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a spot of righteous feminist rage

A man recently felt moved to write to me about my risk assessment and management skills. A man I don’t know. He didn’t comment publicly on the post that had inspired him to write* – presumably he felt his subject was so delicate that it should be addressed privately.

He opened his message with his credentials: he is a fellow cycle tourist, with 7 months previous experience of touring in Colombia. Well and good.

He made sure to compliment my blog and assure me that he didn’t want to patronise me, to reassure me that his intentions are good – which no doubt they are.**

He went on to tell me that, despite being streetwise, during his time in Colombia he had been robbed twice – once in Cartagena and once in Santa Marta. That’s a shame. Bad luck. Can happen to anyone.

But the thing that immediately struck me on reflecting on his experience was that both incidents occurred in areas that are highly frequented by tourists. I haven’t been robbed in two years of constant travel – mostly in Central America in countries where caution is generally advised– and in large part I put this down to the fact I generally avoid touristy areas like the plague.

I was indeed involved in an attempted robbery in Xela, Guatemala, which is another area with a large tourist and expatriate population. You do need to be extremely careful in these places and never let your guard down because a large proportion of the local people make their living from foreigners one way or another and there is clearly a living to be made.

But we haven’t yet got to spark that ignited my rage.

The man mentioned, apropos of nothing in particular, that he had arrived at “a seemingly paradisiacal Caribbean village” only two days after a Swedish tourist had been brutally and violently raped. She barely survived her injuries, he relates.

Well… so what is his point? It is not clear. He provides no further context.

Does he think the fact that women are raped is news to me? Really?

Show me the town, the village, the city street, the hospital, the school, the university, the car park, the back lane, the park, the beach, the office building, show me the square foot of earth where an act of sexual violence has not occurred at some point in history and I will build a shrine there in blessed awe at such a rare and holy place.

Comparative statistics on rape and sexual assault are notoriously unreliable due to cultural biases and varying methods of data collection. A quick internet search reveals that the highest incidence of reported rape occurs in the unfortunate victim’s homeland of Sweden. We can assume perhaps that this is due to a broader definition of what constitutes sexual violence there or maybe that there is less social stigma attached to being an acknowledged survivor of rape in Sweden than in more conservative countries. We don’t know, exactly, but let’s just agree that the data is incomplete and unreliable.

However, what is clear from all available data on sexual assault is that the huge majority of women are sexually assaulted by someone they know – at least 80%. So why is it that this well documented fact is constantly obscured by lurid stories of sexual assaults by strangers when that is, in reality, the least common form of rape? Why is it that the focus is not on all the rapes that occur in schools, universities, workplaces, and homes; sexual assaults perpetrated by teachers, tutors, fellow students, co-workers, ‘friends’, relatives, neighbours?

When I ponder on this strange bias – this disconnect between the data and the dominant narrative – I have to wonder what purpose, exactly, does it serve? The prevailing feminist theory of rape is that it is not about sex, it is about power. People who follow such things know that rape is now a recognised*** weapon of war and that its purpose it to terrorise and subjugate.****

This, then, is where the rage starts. What inference was I supposed to draw from this well-meaning man and his anecdote about the unfortunate Swedish tourist? He makes no overt statement but he later reinforces his message subtly – while voicing his opinion that I was wrong in believing that tourists are not specific interest to the various paramilitary groups that remain active in Colombia – by adding in parenthesis, “especially a woman alone”.

Elsewhere in the missive he claims he is not trying to scare me. Well, what in the hell is he trying to do? Isn’t this the real purpose of these stories and, in fact, the very acts themselves? To scare women, to keep them in their place, to curtail their freedom of movement, to increase their dependence on men?

And hang on, there’s a unresolvable problem here, isn’t there? We – women – are supposed to ask for support and protection from the very people who are perpetrating these acts of violence and terror. I think this is called a double bind. I am not supposed to be abroad, alone in the world. Or if I do persist in this insanity then I am clearly inviting whatever misfortune may befall me. But where on earth am I to go where I am safe from this threat when the majority of sexual assault is practiced by known offenders?

I would welcome open discussion on this subject. Shame and secrecy are part of what gives sexual violence its insidious power. Please, feel free to comment.

* See previous post.

** But then we all know about the road to hell, don’t we? Intentions are notoriously slippery and unexamined things.

*** Recognised as a weapon of war which is deemed unacceptable by international human rights accords.

**** So what does that say about our society then that the majority of women are raped by their friends, their neighbours, their doctors, their professors, members of their family?

