As my plane touched down in Budapest and taxied into the gate, I stood up to stretch my legs and opened Tinder on my iPhone. My eyes were burning from lack of sleep and Kindle fatigue. I had bags to wrangle. But this was important. I opened the settings and changed my search criteria from “women and men” to just “women.”
As I waited for my overstuffed backpack to shoot out of the luggage turnstile, I hopped on the spotty WiFi to assess my options. I swiped right on a Raquel Welch look-alike and on a resident physician whose mischievous grin intrigued me.
At home in California’s Bay Area, I date women and men. However, when I travel overseas, I stick to women. I love men, but they can be a liability — one I’m not willing to risk when I’m on my own in a foreign place where I don’t know the subtle cultural cues, where I can’t call my best friend to come pick me up if things go awry.
I know men who are incredibly trustworthy, with whom I feel safe and that my boundaries are respected. But unfortunately, there a lot of men who don’t have that same reverence for a woman’s “no.” This can happen with female partners, too. But with men, I have had my boundaries crossed or feared violence on many more occasions.
There was the market in Oaxaca, where a man with a backpack kept walking by and grabbing my butt until I finally punched him and he skulked away. Or the Spanish exchange student in Florence who accused me of leading him on after I told him that I wanted to teach him to make pancakes, not sleep with him, on our first date. There was the Tuscan butcher who told me, “you’re the perfect size, not too skinny, not too fat,” without solicitation, while I waited for my pound of chuck and he hacked at a lamb thigh with a giant cleaver. There was the waiter in Thailand who followed my sister and me down a long, dark beach back to our hotel with a mad look in his eyes. There was the border cop in Indonesia who threatened to detain me, saying that I would have to figure out something to make it worth his while to let me enter the country.
I’m not scared to be a woman alone in a new city. But why put myself in danger in a strange place where I might unknowingly send a sexual signal to a man? In some places I’ve traveled, that signal can be as subtle as looking a man straight in the eye or saying I’m not traveling with a man. Just like that, I’ve accidentally offered myself as sexual chattel. Pardon me, but that is not what I meant.
I will freely discuss sexuality, which many people mistakenly interpret as a desire to have sex. Add to that being a foreigner and the perception that Americans are promiscuous. When I was an exchange student in Florence, for example, I noticed how men would often be more bold and less polite with me than they were with Italian women.
As if I needed more convincing, there’s also the alarming fact that 46 percent of bisexual women have been raped, overwhelmingly by men, compared with 17 percent of straight women and 13 percent of lesbians, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found even worse numbers: According to a 2010 report, 35 percent of heterosexual women had experienced rape, physical violence or stalking by a partner at some point, compared with 44 percent of lesbians and 61 percent of bisexual women — 90 percent of these instances at the hands of male partners.
Bisexual women live in a gray area between the black and whites of “straight” or “gay.” They often have to explain — more than straight women or lesbians — exactly what they’re attracted to, and then, more pressingly, what they aren’t attracted to. Because bisexuality can be associated with hypersexuality (think Miley Cyrus), there’s an assumption that because we’re attracted to men and women, we’re attracted to everyone. It’s insulting and dangerous.
I have never regretted having casual sex with a woman. Something about the power dynamics makes it easier for me to say no, or to stop the escalation toward sex without feeling like I’ll be accused of misleading them. It’s less charged and less risky. When I travel to a new place, I’m already going out on a limb: Getting lost on the bus lines, squinting to read the street signs on my way back to my Airbnb after a night at the pub, relying on the kindness of strangers to help me count out a strange currency when my coins get mixed up. Why add the threat of sexual violence to the mix?