There’s something very scary about walking alone in the dark as a woman. It’s probably born out of our inherent fear of being harmed for no reason, and the knowledge that threading your keys through your fingers is no match for unexpected force. Only feeling safe to walk or be around during sunlight hours means that fear is a pretty pervasive part of feminine reality. I dropped my phone and fell on my arse once because I thought my shadow was another person. I gave myself a fright, because I thought someone else was about to. It made me wonder, “why does feeling spooked feel so normal?”
In 2005, more than four hundred thousand women in Australia reported being assaulted. Three hundred thousand of these women experienced physical violence, and one hundred thousand were sexually assaulted. In 2013, reports showed a 3.3% increase in assault against women. And in goddamn 2014, female assault numbers increased by 20,677 reported incidents. A goddamn five year high.
Numbers like this validate and perpetuate our fear. It makes sense that last year one in seven women said they felt too unsafe to use public transport or walk alone at night. This fear makes manoeuvring yourself home complicated and expensive. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve sought out the train carriage with the security people in it, my Uber rides from the train station to home would be fully funded.
Old mate Courtney Barnett gets it. In her new single Nameless, Faceless, she explores how different male and female fears are. “I want to walk through the part in the dark, men are scared that women will laugh at them”, she sings. Barnett also talks about how scary it is that men can say some pretty gross shit to women, but we just have to cop it because “you’re just kidding”. Before anyone gets on their #notallmen high horse, the song isn’t an attempt to diminish the fears men face. Men come up against threats too, obviously. In 2005, 10.8% of Australia’s male population reported some form of assault to the police. What Barnett is trying to highlight is that for women, night time is attached to a pervasive sense of insecurity, unprovoked violence and sexual threat.
The song quotes Canadian speculative fiction writer, Margaret Atwood. In the chorus Barnett sings “men are scared that women will laugh at them, women are scared that men will kill them.” It doesn’t get much darker than that, I’m afraid. Atwood said this in the 1980s in conversation with friends and study groups. She talked with a lot of different people about the varied safety issues women face. In 1985, Atwood published her book The Handmaid’s Tale, now a highly-rated, much studied television series.The story is set in a dystopian future, one where women’s rights have not flourished, but been stripped.
Harvard Medical School theorised in 1989 that women fear rape as strongly and as often as any person fears death. Despite rape not being a certainty, like death is, studies have found that it is often a woman’s foremost fear. This is because rape culture has attached itself to nightlife, and to night time more generally. Women told Harvard researchers that their most frequent fear was “being alone in their neighbourhoods at night”. Remembering that this study took place in the 1980s, Atwood’s book was a product of its time. Oh, how times have not changed.
Six in ten women told Harvard researchers they felt “very unsafe” or “somewhat unsafe”, when walking home in the dark. If a woman answered that she felt “completely safe” doing so, she was married and/or white. And so walking home in the dark takes a turn for the even-worse, cultural violence.
The study found that African American people “whether male or female, feel the least safe of any ethnic or racial subgroup, but about half as many black females report feeling safe as black males ”. Fear of ostracization often goes hand-in-hand with sexualised racism. These women of colour explained to researchers that reporting physical or sexual violence made them feel like they were reinforcing racist stereotypes. They felt it “risked exacerbating the racism directed at their community – at both minority or immigrant men and women”. So there is a social cost for these women, where their burden and shame has the potential to implicate their community.
Although it’s not uncommon for women to assume responsibility for dangerous systemic male behaviour, some people find it hard to believe. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote in shock about the number of women who are afraid to tell men “no”, or at least make themselves scarce. Note here, that Maureen Dowd is white and in a relationship. Rather than pointing fingers at frightened women, it might be more helpful to consider the nuance of their fear.
And praise be, we have a lady who’ll do just that. Jan Fran! She’s an SBS journalist and ambassador for welfare charity, Plan International Australia. Jan has been loud and proud about PIA’s recently released interactive map that guides you home safely. It works by users putting pins down in the map to mark sketchy as fuck areas no one should ever walk through, so that no one ever walks through them. These are called “Bad Spots”. At the moment, the program only maps Sydney, but will hopefully expand. Check it out here.
It feels sad that we even have to do this, but we do. We have to use tools like this to have our say about city planning, policing and overall dangerous vibes. We have to look out for each other the way Courtney Barnett, Margaret Atwood and Jan Fran look out for all of us. Safety is the right of all women, from all cultures and minority groups. Because keys feel the same between everyone’s fingers.