A girl walks home alone at night from the club. Her aching feet are caving in, but she crosses the city like it's a race course. The finish line is her front door.
Seconds after leaving the club, she realizes that her crop top might as well say "PLEASE CATCALL ME." As the fuzzy warmth of the dancefloor sharpens into cold paranoia, she hears a rustling sound and whips her head back, hoping it's leaves moving in the breeze. She sees a man trailing behind her. Is he following me?
A silent scream blooms in her throat, and she instinctively clutches her keys, sweaty fingertips grazing their jagged edges, wondering if they are sharp enough to slash through skin. Abandoning decorum, she sprints into her building, and as the door clicks behind her, she dry heaves in a pool of her own sweat, thinking, I should have Ubered.
If you're a woman who has ever walked home alone after a night out, you're probably familiar with this experience, marked by an omnipresent fear of being harassed, mugged, or sexually assaulted. One evening, when I was 16 and living in Tokyo, a strange man wordlessly followed me from the train station to my house; I hid in the bushes, shaking, until he left. A few years ago, in Brooklyn, I was walking to a Halloween party when a guy behind me suddenly shoved me to the asphalt and snapped my purse off my shoulders as I picked myself off my bloodied knees. "'Be safe,' people invariably tell me whenever I leave a place on foot around midnight," wrote VICE's Megan Koester, who was walking home when she was attacked by a man in Washington State. "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." For all women regardless of whether they've been assaulted, paranoia isn't irrational—it's a safety mechanism.
Walking back after a party isn't always this scary, of course. Sometimes, it's mind-numbingly uneventful. Other times, it's the victory lap of a legendary night out—like the time me and my friends spilled out of Amnesia's season closing party in Ibiza surrounded by thousands of sweaty Euros, whooping as we darted through traffic.
Back in May, my THUMP UK colleague Angus Harrison wrote about the joys of walking home from the club with friends, which he called one of summer's most under-celebrated pursuits. As an unmistakable autumn chill creeps into the air, walking home might be the best way to relish the last golden days of summer. "Before you know it, it'll all be gone," Angus wrote. "The nights will go back to puddles and pissy urinals and over-priced cars. The smell of pollen and suncream will be replaced with damp and deodorant,"—and you'll be back to "shuddering at frosted bus stops."
"The walk home is not for the faint of heart," Angus warned. But for the brave few, he suggests, the rewards are plenty, including the chance to work off those uppers, experience a different side of the city where you live, and get to know your friends outside the deafening pummeling of a 4/4 kick drum.
Most importantly, Angus writes, the walk home is a time for whimsy—it is "a safe space for meandering chatter, nude runs through car-parks and cross-legged silences on bowling lawns."
Angus' essay is beautiful and heartfelt—I highly encourage you to read it, if you haven't already. However, being able to walk home from the club—and enjoy it—is not a privilege afforded to everyone. Late-night strolls may represent a safe space for meandering chatter and nude runs for some, but in my experience, it isn't always a safe space if you're a woman—especially if you're a woman on her own.
One of our readers, a journalist covering women's issues for the Daily Mail named Lauren Ingram, was the first to point out this reality on Twitter:
"A man may not realize it, but if he's following me for more than a block down the street at night, I realize that," Lauren said when I reached out to her last week over email asking if she could elaborate on her tweet. "I am watching him, I am aware, I am scared. For him, he's probably taking no notice. But his presence makes me feel less safe, and with good reason."
Meanwhile, Lauren's tweet sparked a heated debate on the dangers of that late-night walk home for men versus women online. One woman disagreed with Lauren, tweeting that it was time to "stop using [the] rhetoric of safety to justify limiting women's freedom of movement." "White women are basically the most safe on the streets—and it's not actually any more dangerous for women to be out alone than it is for men," she added, linking to an Everyday Sociology blog post that analyzes the Bureau of Justice Statistics' National Crime Victimization Survey.
A male user pointed out that actually, he was more likely to be attacked on the streets because "78% of violent crime victims are men," referring to the same Bureau of Justice Statistics survey. He was quickly rebuffed by another man, who noted that while gang violence is overwhelmingly male, if you take murder out of the equation, women are much more likely to be raped and assaulted in their lifetime. (In the United States, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence says 1 in 5 women have been raped, versus 1 in 71 men.)
One user even remarked that we might all be equally screwed: according to Freakonomics co-author and University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, drunk walking is apparently even more dangerous than drunk driving.
With all these wildly different—and seemingly valid—perspectives flying around, I decided to rely on every journalist's favorite fallback in times of great uncertainty: the data. I discovered that how safe you are walking home from the club is a complex issue—dependent not only if you're a man or a woman, but on your economic class, race, age, and geographic location.
Yes, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics' National Crime Victimization Survey, it is true that males are more likely to be victims of violence on the streets than females—but only if we're talking about assault, robbery and homicide, with the exception of rape and sexual assault, which is a pretty damn big exception. Those aged 24 and below are victimized more often than older people, and African-Americans are more likely to be attacked on the streets than Caucasians.
Perhaps most interestingly, according to a Gallup poll, women in first-world countries are likely to feel less safe than men walking home alone at night, while the gender gap in second and third-world countries is more on-par. (In the United States, 62 percent of women feel safe, versus 89 percent of men; in China, it's 77 percent women versus 82 percent men.) The theory is that as countries develop economically and socially, there is a higher expectation for physical security in the general public, though women are less likely to feel like those expectations are being met.
That last bit of data—that women feel less safe than men walking home—is, to me, the one that hits home hardest. Safety is a feeling, not a statistic. When I'm walking home, I don't give a shit about whether surveys say I'm more or less likely to be assaulted than my male friends. Like Angus, I want to savor that last rush of the night by running nude through car parks—not having a panic attack every time I hear footsteps shuffling too close behind me. The power of the dancefloor is its promise of total freedom. I want that feeling to extend beyond the club's doors.
Michelle Lhooq is THUMP's Features Editor. Follow her on Twitter.