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Don’t Go. You’ll Die! (Traveling Solo While Female)

My first solo trip was to Atlanta. I was recently out of college and already dissatisfied with the unfulfilled promises of adulthood my teenaged self had dreamt up with vigor as I lived in my head throughout middle and high school. I had a job that was so inconsequential I struggle now to remember where exactly I worked and what I was doing. I had heard that Atlanta was some sort of Black Promised Land and had never left New Orleans long enough to fully appreciate that I was from and currently residing in the actual Black (Cultural) Promised Land so…

I woke up one morning and announced, “I’m going to Atlanta.”

I did not expect the commentary that followed. “You going all the way to Atlanta…by yourself?” It was the emphasis on the all the way that caught my attention first. To reach Atlanta from New Orleans, all one had to do was get on I-95 and then roughly eight hours later get off I-95, right? It took the second or third raised eyebrow for me to even hear the by yourself part. My mom and dad, of course, were supposed to be concerned about me getting in my car by myself and driving all the way to the neighbouring state of Georgia. I was their youngest child. A girlchild at that. Though level headed and responsible, I leaned toward impulsiveness sometimes. So, the imagined trouble I could find myself in was a reasonable response from my parents.

However, the by yourself from the mouths of friends and close acquaintances surprised me. I was asked if I worried about being bored or lonely for those seventy-two hours I would spend in the city. I was told that I should consider waiting until at least one other person could come along. “Safety in numbers,” a couple of friends said. Rapists, kidnappers and women beaters could be lurking anywhere within those 400 miles and that was not even to mention the men who were out to get me once I actually arrived in the city of Atlanta itself. “Don’t tell anyone you are alone,” a friend advised as I stuffed some clothes into a duffle bag. “Be safe,” I was told as I drove off. “What are you doing now? All by yourself?,” was a recurring question in the emails I opened once I got to the youth hostel where I would stay and logged on to let everyone know I had not been kidnapped since they last saw me.

In the twenty years since I returned from Atlanta, unimpressed and unmolested, I have traveled alone both domestically and internationally so many times I have to now force myself to at least make effort to include other people before simply booking a flight. Though not from friends who’ve known me since the Atlanta trip, I still get the by yourself question often enough that it makes me wonder why a woman traveling alone seems odd. Given it is the year 2019, and though violence against women is a very real concern in many parts of the world, one would assume that a female adult visiting a new locale without the accessory of husband, child or wing woman is not such an abnormality.

“Several times when I’ve checked into a hotel the staff were super concerned,” Ambra, a western woman currently living in China, said. “Like I’m there to kill myself or because I am depressed just because I’m by myself.” She went on to tell the story of a staff member coming out to the pool once just to see if she really were okay. Another time, (mostly) female employees chatted her up at breakfast, voicing well intended concern that she might be alone for some other reason than she wanted to be alone.

Natavia, an American expat currently living in China, had her announcement of an international move met with stories of sex trafficking throughout Asia. “They kept saying ‘Don’t Go!’ and asking me if I knew anyone here and when I said no, they’d come up with even crazier stuff.” Though the anxieties of her loved ones did make Natavia hesitant, she had a cousin who had solo traveled extensively and lived overseas alone. The cousin was curt. “Ignore them. Move to China.”

We know everyone means well when they ask us if we are sure we want to journey to a foreign destination alone. And we are also well aware that the dangers they imagine for us are not that far from the realm of possibility. However, those dangers are not that far from the realm of possibility when we travel to and from work in the same city where we’ve lived all our lives. Rapists rape in New Orleans during the day and night. Women take meticulous care not to get themselves raped from the time their parents find the courage to send them out the house without adult supervision until they inhale their last breathe. Kidnappers operate from the same playbook all over the world and there seems to be no fool-proof plan not to get yourself kidnapped when a professional kidnapper has decided he will — today and at this moment — kidnap. When people have asked me if I were afraid of getting trafficked or drugged or disappeared when I’ve traveled to India or Senegal or South Africa or Malaysia, I’ve always chuckled and said, “Well, if I’ve managed not to have any of those things happen to me here, then I’ll just keep that same energy in this other place. Maybe, I’ll get the same result.”

