Fear of getting raped is taking over my life
January 12, 2018 6:03 AM   Subscribe

I'm a woman who sometimes travels and hikes alone. I increasingly can't enjoy or do this anymore.

Right now I'm on vacation in Wyoming, and instead of enjoying these beautiful desolate spaces, all I can think about is how helpless I would be if I came across someone and he decided to rape me. I used to occasionally car camp to save some dough and I was planning to do it on this trip, but when push came to shove I was too afraid to do it.

Contributing factors:
- My mother worries. Her immediate reaction to anything I tell her about traveling is some variation on 'You're not doing this alone, are you?' and then if I don't check in every couple days or so on the trip (even if I'm with someone) she'll say 'I've been worried...'. I hate to complain about having someone who loves me so much, but it's really starting to get into my head that what I'm doing is dangerous.
- Last month there was an incident where I was traveling in a mid-size city and a man openly and aggressively followed me on an interstate highway in broad daylight (I'd pull over to get rid of him and then he'd do the same, then when I'd drive again he'd aggressively tailgate me.) I think he may have followed me from a town, and I didn't notice, which upped the creepiness factor for me. I think this just reinforced the idea traveling alone is dangerous for women.
- The #MeToo stories. Of course I support this movement, but it's really gotten into my head that around every corner lurks a sexual predator and that every man wants to hurt me.
- I've lived in NYC for the past five years, and though I used to live in a much less populated area, I've really gotten used to other people being around at all times.

Help. I want to enjoy my travel.

Other details:
- I've never been sexually assaulted in any way.
- Regarding getting people to travel with, if I never did anything alone, there are a lot of things I wouldn't get to do. I try to travel with people when I can, but I get a lot more time off than most people. I'm not partnered, so I don't have a default activity partner. A lot of my friends don't share my outdoor interests. I'm constantly looking for new travel and outdoor friends, including just temporary ones I meet along the way, but if I never did anything alone I would be sitting at home a lot, and I don't want to live my life that way.
- Sort of similarly, if I only went to destinations with a lot of people, I would miss out on a lot. A lot of hiking trails and destinations are just isolated or desolate, especially in winter. I mean, getting away from civilization is kind of the point. Sometimes I don't know how dead a place is until I get there.
- I try to use commonsense precautions when I can, in terms of letting people know where I am, carrying a cell phone, having a good working car, etc. I stick to established hiking trails. I've been debating carrying a weapon.
- I only travel alone in the U.S.. I've wanted to travel more internationally, but I'm too afraid to do it alone.
posted by unannihilated to Travel & Transportation (34 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I have travelled (including hiking and camping alone). The chances of being sexually assaulted by a stranger when in the wilderness is so low. Your greatest danger is twisting an ankle or breaking a leg and not having help (unless you have cell coverage). Or losing your wallet - I lucked out that time and it was found by some other hikers.

I know it's hard to turn statistics into reality. What I have always reminded myself is that a) the vast majority of sexual assaults do not involve strangers, b) I have been sexually assaulted and it's only happened with people I knew (often very well) - which is also true for so many other women.

Think of it this way: 99% of strangers are good people who wouldn't hurt you. If you're camping out in a rural area, the chance of seeing any human is very low. If you multiply the chances of meeting a human with the chances that human will hurt you -- you get very, very low possibility.

Also, when it comes to the few strangers who are predators - they don't hang around national forests, etc, looking for people. They go where people are: towns, cities. There was a serial rapist attacking women at my university when I was there. He attacked women in a somewhat isolated area, but still on a known path, not in any of the woodlots or totally isolated areas on campus. If I were a predator, I'd be hanging outside of a bar or club - not on a hiking path or isolated camping site.

For just myself, this is something I have felt strongly about for my whole life: if I restrict my movement due to fear, then the assaulters have won.
posted by jb at 6:21 AM on January 12, 2018 [25 favorites]

I travel and hike alone a lot, and worry far more about likely scenarios (getting hurt or sick in a remote place; run-ins with animals; etc.) than about unlikely ones (rape, murder, etc.). That said, I've found it helpful for the first type of worry to come up with a plan for what actions I would take if I needed to. This means I always hike with a first aid and survival kit, and usually a small knife or bear spray. I also tell people where I'm going and approximately when I'll be back. All of those things would also be useful in the extremely unlikely case of meeting a rapist or murderer on a trail.

Have you considered talking to a therapist about this fear? It's great to be aware of the risks of solo activities, but it sounds like your fears are disproportionately large to the level of risk you're taking on.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 6:36 AM on January 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

Strangers raping women out in the wild is less common than toddlers killing people with guns in the USA. Less common than getting struck by lightning. Less common than winning millions in the lottery. Sure, it’s not impossible, but it is freakishly rare, and I thought some context may help.

