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.
7 Comments Add yours
I don’t think your image of the various women rightfully represent the body styles of women today. It seems you are a closet fat shamer.
I’ve just realised that you are talking about my header image. I chose it because I thought it was thought provoking and highlighted different body shapes and sizes. I don’t know who made it. I have written about the pressures on women to remain thin elsewhere on this blog so I’m not entirely sure how you have concluded that I am a secret fat shamer?
I’m glad you’ve addressed this issue. It’s refreshing to hear commentary on rape culture from someone with a more nuanced perspective on the role of media plays in our views of reality, especially when pointing out the irrationality inherent in the fear of random sexual violence. Statistically speaking, a woman is far more likely to be killed in a car accident than to be sexually assaulted at random, and yet we don’t get behind the wheel of a car with the same trepidation as we step out into the dark alone. Hell, I’ve seen many of my friends walk in groups across a parking lot at night for safety, jump in their cars, and drive off while texting on their phones. It’s absurd.
As for using the fear of sexual violence as a means of social control, especially with respect to policing female public dress and behavior, the phenomenon is nothing new. In fact, one of the first major examples of the media sensationalizing sexual violence to promote traditional messages of domesticity and modesty was the Jack the Ripper case in London: the women killed were portrayed as responsible for their own victimization because (1) they were promiscuous/immoral and (2) because they had the audacity to operate publicly at night alone. If you want to learn more about this, grab a copy of “City of Dreadful Delights: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Victorian London” by Judith Walkowitz. It’s a fascinating read and does a good job of highlighting how cultural strategies of sexual policing haven’t really changed much in 150 years.
Thanks for your response. I thought about the response of the police to the Yorkshire Ripper (Peter Sutcliffe) in the 1960s in the UK when I was writing it. Sounds pretty similar – they basically told women to stay in at night, hence the reclaim the night movement. The book sounds really interesting, thanks for the recommendation.
Hi. Most men know that women are often afraid to walk alone at night. I regularly take all sorts of weird detours on my evening walks in order to avoid creeping out women by walking behind them for too long. But that doesn’t mean I’m sympathetic towards feminism. As you and It’s Me Gurl said, there’s something irrational about the fear of random sexual violence. It makes sense to me that you can become scared of men when you spend hours and hours reading about all the horrible things that some of them have done. And yes, I also see a lot of these articles passing by on facebook and other media. But who are the ones who keep reading and posting all these things, exacerbating this paranoia? Feminists.
Sure, the media loves crimes against women, but that’s because so many people like reading about them. If hardly anyone read these articles the media would focus on something else. Maybe we could instead start every morning by reading about men whose lives are ruined by false accusations of rape. I really hope that won’t happen however. That would probably lead to an increase in angry maninists or whatever they’re called. And then you’d probably have to start signing forms every time you want to have sex saying that you agree to not sue for rape. How romantic :p
So please, dear feminists, stop making yourself and other women afraid of me so I can go back to walking wherever the hell I want. Perhaps you could treat it like an interesting experiment on the influence of the media on your head. Avoid all articles about the horrible injustices perpetrated by men for a week or maybe even a month, and in case you do read one by accident force yourself to spend an hour reading https://www.reddit.com/r/UpliftingNews . And then afterwards see if you’ve started to interpret male behaviour in a different way.
Oh, and if you’re interested in the effects of news in general, I found this to be very informative. http://dobelli.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/Avoid_News_Part1_TEXT.pdf
Why is it that all the men who comment on my blog seem to think they have a right to tell me and other feminists what we should be doing and how we should change feminism to suit them? As you say you’re not sympathetic towards feminism I can only conclude that you’re against women having the right to vote or go out to work as these are hard won battles fought by the feminists of yesteryear. I find it very difficult to feel sorry for you having to cross the road because you’re worried about scaring women at night I’m afraid – easy how you’ve managed to turn this whole situation around so it’s not only about men but also so that you have somehow become the victim. If you’re genuinely not interested in feminism then I’m not entirely sure why you’re here? This being a feminist blog…