“The Phantom Man” - Laura Killingbeck
Laura's no stranger to fear. After both hitchhiking and cycling as a young solo female, she's experienced some frightening situations. However, fear doesn't keep Laura from exploring. If anything, her experience has given her tools to "de-escalate male aggression" and feel safer in the world. "In short," writes Laura, "most of the risk seems low, some of it seems manageable, and the rest is something I just have to accept."
“I wish I could tell women that the Phantom Man is fake… But it’s not fake, and I think women's fear is valid.”
Laura, let’s talk about fear. Do you think it’s what prevents most women from traveling solo?
A lot of women I know are afraid of what I call “The Phantom Man.” They are scared to walk, bike, or travel alone, because some man, somewhere, might find them and rape them. This is a persistent fear among women, and I think it’s one of the biggest reasons that a large percentage of the female population is currently restricted from independent movement in the world.
When I hear women describe their fear of the Phantom Man, it absolutely breaks my heart. I wish I could tell women that the Phantom Man is fake, that no one will ever hurt them, and that they should go anywhere in the world they want, no matter what their gender. But it’s not fake, and I think women's fear is valid. We live in a society that is male identified and male dominated—this is patriarchy. Power of all kinds is tilted towards men, and some men, sometimes, use that power to hurt women.
“In a patriarchal society, all women are vulnerable to male violence… it’s something we should talk about and face, so we can change the circumstances that produce that fear.”
Sexism (the beliefs that perpetuate patriarchy) and misogyny (the enforcement of those beliefs) are systemic problems, and because they're systemic, we really can't escape them. I think women are afraid of the Phantom Man, because they know the Phantom Man is actually real. In a patriarchal society, all women are vulnerable to male violence. I don't think this fear is something we can or should ignore. I do think its something we can and should talk about and face, so we can change the circumstances that produce that fear.
When did you experience fear on your travels? What methods did you develop to cope with your fear?
Before I started cycle touring, I spent part of my late teens hitchhiking around the United States and Mexico, and living with homeless populations. It was the way I chose to explore the world and learn about people. Most of the time I had fabulous experiences, and people were kind and generous, no matter their background or economic status. I could always count on homeless people to show me around new places, and keep me safe.
“I had to learn how to de-escalate harassment and aggression, and in two situations, I had to run for my life from men who were going to rape me.”
But sometimes, especially while hitchhiking, I was not safe. I had to learn, on the fly, how to de-escalate harassment and aggression, and in two situations, I had to run for my life from men who were going to rape me. These experiences taught me how to recognize, assess, and manage male aggression in more effective ways. I also learned from necessity how to grow my sense of confidence to say no, leave, or ask for help when I needed it.
In both my personal life and my travels, I have experienced harassment and assault by men. Those experiences were always disturbing, and sometimes very frightening. And yet, if I am cycling or walking alone, I don't generally feel afraid of the Phantom Man, the way a lot of other women do. I know from experience that most men who wander by will be helpful and kind. I know that some of them will have a range of aggression that I will be able to manage and de-escalate. I know that a tiny, highly unlikely percentage of them will be aggressive in a way that I will need to run from or fight against, and I am prepared to do that. I also know that someone actually could rape me and kill me, and there is nothing I could do to stop it—this could happen anywhere, at any time, even at home, and I really can't control for that. So in short, most of the risk seems low, some of it seems manageable, and the rest is something I just have to accept.
“I learned from necessity how to grow my sense of confidence to say no, or to leave, or to ask for help when I needed it.”
Do you have any advice for other women about facing their fears?
I think it’s up to all women to make their own choices about how to deal with fear of the Phantom Man. For me, learning methods to recognize, assess, and manage male aggression has allowed me to travel with less fear. Or perhaps better put, it’s allowed me to hone my fear into tools that I can use to my benefit.
Women who come from different races, backgrounds, and sexual orientations shoulder different spectrums of risk. I respect women's choices to face fear however they choose, and I know that lots of women who choose not to bike or hike alone are far braver than I am, for myriad reasons. I don't think every woman has to bike across the world; But I do think that every woman who wants to, can. What's important is for all of us is to keep talking about our experiences, supporting each other, and facing our fears, for the dual purpose of dismantling the foundations on which those fears are built, and building skills to keep ourselves safer in the process.
“I know from experience that most men who wander by will be helpful and kind.”
Anything else you’d like to tell the world about yourself, bicycles, or your experience as a human?
Gender inequality is a real problem, and the unique fears and challenges women (and anyone who is not cis-gender male) face because of this are real. In my own life I oscillate between an intense desire to crush and destroy patriarchy with my bare hands, and a lighthearted impulse to love everything and laugh at all the world's strange and spectacular nuances. Its when these two perspectives intertwine and overlap that I have my best adventures.
I have been inspired and supported over the years by countless people, especially women. I'm so grateful to all the women who support each other and share their stories of resilience and exploration, here and within the larger adventure community. I'm also grateful to the many men in my life who take the time to listen, learn, and participate in these conversations in positive ways. A big thank you to Olivia for her dedication and talent in exploring human fear and resilience, and for creating a community where women can tell their stories!
“I don't think every woman has to bike across the world; But I do think that every woman who wants to, can.”