How Travel Helped Me Heal From My Sexual Assault
Since November 2014, I’ve traveled to fifteen different countries and eighteen states, an unimaginable feat for a girl who was born and raised in a small, provincial New England town few manage to escape. In October 2015, I started my own travel website to showcase locations around the world I fell in love with and the photographs I proudly took of them. I enjoy sharing adventures I’m beyond lucky to have with people from all over the world, and the sense of accomplishment I feel when I interact with readers on social media is something that, for a time in my early twenties, I never thought I’d ever feel again.
Since the road has long been a metaphorical vehicle for (white) men to find themselves and cure the restlessness that often accompanies a sedentary, provincial lifestyle, the act of traveling as a woman is revolutionary in of itself. As a lifetime lover of the written word, I internalized the moral, quite early on, that the road belongs to men, and a similar obsession with films reminded me that women are rarely in charge of their own stories, and even then, we tend to be relegated to the role of romantic prize. As a female travel blogger, I’m breaking more than one set of rules. Despite these patriarchal lessons I blindly digested all throughout my adolescence, I still believe that my stories, that my perspectives, are worth sharing. And, radically enough, I also think I’m capable of doing tell them myself.
By far the toughest part of my work is learning how womanhood and my mental health impacts my travel; the countless reminders I receive that the road wasn’t expressly designed for people like me. Our womanhood makes ordinary acts political, whether we like it or not.
For better or worse, a substantial part of travel is security. Airports, train stations, and, of course, international borders – security is everywhere, and as wanderers, we’re supposed to tacitly accept this as part of our on-the-go lifestyle. A trade-off, I suppose. Sure, I stood in line for forty minutes at the Glasgow airport only to be asked the stupidest of questions by the border agents, but hey, then I was in Scotland! (For the third time, no, I am not part of a school group.)
As a liberal, I’ve always understood the human rights issues posed at borders for racial and religious minorities, but I personally never experienced any trouble. The privilege that comes with a Swedish last name, right? I flew on airplanes once or twice a year during my adolescence and standing in line at a TSA checkpoint never once gave me anxiety.
Four months after my twenty-first birthday, I packed a moving truck to the brim and moved to Washington, D.C. to attend graduate school. This marked my first time living outside Connecticut, a goal I’d been working towards my whole life. It was supposed to feel triumphant; not only had I been accepted into a top Master’s program, but I had my own apartment and lived in a major city.
The fantasy of twenty-something urban life failed to come to fruition, and my first semester was hard. I started school with an unusual ambivalence, and my trademark self-motivation gave way to lazy days binge-watching The Mindy Projecton my laptop instead of dedicating every free hour I could to schoolwork. I found work as a nanny a few weeks after moving, and as soon as my shift ended, there I was, on my couch with a massive bowl of macaroni and cheese. Sometimes, I went to sleep at a time typically reserved for elementary school students, while other nights I met up with a guy years older than myself for uncharacteristic casual sex. In late October, I simply didn’t care when a professor pulled me aside and asked if graduate school truly was the right path for me.
Cue Christmas 2013, a holiday I love despite the fact I’ve never been religious. Since my salary as a nanny left much to be desired, my parents purchased my plane ticket home for the holidays, and I arrived at Reagan National Airport hours before my flight because I was unspeakably nervous I’d be late. This marked my first flight in a year, and the only time I ever hopped on a plane by myself.
After passing through the security scanner, a grumpy Travel Security Administration official silently put up his hand, offering no reason for the hold-up. I stood there for a few seconds until a female TSA agent simply lunged forward and started patting down my stomach. Without an explanation or a warning, I started tearing up and shaking. Yes, shaking. The woman scolded me, brusquely told me to calm down, but then quickly dismissed me and sent me on my way.
Luckily, I didn’t have any problems on my return flight to D.C. after the holidays. But, wouldn’t you know, the next time I went through airport security I had the same response to a pat-down. Since then, I haven’t been able to pass through scanners without turning into a sweaty, teary, shivering mess for fear of the unexplained and unexpected pat-down, even though I know grave misbehavior is the norm for the TSA, and I’ve since come to expect it. In fact, my fear of airport security actually keeps me up the night before a flight, a strange behavioral trait for someone who has made a career out of traveling. Of course, I exude anxiety now while waiting in line at a TSA checkpoint, and it’s perfectly legal for agents to discriminatorily pull travelers aside who show any symptoms of mental or emotional duress – or difference.
