Fear is only information.
Some information is false.
A British woman, Sarah Everard, 34, appears to have been murdered by a police officer. This is a very unpleasant and still-developing story and I’m only mentioning it as context for what follows.
Whenever a very high-profile, grotesque crime against women occurs, there’s a social media thing where other women share things that have happened to them. My attitude toward these things is constantly changing because at this point, I’ve just seen a lot of them, and it’s not clear to me what happens when they subside, if anything. Without wanting to deny this is helpful or healing for individuals—surely it is, including for people who don’t participate but are reading along—you also only want to see so many people expose themselves over and over if they’re getting something concrete out of it.
The big thing this time has been emphasizing how scared women are to walk alone at night. Here’s an example from a pretty high profile person (pointed out to me by Joanna Mang):
Here’s the thing… this isn’t “being a woman.” It’s being Caitlin Moran. I’m not sure how scared many women are of this stuff, and I don’t think many are to this degree, though I’m just one person, obviously. But I walk around (at night) and see other women (at night). And this is just talking about “women” as a regular category, not “women who work late shifts,” “women whose jobs often involve being alone with strangers,” “women in danger of being racially profiled,” whatever.
More to the point, I’m not sure that women should be this frightened, or that it should be emphasized that walking alone at night is particularly dangerous. Is it, in general? As the study linked here points out, men are much more likely to be attacked by strangers. Everybody is in more danger from people they know. Women are in more danger from their domestic partners. Children can be and are abducted and harmed by strangers, but they are at most risk, statistically speaking, among adults they already know.
This doesn’t mean that I think your husband is going to murder you but that if somebody murders you the odds favor it being your husband. Should you be afraid of your husband? I don’t know. I don’t know him. You tell me, I guess.
A lot of early feminist internet writing stressed fears, maybe most famously a now-offline piece called “Schrödinger’s Rapist” that was about the reluctance to talk to strange men in public. This was not a bad piece, but, like a lot of pieces from around that time, got steadily expected to do more and more work it couldn’t really do, and was never meant to. It was trying to explain to men why a woman might give them the cold shoulder and became, instead, a kind of total explanation of how women feel when men talk to them all the time.
Fear is a message. But it isn’t always a useful one. And if you’re taught to fear things that are actually safe, you might not notice the things that are actually dangerous. Fears feed off of other, ugly parts of us—the racist parts, for instance—as much as they do information we’re taking in from the outside world. Learning how to trust your gut means learning when not to.
Going purely off of fear means you’re not giving yourself space to ask, what’s a reasonable thing to do about this, and, also what’s actually in your control? Because “Ted Bundy” is not under your control and “being screamed at” is not under your control. That’s dumb luck. You can change your route—I’ve done it—but that doesn’t mean there’s not a screamer on the next route. You aren’t responsible for what other people do and you couldn’t be even if you wanted to.
When I was writing a piece about “true crime” I was really struck by how many women who listen to a lot of true crime apparently live in fear of being sex trafficked by Uber drivers. Ride share drivers (and cab drivers) of course do sometimes do horrible things to their passengers. And then in this thread there are reasonable things and then there’s “I don't even carry groceries in alone” and “if [my husband] doesnt tell me his phone is dead and isnt home on time, home on time, I call dispatch and they go check.”
My opinion is that not allowing yourself out after dark is not really reasonable and that calling dispatch if your husband isn’t home on time isn’t reasonable. But I’m not Moran (or that redditor) and maybe this is something she’s decided to do based on experiences she doesn’t want to share. That’s OK, she doesn’t owe me, or anybody, that. But to say that most women live under fear that extreme is an overreach.
I guess I worry that this sounds callous. I’m not trying to tell other people to feel so much as saying that they don’t know how I feel or get to say how I’m supposed to navigate the general risk of gendered violence vs getting on with my life. Sarah Everard was walking by herself, like many women do every evening, and something horrible happened to her. Is the suggestion that if she had stayed inside, nothing would have?
And if she was killed by a policeman—still unknown obviously—what are we supposed to say to stuff like:
When I moved to Charlottesville several years ago a girl was murdered after a night out and Camille Paglia, of all people, decided to comment on it, before a lot was known about the case. What turned out to be true was the girl was walking home alone before she decided to turn around and accept a ride. The guy who offered her the ride was the person who killed her.
Paglia doesn’t focus on “walking home alone.” But between her idea that women should just believe they live in a world that regards them as prey and Caitlin Moran’s six o’clock curfew, I don’t see that much distance. I’m not saying there’s no danger out there. Just that you can’t always see it, and you can’t control it. I don’t know! I dunno. I don’t think it’s good, though, this narrative. It doesn’t seem good at all.