As I drove away from the open field where I left my progeny for day camp, I wondered what I should do with my two and half hours sans enfants. I found myself near a small lake I knew that had a wooded walking path around it, and I decided to chuck my usual need for over-planning and just take a walk in the woods. I had my sun hat and sunglasses with me, and I was wearing my good walking shoes. What other preparations did I need?
In the parking area, I opened my door and a voice in my head piped up with one of the Safety Rules for Being a Woman: “Always tell someone where you’re going!”
I hadn’t told anyone where I was going.
I looked at my phone and decided it was too much like checking in with a parent to call my spouse and tell him I was going for a two-mile walk. I’m a grown woman. I can take a walk without notifying my spouse. (But before I put my purse in the trunk, I tucked my phone in my pocket, just in case.)
With my sun hat shading my face, I started for the trail head. I glanced back at my car and eyed the white van parked next to my driver’s side door.
Another rule popped into my head: “Never park next to a full-size van!”
I envisioned the abduction scene from The Silence of the Lambs.
I shook off the image and headed for the trail head again. I was trying to think of a reason not to worry about the van when I walked by a Jeep Wrangler in which a middle-aged man sat alone, listening to “Rock You Like a Hurricane.”
“Morning,” he said in his Massachusetts accent and raised his hand from the wheel in greeting. I smiled and nodded a greeting, and the voice in my head recited: “Buddy up for safety! Never walk alone!”
I’d been on this walk many times with only my kids and had felt only mild annoyance at their pokey walking pace, but now without my diminutive guards I suddenly felt afraid.
I noted the man’s appearance and took a quick look at his license plate and walked on, with what I hoped looked like purpose and confidence. On the trail, I met woman after woman walking alone. After about the sixth solo woman, I began to feel more comfortable. If they were alone and okay, chances are I would be, too.
Sure enough, the biggest dangers I encountered on the path that morning were the piles of horse poo I had to dodge and the gnats that swarmed my mucous membranes. I was safe despite breaking the rules.
When I was a kid, I imagined that when I reached adulthood, I would eat peanut butter directly from the jar, and I would be confident and courageous. The first dream has come true, but I’m far from confident and courageous.
Here I was feeling nervous about walking around a suburban lake by myself in the middle of the morning. And why was I nervous? Was it because of some real danger at this particular lake?
It was because I was remembering lots of rules that had been drilled into my head and the heads of other women of my generation over the years. Don’t develop habits, don’t go running while listening to music on headphones, don’t go walking alone after dark.
The women I talk to say that they choose to follow the rules (or not) on a case-by-case basis.
“When I run, I guess I should technically have someone with me, but I almost always run alone,” says my marathoner sister. “But the place I usually run is made for bikers and runners, and I know bikers and runners, and I don’t know…I just feel comfortable there.” It’s a group she knows and trusts, if not personally then at least in the abstract, and that leaves her feeling safe enough not to follow all of the rules.
“Of course,” she adds, “if I’m in a rough part of town or I have to walk to my car in the dark, I park out in the open, under a street light and either get a ride to my car or have someone walk me to my car.”
These rules are supposed to keep us safe, but do they really? By following all the rules, do we really reduce our risk of becoming victims of violence? I can’t find any numbers to support that notion. The stats I have found are those that say that violence—both sexual violence and violence in general—is more likely to come from within our homes and trusted relationships than from strangers. Is it possible that keeping all of these rules in mind and being on the lookout for danger everywhere just keeps us feeling anxious without actually keeping us safer?
If these rules aren’t evidence-based, why do people keep telling us to follow them? Is it really to keep women safe, or is it just another way to preemptively blame the victim—or to make women feel like victims before we ever have a reason to?
In my high school gym class, we were doing a section on baseball. The teacher took all of the boys up to the real practice fields with the real, wooden bats and the real baseballs, while he sent all of us girls to the muddy lower field with aluminum bats and rubbery balls that bounced unpredictably when hit. When I met with the principal and told him that the girls were being denied access to decent-quality sports equipment and well-drained playing surfaces, he said, “Did it ever occur to you that the teacher was just trying to keep you safe?”
I was fifteen years old and had taxed my introverted, non-confrontational self pretty heavily by meeting with the principal in the first place, so although I couldn’t quite figure out why wooden bats were dangerous for girls but not for boys, I just said, “No. I hadn’t thought of that.”
When I told my father about the conversation that night, he said, “What about the boys? Don’t they need to be kept safe?” The fact that the reason wasn’t applied to both groups, he explained, was what made it sexist.
My spouse has never been told not to jog by himself. My father was never told to get a ride to his car after dark. If these rules really do keep women safe, wouldn’t they also keep men safe? And if they do, why are we only telling them to women?
Teaching these rules only to girls and women and not to boys and men makes the rules suspect in my mind. Why are girls and women encouraged to feel like we need to be protected both by and from men?
If these rules only apply to women, this implies that women are targeted for violence simply because they are women. If we’re being targeted for who we are rather than for what we do, then it seems there’s a deeper issue that isn’t being addressed, deeper than the need for women to be constantly aware of their surroundings in a way that men need not be.
What does our culture gain by keeping us scared?