If I’m walking alone at night, and you are a man between the ages of 20 and 60 and your gait looks even remotely confident, I’m terrified of you.
A few months ago I was walking back from the gym at 8:30pm, carrying a gym bag full of clothes and my computer. The bulk of the bag meant that I was continuously stopping to hoist, and was tilted to the left. I texted my roommate as I left the gym, took a deep breath and started my 15-minute walk. I saw a man walking toward me on my side of the street and thought immediately of the nearby police station, hoping that my roommate had taken note of the time of my text.
When the man was about 20 feet in front of me, something amazing happened: He tripped. There was a piece of the sidewalk that stuck up a few inches and he hit it with the tip of his foot, tripped, and then caught himself. It was awkward and probably mildly embarrassing for him. He chuckled, I chuckled and the chill running down my spine quickly dissipated. As we passed each other, I could breathe. I think I may have even been smiling.
The media is rife with conversations about feminism and women’s rights lately, as well as the dry-heave inducing follow-up question, “Do we still need this movement?” Until everyone, regardless of gender, feels equally safe walking alone at night, feminism is not over.*
Like many women, I fear walking by myself after dark, particularly after 9pm. The reason is simple: I’m afraid of being raped. This isn’t an irrational fear; an American is sexually assaulted every two minutes, and 9 out of 10 survivors are women.
However, a person is more likely to be sexually assaulted by an acquaintance than a stranger. Random street attacks are relatively rare. Evenings spent binge-watching “Law & Order: SVU” (a pastime no young woman should devote much of her time to, if she values her mental health) didn’t help my situation. Learning about our role as historical victims of violence is coming-of-age knowledge passed onto young women via media, chain emails telling us to carry keys and get rape whistles when we walk, and even parents attempting to be helpful by terrifying us.
This isn’t to say that I shouldn’t be vigilant. We all should. Although vigilance and a touch of paranoia make us feel like we’re doing something to protect ourselves; a pathological fear is not healthy. What’s perhaps more frustrating is that my experience is not unique. It’s entirely common. In fact, women are more than twice as likely to fear walking alone at night than men.
I don’t know about you, but I’m profiling everyone after dark. If I’m walking alone at night and you are a man between the ages of 20 and 60 and your gait looks even remotely confident, I’m terrified of you. I’ve thought a lot about whether the fear is racist or classist, and it really isn’t. It really doesn’t discriminate much, except that the person normally falls into the above age range. No matter how tired, drunk, confident, sad, or excited I am, I get a piercing feeling in my stomach when someone of that description is walking toward me on the street. The moment they walk past me, I momentarily lose the ability to breathe as I role-play different scenarios in my head. I normally have a hand in my pocket clutching my keys or phone. The moment they walk past me I close my eyes and keep walking, ball my fists, and prepare. When they’re a distance that I’ve arbitrarily deemed safe behind me, I exhale and say a tiny little thank you to the street gods for sparing me. Then I chastise myself for a second and carry on walking.
My almost pathological fear of men in the streets after dark is something I need to continue to work on, and I recognize and own that. I also know that most people are good, kind, and just people, and that even if they aren’t, it is unlikely that they are rapists trolling the streets for unsuspecting women to assault. But in the same way that I own that, I think that if someone falls into the most-likely-to-rape people category, and he wants to show the world that he is not to be feared, or to create a world where women don’t fear for our safety in the street, then some of the onus is on him to address that inequality in his day-to-day life.
It isn’t fair to all men that random women in the street fear them just because of their gender. But, and this shouldn’t be a newsflash, they do, and that fact should make men really mad. The fact that we fear men in the street (to varying degrees), is because a portion of men do some stuff that is, if not illegal, at least a little unseemly. It’s scary to be catcalled by a group of drunken frat boys when you’re walking home alone. It’s scary to have someone slowly look you up and down when you’re walking home, chatting on the phone to your friend about godknowswhat. And when it isn’t scary, it’s an inconvenience.
Upon reflection, I think I was less afraid of that tripping man because his falling leveled the playing field. The power dynamic had shifted. I was no longer the weaker, more vulnerable one. The thing that makes me feel weaker and more vulnerable isn’t just my issue, and I’m not alone in feeling it. It’s a result of a big, ugly reality that women are disproportionately victims of gendered-violence. Any adult who is even remotely socially conscious knows how this plays out for women. We have less financial security and thus struggle to leave abusive situations; we are overwhelmingly more likely to be survivors of domestic violence and rape; we experience the lion’s share of street harassment in every country in the world. Women and girls, even if they aren’t feminists or Women’s Studies majors, notice these things and then act accordingly.
My fear of walking in the street at night does not serve me at all. It often leads to judgment and criticism of myself. Most importantly, it probably doesn’t protect me from harm. But I’m not going to take all of the blame—or pretend like my fear isn’t shared by women all over the world, or that it isn’t worth examining—and neither should any of us. People of all genders have a responsibility to make other people of all genders feel safe and secure. Not because we are feminists or liberals or commies or whatever, but because we’re all humans.
*Gender non-conforming people also experience disproportionate levels of violence. This is also the purview of feminist activists, not just violence against cisgender women.
Phylisa Wisdom lives, works, and writes in Melbourne, Australia. Follow her on twitter at @phylisajoy.