One thing you didn’t mention is if you’ve tried any self defense courses, or carrying something like mace. These can be useful not so much because you’ll need them, but they may help your psychology and confidence regarding hiking alone.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:37 AM on January 12, 2018 [7 favorites]

Depending on where you are, use of pepper spray for self-defense might be allowed.

Personal emergency alarms are also a thing.

Sorry, I know you're asking for tips to mollify your fear, but I've found that when I do what I can to be prepared (for the worst), I can at least tell my brain to fuck off. (not in those words, but you know what I mean).
posted by Spiderwoman at 6:40 AM on January 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

I would not discount the impact of the very real and scary experience that you had. As you integrate that experience, you may find it gets worse, in which case you might want to look for some professional support. And you may find it gets better.

I totally hear you that travel alone is a priority for you and I 100% agree with that -- I love going places by myself and I support you in that. For myself I believe the risks of assault are low enough that I am willing to take them. But sometimes I have to convince my adrenal system of that.

I have found my current solution is to practice martial arts. I am going to extol on the benefits below but I want to say that something like IMPACT (a shorter, self-defense-focused course) could really help.

TL, read if you want:

Martial arts is not a sinecure -- learning to focus movement for self-defense and power doesn't mean you can win all the time. But it has given me confidence for a few things:

1. That someone approaching me physically, pushing me, or even hitting me will stop me in my tracks. This used to be the case. It no longer is.

I have gotten used to body parts coming towards me and I have learned movements to retreat, block, fall, get up, and gain control of a situation in my body. This has given me more awareness and an ability to move with confidence and I think it makes me less of a target due to how I move.

2. I'm stronger and faster than I used to be, which I think would help me get away if I needed to.

3. I do know how to strike, and more to the point, I have hit things and people wearing pads 1000 times now, so I no longer have the female-socialized hesitation around throwing my weight into a punch or a kick. So if I were having to fight, I would start better, and that might gain me the advantage I need to get away, or scare the person off.

4. My particular martial art, which is local to me, explicitly teaches self-defense moves. It does also teach that it's hard to get really good at them and that they have limits in use, but knowing ways to dislocate joints, etc., is - interesting.

I have "real-world" used my martial arts only once where it came to being in the middle of two guys on the subway starting to throw punches. (I blocked, the emergency alarm strip had been pressed.) But I have had several times when in the past I would have been getting upset and now I have a different response inside of me which is more like "okay, this homeless person is holding onto my coat but I know I can do XYZ if I need to, so I don't need to freak out at all and I can just say hey, buddy, can you let go now?" And he did.

Finally - this is also very personal but - I have survived rape and assault already, and also a trauma labour. So I personally know that a joyful life is possible in the face of it, even if it still (and it does) sometimes terrify me. I also know that the risks of stranger danger are low. I do not think less of anyone who chooses not to do things in the face of that fear, but my own belief is screw the bastards, a few bad people in the world are not going to stop me from my life.

It might be worth having this kind of discussion with your mother, if only to articulate your position to yourself.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:47 AM on January 12, 2018 [30 favorites]

1) Stop reading the #MeToo stories. MeToo stories are only required reading for men. Women gain knowledge of these issues through lived experience. There's no reason to take that pain on. You've already lived it.

2)If your mom is reasonable person ask her to stop pushing her anxiety on you, because its upsetting. If your mom is not a reasonable person tell her that you don't want to discuss it, you will not be making daily check-ins when you travel or hike (unless you want to), and that everytime she tells you she was worried you will end the interaction. Then actually end the interaction if she continues to push you on this.
posted by edbles at 7:05 AM on January 12, 2018 [12 favorites]

I can understand what you're going through; intellectually you know you're probably mistaken, but that voice in your brain that isn't responding to logic is still unconvinced.

I wonder if maybe experience would help? I've been leery of solo camping for similar reasons (assault is one fear, but also a generalized "what if I do something wrong and the whole thing gets screwed up" fear), but am seriously considering a solo camping expedition to one of the sites here in the city itself, to sort of prove to myself that "see, you can do this." I have a feeling that actually going through the experience of doing all the tent-site camping stuff on my own will settle that part of my brain; in the meantime, that part of my brain is being appeased by the "safety net" element (if anything does go totally pear-shaped, I can simply pack everything up, get back on a city bus and go home, so there's no risk of, like, death).

So, towards that end - there are a bunch of places right here in the city that can give you the feel of "solo hiking", but with a sort of safety net element of "but if I just go a few dozen yards through the woods that way I'll get to a street where there are shops and people and get help if I need it". And you can even get to a lot of them on public transit.