Even greater than concern for the female solo traveler’s safety is bewilderment about why she would choose to be alone on a travel adventure in the first place. After dozens of by yourself inquiries, I started to hear what people were really saying. And it was not tied just to imagined scenes of me being violated and thrown into a ditch. The visions of me touring city monuments alone. A quick flash of me eating the local cuisine alone in a restaurant filled with people. Taking pictures in front of famous landmarks. No one standing next to me. My friends and loved ones were not as forthcoming about their uneasiness regarding my aloneness. Sometimes I’d be asked if I ever got bored and lonely. When I’d respond that these emotions did occur and I just felt them the way I felt all the others until they passed, I’d be met with curious stares and silence.

“Truth is, I don’t ever feel alone unless I want to.” Latasha, who is originally from Cleveland, but has lived in three different countries since moving overseas, plans her solo trips to give her the option of interacting with others if she chooses. She loves talking with the locals in the countries she visits and her singleness makes that easier to do. She is often viewed as easier to approach because there is no one there distracting her from friendly banter with a stranger. When Latasha travels by herself, she notices a marked difference in how many impromptu conversations people initiate with her. “I also always try to stay in airbnbs, homestays or with friends of friends,” Latasha explains. This gives her the option of friendly human interaction if she’s had a day of solitary sightseeing or people watching.

For some of us, solo is our preferred method of travel. And why wouldn’t it be? You get to set your own schedule. Change it at a moment’s whim. You end up going to countries that truly intrigue you and not just places that are chosen because of compromise. You are beholden to no one’s budget but your own. No one’s accommodation idiosyncrasies. If you are a budget traveler who never spends more than $30 a night on an airbnb, then you can have your basic room with sporadic hot water. If you are unapologetically bourgie, then an American chain hotel will welcome you into its arms with thick, fluffy mattresses and 24-hour room service.

Aliki, a single British traveler, packed a bag and left London to tour Southeast Asia when she was only 19 years old. She went to Thailand and followed that up with Vietnam before checking out Cambodia and Laos. She was alone in each country and was not a part of a university study abroad or any similar program. “I still go on holidays with friends, family or my boyfriend,” she says, “but the majority of my travel is done alone.” Like the many single women I meet who travel by themselves more so than not, Aliki is not surprised that women who are fiercely independent in their daily lives would fully embrace navigating foreign destinations without a companion.

Between Ambra, Natavia, Latasha, Aliki and I, we have seen over half of the world. We have done so without any attempts being made on our lives. No sexual assaults to report. (Though we have had our share of inappropriate propositions from oddly confident men who took the L when told no and simply went away.) We’ve had no traumatic “close calls” that left us hesitant to take on the world alone again.

We have all traveled much farther than Atlanta. Much farther than North America.

And we are all still alive.

The Penis Doesn’t Have Limitless Power

I have featured black women who identify as polyamorous three times on my podcast. I was prompted to pursue the stories of the non-monogamous because as a woman who was coming to accept that happily- ever-after marital bliss didn’t appeal to me, I was curious about how other women formed partnerships that were not necessarily defined by getting on an escalator with one nice man as you both cruised to the floor that housed the chapel and shared mortgage payments. I was certain my ideal love structure did not involve multiple partners, but had a feeling that these women who had the courage to claim the love structure that best suited them could offer valuable insight into how I and other women could create the romantic lives we wanted instead of the one we were supposed to want.

Evita, Olivia and Shira did help me unburden myself from the shoulds that black women are expected to carry on our shoulders as we shape shift to fit what the dominant culture and our community dictate is the best way for us to be in the world. However, what was even more invaluable were the messages I got from listeners after each woman shared her journey to ethical non-monogamy. A common message in my inbox was: “I thought I was the only one! I used to think something was wrong with me!” When I engaged in further conversation with these women who thanked me for letting them know they were not alone, there was another trend that was all too familiar. It was the tendency to be advised on how they could be cured of their allergic reactions to monogamy.

“You just haven’t met the right man yet.”

Woman after woman relayed having intimate discussions with sisterfriends and aunties about how suffocating it felt to commit themselves to only one penis, no matter how kind and loving that penis was to them. How they noticed that they were at their happiest when they were not trying to be in one relationship at a time, restricting themselves to just one emotional connection with one man until, for whatever reason, that relationship ended and they got on the next escalator with the next nice man. The sisterfriends listened and chuckled. The aunties nodded their heads, a non-verbal agreement that they, too, weren’t so sure they were committed to the fantasy of what they should want, either. It didn’t take long for the chuckle and the head nod to turn into admonishments that they should be more mature and patient and just believe that the right man was out there. “I hear what you’re saying,” they’d be told. “But, you just haven’t met the right man yet.”