So, you ask, what changed over the course of the year I’d turned twenty-one? Why did the TSA agent’s poorly-executed “search” give me one of the most severe bouts of anxiety I’ve ever had? No to mention, what prompted me to withdraw during my first semester of graduate school?
That Christmas security incident at Reagan National Airport happened over two and a half years ago, and my response to unwanted touching, and especially touching without warning, has only gotten worse. Airport security is consistently my number one trigger for these anxiety attacks, much to the befuddlement of the friends and family members I’ve traveled with.
A few months ago, I was researching some topics regarding gender equality and wound up on rainn.org. For those who don’t know, RAINN refers to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network and is filled with information for those who have suffered through any of the aforementioned crimes. I have a Master’s in gender studies, so knowing my Internet browsing behavior would include rainn.org shouldn’t come as a surprise. After a few clicks, I found myself reading an article about how survivors of sexual assault can find airport security to be extremely triggering, even re-traumatizing.
I started crying. For the first time in over two years, I finally felt as though I wasn’t alone, and what had happened certainly wasn’t in my head. I quietly mulled over the article for a few days, and slowly, I started to feel like maybe, just maybe, I was capable of confronting what had happened to me.
Let me begin by saying I still can’t use the “r” word when describing my assault. It’s too charged, too loaded, too finite. Learning to talk about one’s sexual assault is a process, and I have a lifetime of internalized messages that blame the victim between myself and the “r” word. Does a part of me still think that my assault was my fault, at least partially? Yes. Although, I am happy to report that part grows smaller and smaller every day as I learn to confront what occurred head-on. It turns out that avoiding the problem and trying to pretend it never happened doesn’t work.
Why am I just speaking up now? This is the accusation levied at every single survivor of sexual assault who doesn’t file a report with the police moments after the attack occurred, and I’m saddened I even have to address this in 2016. I know women who have come forward only to find the reporting process more traumatizing than the assault. Trust me, I blamed myself enough for what happened. I didn’t want to be interrogated about my drinking, my outfit, my past sexual decisions.
Penetrating someone who is drunk, passed out, and fast asleep should be an automatic no-no, but sadly, there are many people out there who probably think this guy did not do anything wrong. A man who violently pushes on a woman’s head, demanding she give him a blow-job, would probably elicit laughs in some hyper-masculine spaces. Some might have high-fived him for hiding my clothes, effectively forcing me to spend the night naked, waking up every few minutes or hours to find various parts of him inside me doing things that physically hurt me.
When I finally woke up, I was sore and bleeding. On paper, I had every right to report him, but let me say, the morning after was so depressingly surreal I just wanted to put what happened behind me.
I didn’t want to be called a tease or a slut because I had kissed him willingly earlier in the evening, and I didn’t want to be accused of poor communication for my inability to say no eighteen times due to the fact I was asleep. I’d dipped in and out of consciousness the whole night, and by the time I realized he was still completely sober, it was too late. He’d planned it, keeping a fresh cup of alcohol in my hand even when I didn’t ask for a refill.
One of the worst moments of my life came when he said, and I quote, “once I hear yes, I’m not going to a listen to a no.” I felt like I’d been struck by lightning; I was the most drunk, vulnerable girl in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong guy. Unable to formulate sentences and dancing on the edge of consciousness, I was completely helpless and at his mercy, and I couldn’t stop him from forcing his penis inside of me multiple times that night.
I condemned myself for looking like a target, sobbing outside the party because of a nasty text exchange I was having with a romantic interest from college, the culmination of a “will they, won’t they” relationship that would have put Ross and Rachel to shame. My assailant watched as I handed my cell phone to my best friend; at that point in the evening, my biggest concern was that I’d text my college love interest something embarrassing and regrettable. I didn’t understand, at the time, I was renouncing my main form of communication at a party where nearly everyone passed out from drinking.
I also didn’t want to be accused of “regret sex” or “rebound sex.” Sex requires all participants to be awake and coherent. I was asleep. No one can consent if they’re passed out, and I didn’t want to have to defend my basic human right not to be penetrated while I sleep. What happened wasn’t sex, it was assault. There’s no such thing as nonconsensual sex. He had sex, maybe, but I know I didn’t.