Van Cortland Park in the Bronx is one option - there are several trails through there, some that cross over all the way into Westchester and keep going. I was on a group hike there a few months back and we took a little detour into a Westchester park that was gorgeous, and I've been seriously considering going back on my own in spring. And yet, you are never far from Riverdale or major roads in Yonkers.

Forest Park is another option - that's surronded by the Glendale, Woodhaven and Richmond Hills neighborhoods of Queens. It's got lots of traffic and streets and people all around it, and even through it - but there are also trails that take you away from the street and take you through the woods. Often my problem there is trying to get away from people - the quiet place under a tree I've found to sit is frequently interrupted by someone walking a dog, or a guy jogging, or whatever. whereever you are on the trail, you can easily get back to places where you can see people in like five minutes tops.

And the Staten Island Greenbelt is a trail network all through the center of Staten Island. There are about five trails of various lengths - I followed one from beginning to end and actually saw more deer than people on the trail. However, at some points on the trail, i was walking on a wooded median strip about 20 feet wide, running down the center of a Staten Island neighborhood. There were also spots on the trail where I had to leave the woods and cross a street to rejoin the trail too.

Finally, there's the "North Forty" in Floyd Bennett Field. Floyd Bennett is part of the National Park System - it's not a park as such, it's a "national recration area". It's a former airport from the 1930s that is now part of the park system, and they have a lot going on there - part of it is a protected grasslands area, there are ball fields and a gym, there's a guy in one of the hangars restoring antique aircraft, kids race remote control cars on one of the runways, etc. But the "North forty" is a forty-acre patch that they have devoted to a series of hiking trails with the occasional bird blind. that's another place that can "feel" very remote, but you're never more than a 10-minute walk from people and lights, and there are rangers who can also help you (you would have to cross the airport to get to them, but you'd run into other people on the way).

So I suggest maybe getting your feet wet with a simple local hike in a place like that - some place that "feels" like it's the woods, but you still know that "civilization is very close by nevertheless". I have a hunch that a few hikes like that may placate the part of your brain taht isn't listening to reason right now - you'll have actual experience of a hike where nothing went wrong, and that's harder to push against.

Memail me if you want a "guide" for the Staten Island greenbelt or Forest Hills or Floyd Bennet ever, too.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:06 AM on January 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I can relate to this a bit, at least the international traveling alone part, and I have the same desire to improve. So, yea, good for you for trying to get better and stronger and fight back the irrational, yet understandable, fears:

Would personal defense classes help? Even if you stuck to the nearly always better plan of flight instead of fight it might help your confidence to know that you have skills and muscle memory that could help you if push came to shove.

Someone above said pepper spray and that's fine but to take it one notch further I know a lot of hikers carry bear spray (at least in places like Yellowstone National Park) and while I'm not hugely convinced it's necessary or even a good idea for most of them it is certainly going to be a HELLUVA deterrent to any human that attempts to assault you and, bonus points, it's made to be deployable and convenient to get ahold of because, well, bears don't schedule meetings on your calendar ya'know?

You say you've been debating carrying a weapon. I'm neither here nor there on that issue though I am probably more favorable to the idea than the average (no offense intended) mefite. Four things go rigidly hand in hand with that concept:

1. You must get training and be completely confident in your abilities as it relates to owning and deploying a weapon, be it a knife, baton, pepper spray, tazer, or firearm. Non-negotiable.

2. You must be completely confident in your ability to, again if push came to shove, use whatever weapon you carry on a human. If you can't be certain that you'll do so then it is not only useless to carry it but it makes the situation worse since it could be turned on you, which brings me to number 3...

3. You should familiarize yourself with the statistics regarding how weapons tend to escalate situations, not always for the better for the person being assaulted. Run the numbers in your head and decide if it's a valuable tool for your (physical and mental) well-being or if it's simply a liability. Again, I'm more likely to recommend it than the average mefite probably but I certainly see their point when they mention the risk inherent in carrying a given weapon.

4. The PITA overhead factor is also worth considering insofar as it does add another level of complication when you go to plan and execute your travels. For example, the family members that I have that (legally) carry firearms in their vehicles have to commit and deal with the extra steps that come with responsible ownership when they travel state to state, stay in hotel rooms, visit households with children, stop at a family friend's house who does not want a firearm even in his/her driveway (which they respect), and so forth. Not to mention the legal overhead. And then there's the training aspect from point 1 above. All this also applies just as validly to pepper spray, batons, tazers, and knives, though it's not quite as serious as a firearm. I'd ask someone you trust who does this how they handle/feel about it and go from there before jumping into the weapons aspect of things.

