Fear of becoming a victim of crime continues to dominate almost every discourse on gap year or independent world travel, despite the facts and the statistics showing that relatively speaking it is no more dangerous than staying at home. I want to use my experience and background to give all potential travelers some perspective on the issue of travel safety and provide you with some real, practical advice.
Anyone planning to take a gap year or backpacking trip will have to run the usual gauntlet of concerned friends and relatives reacting as if you have just said you are planning to walk naked into an active war zone with a huge target painted on your back.
Parents are often guilty of this the most, and account for a good portion of the emails and messages I get every single day about safety concerns when travelling. It is understandable of course, they are just worried about their loved ones setting off on their gap year adventures, but many of their concerns are overblown due to the messages they receive from the mass media.
Some of the reactions you get will of course will be positive, some may even be jealous, but others will throw the word ‘dangerous’ in your face as much as possible and for many travellers that will build up an unnatural and unbalanced sense of fear.
I have always been blessed – or cursed, depending on your perspective – with a profound lack of that fear. I don’t say that out of a misguided attempt at masculine bravado. That is the honest truth. I have been aware of potential risks on a dispassionate, intellectual level, but have never really let them become more than a potential risk or obstacle to prepare for.
Now granted, I’m not exactly your average traveller.
I have studied various martial arts forms from early childhood, specifically the Japanese arts of Karate, Judo and Ju Jitsu, although I have tried my hand at a few others during my travels to different cultures as well and have gained a profound sense of self confidence and self esteem from that. I have even taught hostile envioronment training, personal protection, martial arts and self defence courses to both civilians and professionals in my time, both men and women. On top of this I have military training from an earlier career choice and on top of that over 20 years experience of travelling the world, including to many of the worlds supposed ‘danger zones’.
I guess that is a fair amount of training and experience in understanding the realities of danger, the real levels of risk and keeping myself safe.
Now being 6″2 and not exactly a small guy by most standards, all of this gives me a fair advantage when it comes to – physically at least – protecting myself and keeping myself safe on the road, and I have had it said to me – especially by women – that because of this I can’t possibly understand what it is like to travel the world and be at risk.
I can see where they may be coming from, in a sense, but I heartily disagree on two very different levels.
I would argue that this experience gives me a particularly unique understanding of the dangers of travel, the dangers of everyday life and how to protect myself from both, far more so than the average person and certainly more so than anyone who is simply going off subjective personal feelings to justify a point.
All of my skill, training, physical size and other factors I have cultivated are layers of protection that specifically reduce my natural risk factors. They are conscious choices to specifically reduce the already minimal amount of potential risk even further, they are not innate abilities that somehow magically and automatically make me safe. And more than that, given that my first degree was in Criminology and my dissertation for that degree was a study on the gendered differences on the fear of crime, all of this gives me a deeper understanding of what it means to fear becoming a victim of crime versus the actual reality.
You see all of these protective layers of training and knowledge do not make me magically immune to becoming a victim. In fact as a man statistically I am much more likely to become a victim of every other form of violent crime bar one than women are, and am far more likely to be killed as a result. None of this training or knowledge make me immune from risk, they just give me the tools and knowledge I need to understand that risk, reduce it as much as possible and avoid, deescalate or deal with events if they do occur.
Bad things happen to good people all over the world.
Of course wherever you go and whatever you do there is always a chance – however remote – that something bad may happen. Bad things happen to good people all of the time, as much at home as it does when travelling, probably more so in fact, and it is absolutely essential to prepare for and protect yourself from the prospect of those things happening to you.
In this regard I am not in any way trying to dismiss anyone’s genuine fears or concerns about travelling the world. The prospect of something terrible happening is scary. I get that.
It is important to respect those opinions and deal with them in a very real and head on way, because that fear is there for a reason. It is a natural human reaction to the unknown and a defence mechanism of sorts to try and keep you from putting yourself in harms way. From an evolutionary standpoint those instincts have been honed since the time the very first world travellers may have genuinely been stalked by a sabretooth tiger as they wandered in search of food. That part of feeling the fear is completely understandable.