This advice to hold off on making proclamations about what best suits you until you have fallen in love with the “right” man. It fascinates me as the thinking behind it is both illogical and condescending. The women who were messaging me were well over the age of consent. They were not in their teens, twenties or even thirties. They were not nursing their first broken heart, bitter at how painful love gone awry could be. They had tried loving the way they should love for years and came to realize that what they wanted made them happier than what they were told they should want. Yet, it was assumed that this knowledge of themselves was incomplete. It had not been sufficiently tested by an encounter with the magical penis that would cause them to redraw the conclusion they had come to after a lifetime of loving.

Why put so much pressure on the penis? It is expected to transform so many women who have so many desires they are not supposed to have. For the woman drawn to other women, the “right” penis is expected to lure her back to heteronormativity. For the woman who is only mildly tolerant of small children, the magic wand that is the male penis is expected to convince her that she should give motherhood a chance. For the single woman who relishes solitude and autonomy, one encounter with the right penis is supposed to send her into a fit of matrimonial frenzy, all of a sudden consumed with thoughts of diamond rings and white dresses. Is the penis really capable of all of this, though? Maybe the penis is just one little organ that provides women with momentary pleasure and the man to whom it is attached a mere mortal with no power to change the desires of the woman who loves him.

I can understand why so many men and women would believe that the peen is all powerful. I have participated in some questionable shenanigans on account of the peen. I have caught flights across continents to be closer to the peen. I have left angry, tear-filled voicemail messages trying to get myself unquit by the peen. I have even told half truths and outright lies in order to appease the peen. So, yes, for a straight lady, the penis can be quite convincing. It doesn’t take long for a happy hour table full of peen-appreciative ladies to swap stories of the many times they have compromised themselves behind some earth-shattering peen.

But, the power of the peen has its limits. To tell us straight girls that its power supercedes our own knowledge of ourselves is bold. And irritating. “I mean, I was sitting up there saying to her I have finally realized what makes me happy and she was telling me that I could not possibly know what I was talking about because I had not loved enough of the right men.” One of my listeners who had decided to “come out” as non-monogamous to a friend was the most clear on what this you-have-not-met-the-right-man retort really says to women. It asserts that your mind is not your own. Your decisions regarding your body are not your’s to make. You cannot claim what is best for your body and your life in the absence of a male partner. If you have had numerous male partners and still reached this conclusion about your life and your body, then you have not sufficiently tested your hypothesis about what truly makes you happy. “Just one more man,” this line of thinking says. “Yes, you have used your own intuition and life experiences to deduce that monogamy is not your ministry, but have you considered this other penis possibly waiting for you somewhere in the future?” Those of us who make choices exclusively on what we know is best for us are weary of this reasoning that reduces us to children who need permission to make the most rudimentary decisions.

Let’s allow the peen the right to have its one job. It does that job well. We do not need to burden it with tasks beyond its pay grade and level of expertise.

When Marriage Becomes God

This is not a take down of marriage. I am old enough to know that I know very little about almost everything. I am ill equipped to critique an institution that has sustained societies around the globe for generations. I am an expert at staying in my lane and minding my own business. Why some single women can’t envision an entire lifetime lived without a husband is not my lane. Questioning women who expend energy trying to salvage fractured marriages is not my business.

I will own up to this: I don’t get it. Marriage and why some would want it — crave it, even — yes, I completely get that. Building of wealth. Support while raising children. Commitment to more than just passionate, romantic love. Yeah, I dig why this would be a goal for folk. What confounds me are the assumptions about those of us who don’t crave the institution.

In one of the many online women’s groups I belong to, relationships were discussed. Someone commented on women who “allow” men to date them for years, never requiring — demanding — a wedding ring. The implication seemed to be these women devalued themselves. Were “allowing” men to waste their time. Most who replied to the post agreed that women (of a certain age) who did not end up with at least the possibility of a ring after a year or two of courtship were failing themselves. “Why would you continue to date with no goals for the relationship?”

I didn’t comment on the thread. It was far more informative to read all the perceptions of what made a 21st century partnership acceptable. And these perceptions seemed to have not evolved much from those born out of the 18th century. If a woman over the age of twenty-five enjoys the company of a male companion and they profess love for each other, then the escalator should arrive at marriage with expedience. The further away from thirty she was, the more it could be understood why she might be on a slow-moving escalator. However, if there were no eventual marriage and the couple did not both get off the escalator, then…this was a failure. And the bulk of the blame should be placed on the shoulders of the wasted woman who had allowed herself to be in a loving, monogamous relationship for years with no “goals.”

