Recently, an American woman was found dead in Turkey. Sarai Sierra, a 33 year old New Yorker had traveled to Turkey, alone, and went missing. They just found her body. It’s a sad and tragic event, and while it’s rare, it’s still hits you hard. She’s a mom. I feel for her family and friends who are no doubt questioning if there’s anything they could have done, if they should have convinced her to stay home.

In the aftermath, people have filled up the comment sections with questions along the vein of: “Why did she think it was safe for her to travel alone?”

Travelers have come out to defend solo travel (here and here) but I haven’t heard anyone from the travel community say the obvious thing: the commenters have a point. It’s a good question. We should explain why it’s okay for women to travel solo (and it is) and address those concerns. This is important.

Here’s what some of the commenters on NBC are saying:

  • “A single woman traveling alone is risky. In a foreign country, it is downright foolish.”
  • “A woman has no business traveling alone.”
  • “No way I would even let my beautiful wife out the door to travel to any country alone.”

If you’re a woman and you’ve traveled alone, you might feel like Stephanie of Twenty-Something Travel who said, “Pause a moment while I try not to rage smash my computer.”

But are the commenters wrong? Yes and no. The big thing we have to acknowledge is that, yes, women are at risk. But not all risk is equal and you might be surprised about the wide gap between the myths and the realities when it comes to violence and travel in general.

Yes, violence against women is real

There is no pretending that women aren’t at risk when it comes to violent crime. It’s not because women are weaker, or we can’t defend ourselves — it’s rarely a measurement of brute strength.

Let’s look at one of the most common violent crimes against women, rape. Most of the time, it’s someone the victim knows. Less than 1/3 of all rapes are committed by strangers. The cliché of a women jogging through Central Park at 5:30 AM only to have a rapist jump out of the bushes and rape her, almost never happens. (Which is not the same as saying it never happens, but we’re talking statistically here). Rapes occurring outdoors account for just 3.6%. Much of the time alcohol is involved (47% for both, 71% at least one), the rapist is someone the woman knows (71% of the time) and they are in someone’s home (66% of the time, with about 40% occurring in the victim’s house). This is the reality.

So the first shift in our thinking is that yes, violent crimes happen against women, but it’s not psycho strangers who are grabbing our young women off the streets, it’s our friends, our boyfriends, our neighbors and our colleagues who are doing this inside of our homes. Violence against women is a problem in our communities, it’s a personal problem, and it’s not about straying far from home, it’s about being safe where we live.

The United States POV

As Americans our view of the relative safety of the world is skewed. We don’t often acknowledge this, but the US can be a dangerous place. Statistically, this is a fact. We have a high gun homicide rate (#16 in the world), high gun violence rate (#9 in the world), and a high rape rate (#11 in the world). 1 in 6 American women have been raped. The world feels scary because we generalize from our experience living in the US.

This is not normal. It’s really high. It’s something we should definitely be talking about and it’s not because women need to take more precautions, it’s that we need to change as a culture.

So while America doesn’t have the highest murder rate in the world (the list of the top twenty is here, you might surprised at how many Caribbean vacation spots are on there like Jamaica, St. Kitts and the Virgin Islands) — but by comparison women are safer in many parts of the world than in the United States.

Violence is personal

We know that rape is often linked to someone you know (2/3 of the time the rapist is known to the victim) but that’s also true of other violent crimes.

The only exception for tourists is crimes of opportunity, mainly petty theft. But here’s what we know: statistically murder rates of tourists are extremely, exceedingly low in every country. Even in countries (like Jamaica) where murder rates are higher than average, the death rate of tourists is still crazy low.

Tourists do die overseas. There are two big killers: drowning and car accidents. Still, those numbers are not abnormally higher than at home, it just goes to show that very few people are being killed overseas. The US Dept of State keeps statistics by country on death rates of Americans abroad. In Turkey, there were two deaths in 2011 (the last full year of statistics). One was a homicide, the other was a vehicle death. In the last 10 years there were just three murders. The woman killed in Turkey was a New Yorker and in 2011 alone NYC had 502 murders. She was statistically less likely to be killed in Turkey than she was if she stayed home in New York.

