I saw an inquiry from a fellow female travel blogger in a closed, private group asking about a press trip she had been considering but had heard rumors about.
When she mentioned the destination I realized I had heard some stories too – and I refuse to call them rumors because a rumor has the potential of being a lie, something made up, distorted from truth. These stories are ones I heard from other women, many of them friends. None of which I doubted.
So, I contacted someone closer to the experiences in question and she confirmed what I knew: that the tour guide in charge of leading and organizing these trips had a history of sexually harassing women, both volunteers of his and travel bloggers in his group, some to the point of bringing to tears, and another whom he groped at a night club outing during the trip. The first time I heard of this was a little over 2 years ago, but after inquiring about it further it turns out the guide was still leading trips and harassing female bloggers as recently as last year, and getting ready to host another soon.
I started thinking about all the other stories I have heard from female travel friends.
One about a friend who gets sick at the sight of another male influencer because he almost raped her during a press trip they were on together. Luckily he now lives overseas and she doesn’t encounter him much at in-state networking events.
Another from a few women who saw a male blogger and photographer taking upskirt pictures of a female while on a trip they were on.
These are just some of the stories we consistently hear over time. Stories of female bloggers and influencers being sexually assaulted and harassed by their male peers or even leads while on professional media trips.
Rules of engagement
Group travel is interesting, whether you are doing it as a tourist or professionally as a content creator. There is a lot of drinking involved and lots of late nights. Sometimes people even hook up, consensually.
Though these trips are work, they can also be a lot of fun. For those of us who have hosted these group trips, attendees having fun is a goal. After day one or two, depending on our personalities, we will let our hair down and bond with the people who only hours ago were complete strangers. I have life long friendships that have grown from media trips, people whom I love dearly and consider family.
I also have expectations. Things like regardless of how much I drank or how I danced that men in the group won’t see it as some sort of invitation to harass or disrespect me. That if I rideshare to our common hotel or hostel with a male colleague/peer, I can trust that despite all the dangers out there for women he is not one of them. That it is clear that just because I am on a trip alone it doesn’t mean I am open to sexual advances. I, we, are trusting that men, especially those on professional trips with us, will respect us as colleagues, as fellow human beings and not hurt us, psychologically, emotionally, or physically in any way.
Being away from home does not change the rules of engagement.
Stories in the dark
You might be wondering why I don’t name all these abusers my friends and peers are talking about in closed groups and with each other and the answer is simple: these stories are not mine to tell.
That is for the victims, who try every single day to push back these experiences so that they can continue to do their work, much of which consists of having to “shake it off” and go on more media trips (i.e. work), with more men, some of whom they’ve never met before and trust they will respect them and not violate them in any way. In essence, like any sexual assault victim, they have to be able to continue with their lives in order to not allow the trauma to stand in the way of their careers.
The #MeToo and #TimesUp movement have started great conversations but women are still too scared to speak up out of fear of repercussion or professional penalty. The burden of proof lies heavily on the victim and for a blogger, having the court of public opinion turn against us is essentially the death of our career. I am not discouraging women from speaking up. I understand why they don’t.
Even though blogging as an industry was built and is led by women, it is men, white men specifically, who control it, who receive most of the accolades for the minimalist of work or efforts, who get paid more, who don’t have so much to prove before being seen as capable, professional, and qualified. On a regular day, women are still struggling for prominence in media. For women of color and others in marginalized communities, the imbalance is even greater. It is no surprise that despite the fact that #MeToo has done much to shift the conversation and change behaviors, at least in the United States, it hasn’t done much to impact gender inequity, and it is this inequity combined with speaking out about our assaults, that remain the biggest threats to women experiencing sexual assault and harassment in the workplace.
This leads many to resort to posting on private FB forums, and even then there is always another woman at the ready to shame them.
One woman who was on the trip with the predatory tour guide had enough courage to state publically on a FB group how awful the trip was only to be shut down by another female blogger and called ungrateful of the experience given to her. And so she said nothing more except to her closest friends, and we to our closest friends, and if we hear of another female who might be going on the trip and so on and so on. But those stories still live in the shadows.
What can we do?
Though no names are being published here and no direct accusations are being made, I wanted to write something to let those women who have shared their stories with me, and even those who haven’t, to know I stand with them. I support them and am angry for them, and if they are ever ready to speak up, I will use my platform and whatever influence I have to lift their voices. I am not the only one. You are not alone.
Even though as bloggers we tend to live somewhat public lives, sexual assault and harassment is a beast we often battle in silence.
I ask my peers on the industry side to not ignore or turn a blind eye to these assaults and behaviors on trips they might be leading, whether it is coming from a male attendee or colleague.
Stand up for women. Don’t place blame or make excuses. It can, on any given day, be any one of us. The communications and public relations industry is also female dominated and it is often women who are spearheading these tours. Just as female travelers are vulnerable to these predators, so are the women who lead these groups. We must not separate ourselves and learn to stand up for each other.
Do not silence women, ever. Especially women of color, even if you are a woman yourself.
Whether we are standing up against misogyny, discrimination, inequality, or assault, do not silence us. Silence preserves nothing. It doesn’t save face, or spare feelings, or protect communities or careers. If your weapon of choice against these issues is in the shadows, that is OK too, but step out of the way for those of us who prefer to loudly protest.
When planning a group trip, provide a safe and secure form of communication for anyone who might experience sexual assault. Though everyone is an adult, and our group leaders are not our babysitters, it is important to understand that we have a responsibility to make sure everyone taking part in any group we lead feels safe. If you see bad or rude behavior, do not question your authority or control over the situation and remove the bad character immediately.
As a blogger and a PR professional, I know a lot of the bad apples in the industry. I actively exclude them from any and every campaign, trip, or opportunity to engage. I make sure to tell my peers on both sides of the aisle and place professionalism and safety above all, regardless of status, influence, or affiliation.
We must continue to communicate with each other and we must believe women. Maybe, one day, these voices will feel safe enough to come out from the shadows to be heard. And when that happens, we have to be ready to support them.