For a surprisingly large number of women, there is nothing else that validates a relationship more than having paperwork done on it. The assumptions about a woman who ended up unmarried after more than three years in a relationship were absurd. First, it was assumed that the ringless woman wanted to be married, but was afraid to pressure the boyfriend and chase him away. It also seemed to be understood that long term courtships not leading to marriage were just 36 months of hook ups with the same dude. “It’s like they’re just having good sex and then when that’s no longer fun, they move on.” This comment made me chuckle. As is the case in many adult relationships, unmarried couples are intimate. And just like when a married couple decide to end their union and the sex stops, the unmarried couple who dissolve their relationship also stop having sex with each other. When they meet someone else they feel connected to, they start having sex again. How is this evidence of anything other than grown ups behaving like grown ups?

What I don’t get is the deification of marriage. I am confused about how in this, the century of our lord: the 21st, matrimony is still being held up as if it is Christ on the cross offering women salvation. I will show up to anybody’s wedding with a nice gift and my hand reaching for a champagne glass. I will congratulate bride and groom and with sincerity wish them well. However, I would do that for my homegirl who decides she is quitting her job and starting her own business. I would big up a co-worker who bought a house. If my homie stayed in her job and never opened her own business, I would see no reason to be concerned about where her career was going. If my co-worker remained in his rental apartment, I’d see that as just a lifestyle choice. Why is there such a high moral value placed on the lifestyle choice of marriage? Why is the acquisition of a spouse seen as some sort of a prize and to not win one is to signify a loss?

When I chatted with Tracy Adams about her decision to divorce her husband, she spoke about how many people placed the word only in front of the words three years when they found out she and her husband were splitting up. “Y’all giving up after only three years?,” they asked incredulously. The implication being that to make such a choice required more suffering and agonizing than she had already put in through those 36 months. See, this was not the same as the homegirl who started her own business, realized she was better meant for the stability of being an employee so closed the bakery and went back to her old job. This was not the same as the man who began saving for a down payment on his house, but after doing some investigating into the housing market decided it better to continue renting. Tracy’s decision to hand back her prize after only three years represented a moral failure. She didn’t simply try to live a choice, realize it was the wrong one and then correct the error.

As Tracy said on Unchained. Unbothered., there is an expectation that women value being chosen so badly that they continue to work doggedly at a marriage, even when their gut tells them the marriage is not right. Non stop emotional labor is a fair trade off to hold on to the living, breathing proof they had won.

Sustainable Joy

A friend asked me MONTHS ago for my opinion of Steve Harvey’s Act Like A Lady; Think Like A Man.  This friend had taken her husband to see the movie version on one of their date nights and for some reason couldn’t wait “to ask you what you thought about it because I knew you would have a strong opinion.”

I had to disappoint my friend.  For 37 years, I have managed to never seek the advice of any of the litany of self-help dating books that make up what has to be a trillion dollar arm of the publishing industry. And when Mr. Harvey’s highly successful book turned into a highly successful movie, my desire to see it – for its sage guidance or light entertainment – never arrived. I held no strong opposition to neither the book and subsequent movie nor Steve Harvey’s bizarre promotion from a moderately funny comic to the single woman’s yoda. When Harvey was doing his rounds on Oprah, however, I do distinctly recall being irritated by him.  I could not explain why, but I was certain that my irritation cut much deeper than Steve’s seemingly sincere attempt to let women into the inner workings of the male mind, particularly the mind of the “marriage-ready” male.  

I never read the book; I never saw the movie.  I never could explain why I was irritated by both, though, until last week.

I read an article in the August issue of Vogue that dug into a much-neglected angle of what should be a moot issue at this point in our species’ evolution: a woman’s right to choose.  What made Pamela Paul’s angle unique was that she did not write an article about abortion.  It was not even an article about birth control options. It was an article about women in the prime of their child bearing years CHOOSING to get tubal ligations because they had known since they were adolescents that they did not want children and preferred the guarantee of a child-free life that tied tubes promised.

The women’s doctors soothingly suggested they just stay on the pill since they would probably change their minds later in life.  Some physicians even said they would “consider” performing the procedure if the women’s husbands would come in to verify they both had agreed on what she would and would not do with her uterus. Several doctors spoke wistfully of the joy they found in their own children, ending with the caveat: “What if you meet someone you REALLY love and then you can’t have his child?” Doctors even offered this cautionary tale to married women who could not find the words to counter this unintended accusation that they did not really love their husbands if they were unwilling to have children.