However, I also think it is important to manage those fears and concerns and inject a healthy dose of realism into them.
Yes bad things can and do happen, but they do not happen to everyone all of the time, and the absolute fact is that the majority of the time they won’t happen at all.
It is completely natural to be concerned about the potential risks out there but is is so important to have a realistic balance about that risk and prepare for it in a sensible and practical way. Where many people go wrong is when they allow those fears to become all consuming and dictate their actions.
Precaution is good. Fear is not.
A big problem here is the general public’s perception of travel and safety, which is often based on extreme philosophical ends of the truth.
Read a great deal of travel blogs or travel publications and you will often see world travel portrayed as a sanitised, wonderful utopia where you will discover yourself, have amazing adventures and meet awesome locals who will only ever want to befriend or help you.
Listen to the mainstream media and you will think that the world has descended into a crazed civil war where the entire population of every given country wants to kidnap, rape, murder, rob or scam you – not necessarily in that order – the second you get off the plane.
Listen to most feminists, or even a lot of women in general, and the term ‘especially for women’ crops up time and time again when talking about how dangerous the world is. This dangerous fabrication paints a picture of a world were no woman is safe, ever. It paints a patronising picture of women as eternal victims, where every single woman will be raped or sexually assaulted at all times, every single day, a picture where if a woman dares to travel it is guaranteed that she will become a victim.
The truth is the reality of travel is somewhere in the middle of those extremes, but for the vast majority of people the vast majority of the time it is far closer to the former rather than the latter on a sliding scale.
Fear versus reality.
Let’s for a moment just look at the statistics here. According to the Office For National Statistics and The Foreign Commonwealth Office for example, the evidence shows that out of the 4 million UK citizens who travelled abroad between 2014 and 2015 (the latest specific statistics on consular assistance for travellers available at the time of writing), only 19, 244 travellers needed consular assistance after becoming the victim of a crime worldwide, and that is for a wide range of issues, including non crimes such as losing a passport.
Maths isn’t exactly my strong point, but isn’t that a pretty low percentage? Less than 20,000 people who became victims of a crime out of 4 plus million?
And while we are at it, why not look at the statistics of our own home countries too? Crime rates in the US or the UK for example are often higher than in many of the popular destinations backpackers and travellers head to. You may just come to the conclusion that it can be as dangerous to stay at home than travel the world!
Bad things can happen to good people anywhere, anytime.
Now I do have to say as a disclaimer that I am aware – like most academics – of the problematic nature of statistics. Statistics are not infallible and do not always present the whole picture, they can never take 100% of the information into account and certainly do not offer deeper analysis or understanding of the issues.
There is also the issue of statistical pedigree, where a vast number of statistics are constantly stated as fact when the sources of those statistics are ‘problematic’ to use a polite term. Take many of the ‘1 in 5’ rape statistics that are used by feminist organisations and most of the mass media, despite the fact that they have been reputably debunked as coming from a highly dubious and unrepresentative internet study with faulty methodology, and shown to be wildly inaccurate from genuine data from the US Bureau of Justice.
It is of paramount importance that the source of any data is of the highest academic and scientific calibre possible, and can be – and has been – academically peer reviewed and replicated multiple times over a long period.
However as a scientific platform, when taken from reliable sources statistics are still the gold standard of quantitative data for understanding issues on a large scale, they take into account a vast range of data as opposed to relying on a singular subjective and emotive account as qualitative data does, and when data is compiled by renowned and respected sources and collected using sound academic and scientific methodology then statistics are by and large trustworthy and accurate when giving a large, overall picture of any given subject.
I used example crime and victim statistics from the UK only out of expediency, but those for the US, Europe and Australia show similar percentages and more importantly are all reasonably stable over time. These specific examples from the Consulate data are also very broad averages and do not always distinguish between violent crimes, petty crimes or misdemeanors for example, and these statistics are even skewed by numbers of travellers needing consular assistance due to their own actions, being hospitalised due to a drunken accident for example.
They do however give a very broad overview of just how skewed the fearmongering amongst the mass media is and how unreasonable a lot of the fear of becoming a victim of crime is.
