Laura at I'm Not a Feminist, But . . . has written a sensitive and thoughtful post about the common expectation in our society that women not walk about after dark without a man. She professes extreme irritation at this state of affairs, and I can definitely relate. The cultural assumptions regarding women's need for male protection often do a disservice to both women and men. As Laura points out:
(a) Women’s freedom of movement is hampered in a way that men’s freedom of movement is not.
(b) The notion that women are most at risk of rape on the street after dark is statistically incorrect. The vast majority of sexual assaults and rapes take place off the streets and are committed not by strangers, but by acquaintances, friends, and relatives.
(c) The notion that men are somehow invincible is false as well, yet much more of a fuss is made of women’s safety-- to the detriment of both men and women. (This point was actually raised, unwittingly perhaps, by Richard in the comments thread of Laura’s post.)
(d) The notion that women need a man for protection often translates into the man “taking charge” of the woman’s movements or decisions. Laura described how a well-meaning male friend recently expressed guilt for “letting” Laura walk home alone. All too often, women’s decisions about their own safety are not respected. Laura also criticizes the flip side of this -- the injustice to the man of having to feel that he is still responsible for a woman’s safety even when she has turned down his help.
Here are some moments of irritation and anger from my own memory bank that illustrate some of the points made in Laura's post:
-- There was the time in boarding school when I decided to run the half mile from the main part of campus to my dorm, which was located in an isolated, wooded area next to a boy’s dorm. I was a runner and it was a beautiful spring night and it felt good after a long day to just pump my arms and my legs and fly across the athletic fields. The joy I felt was not to last for long, however. A boy from the neighboring dorm caught up with me, grabbed me from behind, scaring me half to death. “I’m a-gonna rape you,” he joked before “reassuring” me that he would walk me back. We walked to the dorm together, while he made fun of me because he assumed I was running out of fear. It pretty much wrecked my night.
-- Still in boarding school, I was once at the library with a group of friends, and a boy offered to walk me back to my dorm. I turned him down, primarily because he really “liked” me and I didn’t want to “lead him on.” He kept insisting and I kept fobbing him off. Then he got pissy and said, “Well, don’t blame me if you get raped.” Nice. Thanks, guy, for using the prospect of rape to try to force me to spend time with you when I don’t want to.
-- As a young college student hanging out in New York City, my parents were fine with me having a social life all over the city until all hours but they asked that I always take a cab after nine o’clock at night unless I were with a man. I and most of my women friends adhered to similar safety precautions. My boyfriend, on the other hand, blithely wandered about the city by himself all the time -- even though he got mugged THREE times. I mean held up at gunpoint or knifepoint and MUGGED. But, except for me, no one ever said to him, “You really need to change your habits. You can’t be walking around by yourself at night.” And he continued to think somehow that he didn’t have to be careful because he was a young, strong MAN. In fact, the only time I ever came close to being mugged, was when I was with this boyfriend. He wanted to take a shortcut through the park and I thought it looked too deserted. He insisted it would be fine because he was there with me. Predictably enough, a woman and a man caught up with us and were actually discussing whether they should “take [us] down.” They abandoned the plan, I think because I started laughing (out of nervousness). It really annoyed me that I had put myself in danger by buying into the assumption that being with a man was the be-all and end-all to protecting myself.
-- Once I attended a baseball game with the same boyfriend at Yankee Stadium. Yankee Stadium is located in a somewhat sketchy section of the Bronx. Unless there is a game, which draws crowds of people to the area, it is not a safe place to go (or at least it wasn’t back in my day). So, after the game, Boyfriend and I went with the crowd from Yankee Stadium to the subway trains that would take much of the crowd back to Manhattan. As we made our way through the crowd with me walking in front of my Boyfriend, Boyfriend kept trying to propel me through the crowd by my elbow or by shoving me. I kept yanking my arm away from him and he kept grabbing me and pushing me. I kept telling him to let go of me, yet he ignored my wishes. Let me tell you, I was pissed. Bad pissed. It was one of the very few times in my life that I have been really furious with someone and when we got back to his apartment, we had a knock-down drag-out fight. I told him, “Don’t you EVER do that again.” His response was that he was in charge of making sure I made it home safely because it was a sketchy area and I could somehow (?) get swept away from the crowd. He felt that his obligation to protect me should override my clearly stated wishes that I did not want to be grabbed, propelled, or shoved. Apparently, when a woman is perceived to be in danger, her own decision-making capacity is not to be considered worthy.
-- In this vein, well-meaning men all too frequently speak in terms of whether they will “let” the women in their lives do something they believe is dangerous. Laura’s friend felt guilty that he had “let” her walk home alone. I had a male colleague who told me he would not “let” his wife use a chainsaw. Recently at Pandagon, Amanda discussed a Dear Abby letter regarding a man who wanted his girlfriend to pick him up at night at the airport as a romantic gesture. The letter writer said, “No one in his right mind would permit . . . his girlfriend to travel alone by car, cab, bus or subway during the hours of darkness as a ‘romantic gesture.’ It could result in her suffering severe mental or physical injury as a result of a car-jacking, assault, rape or kidnapping.” (Emphasis added). Gee, I guess I shouldn’t have permitted my ex-boyfriend to walk around at night since he kept getting mugged -- except as a woman, I have neither the right nor the ability to control a man's movements.
-- At my last firm, there were a couple of female associates (including me) and a night secretary who used to work each night until about 7:30 or 8:00. One night a slightly more senior male associate (who was something of a pompous windbag) stayed late and noticed the night secretary leave at her appointed time of 7:30 while we female associates stayed at our desks a while longer. The senior male associate professed shock and outrage that we had not offered to walk the night secretary to her car and asked that in future we travel as a group to our cars. So the next night, I said to the night secretary, “The other female associate and I can walk you to your car.” The night secretary laughed at me and said, “I’ve lived in this town all my life and I don’t think it’s dangerous for me to walk a block to my car at 7:30.” I personally agreed with her and you would think that that would be that. But oh no, senior male associate made a big deal to the managing partner about the fact that the women were not traveling in packs to their cars at the ostensibly late hour of 7:30. Again, apparently, we are not seen to have the capacity to make our own decisions about our own safety.
-- A couple of years ago, a woman was leaving a party when two men at the party followed her out, grabbed her and raped her. The investigating police officer made a statement to the press advising single women not to go to parties at night unless they know everyone there!
Obviously, street violence is a huge problem with major consequences, and certainly there is no denying that women are generally seen as easier or more desirable targets. But the solution should not be to ignore or override a woman’s own decisions regarding what precautions she will take. The solution should not be to make ridiculous pronouncements that women should never go to parties or never travel after dark. The solution should not be to assume that having a man around is an absolute protection. The solution should not be to lead men to believe that somehow they are not at risk themselves of violent street crime.