A couple of weeks ago I went running with a male friend of mine. We ran through my local park that features regularly in my running life, but this time it was different. It was dark.
I’m no stranger to running at night but I tend to stick to well lit roads and my winter routes bear little resemblence to my summer adventures that wind along the green spaces in the city. Sometimes when I am feeling adventurous I drive out of the concrete and run into the cornfields, feet connecting with the soil, revelling in the peace of my surroundings. Even in these elated moments, somewhere at the back of my mind there is always a niggle: “Nobody knows where you are, you don’t even have your phone on you. Don’t you remember when that woman got raped and stabbed when she was jogging that time?” but I run on, my pace a little quicker.
I try hard not to be scared. I try not to let it stop me from stumbling back from the pub on my own after last orders, clutching my keys between my knuckles, telling myself I would have the guts to gouge the eyes out of a potential attacker. I mentally go through the breakaway training I used to do every year and the other dirtier techniques my Dad taught me, ever vigilant, ever ready.
It’s not easy though. Every year, women are subjected to horrific and violent crimes. Every woman knows this. Every woman has grown up being told not to walk alone at night, to keep an eye on our drink, to stay with our friends. Wear the right thing, say the right thing, keep your head down and get home safe. Karen Ross who researches into all things media sees the focus on violent crime against women as problematic. We have all read the newspaper reports of the women who are raped and murdered and each time the message is clear: this woman here, this dead woman, this broken woman, she could have been you. It’s not just that it is over-reported in the media, but film and TV are obsessed with it. Violence against women is the staple of just about any crime drama. The women victims are usually naked, displayed in highly sexualised poses designed to titillate as much as shock. Not only does violence against women become normalised but the message seems to be this – look what could happen to you if you don’t behave. If you get drunk, or you get in that car or you walk home on your own, you’ll end up on that cold metal slab in the mortuary, just like her.
When I was having a conversation with a male friend about violence against women I had a sudden realisation that the reason he didn’t get it was because he literally had no idea how scared women are of men. He didn’t understand what it was like to live with the fear. I tried to explain that I cross roads at night and pray that the man I am avoiding doesn’t cross over too. I am ever vigilant, on high alert, adrenaline primed. Despite the fact that men are far more likely to be the victim of male violence perpetrated by an unknown male, he was not scared to walk alone at night.
By giving into this fear I am aware that I am colluding with the powerful messages that tell women what to do. By creating an atmosphere in which women are too scared to walk alone at night, it is easy to blame them when the worst happens and they do get attacked. If only you hadn’t walked that way on your own, been drunk or worn that skirt then you’d have been okay. Rarely do we hear “If only he hadn’t raped you” as it seems so much easier for society to blame the victim. I would like to say that one day I will be brave enough to run through that park on my own, but I probably won’t.
Nevertheless, it is clear that violence against women remains a huge problem. However, it is fundamentally not a problem propagated by strange men. The men who rape us and murder us are the ones we live with. They are fathers, uncles, grandfathers and neighbours. They are husbands, lovers and boyfriends. They are known to us and they get away with it for precisely that reason. Anybody that doubts this is true should take a minute or two to familiarise themselves with the murder of Reeva Steenkamp or the case of the man who repeatedly raped his girlfriend in her sleep and walked free from court. It is easier to fear the stranger than the man in your bed. By constructing the threat to women as the faceless attacker who lurks in alleyways, society does two things – it situates the problem well outside of the domestic sphere, making it even harder to tackle, and it acts as a form of social control. Fear is powerful and the powerful use fear all the the time.