Finding Courage: My #YesAllWomen


Finding Courage: My #YesAllWomen

by Amy Gigi Alexander

In the past few weeks many things happened which influenced my state of mind. Maya Angelou died, and popular media exploded with stories and quotes from her life. The New York Times ran an article about the dangers women face when they travel: an article that spoke a truth that is rarely spoken. A misogynistic, mentally unwell man went on a shooting spree in California. People responded to the shooting with #YesAllWomen: a platform of discussion and intention around the treatment of women worldwide, calling for change.

I felt depressed at Maya Angelou’s death. I never met her, I only read her books. But I was disappointed that I would not meet her, that her living voice was gone. Most of all, I was overwhelmed by the challenge of how to pay homage to such a woman. A woman who was so real, so true, so honest she deserved the same back from me, from the world…not just a list of top ten quotes. I thought I should share something here which required the same honesty I had learned from her. A thank you in the form of a story deep and wide.

The New York Times article on the world of difference women face traveling compared to men made me think about how I always read essays and blogs which are encouraging women to travel, but that don’t really spell out: here is what you will face when you are somewhere else. How we don’t really talk about those dark things, because we don’t want to live fearfully, we want to go.

My response to the misogynistic rants of the shooter were twofold: first, I was surprised at my acceptance of it, that I was not outraged, only saddened, for these kinds of events and points of view have become almost expected. It frightened me that I did not find it unusual, but instead fell into a state of uneasy grief. But then quite quickly there was a turnaround within me and within the outside world: #YesAllWomen, a movement of women’s voices sharing stories and calling for an end to the misogyny which runs rampant in our culture filled my social media feeds with opinions, essays, calls to action.

Somehow these four events blended, and I found myself writing a personal response to them, a collective one, a little essay that honors Angelou with truth and talks about travel as a way to bridge the gap between how I’m treated because I am a woman and how I respond to that challenge.

Here it is.

Women often ask me if I’m afraid of getting raped when I travel solo. The answer is yes. I am. I am terrified of being raped.

But it’s a more complicated answer than simply yes. I was raped in my late twenties by a man I barely knew. He broke into my apartment, raped and tortured me for days: I barely survived it. The rape was brutal, leaving me severely beaten and in shock. Afterwards, people, even those very close to me, asked me what I had been wearing, or what I done to encourage him. I had done nothing at all, but this seemed to make little difference in the minds of people.

Afterwards I shut down almost entirely: I stopped eating, I spent my days in bed sleeping, I watched as my body seemed to fall apart, disintegrate. Suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, I hallucinated my rapist constantly, lived in a state of half aliveness, just breathing.

The house where I was staying had a long bookcase in the hallway, and one day, wandering down the hall, I chose a book with a bright yellow cover. It was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. I don’t remember why I chose it, but I think it may have been a simple reason: on the cover was a bird in cage, and I felt like that bird.

I took it back to bed and read it over and over: here was someone who understood. Understood raw, numb, closed. Understood that I was afraid to leave the house. Understood silence, chatter, madness.

Angelou had written more than a book: she had come to life, and now she sat on the edge of my bed, stroking my hair, and I did not mind she was there.

Slowly, over months, I began to feel better: I began showering, I cut my hair, I changed the bed sheets, I ate, I dreamed, and finally one day I left that house, and went out into the world again. I was still closed, still terrified, still hurting, but I knew I had to become someone more than I had been being.

“I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.” —Maya Angelou

It’s been more than sixteen years now, since that rape. I never talk about it, although I write about it. Sometimes people treat me differently when they find out I’ve been raped: they don’t know what to say, or they use it against me. A few men have treated me like I was dirty or tainted, or too troublesome to have a relationship with. Some people have told me I was being a victim when I have talked about it, other people have broken down in front of me and told me their stories of being raped. Some people feel sorry for me, other people get very uncomfortable. Talking about it often feels like an exercise in powerlessness: everyone has an opinion about it and strangely there does not often seem to be room for my own. But here I can share my opinion, and it is this: it was the worst thing that ever happened to me, and I wish sincerely that it had not happened at all. But since it did, I had to use it the best way that I could, I had to find something good to come out of it, otherwise I think I would have never left that bed, and just slowly starved to death.

“Stepping onto a brand new path is difficult, but not more difficult than remaining in a situation, which is not nurturing to the whole woman.” —Maya Angelou

It made me tougher. It forced me to think harder about who I was as a woman and what I wanted as a woman. My womanhood, my personhood, my life. It made me fight for myself in a way that reached deep. I had to do it, for there was no one else to do it for me.