Whilst this data in no way takes away from the fact that when people are victims of any crime it can often be a terrible, frightening and in some cases devastating experience. No one is doubting that and qualitative data seeking to understand those experiences are an important part of the puzzle too, but what it does show on a much larger scale is that these individual experiences, no matter how bad, can never be taken as the norm and on a much larger scale the actual victims of crime are a fraction of those who actually travel the world and come back home safe and sound.
Given that rape and sexual assault are two crimes that are very specifically singled out in these statistics, let’s use them to discuss a very specific example of a specific crime that most women in particular tend to quote as their main fear when talking about becoming a victim.
The Crime Survey of England and Wales, formerly known as the British Crime Survey is considered a gold standard in Criminological research as it shows trends in crime over a large population size over a long period of time and changes in police activity, recording practices and propensity of reporting crimes are factors that are taken into account when calculating data. The research shows that the fear levels of all crime in both genders was significantly higher than the risk of becoming a victim. This was true across the board and has been a consistent fact every year in over 15 years of data. It also shows that women specifically have a higher level of fear than men do of becoming a victim of any violent crime and have a higher fear of becoming the victim of rape or sexual assault than the actual statistical risk of becoming one. It is a fair judgement to say that statistically women significantly fear becoming the victim of rape or sexual assault, a conclusion borne out by numerous qualitative studies too.
Yet using the same consular data used above, out of more than 65 million UK outbound travellers in the 2014 – 2015 period, there were just 106 rapes and 152 sexual assaults of travellers where police and consulate assistance was necessary. Worldwide.
People will argue that those numbers are still 106 rapes and 152 sexual assaults too much, and I’d personally find it hard to disagree with that. No one is denying that each and every single incident is a terrible, horrific crime, but it still shows that the fear of becoming a victim is far greater than the actual statistical chances.
The recent hysteria over safety in Thailand, and in particular the island of Koh Tao, is a prime example of how skewed the fear of crime can be over the actual reality. Fear of becoming a victim started reaching fever pitch when a social media post went viral, yet the national statistics specific to Thailand (for UK travellers) show that out of 956,312 travellers and residents in Thailand in 2013 – 2014, there were 362 deaths in total, 11 rapes and 6 sexual assaults.
Any of these crimes, any incident where a traveller becomes a victim is horrific. I do not for a second deny that and do not in any way mean to demean any victims experience. I just want to put the fear of becoming a victim of these crimes into a little perspective.
Because fear is always subjective, and whilst that can be completely understood, it must also always be put into perspective with a realistic look at the actual risks too.
When statements like ‘it’s too dangerous to travel as a woman to Thailand because you will be raped or murdered’ are on the verge of becoming so common that they are practically hyperbole, and a common erroneous assumption that all women travellers at all times will always be a victim and will always be at risk, someone needs to step up and just introduce some common sense into the fearmongering. Yes, you may be one of the 11, but you are much more likely to be part of the other million or so. Yes bad things can and do happen, but the likelihood is that they won’t.
In this National Geographic article asking if women should even travel alone to India at all, the phrase from the author ‘I’m surprised by the statement, I expected a more negative response to my questions about … travelling in India’ tells you everything you need to know. It is expected that the world is dangerous for women, the fear of becoming a victim is in many ways imposed on women, but the reality shows a very different picture indeed. And yet despite that the article still persists with the victim narrative.
Cultural stereotypes and safety.
One of the things I hear so often from female readers on the topic of safety is the fact that women are treated differently in other parts of the world.
Well yes, they are. That is because there are a wide variety of countries with differing cultural, religious and societal paradigms, and there are many societies where men and women are treated differently than they are in the average western society. There are some countries that are still largely patriarchal, there are many places were those differences will be negative and also many places were those differences can be positive too.
That difference does not automatically make it more dangerous to travel to those places.
There are places that will challenge female travellers on many levels, you may encounter situations that challenge your own political or social belief systems or even make you feel uncomfortable. That does not necessarily make them dangerous. In fact being challenged and exploring different cultural viewpoints is one of the reasons to and the best parts of travel!
