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On Safety, Fear, and Walking Home Alone at Night as a Woman

I could be attacked when I walk around by myself in the dark. I could be attacked at home, too. So what does it mean to "be safe"?

by Megan Koester
Apr 23 2015, 4:30pm

Photo by Flickr user Anders Eriksson

I was jumped once, in a lily-white neighborhood in Washington State. It wasn't even particularly late, and it was on a well-traveled boulevard. I had my headphones on and I didn't notice the man until he was right on top of me. I escaped thanks to luck, and thanks to his confused, probably drug-addled condition.

Over a decade later, I remain unafraid to walk alone. Nothing like that incident has happened again. I used to reside in a "dangerous" neighborhood, where I was constantly told I was foolhardy for traversing through it solo after darkness fell. But traverse through it I did, both sober as a judge and drunk as a skunk. I'd wander home at two, three, four in the morning, fumbling to fit my key in the lock when I eventually reached my destination. Time and time again, nothing would happen. I'd enter my apartment, shut the door, and pass out unscathed.

Were I to have cowered in my apartment during that period instead of indulging in walking and observing, one of the few joys I have in life, I would have let my old assailant hold one over on me; I would have let him win.

I spend a lot of time alone. I'm used to it. In the past, it was less of a choice (I was an unpopular only child raised in an orchard on the edge of town), but now my isolation is deliberate. I have friends, am an in-demand conversationalist, and could choose to socialize any night of the week. However, I'd rather wander by my lonesome, up lightless hills and down shadowy streets listening to my carefully cultivated collection of Jon Brion bootlegs. Socializing does not make me feel safe. Isolation does.

I walk alone at night. I do so most nights of the week. Whenever I relay this information to another party, they are usually aghast. I'm a broad, they delicately remind me. I've been attacked before. Shouldn't I be scared?

It is impossible for a woman to ever truly be safe, even if she were to lock herself up and throw away the key.

Being a woman means being told, from infancy, to fear the unknown. Meanwhile, the known is far more fearsome. More women are attacked and raped by men they know than men they don't. This is a statistical fact.

We are nevertheless told to fear the phantom hands and dicks of strangers because it's easier than explaining that, more often than not, the most insidious characters lie right under our noses. How do you explain to a girl child that, when her father's friend Jim makes her sit on his lap, he might have ulterior motives she's too young to understand? It's far simpler to make her fear a man she's never met, a man who's never plied her with candy while telling her she'll make a "beautiful woman" when she grows up.

"Be safe," people invariably tell me whenever I leave a place on foot around midnight. At best, the words sound like a challenge; at worst, a threat. Regardless of their intent, they are meaningless. It is impossible for a woman to ever truly be safe, even if she were to lock herself up and throw away the key. Windows can be broken, locks jimmied. I could be lying on my couch, minding my own beeswax while wearing a burqa, but if a man with a hard-on and a grudge against the fairer sex deems it necessary to violate my personal space, he will do so, and there is nothing I could do to stop him. I'm five-foot-two and slight, with no upper body strength to speak of. I don't own a gun, I don't own mace. I'm easily incapacitated. So what, then, is the point of "being safe"? Or, for that matter, living in fear?

I've been raped, sure, but by someone I loved, not a stranger in the night. When it comes to physical conflict, I'm passive-aggressive. I just lay there and get hit. I've been hit in public, I've been hit in private. In both environments, no one batted an eyelash at my being battered. This is, for the time being anyhow, the world we live in. I cannot change it, so what's the use in being afraid of it? By allowing myself to live in fear, I'm depriving myself of the ability to live, period.

I am, instead, afraid of the things I should be afraid of—the fact that there will be no Social Security when I'm old. The idea of living in a studio apartment, oppressed by student loan debt, for the rest of my life. The rise of the police state. Dying before I get laid again. These are still fears, sure, but fears I can carry with me outside of my apartment, fears I can allow to sit in the back of my mind when I'm out doing whatever I can to avoid their presence. I don't wallow in them. Yes, they're fears, but I'm not scared of them.

So now, even though it's around midnight, I'm taking a walk around a dirt track near my apartment while listening to Olivia Newton John's "Xanadu," my safe song. I'll look over my shoulder periodically, surveying the territory, but what (and who) is behind me won't matter. The things that do aren't tangible. I consider this fact more a comfort than a terror.

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