It meant a daily practice of overcoming for years: nightmares, recoiling from touch, folded. Slowly it moved from overcoming into flying: soaring high above my old self, above the rape, above what society said I was. It made me draw on a courage that I had not known I had.

“Having courage doesn’t mean we are unafraid. Having courage means we face our fears.” —Maya Angelou

Traveling solo as a woman is an act of independence: it says, I can be here, despite whatever you may think. I am free to go where I want to go and experience more than what you may believe I should. One reason I prefer to travel alone is that it is a courage-building exercise: it is not for the faint-hearted, it is for the Joan of Arcs, the Warrior-goddesses, the Valkyries. It took me a long time to get to the place that I actually enjoyed it. When I first started intensively traveling solo, I was so afraid I could hardly sleep, scarcely able to enjoy the travel itself. But I’ve experienced firsthand how traveling can make me whole, and it is through travel that I found myself again.

Even though I travel alone much more comfortably now than I did ten years ago, I still have fear. I still have doubt. I still ache for the ease of a tour, a perfectly planned vacation with a guide, no decisions, and minimal risk. That ache is just a small ache, however. An impression, fading. For I am well aware that to have the kind of richly varied and adventurous experiences I seek, I need to travel alone. For its only in traveling alone that a strange partnership is forged within me: a balance of vulnerability and power.

It’s not all roses traveling alone. I’ve had my share—perhaps more—of danger, of close calls, of almosts.

The time I was locked in a Honduran border patrol office and the official took off his clothes, telling me that he was going to rape me. The time I was on a crowded Calcuttan street and a group of men groped me. The time a Columbian taxi driver refused to let me out of his cab and drove me around for hours, talking dirty to me. The time I discovered my hotel room in Bangladesh was full of peepholes and I had been being watched for months. The time an Englishman, the husband of a dear friend, offered to take me on a day tour of London and instead took me to a hotel, and I when I refused to go in with him, he held my wrists so tight he bruised them. The time in Spain, along the remote trail of the Camino, that a man forced himself on me, trying to kiss me, holding my arms down as two other men laughed. The time in Bihar that I couldn’t stand being cooped up anymore in the compound with the women, so I went on a walk and found myself surrounded by a crowd of angry men who wanted to teach me a lesson since I had wandered out without a headscarf. So many more stories I have: countless leers, jeers, stares, fondles, lingering touches I had not asked for.

When these things have happened to me, I have done whatever I needed to do to escape. Smiled. Prayed. Yelled. Pushed. Fought. When it was possible, I have tried to search for the humanity in each man, and in doing so, helped him to see mine. When I saw that the Honduran border patrol officer was actually going to rape me, I knelt on the ground in front of him and prayed the rosary in Spanish. When the Columbian taxi driver would not let me out of his cab, I asked to see pictures of his children, encouraged him to tell me his life story. Other times, I have left the scene running so fast I barely touched earth, shaking and angry, wondering if I should go home and stop going places.

Sometimes I have locked myself in my hotel room for days, too afraid to go out. But when the hurt passes, I open the door and go out again, into the city, the village. I am a fighter, I am doing battle. I refuse to miss out on what is extraordinary, what is beautiful, what is important, simply because in that place, there will be a handful of men there that have a different idea of who I am and what my identity is as a woman.

There have been so many articles written about what to do when you prepare for solo travel as a woman. How to dress, how to walk, how to wear your hair, how to ask for directions, how to take a train. Where to sit, where to eat, where to go and not go. I’m not going to write any of that here. It’s obvious to me that when I travel somewhere else, I’m going somewhere else. Therefore there are always a plethora of customs and beliefs which must be paid attention to, rules to break and rules to follow. I don’t like some of rules in other places, but I feel like I’m changing things for the better, for women everywhere, just by going.

“Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in-between.” —Maya Angelou

Traveling solo can be a lot of different things. But it’s not limited to fears and challenges. It’s also this wonderful high, this sublime conversation with yourself: you are actually here, doing this, alone. This is, for me, the greatest achievement of my life: I can get on plane and go anywhere on Earth and have a marvelous time. Every time I do it, I’m terrified. Yet slowly the fear takes leave of me and I begin to take on the colors and patterns of a new place. I’m not limited by my fear of rape, of having been raped, of wondering if it will happen again and what I will do if it does. I’m trying to encourage other women to just go, to not plan, to take charge of their own experience of the world. I’m calling the world out, I’m calling that rapist out, I’m calling men out, I’m calling women out. I’m saying, I am here.

This is my tribute to Maya Angelou, a truth-teller, a sooth-sayer, a woman whose words got me out of bed and out the door into the world.

This is my answer to all the questions I get about traveling solo as a woman.

This is my #YesAllWomen.


