This summer I spent a month in London studying with a group of 20-somethings—primarily women— from college. While weekday mornings were spent in the classroom, the rest of the of the day, and weekend, were filled with sightseeing, museums, live theatre, pubs, shopping, clubs, and more. While this was all very new and exciting, I had to keep in mind that not only was I a tourist, but a female as well. This meant taking extra safety precautions. Through many interactions over the month, I learned that being a young woman in London is much different than being a young woman in the U.S. Here is what I learned:
Men in Europe are much more aggressive than in the U.S.
The persistent, aggressive nature of the men was perhaps the most shocking thing I encountered. While I had experienced catcalling before, it happened multiple times on a daily basis in London. While it can be flattering for someone to tell you “you have beautiful eyes miss,” it is an entire different story when they grab you and expect something in return for the compliment. Toward the end of the month, I was so fed up, that when a man grabbed my thigh on the street, I yelled “Don’t #!*@$^& touch me” at the top of my lungs in front of hundreds of people— including children.
The Mansplaining never stops
I seemed to encounter mansplaining, when a man condescendingly talks down to a person of another gender about a topic they believe they have more knowledge of (generally a stereotypical masculine topic), far more often in London than in any other place I had visited before in my life. It seemed to happen most frequently when discussing politics, especially American politics. Many men I met, whether on the train at a restaraunt, believed that their outside perspective on U.S. politics gave them permission to explain (mansplain) everything that is wrong with America. While I could agree with them on the chaotic state of our nation, I could not agree with them believing my opinion as a young, female, first-time voter did not matter, or that I did not understand how messed up it was because I was a U.S. citizen. By the second week of the trip, I gave up trying to defend my personal positions.
Always travel in groups of 3 or more (especially at night)
In general, it can be scary exploring by yourself at night, especially in a big city. There are a lot of people in London who are trained to take advantage of naive tourists. I once saw a gang of motorcycles come onto the sidewalk and yank a couple’s suitcase right out of their hands and ride off. Trying to stay in packs to seem less vulnerable and have extra protection. You and your friends should be each other’s greatests assets. You can use each other as wing-women (or men), excuses to get out of conversations from unpleasant people, and navigators.
Share your location with your friends
If you decide to venture off by yourself, make sure you share your location with someone—even if it is just for a few hours. London is a big city, and is easy to get lost in. Sharing your location is also a great way to meet up with your friends in highly populated areas such as markets, shops, and clubs. The little blue dots will lead you right to your pals.
Don’t be afraid to say when you are uncomfortable
Oftentimes people—especially myself— keep quiet in uncomfortable situations for fear of upsetting others. I realized that this idea is completely wrong, and it is always better to stand up for yourself when you do not feel safe. If someone is walking to close for comfort behind you, looking at you strangely, keeping you in an awkward conversation, or even touching you without permission, tell them to stop, or they will continue.
Go to gay bars/ clubs
I met the most outgoing, fun-loving people out at gay bars. Instead of worrying about trying to impress the guy in the corner at a regular bar or club, just go out with your pals, enjoy good company, and dance the night away. Gay bars in London typically have a lot more EDM and dance music, which makes for a night of fun (and sweat).
Making eye contact on the tube means something else
A lot of the time, people do not look at each other on the tube, let alone talk. Most see the tube experience as simply getting from one destination to the next, let alone a social interaction, so when you look at someone for longer than a second or two, it usually means you are interested. This does not necessarily mean romantically, but can get confusing when you are just admiring someone’s outfit, and they think you are checking them out.
Don’t stare at your phone for directions
Constantly looking at your cell phone screams tourist, as well as puts you in a position to get your phone stolen as well. Oftentimes, cyclist will come and snatch phones right out of people’s hands, pockets, and purses when they are not paying attention. This is also a clear invitation for strangers—which you may not have invited into a conversations—to approach you.
Being a young woman in London came with many challenges, but left me feeling more confident than ever. After learning to navigate the tube, use proper British terms, and speak up against creepy men, I felt invigorated. While scary, following these habits in London forced me into situations I had never been in before and made me a smarter traveler and woman.