Good luck.
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:20 AM on January 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

I find that folks from the city, when they get out in the woods, they seem to think that everyone is like a caricature of Deliverance. I've spent a lot of time in far out places, and I've only ever met cool folk. I don't want to dismiss your fear as overblown, but, it might help if you believed in your ability to defend yourself. I would get some self defense classes, some pepper spray, maybe even one of these things.
posted by trbrts at 7:22 AM on January 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Another woman here who has done a lot of solo traveling, camping and hiking, in the US and in other countries. Nothing bad has ever happened to me. (Which doesn't prove anything, of course, but it's always nice to hear reassuring anecdotal evidence.) Traveling alone just isn't that dangerous statistically, no matter what your mother thinks. And you're safer in the wilderness than in a city.

Maybe it would be helpful for you to do some reading about how bad people are at assessing risk in general. Here is a sample article. Maybe read some stuff from the Free Range Kids movement, too, for a perspective that might be different from your mom's and a generally reassuring attitude about the dangers of the world.

Depending on how a pet would fit into your lifestyle and type of travel, you could also consider getting a dog. A medium sized to large dog could help you feel safer and act as a real deterrent to possible attackers (even if the dog is friendly and would never actually fight back.) A lot of my travel was done with my dog. (But I felt just as safe when I was camping in Argentina without her.)
posted by Redstart at 7:32 AM on January 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

wow, I need the ability to get out on my own from time to time, so I would find this kind of anxiety a crippling barier to mental health.

even if you don't have a specific experience that's triggering this, you have developed an anxiety about your safety which is interfering with your activities and happiness. I think it's worth some time with a therapist to see if they can help you work through it, and/or provide anti-anxiety meds as a bridge to a better outlook.

good luck!
posted by acm at 7:38 AM on January 12, 2018

I’m temporarily dogless for the first time in 20 years, and I’m realizing what an enormous effect it has on my choice to “live like a woman”. I usually don’t lock my door at home, I hike alone in woods inhabited by homeless people in areas that are know for drug use, I pull off the road and sleep in my car for a while on long car trips alone. Even though a statistically improbably event in my past means I always think of potential dangers, I do these things without stress when my dog is with me. I love dogs, and I would have one even if it made me feel more vulnerable rather than less. If having a dog is something you would want anyway, you can put this in your thinking. To be clear, the value of the presence of my dog is as a deterrent. I’m fully versed in self-defense and martial arts, and I believe it is my responsibility to protect my dog, rather than the reverse. Any willingness my dog has to bite people only endangers my dog (to euthanasia), so an actively protective dog is not what I’m looking for. My time moving through the world with a variety of (large, friendly, non-foofy) dogs has shown me that is it possible for a dog to be a joy to me, not scary to people who don’t intend to harm me* and enough of a deterrent that it makes me usually not worth the risk as a target.

* some people are afraid of all dogs, or all large dogs, so there’s a limit to how successful anyone can be at having a dog who doesn’t scare people. I just aim to give people enough space to indicate their preferences in interacting with my dog.
posted by manduca at 7:41 AM on January 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Another thing to remember, I think, is that people in wilderness spaces are often more helpful to each other than regularly. We read about the bystander effect, but I think out in parks people are more observant of each other and more generally oriented to take care of each other.
posted by mercredi at 8:04 AM on January 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

As mentioned above, this is largely a stress coming from the internalized stories, so here is a bit more anecdata that may help.

I have two good friends (both women) who regularly solo hike. As mentioned above, people out on the trails tend to be good and helpful, and personal injury is the bigger risk.

My one friend (who previously solo hiked a good portion of the Appalachian Trail) broke her ankle in New Hampshire a few years ago. Fortunately, some men she had passed earlier in the day came across her before nightfall and helped her set something resembling a camp directly on the trail where she was, and then set their own camp nearby. The next morning they half carried her the five to six miles to a road access, went back for her car and got her on her way to an ER. Other than the 22 hours from breaking the bones to getting them set and the resultant long recovery after, it was all well.

So, for her, the folks she meets while hiking alone are mostly potential allies if things turn bad.
posted by meinvt at 8:19 AM on January 12, 2018 [10 favorites]

I do not know what I'm talking about at all here, but this sounds like something that's really well suited for a short course of CBT -- you have intrusive, 'irrational' (not really irrational, but the intensity of the thoughts is disproportionate to the actual risk) thoughts that are interfering with your ability to enjoy life. While I don't have personal experience with CBT, everything I've read about it is that it's for pretty much exactly that class of problem, and that it's pretty quick and effective. Anyone with more direct knowledge know anything?
posted by LizardBreath at 8:46 AM on January 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Can I suggest taking up Krav Maga?

