I squinted at the sun through my fingers, then back at my map, then back at the sun. Map, sun, map, sun. It was useless.
I was hopelessly lost in Barcelona, trying to find the neighborhood of Born, where my walking tour guide the previous day had said I’d find good food. At this point, even the sun couldn’t save me. Knowing I currently faced North didn’t help me navigate the twisting alleyways and confusing intersections.
Standing in the center of Plaça Sant Jaume, I heard someone speaking English nearby. A few feet away, two young men stood in blinding yellow T-shirts, leaning against bikes. I could just make out the words “bike tour” on their shirts.
English-speaking tour guides? Perfect. I couldn’t have asked for a better gift from the “lost traveler” gods. I was starving (having inadvertently skipped lunch) and tired from exploring Barcelona all day. I just wanted to find Born, slip into a restaurant, and stuff my face with so much delicious Spanish food and cava I’d have to roll myself home.
“Excuse me, would you guys mind giving me some directions?” I asked the tour guides.
They peered at me through their shades.
“No sorry,” said the one closest to me, in an Australian accent. “We just like the shirts. We don’t actually know our way around.”
“OK.” I spun around and started to walk away. Forget it. I’ll find it my damn self or find some less douchey help.
“No, no, come back. We’re just kidding.” They both had shiny, white smiles spread across their tan faces.
I hesitated. They were the fastest route between me and food, though, so I was willing to give it a shot.
“Where are you trying to go?” the Australian asked.
“I went on a walking tour yesterday and the guy said Born was a great place to eat,” I explained. “I just can’t actually find it.”
“Oh, yeah, there’s a lot of great restaurants there. You’re pretty close, too.”
They proceeded to explain the best way to get there. I thanked them and headed in the direction they’d pointed. I’d made it about 20 meters when I heard them shouting after me.
“We really fooled her,” said one.
“Yeah,” said the other. “Little does she know we just sent her down rape alley.”
I froze. My heart was pounding so hard I could see my chest vibrating. I felt my fingertips go numb and then the numbness spread up my arms and through my body. Pounding heart, numbness, loss of breath—the symptoms I feel when someone makes a sexist joke or catcalls something particularly horrific at me. It’s outrage, anger, and disbelief. It’s like a state of emotional shock.
I’m sure they thought it was a joke. It’s not. Jokes are funny and rape is not. It’s really that simple.
It becomes less funny when you are a woman traveling alone in a foreign country. And it becomes substantially less funny still when you’ve been assaulted yourself, more than once, and know too many assault victims to count on two hands.
As a solo female traveler, safety is a top priority. I certainly don’t wander the world expecting to face potential rapists at every corner. I know full well that I’m much more likely to be assaulted by someone I know (and I have been) than a stranger on the street.
Even so, traveling alone as a woman means taking certain safety precautions. Rape is never a laughing matter, but when traveling alone, the stakes feel just a little higher.
I stood there, anxious, hungry and exhausted. I considered going back to tell them off. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. I wanted to turn around and scream at them all the profanities I could manage.
I thought about explaining how what they’d said was disgusting and disrespectful and that I’d been raped and, can you believe it, I haven’t laughed about it once.
Instead, I walked forward. Assuming there was no such thing as “Rape Alley,” I followed their directions and found my way to Born.
The restaurant I’d wandered into was adorable and the food was amazing, but I just went through the motions, feeling hollow. I couldn’t decide if I was sad or angry, and angry with whom. I couldn’t believe that anyone would actually say that to someone and I couldn’t believe I’d just walked away.
Over an extremely late lunch, I googled “Barcelona bike tours,” trying to find the one with the blinding yellow shirts. I found the website for the Fat Tire Bike Tours and recognized the name right away; I’d just needed to see it to remember.
At this point, I felt like my last day in Barcelona was ruined. There’s something about strange men telling you that they’ve sent you to be raped that even La Sagrada Familia can’t fix.
I hadn’t gone back and told them off immediately, but that didn’t mean I had to let it go. I could either return to the hostel and sulk, or go tell these guys off and at least feel a little proud about standing up for myself, even if I did it a bit late. Decision made.
The bike tour office was down an alley just off Plaça Sant Jaume. I searched for the tour guides but they were gone, spreading their douchey smugness all over Barcelona, I suspected.
