Recently, I was arguing in a pub (nothing new there) with a man who was pretty sure that gender equality had been achieved. Politely, I asked him how many times he’d been sexually assaulted or harassed. Whether he had ever changed his route to work because a regular fellow commuter was making him feel uncomfortable.
He conceded that this was foreign to him, but refused to believe that this is the case for most, or even many, women. He suggested I was exaggerating for the sake of argument.
Then, this week, The Onion ran a spoof piece entitled “Woman Knows Exactly Which Knife She’d Grab Out Of Cutlery Drawer In Event Of Home Invasion”. It’s funny – she chooses the 6in chef’s knife because it’s “nice and handy”.
It’s playing on the constant sense of unease women profess to feel, whether in their own homes or in public – the one that makes them have their keys ready several metres from their homes or shell out for a taxi they cannot afford. And the way that many men (including my friend in the pub) have trouble understanding how innate this feeling is.
Talking to men about women’s fear of them is tricky. They are offended that anyone might be scared of little old them. Loads of them are lovely! The women they know wouldn’t stand for any of that! They remind us that men can be victims, too. One incident this week demonstrated how a man failed to realised how scary his behaviour might be to a woman alone, when he was trying to prove a point about racism.
There isn’t a woman who hasn’t thought ‘thank God someone saw me’ or ‘lucky they warned me’ or ‘if I had only been a few minutes later’
It’s why the notion of safe spaces is difficult to understand for those who have never needed them, those for whom every space is safe. Of course women are not the only group who modify their behaviour in order to preserve their safety. Anyone who is a minority will recognise these self-preservation techniques. But that does not negate the very real risk to women, the one we all carry with us all of the time.
Last year 93 per cent of calls to Rape Crisis England and Wales were from women. One in five women experience sexual assault after the age of 16. We are not scared for the sake of it. We are scared because it happens.
Even when we know that most rapists are known to their victims and that most attacks don’t happen in dark alleyways by masked assailants, there isn’t a woman who hasn’t imagined her own abduction or assault. Many don’t need to imagine.
Two years ago, Bridget Minamore wrote for The Pool about the tricks she and other women use to make themselves feel safer at night. I remember a self-defence assembly at school when we were advised that, if we were walking alone, it was good to drink plenty and need the toilet, so that, if something happened to us, we could wet ourselves in an attempt to put off an attacker.
A colleague, who also grew up in Croydon, reminded me of the case of Sally Anne Bowman, an 18-year-old model who was murdered and raped right outside her front door in 2005. We can both recall every detail of the case. It was talked about in our schools and homes and friendship groups, all with the underlying knowledge that it could have been anyone. Especially when it took nine months for her attacker to be arrested – nine months of knowing he was out there, a man who subsequently turned out to be a serial sex attacker.
That was just our hometown, but all women have them. The nicknames given by local papers to serial rapists, the alleyways that became no-go zones and the many subsequent urban myths that we whispered to one another.
There isn’t a woman who hasn’t thought “thank God someone saw me” or “lucky they warned me” or “if I had only been a few minutes later”. We operate under the belief that we will probably be attacked one day, and if we are not then we are lucky. Our requests to friends to confirm they got home OK after the pub aren’t just out of interest; most women I know have spent a sleepless night worrying that they haven’t heard from a girlfriend who forgot to text before bed.
We talk about the tax on women’s time when it comes to their appearance or their emotional labour, and acknowledge their unpaid work at home and in caring roles. But women spend an inordinate amount of time every day anxious for their own safety – deciding which route to take, which carriage to get on, what time to leave. We think about whether we would shout if we could, what words we would choose, what we could use as a weapon and where we could hide.
I know I’ve been told that it’s better to shout “Fire!” than “Rape!” because people are more likely to come running for a fire. I don’t remember why I know this. It’s just one of those things women absorb via self-defence osmosis.
And we do all this without making it obvious to the world around us. Our precautions and our escape plans will mostly be completely imperceptible to the naked (male) eye. But just because we don’t publicise our strategies, it doesn’t mean we are exaggerating. It’s exhausting but it’s ingrained. And it is necessary.