"All I can think about is how helpless I would be if I came across someone and he decided to rape me"

So, the crux of the issue seems to be that you don't think you would win, if it came down to a man wanting to rape you, and you wanting not to be raped. So, I think the key here is to take the actions where if it came down to that, you would win.

Krav Maga is known for its focus on real-world situations and its extreme efficiency (as per Wikipedia); aka, it teaches you how to aggressively defend yourself.
posted by valoius at 8:53 AM on January 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

Anyone with more direct knowledge know anything?

My wife has a PhD and is the type that performs it and yea, layman who knows as much as possible about it from that sort of connection and all, it doesn't sound *wrong*. To be clear, I'm not saying OP has any sort of mental thing but CBT does deal with things like this and my wife, again (to me and not a few others) a world class mind on the topic, is a big fan of CBT when it is called for.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:54 AM on January 12, 2018

I travel and hike alone. Sort of. I always have my dog with me. We can alert each other when we need to. She can alert me to noises and smells, I can alert her to what I see from higher up (I’m short, but she’s shorter;)).

It helps me overcome my irrational thoughts (mine are bears and mountain lions), even if she doesn’t make me technically more safe.

Trusting the math that being attacked is rare is hard, but it can be done. A bit of therapy sounds like it would be so worth it.
posted by Vaike at 9:18 AM on January 12, 2018

I think this is a really, really clear "therapy" situation. There's a lot of advice here about other things you can do to feel empowered that you may find helpful in conjunction, but at the point where a specific fear like this is taking up headspace against your will and preventing you from doing things you used to enjoy, calling a therapist should absolutely be your first stop. If you were able to talk yourself down from this, you would have already. It's definitely not a weakness to seek out temporary help.
posted by superfluousm at 9:37 AM on January 12, 2018 [5 favorites]

I found taking a self-defense class helpful, although I did have a period of hyperawareness afterward that was not fun. I took a police-sponsored class because that was what was on offer near me (RAD).

Also on the self-defense track, I've found reading some of Susan Schorn's columns for McSweeney's helpful. She taught (teaches?) self defense at a feminist-oriented martial arts studio and her columns have given me helpful concepts as I thought about fighting people - thinking about marking your attacker with an injury, for example.

I've never had to defend myself - I have used that physical confidence plus the privilege of being a middle-class white lady to break up a fight and head off some others by physically getting in the way. It feels awesome to have that ability.

(Also, I just quit telling my mom when I do something she'd concern troll me about.)
posted by momus_window at 9:48 AM on January 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

If you recognize intellectually that the danger is low but you feel scared anyway and you're wondering how to make that stop, one answer is just to get out there and do these things until they seem familiar. People don't tend to find familiar situations scary. That's why most of us aren't scared of driving in a car, even though it's probably one of the most dangerous thing we do.

For a few summers in a row, I had a job where I had to walk into the woods alone very early in the morning when it was still completely dark. The first year I did it, I would get spooked sometimes, because people are just naturally afraid of being alone in the dark. I'd think about the possibility of a mountain lion stalking me, or just have vague "what if something's lurking nearby?" feelings. By partway through the second summer, I noticed I was just walking along through the woods with my flashlight, idly thinking random thoughts and only half focused on my surroundings, not scared at all. It all felt completely ordinary, as ordinary as a commute to work in a car. (And in all those days alone in the woods, nothing bad ever happened to me.)
posted by Redstart at 10:06 AM on January 12, 2018

i'm not sure if this helpful or not, but i was raped while I was conducting fieldwork in a remote location, during a trip that involved camping and hiking more or less on my own. It was awful and scary and terrible and had a lot of repercussions for me personally and professionally. But ... I got through it. I continue to do the work I was doing when I was assaulted. I continue to go about my day to day life and existence even when it is scary. A worst case scenario happened to me, and it wasn't OK but I coped with it (am coping with it), and I'm still here, succeeding.

Being able to keep going with what I wanted to do took a lot of mental toughness, a lot of support from friends, and a lot of time spent telling myself my goals and aspirations were worth it. But I didn't want to let the actions of a frankly terrible human being derail me from what I love, and I didn't want that worst case scenario to limit me in my life.

I wish I'd gone to therapy more extensively, and I am sure that would help you figure out where your limits are and how you can make yourself feel safe moving about the world. Now before I set out to do fieldwork, I put together a plan for what I will do should X, Y or Z happen. Having thought through those eventualities makes me feel more at ease and prepared - something like that may help you, too.
posted by ChuraChura at 10:08 AM on January 12, 2018 [9 favorites]

Anxiety runs in families. Your mom may certainly love you a lot, but she is also not managing her own anxiety and is turning it into your problem. This is, in turn, leaving you rattled. Which is hard when your anxiety is based on real stuff but also (maybe) disproportionately impacting your ability to do normal everyday things.