Yes you may encounter cultures that have different paradigms on gender to your own Western ideals, especially in large parts – not all – of the Middle East for example. You may come across individual men who are misogynistic in their behaviour or attitudes, just as I have encountered misandrist women in the West! You’ll get idiots like that anywhere in the world, that doesn’t mean everyone will be like that all of the time. But at the same time those very same cultures may give you the experience of other women actively looking out for you, inviting you into their homes for a meal or showing you to the female only train carriage in a way that male travellers never will.
Is the fact that many countries are still very patriarchal and view women in a certain way wrong? Well, not for them. Those views may be seen as wrong in the West, but you are a visitor in another culture and it isn’t for you or us to judge.
What those societal norms are not – and I emphasize that word very specifically – is an automatic danger zone for all women.
You can’t paint entire regions or cultures as unsafe because of notions of how you perceive things on a gendered basis. Safety is much more nuanced than that.
So yes, bad things do happen to travellers out there, but they are far from being the norm. It is important to know about the small chances that you may become a victim of any type of crime, it is important to know how to avoid a situation if you can, deal with it and protect yourself if you are able or survive being a victim if necessary, but it is also just as important to know that you are much more likely to travel safely and without incident.
Male or female, does it really make a difference?
No, not really.
I know I’m going to get a lot of flak for this, but it’s true.
There is a perceived notion – mostly from women – that it is infinitely more dangerous to travel as a woman than it is to travel as a man, especially when the notion of physical safety and crime gets mixed up with societal views on gender as I have just discussed, and that men – simply by virtue of that magical appendage between their legs – are automatically much safer.
Yet this isn’t borne out by the facts.
It is certainly true that women have a much greater fear of crime year after year according to the Crime Survey of England and Wales as mentioned above, and certainly there are more female victims of certain types of crime such as rape and sexual assault, but the reality is that it is men who are statistically much more likely to become the victims of all violent crime overall, and much more likely to be severely injured or killed as a result.
Yet despite that men do not fear becoming a victim as much as women do and are rarely perceived as being at risk just because of the fact they are travelling.
It is also true that the actual risk of becoming a victim – for both genders – is much lower than the levels of fear.
Does this mean women shouldn’t justifiably fear rape and sexual assault and take steps to prevent becoming a victim? Of course not, to suggest otherwise would be ridiculous. What it does mean is that there is no justification for assuming that it is automatically more dangerous for women to travel because of perceived and subjective paradigms. It just isn’t. Women have some risk of becoming a victim of crime, men have slightly more risk overall, but both in general have overwhelmingly low levels of risk with the vast majority of travellers seeing the world with no problems at all.
It is also important to state that there are absolutely some fundamental practical differences between travelling as a man and travelling as a woman, I completely agree with that. Men and women are different after all, and their experiences of travel will be slightly different. But again, that fact alone does not automatically make it more dangerous for women to travel, and that is something that really needs to be emphasized.
There are practical differences between male and female travel experiences, but that doesn’t conflate into meaning that women are more at risk.
In fact if you look at my general safety tips for women, and general safety tips for men, on the whole (with a couple of practical differences that reflect the genuinely different experience of travel between the genders), they are almost universally the same, and there is a reason for that. Most safety advice and self defence advice is universal and gender neutral.
The actual risk of travel.
So statistically it is a fact that the fear of crime is far greater than the actual risk, but that does not mean that some risk is not real. There is risk in everything we do in life, from crossing the road to having a night out, and travel is not immune from that risk either.
Just because the risk of something bad happening to you on your gap year is relatively low, that doesn’t mean that there is no risk at all.
The difference is there are actual steps you can take to prepare yourself for those eventualities. There are things you can do, knowledge you can learn and mindsets you can adopt to reduce that natural risk to the point where it is negligible.
So should you learn self defence before you go travelling?