Paul was fair and diplomatic.  She wrote about a doctor’s responsibility to withhold a medical procedure if she felt it were not in the best interest of a patient.  And what ethical gynecologist would dole out a tubal ligation with the same indifferent ease as she would scribble out a prescription for the pill? However, there was something about the somewhat extreme “convincing” that these women had to do in order to get their doctors to perform this procedure that irritated me as much as Steve Harvey’s segments on Oprah.  

What if you really DO want children?

What if you regret this decision you’ve been asked to justify since as long as you can remember?

What if you act your ass off like a lady and think constantly like a man, but…no man ever puts a ring on it?

What if you sleep with that nice, cute guy before the three month grace period and all he’s willing to give you is a courtship of kindness, warmth and some pleasant memories?  What if you give him SIX of your best childbearing months and he STILL wants to offer you only this?

While these questions appear benign on the surface, at a deeper level they reveal a potentially harmful narrative that is subtlety sold to women.  This narrative reads: in order for a person (particularly, a person who possesses a uterus) to be authentically happy, several external factors have to occur.  The narrative suggests that while child-free women can enjoy their current life, they will experience a deep unhappiness later in life because of the absence of this child that would have absolutely brought them joy.  See, it is not the woman herself who determines her happiness; it is this action.  It is the act of giving birth and raising a child from which true joy comes.  This is why the doctors in the Vogue article were reticent to play a role in permanently blocking this source of ultimate female joy.  What if their patients did regret their decision?  How could these women possibly experience sincere, deep-from-the-belly joy while living with the absence of this child that never was?    

As part of the external-factor-determining-happiness narrative is the thesis that asserts: happiness will likely bestow itself on you once you have mastered the maintenance of a loving relationship with the right partner.  Beneath those doctors’ requests that their married patients bring in their husbands to sign off on the tubal ligation was the notion that if he does agree with this NOW but changes his mind LATER, he might be forced to leave you.  And much like the absence of the child that never was, how could these women truly claim deep-from-the-belly joy when having to say goodbye to wonderful husbands with whom they had cultivated healthy relationships?   This narrative is most implicit in Steve Harvey’s well meaning campaign catering to the fear planted in women that to never be invited into the exclusive club of wifehood is to be sentenced to a life of disgrace, forced to roam the earth with a gigantic red “S” emblazoned across your chest.  Harvey merely repackages what society has sold to his readers for generations. When dealing with the requisite sufferings and pleasures of adult life, happiness is expedited if someone provides you with a road map pointed concisely in the direction of acquiring the ideal romantic partner.  Because once you have the ideal romantic partner, you will be in the ideal position to birth the ultimate female joy. 

Again, I hold no ill will against Steve Harvey.  And I understand why a reputable doctor would be apprehensive about performing such a permanent procedure on a woman who she feels has not lived long enough to fully grasp the finality of her decision.  My only question is: What if we sold women a new narrative?  One which claimed they, and they alone, were the source of their happiness.  That through consistent effort, they could cultivate a happiness that was not as transient as we now have them believe.  That such deep-from-the-belly joy could be sustained through the entrance of a bad lover and the exit of a good one.  Since they are the ones who already possess it, this joy could even survive the realization that they had made the wrong choice years earlier in their doctor’s office.  

This is the power of joy that is internal; it is ever-present and can even co-exist with sadness, regret and disappointment.  If women believed this new narrative, they just might begin to evaluate the success of a romantic relationship on how much it contributed to or detracted from their pre-existing happiness as opposed to whether it was progressing fast enough to marriage. This new narrative can even incorporate vestiges of the old.  Maybe women would respond better to the notion that happiness has to be attached to SOMETHING external.  After all, strictly self-focused happiness can easily give birth to selfishness and isolation.  Instead of the time-sensitive and often anxiety-ridden quest to pregnancy, what if we actually told women that their happiness is based significantly on identifying and working toward their true purpose in life?  The reason for which they chose to be born into this world, at this time, under their particular circumstances? What if we led them to believe this purpose does not necessarily begin or end with motherhood?  

What if someone convinced women we are infinitely powerful beings who are worthy and capable of sustainable joy?  What if THIS was where the new narrative began and ended?

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