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Self Defense for the Solo Female Traveler

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Feb 22, 2024

Self-Defense|self Defense

Safety is a human right. So is solitude.

Solo female travel? That’s not possible. It’s too dangerous. Women shouldn’t do that. You should never travel alone. What if you get kidnapped? Aren’t you scared? Go with someone, a friend, a partner—ideally a man. As a woman, I have heard every argument in the book against going out into the big, bad world on my own. The fears and warnings above are just the tip of the iceberg. These questions/concerns do not intend to fear-monger. They come from friends, parents, uncles, lovers, and well-meaning readers—people who want to see me safe and well. Yet it seemed unfair from the outset that I had to bear the brunt of my family’s concern as I traveled solo, while my older brother had jetted off first without much ado. The double standard always chafed. Of course it all came from love, but that’s not the point.  Why did everyone worry so much about my safety, and yet no one ever suggested I take it into my own hands? The problem is not so easily reduced to a few knee-jerk comments and Hollywood-induced travel phobias alone. Rather, it’s how these well-intentioned aphorisms reinforce an out-dated social contract that discourages women from enjoying the same freedoms men do that does the bulk of the harm. There is a depressing kind of fatalism in writing off solo travel for women forever because, “the world is a dangerous place,” rather than consider, for a moment, that there might be solutions. That there might be strategies for personal safety that do not come at the high cost of freedom and adventure. For most of my years of solo travel, I got by on instinct and bravado. “Fake it ‘til you make it” was my response to getting lost, harassed, followed, or accosted. Act like you know where you’re going, like you’re fearless, like you’re unshakeable. Most people will believe it. Eventually, you will too. And while this worked, I made it through a decade of solo adventures unscathed, I still lacked some basic tools to not only stay safe, but also enjoy solo travel more.  In 2018, however, I seized an opportunity to train as an Empowerment Self-Defense instructor with ESD Global, an organization dedicated to women’s safety around the globe. Realizing that many women yearned to travel solo, but were held back by fear, I decided to offer more than just words of advice or encouragement. It was time for practical skills. In 2018, however, I seized an opportunity to train as an Empowerment Self-Defense instructor with ESD Global, an organization dedicated to women’s safety around the globe. Realizing that many women yearned to travel solo, but were held back by fear, I decided to offer more than just words of advice or encouragement. It was time for practical skills.

Action is the antidote to fear. 

Developed over the past 50 years by female martial artists and violence prevention experts, ESD teaches a compelling mix of physical techniques and verbal strategies for deescalation and boundary setting.  It was the missing link, a one-stop shop for women desiring to feel both safer and freer in any environment. After nearly four years teaching this methodology across Central America, I can confidently attest to the transformative power of discovering our inner fire. Knowing what our body and voice can do, and trusting we know exactly how to use them, instills cultivates a valuable baseline of confidence and self-reliance for solo female travelers.

Below are my 5 go-to strategies for staying safe as you travel, without sacrificing a single glorious moment of your solo adventure.

