When I was eighteen and a college freshman away from home for the first time, I learned that I was supposed to be afraid to walk alone in urban areas after dark. I learned this on the phone with my mother. I was telling her about my experiences settling into college life, and we had an exchange that went something like this:
Mom: You walked across campus? By yourself? At night?
Mom: You weren’t afraid?
Mom: (pause) You could be attacked.
Me: I… guess. In theory.
Mom: Promise me you won’t do it again.
Me: How about I don’t tell you about it anymore, and you can pretend I don’t do it?
(I didn’t mention that I had already walked at night by myself in downtown Bellingham, because I worried she’d blow a gasket.)
Anyway, the news that I was supposed to be wary of such activity came as a complete shock. It had never come up before — as a teenager, I lived in way-out-there suburbs without a car of my own, so there was nowhere I could go alone unless it was walking distance, and there was nothing walking distance except more suburbs, and there was certainly no reason to go there at night.
One of the things I loved most about college was that I could go where I wanted, when I wanted, full stop. I could walk to the store, or the movie theater, or the coffee shop. I could walk to a friend’s house. I could walk to Denny’s. I had, for the first time in my life, freedom, and autonomy. That was adulthood, baby. There was no way I was giving that up. Anyway, my mom was a big worrier about everything, so I figured she was the outlier.
At some point — I must have been home for the summer or the winter holidays — at her urging, I accompanied her to a self-defense class. I don’t remember if this class was specifically for women, or if it was coincidence that all attendees were female. We learned how to use something called a kubotan, which is a little black plastic stick that you can use as a keychain, and as a weapon.
We were given tips for preventing purse-snatchings, muggings, carjackings, home invasions, and being generically “attacked.” The words “rape” or “sexual assault” were never used. Still, it was obvious that all of us imagined a street crime narrative went like this: a woman is walking alone at night through an urban area, some thugs take her purse, and then they take more. Certainly, this scenario appears in fiction fairly often — that’s the moment the superhero appears, right in between “purse taken” and “the other thing.”
I admit, at that age, I accepted that scenario as a thing that happens. I still pictured the typical mugging victim as female and I still believed that rape was often like getting mugged for sex. But it seemed like such a remote possibility in a place like Bellingham that truly being afraid of it seemed ridiculous.
I carried the kubotan around for a while, but when the “feeling like a ninja” novelty wore off, and I found it too large and heavy to sit comfortably in a jacket pocket, I put it in a drawer and forgot about it. I never had to use it, of course. If I had, maybe I would still be carrying it around.
In four years and one quarter of college, I was never once attacked while outside, alone, at night. There weren’t even situations where I was almost the victim of street crime under those circumstances — where I had to take evasive action, or felt threatened. It simply never came up.
However, I did have somebody threaten to rape me, once. I was walking from the campus to Fairhaven with a male friend — I think it was early evening, dark but not late. Some guys (we’d call them “dudebros” now) drove by in a car and yelled something insulting, and I yelled back that they were jerks. They turned the car around so they could drive past us again, yelling, “I could rape you, you know!” I shouted back, “Yeah? I’d like to see you try it!” My companion grew quite alarmed and tried to shut me up, but the dudebros drove off and no further trouble ensued.
Obviously, my reaction was no more well-considered than dudebro’s ridiculous threat. I was mad. I lost my temper. And I had absolutely no fear that the dudebro would be able to carry out his threat — in fact, I was pretty sure he wasn’t even going to try it. But if he had tried it, I was so angry that, deep in my heart, I knew I would RIP OFF HIS PENIS AND WATCH HIM BLEED TO DEATH FROM THE WOUND.
Later, I thought about that incident a lot — why would anybody feel compelled to throw out rape, actual rape, as a stupid threat-from-a-moving car? It seemed so out of scale compared to the dumb things people usually yell out of cars, something only a psycho would even come up with. Was that the idea, to convince us that he was a psycho and therefore scary? So why wasn’t I scared? Because I wasn’t. Not even a little. I was just full of rage. And it was righteous rage, too, because I was convinced that if somebody really did try to rape you, it was okay to kill them.
Now I think I understand it a little. We had a primate power exchange, basically. Dudebro tried to say (to me and my male companion): you are lower in status, you are rape-able. I responded: no, as a matter of fact, I am not, and I call your bluff.
This is what rape threats mean, I think, when random Internet trolls pull them out — they mean both, “I am a sociopath who primarily conceives of my relationships with other people in terms of power and hierarchy” and also “Get back in your place, which is below me and defined by me.”
I graduated from college and lived on Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood for a year, where I continued to walk alone, at night, through a much larger city. My female roommate and a male companion were once mugged (though not hurt) as they walked through Freeway Park. This made me a bit wary of Freeway Park, which is deliberately labyrinthine and designed to mask sounds, but it didn’t stop me from walking elsewhere.
Walking was always okay, but sometimes waiting for the bus was a pain. You’re basically just standing there — I often felt like a target. A target of panhandlers, mostly. I have a zero-engagement policy regarding panhandlers. I just don’t talk to them if I can help it, not even to say “sorry, no change.” This is partly because I’m an introvert and don’t usually want to talk to strangers anyway, but it’s also because it has always seemed to me — based on observation, news reports, and also instinct — that on the rare occasions when panhandlers do intend violence or intimidation, it starts with some kind of engagement — they talk to you as an “in” to getting you at a disadvantage.
(In April of last year, a woman panhandling on Aurora stabbed a man to death when he wouldn’t give her more money, after already giving her a ride and five dollars. So I’m not completely nuts for thinking that.)
