time I was about 6 weeks late and freaking out because I was in a country that did not offer safe, legal abortions,” Jennifer says. “I ordered pills from Women on Waves, but the postal service of the country I was in destroyed [it] because of strict regulations around medicine arriving through the mail. Women on Waves fast-tracked a new prescription from a doctor in India and hid the pills inside a greeting card.”
Another great resource is Gynopedia, a wiki that provides information about sexual, reproductive, and women’s health care around the world. Individual countries have resource lists, so you can receive assistance no matter where you are.
Stigma against women’s sexuality can have an impact on your travel, or even just your morale. Ivy says, “I have felt stigma against being an American woman who is used to casual sex. I’ve also seen a lot of judgement towards condoms, since [some people] see using them as a sign that you aren’t a virgin.” You may find that potential partners react in ways that are confusing or difficult, such as refusing condoms or assuming that if you invite them back to your room, sex is absolutely on the table — though it’s likely you’d face this at home as well.
That said, in many destinations, casual sex is increasingly accepted as part of today’s culture. Maria says, “At least in my experience and travels, it seems like casual sex is openly accepted and welcomed, since Tinder, nightlife, and resort attitudes are openly fueling hook-up culture.”
Harassment and assault
Sexual harassment is everywhere, but it can feel particularly difficult to deal with when you’re traveling. Lana says, “Once, when I was in a park on my own, I had a random man spit on me and call me a harlot. After that, I made sure that I always had someone with me if I was out of the hotel.”
If the country you’re visiting encourages women to cover up in public, follow the locals’ lead to help blend in and reduce your chances of getting harassed, whilst respecting the local culture and religious norms (especially if you are visiting a place of worship). The last time I visited Morocco, I saw a lot of tourists wearing strappy tank tops and short skirts while Moroccan women were in full djellabas. It was shocking to me, so I can only imagine how the locals felt.
For sexual assault survivors, hostels and other communal accommodation can be potentially triggering. Susan says, “Something I really hate is when people hook up in the rooms. As a rape survivor, I’m not comfortable in any sexual situation I don’t consent to and the muffled sex noises sound eerily familiar. It’s been the hardest part of solo-budget traveling for me.” If you are concerned with that being the case, all-female dorm rooms can provide a feeling of community and comfort.
In the worst case scenario that a sexual assault occurs, contact the local authorities immediately, depending on the local rape laws, and look to your accommodation staff for guidance if need be. Unfortunately, some female expats have reported feeling discouraged from reporting assault abroad. Jennifer says, “I didn’t feel able to report my rape [abroad]. I worried that going public would put me at risk of losing my job; parents don’t want women with “loose morals” teaching their kids.” Regardless, it is important to at least seek medical attention, and seek out women’s’ clinics if it makes you feel extra comfortable, and contact your local embassy if you are concerned about the local attitude towards assault.