Well yes and no. Training in any of the numerous martial arts is an amazing way to learn how to physically defend yourself if needed, that much is a given, but simply learning a technique or two for a week is not. Learning self defence isn’t about pounding a guy bigger than you or learning how to ‘kick ass’. If you see it that way and only take enough time to learn a few techniques, then you simply won’t remember it when the adrenaline is pumping in a real situation and it may even give you a false sense of confidence and bravado which can get you in more trouble. So if you want to learn how to defend yourself do it properly and train long term, choose a martial art that suits you and stick with it. You’ll find – as I did – that it will not only give you the tools to defend yourself if needed, but also an innate self confidence, philosophy and personal self esteem that will give you the courage, determination and fearless tenacity to travel anywhere in the world independently and on your own terms.
Quite apart from the specific safety tips about staying safe on your travels that I have talked about at length on this site, such as learning about the local scams or tips on avoiding being robbed abroad, there are ways to learn how to avoid, deescalate and deal with situations as they occur.
This is all about changing your mindset, your physical and psychological way of being in a way that will protect you.
My unique REACTE system which you can learn more about in my book here goes beyond the basics of staying safe, beyond the physical practicalities of self defence techniques and martial arts and into the specialist psychological, emotional and physical techniques used to limit and manage any potential risk to your own personal safety.
Sometimes you just have to be your own hero.
Safety is all about learning how to reduce any possible risk as much as possible to the point where that risk is deemed acceptable enough for you to travel safely. It doesn’t mean that the risk isn’t there, but it does mean that the tools you have and the preparation you have done will allow you to avoid most of it or know what to do and how to survive if the worst does happen.
You will never get rid of risk entirely.
Travel in and of itself is not risky. Life itself invites risk, it invites danger. You are just as if not more likely to face risk and danger at home as you are travelling. The trick to keeping yourself safe is using common sense, preparation and knowledge to reduce the risks of anything negative happening to you, and knowing how and when to act if things do go wrong.
Is taking the risk worth it?
This really should not be a question that needs answering. Of course it is!
In all my years of travel I’ve only had a few things happen to me that could be considered dangerous, far less so than when I have been at home in fact! But I have never been in a situation that I have not been able to avoid completely, deescalate or extract myself from without too much trouble, even in those cases where I was absolutely a victim of a crime, and In all those years of travel those situations are an absolute fractional minority compared to the positive, awesome experiences that travel has given me.
Those experiences, even the bad ones, have made me a stronger, better and much more adaptable person. I have had a lifetime of self defence and martial arts training, I have had military training and experience, but it is travel that has allowed me to hone those skills. It is travel that has given me a wealth of cultural and social experience to apply that training to. It is travel that has given me the knowledge and self confidence to know that I can assess a risky situation, make the right judgement call when I need to and act to save myself if I need to.
Risk can be a good thing too!
Bad things can and do happen, but they are far from the norm, in fact I would go as far to say they are absolutely abnormal, and if they do happen then most of the time it really is just a case of random bad luck as opposed to being your fault for travelling to any given country on your own or with someone, as a woman or as a man.
So if something bad does happen on your travels, make sure you have the tools and knowledge you need to deal with it and keep yourself safe, and then carry on with the rest of your adventure safe in the knowledge that you are a better, stronger, more resilient person as a result, and you have a ton of awesome experiences ahead of you.
Listen to your fear, then overcome it.
Remember, fear can be a good thing as long as it doesn’t turn into paranoia. Fear should be at the level that it keeps you alert, keeps you on your toes, but it should never get to the point where it stops you from travelling.
Bad things can happen to anyone, anywhere at any time, even when you are at home. Travel in and of itself isn’t inherently dangerous just as staying at home is not inherently safe.
Identify any potential risks in the places you are travelling through, take steps to minimise those risks and then enjoy your travels! In over 15 years of travelling the world I have seen and experienced far more wonderful, amazing things and far more compassionate and friendly people than I have ever experienced bad, risky or dangerous situations.
Don’t allow your mindset to be one of fear. Don’t be one of those people who believes the scaremongering of the mass media and never travels because you are frightened of the potential risk.
Change your perspective. Don’t be afraid. Learn how to keep yourself safe and view the world as it truly is. Wonderful, awesome and generally safe to travel.
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