  1. Listen to Your Intuition  Women too often internalize the social conditioning that everyone else knows more about our boundaries and our bodies than we do. In fact, we know very well when a situation is unsafe and, conversely, when we can relax and settle.Intuition is the soft, quiet voice that whispers in your gut, “Yes.” “No.” “This way, not that way.” “Danger.” “All clear. The trick is learning to listen, and then trust that voice. When we are conditioned to ignore our gut, intuition feels ungrounded and impractical. In fact, it is very much the opposite. Intuition warns us when a person, place or situation is potentially dangerous. It may feel like tightness in the chest or belly, shaking in the hands or legs, buzzing in the forehead, or a general sense of tension or closing in. And, it will guide us to know when to trust new friends or dive into “risky” adventures. That may feel like openness in the chest, relaxation or softness in the belly or jaw, or a general feeling of leaning in. The more we heed these signs and engage with our intuitive mind, the sharper it will become. We can practice listening to our intuition in small ways—eating when hungry, resting when tired, changing position or taking a deep breath when our body asks for it—and with mindfulness practices such as yoga, meditation, martial arts, or unhurried time in nature.
  2. Understand “The Interview” The interview is a well-documented occurrence in gender-based violence, whereby a potential attacker “interviews” a potential victim by slowly and progressively pushing her boundaries to see if or when she will act in self-defense.Whereas popular culture leads us to think that violence against women is sudden and unexpected, most attacks are in fact slow and deliberate. Each step of the interview is an opportunity to set a boundary: They follow you in the street or on the trail. They start to ask you personal questions on the bus or at your campsite. They touch you in a way that feels uncomfortable. They don’t respect your “no.” We will often wait to be “sure” of a person’s intentions before setting a hard boundary or expressing a firm “no.” Fear of offending or overreacting leads us to disregard our own needs and our own intuition to avoid rocking the boat. This is exactly what a would-be attacker is counting on. The sooner you can identify an “interview” situation while traveling, the more easefully you can de-escalate, speak up, escape, seek support, or otherwise stay safe.
  3. Use Your Voice Be loud, assertive, and unapologetic. The best way to stop “the interview” in its tracks is to use one of the most powerful weapons in our arsenal: our voice. Setting clear, firm boundaries can deter a would-be attacker and deescalate a potentially violent situation before it starts. Your intuition will tell you when and how to use your voice, be it calmly stating a boundary, or shouting “NO” at the top of your lungs.Women often learn from a very young age to stay quiet, to play nice. And so it takes practice to override this conditioning and train ourselves to speak up when we feel uncomfortable or unsafe. It is vital that we do so, however. In a situation of attempted assault, it can save our life. (Note: Using the voice is not about calling for help, although we can also ask for support from bystanders if that feels like an option. Activating the voice connects us to our own core power, disrupts the “freeze” response to danger, and also discourages a potential attacker.)
  4. Stay (& Look) Aware Whether on the road, in the woods, or right at home in your neighborhood, awareness is key for personal safety. Staying vigilant—no need for stress or tension—not only helps us to identify danger or risk well before it becomes an emergency; it also can help us get oriented in a new environment, observe more details and beauty along our journey, and enjoy our adventure with full-bodied presence. As we rely more and more heavily on technology for navigation and communication, we may feel the urge to check our phones frequently. As a traveler, the best thing you can do is keep your eyes up, phone away, and look and act like you are confident and at ease, regardless of how you feel.Keeping your shoulders back, your chin up, your gaze relaxed and alert, and your feet wide serves two purposes: It communicates to the outside world that you are confident and aware (and you are). And, it sends a message to your own brain and body that you are not afraid to take up space, increasing your self-confidence and security at a cellular level.
  5. Keep it in Context Let's put the concept of women's safety in context. At least 90% of gender-based violence worldwide is perpetrated by someone known to the victim. 59% by an intimate partner. The "stranger danger" narrative of personal safety and self-defense ignores the bigger picture: As women, we are not at higher risk out in the woods or on the road. In fact, we may be safer there. Despite the cultural narrative around personal safety, all the fears and warnings I shared above, solo female travel is not in fact more dangerous than being a woman at home, at work, or in a relationship. So if doubts about safety are holding you back, or if friends or family challenge your travel choices, it may be helpful to consider that just being a woman is risky stuff.Staying home won’t necessarily keep you safe, and neither will staying close to friends or significant others. At times, these may in fact pose a greater threat. So you might as well go out there solo and live your adventure.  (If you would like to dive deeper into this kind of training, I recommend exploring ESD or IMPACT Personal Safety Classes in your area.)
Solo Roofnesters, I’d love to know what you do to stay safe on and off the road! Empowerment Self-Defense is about offering new options and alternatives, not tossing out all the strategies we already have. I know every single one of you already has a toolkit packed with self-defense techniques, whether you call them by that name or another. So what would you add to this list? What are your go-to strategies for feeling secure and confident on your solo adventures? Share your experience with us by contributing your story to this blog here: Solo Female Traveler Questionnaire  Share on facebook Share on twitter Share on linkedin