{ 10 } Comments

  1. Marie | February 3, 2013 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    Right on.

    I’m going to post this on a feminist board I’m involved with.

    Glad you’re still kicking ass, Anna.

  2. Axel Nitschke | February 4, 2013 at 1:20 am | Permalink

    Hello Anna,

    i just read Your blog and like to let You know that i empathize with Your rage about rape and that i feel sorry about the way You interpreted my mail. I would like to respond to Your latest entry here briefly :

    1 ) My reason for writing You originally was that i was following Your blog and had the impression that You might be unaware of potential dangers here in Colombia. From Your return mail i already have learned that You are not. I simply wanted to help with some advice.

    2 ) I agree with your political assessment of rape and it sickens me that men are capable of it. I did not mention details ( like warning You of the town ), as the village tried to lynch the culprit, who unfortunately managed to escape to nearby Venezuela. This town is called Palomino and it sees very few tourists.

    3 ) In my experience communicating on the internet, especially with someone whom we do not know, is fraught with possibilities of misunderstandings. So, without knowing me, it is not surprising that You interpreted my words the way You did. Also English is not my native tongue, maybe i could have made myself understood better if it were.

    4 ) I obviously set myself up for this as i do not know You and therefore did not know that You might judge my intention as some kind of male hostility .
    I like to stress that : I did not mean to scare You !
    My intentions were good , and the rape example was just one of several possible dangers i mentioned ( i personally know more and i met cyclists in South America who told me of yet others ) and i think it important that cyclists warn each other of possible dangers.

    5 ) I do resent that You ( especially without bothering to discuss this with me further ), suggest that i have any agenda in common with rapists. This is an unwarranted insult to me. I have no need to control women or to keep them dependent on men or to suggest that You should not be travelling alone. In fact at this point in my life i have little interest in women at all.

    6) I will say nothing more about this topic, but i hope that You do feel less animosity towards me after reading these lines.
    If not, You can of course climb back onto Your soapbox, interpret these lines any way that suits You and let everyone ( who reads Your blog know ) what a chauvinist asshole male i am.

    Enjoy the ride and Peace


  3. Emily Chappell | February 4, 2013 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    This is a fabulous post, and has started the wheels turning in my head again (pardon the metaphor) after a couple of months off the road. I’ll probably have a lot more to say about it once I’ve reread and digested it a bit (and may even respond with a post of my own), but for now I just wanted to say thank you.

  4. Marie | February 4, 2013 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    Some dialog in the comments here:

  5. Lily | February 5, 2013 at 4:17 am | Permalink

    Interesting. I recently wrote something along these lines on my blog.

  6. anna | February 5, 2013 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Hi Axel ,

    I don’t feel personal animosity against you. I do feel a fairly healthy dose of irritation at what I consider poorly informed, unreflective thinking accompanied by little critical analysis.

    And clearly the general topic of this post does, justifiably, in my opinion, enrage me.

    I pointed out that I don’t doubt your intentions but good intentions which are not accompanied by informed, reflective thinking and critical analysis are apt to go astray whether on the internet or in any other space.

    I would respectfully suggest that, in the future, a more appropriate way of sharing potential dangers with touring cyclists at large is in one of the various fora such as On Your Bike or Crazy Guy (sic) On A Bike that we both frequent.

    All the best to you.


  7. writereaderly | March 18, 2013 at 2:19 am | Permalink

    Some more classic “blame the female rape victim”:

  8. Lauri Kilfoyle | March 25, 2013 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    Thanks Anna for writing about this type of violence toward women and the type of thinking that perpetuates it.

  9. Michele L. Appel | April 9, 2013 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Anna, for writing about this and encouraging the conversation. Also, for reminding me how absurd it is to heed the warnings of pretty much everyone for traveling solo as a woman. I live in a place where fear seems the first characteristic of the populace, and its getting to me. I would very much like an effect of any writing or conversation about my touring solo to be that women feel empowered to travel freely.



  10. Will Kemp | April 13, 2013 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Yeah, the road to hell is very well paved with good intentions. Personally it seems rather patronising to me to telling someone who’s done the journey you’ve done how to look after themselves. He’d probably be better off asking for your advice.

    I’m enjoying catching up with your travels again by the way!

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