Amy Gigi Alexander is a writer of memoir, fiction, and stories about place on her website, She lives in California and is finishing her first novel. Follow her on Twitter: @amyggalexander

[The above piece originally appeared at World Hum and at Alternet in substantially shorter form. The full piece is printed here with permission of the author.]

Emily Yoffe: Don’t Empower My Rapist


Emily Yoffe: Don’t Empower My Rapist


Kirsten Clodfelter

Last week, Emily Yoffe wrote an article urging young women, especially those on college campuses, to stop getting so drunk if they’d like to reduce their risk of being sexually assaulted or raped. Yoffe writes Slate’s popular advice column “Dear Prudence,” of which I am an avid reader. Traditionally, much of Yoffe’s writing has offered at least a thoughtful perspective on issues that are complicated or don’t always have a clear answer, but this piece is not one of them. “College Women: Stop Drinking” is disappointing and dangerous.

As many other writers and bloggers have aptly discussed already, teaching men not to engage in risk-taking behavior that has the potential to hurt or victimize others—educating men not to rape—is the fundamental, and most important, part of abdicating rape culture. In her piece, Yoffe uses Antonia Abbey’s research (some of which, by the way, is more than twenty years old) to note that “more than 80 percent of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol,” though she fails to make clear that the perpetrators of sexual assault are often more likely than the victims to be intoxicated. And even if this weren’t the case, how can it seem acceptable to put the onus of risk avoidance squarely on the shoulders of college-aged girls when the reality is that ALL college students would be safer and better off if they drank responsibly?

As an undergraduate, I was not quite a prime example of the young women Yoffe addresses in her article. I didn’t drink often, and despite what Yoffe claims, when I did choose to drink or party with my friends, these actions were not the product of a post-feminist society in which I was brought up being told that I have every right to match men drink for drink without somehow asking for it (though girls do have this right and are not asking for it). Conversely, I was not any more deterred from drinking by the anxious “advice” I received from my father, a single dad who, as I was growing up, echoed many of the warnings Yoffe offers in her piece.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I traveled with two close male friends whom I’d known for years to Montreal. Our first night there, we were chatted up by Jerimiah, an affable bartender in his early thirties who bought us a round in celebration of our arrival and offered to take us out the first evening he had off work.

When that night came, he escorted us to an impressively popular bar in the city, the line to get in stretching down the block in that forever-long way in which all things are exaggerated when you’re still a teenager. He walked us smugly ahead of everyone else, nodded to the bouncer, generously paid our cover fee, and led us through the door like he owned the place. It’s so mortifyingly obvious now, as an adult, to see how we were targeted. Once inside, he made sure the three of us had drinks in our hands at all times.

As Yoffe’s article suggests, like most victims, I didn’t need anything slipped to me — I took each drink willingly. Despite the dangers of being in an unfamiliar city in another country, I was with two friends whom I trusted. Everyone we had met thus far on our short trip had been extraordinarily friendly. And anyway, I rarely partied. A society full of misinformed, well-meaning grown-ups just like Yoffe had, consciously or otherwise, made me think that rape was something that happened to other girls—ones who were far more reckless and irresponsible and slutty than I was. I felt safe.

I started to black out before the night was over, so getting me out of there was easy. Though my memory of that night is only in pieces, I was told later that Jerimiah asked my friends if they would be able to get home okay on their own and then told them he was taking me to his house. Plenty drunk themselves, they didn’t argue. And why should they have? When we propagate the idea that victims are responsible for their own safety, or even when we target messages about consent only to the men who are themselves engaging in sexual behavior, we fail to encourage (or even acknowledge) the importance of bystander prevention or social responsibility.

But instead of going to Jerimiah’s home as he’d told my friends, I was taken to a hotel. Here, my credit card was used to pay for the room—something I can’t imagine offering on the tip money I made waitressing when I wasn’t in class. At one point as we kissed on the bed, I made it clear that I was not going to have sex with him. I had only slept with one other person in my life, news I delivered half-proudly, half-sheepishly: my high school boyfriend of three years with whom I had recently broken up. I distinctly remember feeling self-consciously young as I offered this explanation. I was interested in some type of hook-up (whether genuinely or because of all the alcohol I had been plied with, I can’t be sure), but for nineteen-year-old me, that kind of intimacy wasn’t going to come in the form of intercourse.

I expected his disappointment, but Jeremiah seemed unfazed. Maybe he responded with, “Sure,” and a shrug of his shoulders; or maybe he said nothing at all and kissed me in a way I might have found, at the time, to be romantic. Maybe his eyes lit with the sudden understanding that this was going to be even easier than he’d thought. We kept kissing. He took off my panties. Then he kissed me some more. When his pants came off and he climbed on top of me, I told him again, “Hey, no sex.” Then I came to with him inside of me.