After a year working in Seattle, I quit my job and went on a two-week trip to Europe, a package tour. I walked alone, at night, through London, Paris and Rome. Rome was the only on that gave me any trouble (other than getting lost) — not in the city proper, but when I was walking back to the tour campground from the bus stop, along a fairly desolate semi-rural area. This guy in a car paced me for a while. He said things in Italian that were probably dirty and I told him in very angry English to go away and leave me alone. Eventually, he did.
Was I afraid? Not really. Maybe a little apprehensive because it was a foreign country. I didn’t want to have to kill a guy in a foreign country.
After the tour, I moved back to Bellingham to be with Paul. We walked a lot together, but I would still walk alone at night if it came up, which it did fairly often. This activity continued to be uneventful.
One night, some of the women in my belly dancing group got to talking about how they never went to downtown Bellingham because it was so scary. I was fairly incredulous, and tried to figure out what on earth they could be talking about. Nothing in particular, it seemed. Downtown Bellingham just seemed scary to them. Drunks and panhandlers and graffiti and so on. But once again I saw that narrative from the kubotan class, that idea that random street crime is something that women, especially, have to be afraid of… because they take your purse, and then they take more.
The scariest thing that happened to me in downtown Bellingham took place in the middle of the day with lots of people around, although I did not have a companion myself. A young panhandler took offense at the fact that I ignored him. He yelled at me, while touching — my arm, I think — to get me to stop. He was all, like, “how dare you ignore me, bitch?” and I was like, “I’ll ignore anybody I damn well please and if you don’t leave me alone I’m calling the cops” and he was like, “Fine! Call the cops!” and I was like, “I AM CALLING THEM RIGHT NOW HEAR THE BEEPING AS I PRESS NINE ONE ONE” and we yelled a few more things and then he went away. I hung up, but the 911 people called me back. I told them I had an incident with an aggressive panhandler, but everything was okay now.
In 2007 I went to New York to conduct software training. On the second morning I was there, the guy I was coordinating with asked me what I had done the previous night and I talked about how I took the subway into Manhattan and went to a member’s preview night at the Guggenheim.
He did kind of a double take. “You took the SUBWAY?” Then he thought about it and said, “Well, I guess it’s not like it was in the 70s.”
I laughed. “Yeah, everything seemed really cleaned up. I didn’t even get panhandled, which totally would have happened in Seattle.” Then he told me that the New York Philharmonic would be giving a free concert in Central Park that night, so I took the subway in again, and did you know that in July Central Park is full of fireflies? Because it is, and it is awesome.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, I started writing this essay in response to an argument that I just seemed to keep having with commenters on the Stranger blog and elsewhere. For example, this article [Sunday Morning News 2012-12-09] very casually throws out the phrase, “If You Needed Any More Encouragement Not To Walk Alone at Night” to introduce an incident of a woman who was assaulted in a Capitol Hill park, when alone, at night. The phrase assumes that of course we already have plenty of reasons not to do that thing, and this incident — where something bad actually happened to somebody doing that thing — just gives us ONE MORE REASON.
But does the same blog, in their coverage of the shootings at Cafe Racer, suggest that people have just received more encouragement to avoid neighborhood coffee shops? [2012-05-30] Of course not. Because that was a horrible, random tragedy that nobody could possibly have predicted. A woman being sexually assaulted while alone, after dark, in a city park, however? That’s the expected narrative. That’s what we assume is going to happen — even though, actually, it doesn’t happen very often. Yes, it happens sometimes. But a lot of things happen sometimes — most of those things aren’t expected to drive half the population into a self-imposed lifelong curfew.
For example, the fact that most sexual assaults are committed by men who are known to the women they assault isn’t expected to keep women from hanging around men, full stop. My worried mother wasn’t warning me about date rape, or frat boys, or convention creepers who might do the badge grope. She didn’t even tell me to stay away from misogynists.
But I think the data will back me up on this: that guy you sorta know who is a raging woman-hater/MRA jerk is way more likely to try to sexually assault you than some random guy from the bushes. And when that guy jumps out of the bushes, he is probably a mugger, not a rapist. And if he is a mugger, and you are male, HE IS COMING FOR YOU TOO. That’s right. Shockingly, men are also victims of street crime. In fact, they are more often victims of violent street crime than women.
So why are we, as a society, so committed to an almost entirely false narrative about where sexual assault comes from? There are “realists” who say “it sucks, but women just have to deal” and women’s rights advocates who say “it sucks and we should FIX it” and hold “take back the night” marches. Nobody seems to be asking whether or not “the night” even requires us to take it back.
Sometimes I think it’s a primate brain thing, where we all carry around these irrational notions that women (keepers of the flame of reproductive capacity) have to be specially protected from certain kinds of threats, even at the expense of their freedom and autonomy — hell, even at the expense of their personhood — and also completely without regard to the actual danger posed by any of these threats.
Other times, I think it might be a way of deflecting our idea of a rapist from the normal-seeming clean-cut guy he probably is (think Ted Bundy) to a shadowy wolfman character who comes out of nowhere — because we don’t want to admit that rapists can be guys who might be our friends.
Sometimes I’m deeply, deeply cynical, and suspect that maybe robbing women of their freedom and autonomy is the point.
Isn’t that really what the threat of rape is all about? It’s to prove who’s in charge, and to prove it’s not you. So, I see this as a particularly insidious manifestation of rape culture, where the people who want to protect you end up perpetuating the rapist’s agenda, which is to take all your power away. We internalize the threat, and take all our own power away. Then we pass it on to our daughters.
Tomorrow, I go to Washington, D.C. on a trip for work. I expect that at some point, I will end up walking by myself through after dark through some part of the city. I don’t expect that anything in particular will happen. But even if it does, I will count it as the mostly random occurrence it really is.