Anecdotes are poor predictors

When these things happen, everyone trots out the one example they have of someone who was attacked overseas. The only problem is that if we apply that logic to everything, women would never leave the house. Or talk to anyone. Or have any friends. In fact, the only way to keep women completely safe from outliers like this (the logic being, if it happens once, it could happen again) is to avoid nearly everything.

But that’s crazy, right? So we don’t think like that. But travel, that’s a luxury. We don’t need travel. We can live without it. So if we avoid travel that will reduce our risk, right?

No. It actually doesn’t. Just being at home carries a risk. Not traveling doesn’t reduce that risk, because the risk doesn’t compound, you’re either at home or traveling, never both. In fact, you just avoided something that would have swapped a higher risk activity (staying at home) for a lower risk one (traveling).

How to keep women safe

If you’re a women in the United States and you want to take a proactive approach to protecting yourself against violence, here’s my suggestion: strap on a backpack and go see the world. You’ll be safer because:

  • Most rapes happen between people who know each other – 70% of the time (See this full list of Rape Myths)
  • The US has higher violence rates than many other countries (“The United States suffers far more violent deaths than any other wealthy nation […] according to a report released by two of the nation’s leading health research institutions”)
  • Tourists are rarely the targets of violent crime — when compared to US crime rates (CDC: the leading cause of death overseas is injuries and motor vehicle accidents)
  • While there are isolated, tragic incidents of violence to women overseas, there are dozens, if not hundreds of unpublicized violent acts happening right where you live. The media attention underlines how rare this death in Turkey is, not how common (there have been three Americans murdered in Turkey in the last 10 years). When in doubt, check the easily available stats on the realities of violence at home and overseas.

So the question I have for the commenters on NBC is this: How can you not travel? Don’t you realize how dangerous not traveling is?



Update: there’s been some comments on the NBC post about the comments, that I think are worth addressing:

  • “No one’s saying that women shouldn’t travel alone. What they’re saying is use common sense and don’t travel alone to Muslim countries.”
  • “If you stubborn women want to risk you life going to disgusting muslim places, then there is no help for you. Why do you really want to travel alone? Any man that lets his wife travel alone to a muslim country is not thinking straight or wants to be rid of her.”
  • “Is Turkey predominately Muslim? Have we been paying-attention? Muslim men do not have a very high opinion of women.., period.”

True? Not when you look at the statistics: The murder rate in the Middle East is lower than North America. In 2008 Turkey had a rape rate of 1.5, in the United States it was 29.8. Even if we assume that rape is largely under reported in Turkey (as it is in many parts of the world) it would have to be 20 times higher to just match the US.  By the way, the three countries with the highest rate of rape are Botswana, Australia and Sweden. Sweden has 3 times the rate of the US and no one is saying, “Don’t go to Sweden”. We can discuss how women are treated in Islamic cultures all day but the fact is that for American tourists visiting Turkey (as mentioned above) the number of murders are exceedingly rare — just three murders in the last ten years.

To the reoccurring theme of people suggesting that someone can “let his wife travel alone” — globally men are murdered much more often than women — perhaps we should be examining whether we let our men go anywhere unattended seeing as they are committing and being victims of all these crimes.

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Update 2: Will you get raped in a Muslim country?

Someone brought up unreported rapes in the Middle East (by Muslim women who are afraid of punishment) which I think is fair. But I wanted to share this stat that relates to how the culture in the Middle East (whether you believe there’s more rape or less) translates to women as travelers to that region.

I just found the stats from the UK on rapes in Turkey (sorry, couldn’t find American stats). There are about 2.5 million UK visitors to Turkey a year and there were just 40 reported cases of sexual assault (including rape) in 2010.

“The majority of these cases occurred during the summer holiday period in coastal tourist areas visited by British nationals in South Western Turkey. Most occurred late at night and most assaults were committed by someone that the victim had met during the evening.”

So two things, first, the rate is low (you’re still more likely to be attacked at home) and second when it does occur, it follows the same pattern — someone the victim knows. Muslim men are not grabbing tourists off the street and raping them.