In praise of risk-taking women

Greta Gerwig plays the adventurous heroine in the film 'Frances Ha'.

Greta Gerwig plays the adventurous heroine in the film 'Frances Ha'.

Every woman should probably travel alone, at least once. She should set her own itinerary, go exactly where she pleases. She should rely upon a stranger for help or take a stranger into her confidence. Whomever she trusts and doesn’t trust, she should feel the satisfaction of proving her instincts right. And she should take a chance on something, simply out of curiosity, with no more justification than that. She should throw herself into something she’s not sure she can pull off. She should do all this, because this is adventure. 

Of course, it can all sound like one woman’s search for enlightenment though. This modern obsession with self-improvement where everything is cloyingly described as a journey. This is probably because we use cheerful, aspirational words to describe women’s adventure-seeking, like ‘renewal’ or ‘reinvention’ when more prickly words like ‘risk-taking’ might better suit. Except that risk-taking is considered virtually pathological in women. So, we encourage boldness while dismissing daring. We celebrate adventurousness in women but only with santized versions until it is more contentment than excitement she appears to be achieving.

The only time we really talk about women taking risks is to demonstrate a lesson of caution. Risk-taking is condemned for its compromise to personal safety, a responsibility considered paramount to our freedom. To take risks signals not an appetite for fun but for danger. Self-harm not self-actualising. For women, risk is considered avoidable — you don’t take it, lest you be seen to be asking for it

I once travelled alone to the Philippines, though when I say I was alone I was actually rarely by myself. Roughly 99 million people live on some 7,000 islands in the Philippines and so even lying on a beach with your eyes closed won’t bring solitude. Approached on your towel by a continuous stream of people selling you jewelry, massage or scuba dives, you are reminded that it is very difficult to eke out a living on an over-crowded archipelago. I was staying on one of the smaller islands when I decided to venture to the other end of it for dinner. It was off-peak season and the restaurant was nearly deserted. I felt very pleased with myself, because exploration is like that, it fills you with a child-like sense of accomplishment. Also, I had got a little drunk.


When I toddled out of the restaurant that night I found something I hadn’t yet come across in the Philippines. Emptiness. There were no tourists, no taxis. It was the secret life of the island, the way this world turns when you aren’t around to photograph it. I had a quiet panic to myself. And then like any traveller, I spitefully wondered why this country, which only moments ago I had found so charming, couldn’t run itself a little bit more like home. I felt alarmingly alone. It seemed to me I had walked into a trap, or as in a fairytale, was being cursed for waywardness. And like witchcraft, just then, a boy and a motorbike appeared before me. Half threatening, half enticing. Any hesitation and young entrepreneurs materialise out of thin air in places of poverty.

He gestured that if I paid him he would take me on the back of his motorbike to my accommodation. I made some feeble attempts to clarify the price, which was more than reasonable considering his negotiation opportunities, and then I climbed on behind him. And yes, I imagined being raped by him in great detail. We rode into the darkness through farms and forests. There were no street lights, in fact, very little light at all. He rode so fast I thought he might kill us both before getting to brutalise me. And so, I thought some very angry things about myself.

But I also began to notice how pretty the night was and I wondered whether if I wasn’t about to die I might actually find this ride quite beautiful. And so, in spite of myself, I enjoyed it. I made it back to my bungalow without incident. In the end, I might question just how much risk was really involved. A woman caught a ride home. But I know there was a moment there, I felt that horrible charge in my body when I saw what might be happening and I felt very alone with fate. But this story is mine. I wasn’t an audience to someone else’s story. It was my adventure. I went out to see the island, I came home under a moonless sky, and I felt afraid and it was not unlike a thrill.

I have thrown myself into other adventures I feared, too - embraced public speaking invitations, given birth without drugs, and eventually obtained both scuba diving and motorcycle licenses. But it is the risks I have taken with my personal safety that will trouble you most. And I’m not going to claim they were always measured or even necessary risks. Truth is I sometimes took stupid risks. Picked up hitchhikers. I know, I know. Went on a road trip with my sister and ended up on a pub crawl with people we just met. Trusted strangers in a myriad of ways. (And distrusted plenty of others). Even now, I regularly invite strangers into my home. I am a member of a cultural exchange Internet site where backpackers work on your garden in return for food and lodgings. When I signed up I specified women travellers only. I’m not crazy. But all bar one of the guests I have ended up agreeing to have been men. They teach me recipes from their countries, laugh over wine with me and have been nothing but respectful. There is, I have discovered, a certain warmth strangers offer in recognition of the risk they see you taking for them.

In many ways I am risk-adverse. I hate to pay bills late, wouldn’t dream of skipping vaccinations. But risk happens as life unfolds and to avoid all risk is to block not just chance but also the possibilities of change. Exposure to risk refines your ability to manage risk and builds resourcefulness. You learn to think on your feet as well as to be open to the world. Some risks are taken out of joy, desire, inquisitiveness, boredom or recklessness, but others are taken because of sheer circumstance. If you’re honest about this you can develop great empathy from the experience. You will feel love towards all those forced to live with risk. You will know how frantically they weigh up their choices and how limited they were. You will stop blaming them for the horrible things that happen to them.

The reason why it is so important to not tell women to seal themselves off from risk is that risk is part of being human, part of being alive. We’re all entitled to have a story of our own.