The manager wasn’t in the office, but after I explained what happened to the woman at the front desk, she gave me his contact info. The horrified look on her face when I told her what her co-workers had said validated the sick feeling I’d carried around since it happened.
As a woman, it seems like shitty, sexist things are always happening to me and I’m constantly flip-flopping between “Is this really as bad as I think it is, maybe I’m crazy and overreacting” to “Of course that was wrong! How could you even let yourself think that might be OK.”
And probably because as a woman I’m constantly told that I am in fact “crazy” or “emotional” and therefore overreacting, I often rely on others to validate those feelings of outrage before I fully allow myself to have them.
Somehow, even though those guys joked that they’d misdirected me to “rape alley,” I still wasn’t convinced this was a problem worth pursuing. The look on that woman’s face, and her apology, made it clear that simply making a complaint to the manager was in no way an inappropriate response to the situation.
A few days later, after returning home and planning what I’d say, I emailed Fat Tire Bike Tours with the subject line “Please Tell Your Employees Rape Jokes Aren’t Funny.”
I explained what happened, how I felt about it, and why it was important to their business that their employees don’t represent them in this way. I explained that as a person who has been assaulted, who knows many victims of sexual assault, and who has worked with rape victims, I don’t see this as a laughing matter.
I wrote that one in five women worldwide will experience sexual assault, according to the UN, and that those women should be able to go on a vacation without some jerk on the street casually reminding them of it.
I’m not sure what I expected. Part of me thought I’d be ignored or receive some half-hearted apology. I just wanted someone to know what happened and that it wasn’t OK. I wanted it to never happen again.
The owner, Scott, responded within hours. As soon as I saw the reply in my inbox my heart started pounding. I grabbed my laptop and curled up in my chair, unsure of what to expect.
After reading, I couldn’t have imagined a better response, the majority of which is here:
After reading your email just now, I am almost speechless. I am literally sick to my stomach and completely shocked that one of my employees would behave in the manner that you described. It blows my mind to think that anyone would be so ignorant and callous to make such a comment to anyone under any circumstances. But to realize that one of my own employees would say such a thing, someone whose job is to be a friendly and helpful representative of our company and to provide information and assistance to travelers such as yourself to help make your Barcelona experience as positive and enjoyable as possible, it simply makes me ashamed that this person is a representative of my company.
For what it's worth, I sincerely apologize for the emotional distress that my employee caused you, although I understand that his behavior was absolutely inexcusable and any apology is inadequate under the circumstances.
Needless to say, I could never be comfortable now knowing that this person is a representative of my company and by tomorrow morning in Barcelona he will no longer be employed. I am also ordering a meeting to be held with every member of our staff to discuss this situation and to ensure that something like this never happens again.
I shifted uncomfortably between glee and guilt. My instinct was to feel bad that I’d been responsible for getting this guy fired. He was probably just out of college, wanting to see a bigger slice of the world—like me.
Except that unlike me, he was living that dream while casually making light of sexual assault and causing other travelers to feel unsafe and uncomfortable. Nope. Forget it.
I’ve worked in customer-facing jobs too. If I made a joke like that, I should expect repercussions. If he thought that joke was funny before, I’ll bet he doesn’t now.
Besides the fleeting guilt, I felt empowered. I have a voice, I used it, and I got results. I couldn’t believe it. Not only was this particular employee probably never going to do this again, they were going to discuss it with their entire staff.
Hopefully, every person on their team would know better than to make rape jokes after that meeting (if they didn’t already). I felt like I’d made a difference, however small it was. I’d spoken up, and it mattered.
I encounter sexism and ignorance more often than I can possibly keep track. Whether it’s in advertising, online, on the street, among friends or family, or at work, there are countless instances where I’m given the chance to speak up or speak out.
Usually, I try to. It’s exhausting and often no one wants to hear it, but I try. Very often, I leave the situation disheartened and wondering why I even bothered. I’m one person and it’s easy to feel like no one is listening to what I have to say and even when they do, that it doesn’t matter.
After this experience, I remembered why I bother to speak up when something like this happens.
Most of the time, it probably doesn’t make the slightest difference, but every once in awhile it matters. Every so often, you’ll raise your voice, someone will listen, and something will happen.
When it does, it makes all those other times worth it and reminds you why you have a voice at all.