Rape and sexual assault both suck and are terrible. That said, millions of women who have dealt with them still manage to do okay. Which is not to say that you should live as if these things are inevitable, but that some real talk asking what you are actually afraid of may help you here.

I have found getting therapy and (occasional) medication have really helped when i have intrusive thoughts that take over my normal thought processes. Limiting stressors, whatever that means, as well as thinking about ways to manage the intrusive thoughts will serve you well here.
posted by jessamyn at 10:52 AM on January 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

I don't have much to add to the wider problem, but I'll second the suggestions for bear spray, which you can get almost anywhere in Wyoming.
posted by AFABulous at 11:01 AM on January 12, 2018

WRT car camping, in my experience it's actually pretty unusual to see single men in campgrounds. I camped through Colorado and Wyoming last fall and I honestly cannot remember one (except me). Remember that everyone will hear screaming and fighting in a campground whereas they might not in noisy NYC. Especially this time of year in Wyoming. I imagine they're really quiet. People are way more worried about wild animals and I'd imagine if someone was screaming they'd assume they were being attacked by a bear and come running with a gun. Choose a site near the campground host (who is almost always an older couple, in my experience) and make it known you're traveling solo.
posted by AFABulous at 11:10 AM on January 12, 2018

So I suggest maybe getting your feet wet with a simple local hike in a place like that - some place that "feels" like it's the woods, but you still know that "civilization is very close by nevertheless". I have a hunch that a few hikes like that may placate the part of your brain taht isn't listening to reason right now - you'll have actual experience of a hike where nothing went wrong, and that's harder to push against.

Statistically that's actually the MOST dangerous place, alone in a wooded area near a city. Out in the boonies you are incredibly unlikely to run into a rapist, I'm far, far more worried about bears. And pretty much the only sketchy people I've met traveling have been fellow travelers - a lot of young men seem to think that backpacking, travel and hostel culture is all about getting stupid drunk and hooking up. With the notable exception of Athens I've never had issues with the locals anywhere I've gone.

I do think this has entered therapy territory though and also set boundaries with Mom territory too. Right now you are in fight-or-flight mode waiting to be attacked and that's no way to live. I'd also recommend that you keep in mind that even if bad things do happen to you you are not ruined for life. Bad things happen to most people in time. we all die. If your mother is anything like mine she's strongly instilled in you that you'll be "ruined" or damaged for life and an object of pity if you undergo any assault, trauma or negative experience of any kind AND that such an indignity is inevitable. That simply isn't true, it's her anxiety being stuffed into your brain.
posted by fshgrl at 11:41 AM on January 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

I took a 1 day women's self-defense class which was AWESOME. Taught by a former police officer, we spent the morning talking about how to be aware of dangers and behaviors you can do which communicate to attackers that you are not an easy target, so they won't even try to hurt you. We spent the afternoon whaling on a burly dude who wore football pads - we just punched and kicked without holding back. One lady was less than 100 pounds and she brought the dude to his knees. My confidence increased because I had practical skills to confront a danger.

On that note, you should reframe how you tell the story about last month's highway stalker. Yes, it was scary and potentially dangerous, but you 1) became aware of the danger and 2) performed well-thought actions that kept you safe. You are the Winner in this situation, not the stalker. This proves you have the abilities to handle other dangerous situations (and, since this is your scariest story, it also underscores that these types of incidents are rare, particularly for people who are aware and prepared to meet them).

Finally, you may be able to talk to your mom about responding better to your hikes, but honestly, it came to a point that I just started lying to my parents. I chose someone else to be my safety check-in and told my parents imaginary stories about benign adventures (a meditation retreat where I couldn't have my phone, a group hike where really there was no group). Your mom's anxieties are really hurting you, and it will be hard to make progress while still getting new doses of anxiety from her.

And +1000 to hiking and car camping with a dog.
posted by sdrawkcaSSAb at 11:55 AM on January 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

From someone who's in a similar situation: stop telling your mother anything about your travels if they're outside of her frame of reference and/or comfort zone. In fact, if you suspect that your mother sees her anxiety as common sense rather than worrying, you might be better off never discussing what you perceive as the consequences of her anxiety with her ever again.

A major reason why I don't think it's good for you to share travel details with her is that it can be hard to trust an obliviously anxious person to support you if something happens to you during an activity that they don't approve of. My anxious parent is often casually victim-blamey when hearing news reports about drownings or hiking injuries or anything that happens to anyone who does something they wouldn't do themselves. Because they have serious trouble separating their comfort level from whether something's objectively safe, their reactions are unpredictable.

