Content Warning: This post contains descriptions of predatory behavior
I’ve heard the question, “Why didn’t she report it?” so many times I’ve run out of walls to bang my head on. It’s a question no one would be asking if we all took a genuine hard look at ourselves and our institutions and who they so often choose to protect in situations of abuse. But it’s also a question institutions and organizations should be asking themselves if they want to do something about preventing abuse.
Two years ago, as I was traveling abroad, I made an attempt to report on a hostel owner who I believed to be a threat. I did this not because I was in immediate danger, but because I had good reasons to believe that his hostel was not a safe place for girls and women to stay. In response, the agency I reported to put me in danger.
It was late when I got to the hostel—11:15 pm. Marcus chatted with me for a bit and then showed me to my room, which was a 4 bed all-female room. He opened the door to introduce me to my roommates (which seemed odd to me; I’d never had a hostel employee come with me to a shared room, especially not a female-only one). One thing he didn’t mention until we got up there was that it was adjacent to the “night warden’s” room, meaning the night warden would be walking through my room to get in and out of his (he also did not mention that he was the night warden). The door between the rooms was glass; the only curtain was on his side of the door. After he left, my new roommates told me that he had been coming up there to chat with them frequently and they expressed that they were uncomfortable. They chose to sleep in the same bed that night.
I wasn’t close to reporting on him at this point—he seemed nice, he stayed up and let me in past check-in time, and when something is presented to you as normal, it’s easy to question your own skepticism. Then I moved on to my next hostel and met other people who knew Marcus.
My new friends told me that when they were staying there he had walked in on them naked and had to be told to leave. He had made sexual comments about them. He had made a pass at one of them and consequently fired her from her housekeeping job when she rejected him, forcing her to find other housing. I heard that “the room” always seemed to be reserved for young, attractive women. With this new information and following the recommendation of my current hostel managers, I contacted BBH, the World Traveler Accommodation network that promotes and rates hostels, and told them what I knew.
The woman at BBH who received my email expressed concern, and then quickly and without my permission forwarded my email to Marcus. I was told by BBH that they had to allow Marcus to “give his feedback”—feedback to an email I had written with the expectation he would NOT see it, or I would not have used language that would likely infuriate him. His response, which was forwarded right back to me, indicated that he knew exactly who I was and that I was still in town, and that he was in fact angry. He implied that I am “self-conscious,” that Americans are liars, and he said that other solo female travelers have confirmed with him that he is “not creepy” (a statement that made me laugh, since the very act of asking solo female travelers that question proves my point). I ended up having to defend my character on the phone with someone from BBH, who told me they could not do anything without more independent complaints.
There isn’t more to this story. Marcus did not find me and retaliate, and he did not lose his hostel. For all I know he’s still running it. There isn’t more to this story because I am lucky, and there isn’t more to this story because BBH didn’t take me seriously. I am alive and safe, and young women are still booking rooms at Marcus’s hostel.
For all of the personal stories women have been telling and re-telling over the past few months, rising up from the ashes of the last time they told their stories and nothing changed, I have a story of “this bad thing almost happened to me.” We all have “almost” stories. And implied in the almost is the possibility that the person caused more serious harm to other women in other moments. I very rarely think about Marcus anymore, but I think it’s likely there are other women out there for whom not thinking about their encounter with him is more of a struggle. I hope I’m wrong.
Violence prevention/community safety is about so much more than learning to defend or speak up for yourself. This is why, in addition to teaching empowerment self-defense classes, IMPACT does prevention training with organizations to change cultural norms that lead to abuse going undetected and unreported, and give them the capacity to intervene when boundary violations are committed. Had the employees at BBH been trained in abuse prevention, they might have had different protocols in place to deal with this situation—protocols that would have led to an investigation instead of a shrug, or at the very least protocols that would have prioritized my safety over Marcus’s right to respond to criticism.
There are many reasons why people don’t bother to report abuse. Until there is a widespread cultural understanding that sexual violence is an epidemic and lying about it is not, survivors of sexual violence will continue not to report. And they cannot and must not be blamed for that. But we can work to make our organizations/workplaces/schools etc. prevention-oriented, trauma-informed, and safe to report to, even and perhaps especially when what’s being reported is just a bunch of bright red flags.