I panicked, but I didn’t fight him. I’d like to think that I was beginning to realize, finally, that I might be in very real danger, alone in a foreign city with a complete stranger, separated from my friends who would have no idea where to even look for me. More likely, I was probably still too drunk to think rationally and coherently about what to do next. Finally, he stopped having sex with me and passed out on the bed. I waited until I heard snoring, managed—still stunned—to quietly dress and quickly gather my things, and fled.

The part of our brains that helps with sound judgment and realistically processing long-term consequences doesn’t fully develop until our mid-twenties. However naively, I thought that the fun, cool person my friends and I met at the bar on the first night of our summer vacation had a genuine interest in showing us a good time. And though Yoffe warns of predators who act just like this, some with even less obvious warning signs, I have a hard time believing I would have acted differently even if I’d read Yoffe’s article days before our trip. I’m too smart for that kind of manipulation, I surely would have thought, much in the same way that teenagers and young adults often feel inappropriately invincible.

When we fail to account for these relevant factors, articles like Yoffe’s reinforce the terrible idea that if girls didn’t actually want it, they shouldn’t have been out drinking in the first place. In the wake of the horrific news out of Steubenville last year, I came across an article comment from a man who expressed dismay that a teenage girl would dare to feel victimized by the boys who assaulted her while she was intoxicated. When a girl goes to a party with the guys and gets wasted, “this is just the price of admission,” he said, and the casual insistence of his statement, the way in which this seemed so obvious to him, has been impossible for me to forget.

Speaking to this, Andrew Smiler writes for the Good Men Project in “It Takes a Village to Raise These Rapists” that many people within a community (parents, teachers, coaches, peers, the media) contribute to the kind of entitlement that drives teens and young men to target and assault girls, particularly when they’re compromised in some way. Though it’s evident that Yoffe finds such behavior rightfully appalling, she doesn’t spend much time in her piece taking those who participate in it or enable it to task.

In a culture of partying that the author herself admits is not going away any time soon, Yoffe would have done better to take a page from the Amanda Hess Playbook and discuss the more practical and meaningful ways in which we should shift victim blaming to outreach and advocacy instead. The foci of more inclusive social responsibility are many: Reminding young, inexperienced drinkers to keep an eye out for each other; implementing K-12 programs that more fully teach students about consent alongside how to intervene when someone appears unable to give it; a push for policy changes that force universities and communities at large to do better in not failing victims of rape or assault; encouraging professors to use teachable moments to engage students in an honest dialogue about how pervasive our rape culture is; reinforcing the reality that one’s gender does not determine their valuethat women are not objects, and that the responsibility for prevention falls on the shoulders of many people long, long before the first drink is ordered at the bar.

In a response to her critics, Yoffe acknowledges that other action needs to be taken too, particularly in how we educate men about consent, but that “[i]n the meantime, this weekend, some young, intoxicated women will wake up next to guys they never wanted to sleep with.” To warn people (and not just women, but everyone) that predators find drunk, vulnerable girls to be easy targets is not irrelevant to rape prevention. But in the way Yoffe elects to address it, she perpetuates the idea that the women who fall outside of the safest or most conservative standards are, in fact, asking for it, that rape is still just a women’s problem. (Though Yoffe does state emphatically that “perpetrators are the ones responsible for committing their crime,” in a piece that talks almost exclusively about how the best way to prevent rape is for girls to get less drunk, what else can we expect the take-home message to be?) Even worse, to the most twisted and predatory young perpetrators, Yoffe’s sentiments can easily be misinterpreted as yet another justification for these crimes, empowering rapists who seek out and prey on victims who are too drunk to say no.

Not long ago, one of the friends who accompanied me on that trip to Montreal (perhaps forgetting in the intervening decade what happened to me there) casually mentioned that he feels the media makes too big a deal out of rape culture, that although things are surely bad for women in some parts of our country and elsewhere in the world, the hysterical, hypersensitive concerns over objectification, sexism, or victimization don’t very accurately reflect what he’s witnessed or experienced, that rape culture in America hasn’t been his reality. I think articles like Emily Yoffe’s, and the ideas they condone, are likely a big part of the reason why.


Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA from George Mason University. Her writing has been previously published in The Iowa ReviewBrevity, and Narrative Magazine, among others. A Glimmer Train Honorable Mention and winner of the Dan Rudy Prize, her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published this October by RopeWalk Press. Clodfelter teaches in Southern Indiana, where she lives with her partner and their awesome, hilarious daughter.