There are a lot of people who are comfortable with the concept of being afraid of something that's probably not really harmful at all, but that's not your parent. In fact, they may be incredulous at the idea that this is something emotionally competent people are capable of doing and often need to do to maintain good boundaries in their relationships.

They will also become extremely defensive if you at all suggest that their behaviours are contributing to your anxiety, especially since you're an adult, and they may feel that their anxiety is their right to defend. But if this is your parent, you have been adapting your behaviour to manage their anxiety since day one, before you had any choice to consent to them using their anxiety to gatekeep your life.

Don't be too hard on yourself, though. Given your situation, it's normal for you to feel conflicted and anxious about travel even if you're taking care of your personal safety. People with parents who don't take responsibility for their own anxiety don't have the opportunity to develop in the same ways as other people, and spend their adulthood learning these skills rather than relaxing and reaping the benefits of healthy parenting. And the worst part is that their parents don't even understand how their adult children suffer because they live in a world where anything they're fearful of is irrelevant to their happiness.

Cultivating a "Team You" that isn't necessarily comprised of activity partners but at the very least of people who can be trusted to provide moral support if you get in a snag will be a really important part of doing these things. You need healthy people around you who, if they worry, at least aren't going to make it your problem to deal with. Your Team You will call you out on half-baked plans - it's not like they're going to be constant cheerleaders - but they might also be good at helping you think through developing a safety net.
posted by blerghamot at 12:04 PM on January 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

I had this problem when I moved out of an apartment upstairs in a building to a freestanding house surrounded by nothing but lonely, windswept yard (other houses are like 15 feet from me on either side, but it felt like I was in the middle of a vast desert after the apartment building). I figured somebody'd break in and rape and murder me and nobody would hear. I didn't have much option--didn't want to buy a shotgun or have to feed a pit bull--so I just said, "Okay, well, you're right. I'm totally helpless and I'll probably die tonight and that sucks, but after all the sun is going to supernova one day so what does it matter in the grand scheme" every night before I went to sleep. After a while, I stopped thinking about it all the time.

Get your mom to quit it! Say: "Mom, if you don't stop ranting at me about how unsafe I'm being from just going hiking and camping like a healthy responsible adult, I'm going to buy a motorcycle and ride it Mexico and go scuba diving alone." (In her teens my cousin the war photographer reacted to her mother's nervous hectoring by buying a Harley and wrecking it a couple times. Her mother eventually succumbed to learned helplessness.)

I really envy you, by the way: you're lucky that you didn't start out with this fear and got to do all the hiking and camping you've done so far. Hang on to your independence. If you succumb to fear, you risk it extending to more things and making your great-sounding life smaller than it needs to be.
posted by Don Pepino at 12:56 PM on January 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Stop telling your mother beforehand! My mother used to worry a lot about me traveling alone, and for a while I just had to stop talking to her about it completely. It was like 10 years ago, and I was planning a trip to Turkey, and I just thought, "She is going to be so anxious about this trip, and I just cannot deal with that. I am just not going to mention it to her until I'm back." And I didn't! And honestly I encountered a few creepy people on that trip and (in a non-creepy-person-related incident) I got lost in the woods and ripped a huge hole in my pants, but I'm still glad I took the trip and I have taken many solo trips and done loads of solo hiking since.

Obviously this can be more or less difficult depending on how close you are with your mom/how often you speak to her, but I would strongly, strongly recommend going low-information with your mom about travel, especially solo travel. Show her the photos when you get back, unless she continues to freak out in retrospect. Don't feed her anxiety, and don't let her feed yours. Checking in with someone regularly is a good idea, but that can be any reasonably trustworthy friend. Heck, if you wanted to check in with me while you're on trips, I would be entirely willing to call the appropriate police department with your last known location in the unlikely event something happened.

Maybe enough of the anxiety is coming from inside of you that you will need to take extra steps beyond just not telling your mother, but honestly that made a huge difference for me (to the point where I now *can* tell my mother about solo trips and if she expresses worries to me I can recognize them as being mostly unfounded).
posted by mskyle at 1:32 PM on January 12, 2018

Woman who has done a lot of solo travel here, including rural and wilderness areas.

Read The Gift of Fear, it will help you know what signs to pay attention to without worrying excessively. Your mother has probably not given you much guidance on this for your entire life, this book will help.

On #MeToo, I noped right out of reading those when it started because I already know damn well that these stories are true, have lived them and don't want to be reminded, and know that it's not going to help me be a woman living my life to read more of them. It's ok to stop reading them. ESPECIALLY if it helps you take action -- like being a woman traveling on her own! Many women never try traveling on their own, and just seeing you doing this can be inspiring to others -- you reading #MeToo doesn't actually help anyone, unless a friend of yours has asked you to read hers or something like that.