Most importantly, I didn’t want to say anything because I’d known my attacker for a long time. We had friends, a community, and a school in common and whenever I returned to Connecticut to visit my parents, it was easier to avoid places where I might run into him than risk those I cared about thinking less of me. Nearly every friend I had was at that party; they all woke up the next morning and winked when they saw the two of us emerge together. It was easier to let my friends think happened was consensual than risk losing their respect.
All of these factors led to my choosing not to report the incident to authorities, and I honestly thought I was capable of living as though the night from Hell hadn’t happened.
Not anymore. Here’s where I stand today: men who hurt women are good at what they do. That’s why so few of them get caught. They pay attention and look for a woman who seems vulnerable in some way, and they know how to groom her. They know how to trick her into thinking they want what she wants, that they care about her. They know when to push, and they know how much they can get away with at any given moment without her rushing to dial 911. They know how much she can drink before she falls over, but they also know how to keep a fresh cup of strong liqueur in her hands at all times. If it sounds predatory and calculating, that’s because it is. These are the sons that hundreds of thousands of parents send out into the world. Normal parents, parents who tell themselves their son would never do such a thing.
This should be obvious, but none of what I described above is the fault of the woman. Women (and other non-male genders) should be able to publicly drink, cry, dance, or celebrate without being targeted. Doing so shouldn’t be the privilege of men; rather, it should be the right of everyone.
For nearly three years, I derided myself for looking like an easy target that night, for drinking too much and kissing someone with a reputation as a player. In my darkest moments, I’d even ask myself what I expected to happen. But as a feminist, I’d never ask another woman these question, and this led to me understand that us women are our own worst critics.
I’m not sure why airport security is my major trigger; unfortunately, this is my burden to work through, since I don’t see our security state changing to suit the needs of minority groups during my lifetime. What I do hope is that the Travel Security Administration learns to handle pat-downs with more empathy, sensitively, and professionalism. Survivors of sexual assault and abuse span all ages, genders, religions, races, and ethnicities, and there is no way to tell who might be triggered by a poorly conducted search. And sexual assault survivors aren’t the only ones traumatized by TSA searches, as Muslim and minority travelers know well.
Nonetheless, it’s important that I keep traveling, that I continue to book flights, and that I pursue my love of panoramic views by climbing up mountains and European churches as much as possible. There are too many fellow survivors too scared to travel, too paralyzed by the thought of facing their trigger while on the road that I feel almost obligated to do what I am capable of. As much as I don’t like to admit it, a part of me forever changed that night, years ago, when my body was forced to do things I didn’t want it to. That man stole a piece of my optimism and naiveté from me, but I can’t let him take my passion, too.
Travel has played an irrevocable role in my journey as a survivor. While an invasive pat-down may send me into a full-blown panic attack, I’ve also had some of my most triumphant and rehabilitative experiences while on the road. From hiking to a mountaintop in Scotland’s spectacular Loch Lomond National Park to befriending a charismatic restaurant owner in Istanbul, globetrotting has helped me regain confidence. Navigating Paris all by myself made me feel capable, while visiting the Teotihuacan pyramid complex in central Mexico connected me to something greater than the present day. I’m finally starting to feel able and worthy again, and I owe this to travel forcing me to confront my assault. Writing about my travels has restored my sense of validity, and has reminded me that my experiences and perceptions matter.
Learning that post-traumatic stress disorder can affect anyone, not just soldiers returning from combat in the Middle East, has helped tremendously. No, I’m not crazy and my response at airport security isn’t mere melodrama. I ache for the day when the flashbacks and nightmares and triggers and the desire to retreat cease completely, but I’m forever grateful that travel magnified and helped me come to terms with my PTSD before it grew out of control. The way I occasionally fully relieve my assault in the privacy of my apartment and the nightmares that feel so real in my sleep are easy to hide, and fit neatly into my former plan of “let’s pretend this never happened, because it’ll go away.”
Traveling saved my life; from standing at the base of a two hundred-foot tall waterfall to taking an impulsive sunset cruise along the Bosphorus Strait, most of my experiences on the road have been forgiving, non-judgmental, and rehabilitative. I suppose what I’m trying to say is this: whether or not you’re ready to confront your ghosts, whatever they may be, the road has something for you – I promise.