There are a lot of online groups for women solo travelers, check them out. Safety is only part of the discussion, and people have real practical useful tips from people with the knowledge and experience to know. And it's great to have a place where people don't act like it's horrible you are doing something by yourself!
posted by yohko at 1:47 PM on January 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have done a lot of solo international travel starting in my early 20s and also like to drive out in the boonies and hike around by myself every so often. I've gotten warned/interrogated about safety concerns a number of times in a way I'm sure men who travel solo seldom are. "You mean you're going all by yourself? That's not safe! What if someone tries to rape you?!" It's funny that no one demands in a huff of concern to know what I plan on doing if a mountain lion starts stalking me while I'm out hiking on my own in the foothills, or if I get critically ill or injured in a country with limited medical care. Both of those events are definitely possible and constitute a real threat to my health and safety. but it's always stranger rape that people warn me about.

I've also never had friends or a partner who shared my appetite for international travel so like you, my choice is often to go by myself or stqy home. As such, it's an issue I've given some thought to over the years.

My experience traveling is that people are people everywhere, and the vast majority are perfectly fine. The worst thing that's ever happened to me is getting lightly scammed a couple of times. I have never once had someone make a credible threat to my personal safety. In some places I get approached a lot by people trying to sell me stuff, but they leave me alone once it's clear that I'm not a good prospect. In other places there is more ambient sexualized street harassment than I am accustomed to, and that certainly can be uncomfortable. In those situations I remind myself that there is a difference between being annoyed and being in danger. Sometimes people go out of their way to be friendly and helpful, and those experiences make for good stories and good memories.

I do always take a few safety-related precautions based on my own comfort level, as much due to concern about robbery as about physical assult. One is that I always try to stay in a private room. I don't couch surf or stay in dorm-style hostels. I don't generally hire private drivers on my own, I take shared transportation or drive myself. I buy my own drinks and keep a close eye on them. I try to be mindful of local norms about sartorial modesty and about public interactions between men and women. Sometimes this restricts what I am able to do on my own, but I'm comfortable with my boundaries. I've had some great experiences abroad.

If there is a lesson for women to be had from #MeToo, it's not that a sexual predator lurks around every corner. Rather, these narratives validate what we already know about patterns of sexual harassment and assault, namely that most perpetrators are known to the victim or have some preexisting social connection to her. It's not the guy sitting next to you on the train from Foreign City A to Foreign City B that you have to worry about. It's actually your supervisor's boss, or the man in your writing group, or the friend of a friend at the party. Traveling alone does not inherently put you in special danger, and traveling with familiar people is not inherently protective. It's counterintuitive in kind of the same way that it feels safer to drive yourself someplace rather than fly on an airplane but really, getting behind the wheel is a lot more hazardous.

Even if the improbable happens and you are sexually assaulted while you are out hiking or traveling on your own, that will not be your fault. Not at all. Not ever. It will not be something you should have known better about. It won't be something you deserve for not being careful enough. It will not be something you brought upon yourself by traveling alone.

Try to limit how much you talk to your mom about your traveling. I'm sure she means well, but her vocalized worry isn't grounded in reality and is not helping to actually keep you safe. Take a step back and consider what events are really likely versus what you have been taught to be afraid of. Think about what concrete boundaries and actions can help you re-establish your sense of confidence.

Happy trails to you.
posted by 4rtemis at 4:39 PM on January 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

This is a weird angle but people have already said what I was going to say about anxiety and families and therapy, so I'm just going to share with you one of the reactions that I've developed to fight this impulse in myself. That is:

Women limiting themselves due to fear of men assaulting them is part of what the system that lets men assault women exists to do. There's a narrative that gets sent around that women who step outside of the prescribed behaviors get assaulted, harassed, raped, etc. And that narrative exists for the purpose of keeping women in the prescribed behaviors. It also lets other women think that they have a magic way to avoid that risk, by sticking to the conventional and allowed behaviors, so it's tempting and often gets buy in from women as well as from men.

I also think it's largely untrue, the #metoo stories can be seen as an example of how doing the safe and normal thing - working a job, being polite to a client, dating, being in a relationship, being polite to a friend of a friend - is often very risky in itself. But the trick is that recognizing that this cultural narrative is meant to constrain me lets me put the strength of my own stubbornness and anger to work in my service.
posted by Lady Li at 12:43 AM on January 13, 2018 [9 favorites]

As to finding activity partners, have you checked Sierra Club or other organizations that may be scheduling group activities you could join?
posted by willnot at 7:47 AM on January 13, 2018

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