On being a woman walking at night.

I had a blissful few hours at my favourite coffeeshop/restaurant/cafe this evening. I read a really gripping book before and during my meal, then got a lot of really productive writing done afterwards, while drinking my favourite chai tea. It was a happy little bubble and a huge contrast to how I felt after I left.

The very first thing I noticed when I left the cafe was that the bars immediately next door had spilled crowds of drunken men (and women) into the street. Oops. I forgot it was midnight– it was only seven when I left my apartment! I fished my key out of my purse and put it in my pocket, and then I straightened up, looked straight ahead, put on my “I am invincible” swagger, and walked briskly in the direction of the parking lot. This involved considerable pain, as I took a bad fall earlier today, and have a sore ankle on one leg and a sore knee on the other, but I didn’t want to look vulnerable.

After I made it past the bars, I had to cross the street to get to the parking lot. The asshole who ruined my previous evening at this cafe was standing at the corner, playing his guitar angrily, immediately next to the “push to cross” button for pedestrians. I didn’t want to go near him and face his heckling, so I didn’t push the button, and just ran across when there was a suitable gap.

The parking lot was very full; I’d had to park way on the other end when I arrived. I clutched my keys in my pocket. My car key is a large-ish plastic rectangle with a metal key part that flips out like a switchblade, and this has always been a great comfort to me. I hold it like I would a knife, my finger teasing the “blade” of the key in and out and in and out, hoping that if anyone threatened me I could bluff them into thinking I really had a knife just from the metallic “swish!” noise it makes when it flips out.

Halfway through the parking lot, I reached the entrance where the cars drove in, and had to stand aside for a series of men driving in. I had to watch them to make sure they didn’t hit me, and they had to watch me for the same reason, but I studiously ignored the faces they made and the words they mouthed. I had a brief moment of terror when I thought one of them had slowed down to follow me to my car, but then he turned into another area of the lot.

The first thing I did when I got to my car was check the back seat to make sure it was empty. Then I got in and locked the door right away. Then I buckled, turned on the car, etc, and drove back to my apartment.

At my apartment, I had left my porch light on, knowing that otherwise I would be overwhelmed by the stress of convincing my finicky door lock to open for me. After about thirty seconds, my brain always starts whispering to me, “if this was a movie, you’d be dead by now.”

Inside my apartment, all my lights were on, because I left them that way on purpose. Same reason as the porch light. I take stock of the empty room, then do up two of my locks. (The third involves pushing the door out a little more to get the deadbolt to line up, and it makes the apartment very drafty, though it’s also the most solid lock so sometimes I do it up anyway.)

So now I’m back home, uneventfully. It was still, overall, a completely pleasant night out. Certainly, a pretty normal one. It’s just that when I’m making plans to go out by myself, I always have to balance the fun of whatever I’m going to do with what it’d going to be like to come home again. There are a lot of things that just aren’t worth it for me, especially if I have to walk more than a block.

I saw a man walking down the sidewalk while reading something on his phone, tonight. Not a care in the world.

I want to live in a world where I can do that, too.

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11 Responses to On being a woman walking at night.

  1. Crowfoot says:

    I saw a man walking down the sidewalk while reading something on his phone, tonight. Not a care in the world.

    but men have to worry about walking home at night tooooo! (/MRA whine)

    this is one of the big things about spending that week at Michfest (though I imagine any women-only event would be similar?): the ability to walk in the dark without a care in the world, to walk in the woods even (no bears or cougars!), to walk drunk or naked, or naked and drunk. And to do that safely, for a whole week. Bliss.

  2. Eng says:

    (Sorry, MRA?)

    I’d love to comment, but I don’t feel qualified to talk, except to sympathize and say I hope things get better for you.

  3. MRA=men’s rights activist. Basically, a group that tries to shut down feminists by saying that we should care more about men than women.

    Great post. This is shit I stay conscious of – when I went to Les Mis, I paid $7 for parking in the attached garage even though there was cheaper metered parking a couple blocks away (and I’m a cheapskate), just so I wouldn’t have to walk myself to my car at 11:00 at night. When I got to my car, I followed exactly the process you described – lock doors, then get ready to drive off. I do this every time I do anything that involves going to my car past dark. I don’t go grocery shopping past 6 unless I can’t wait until morning, because it might get dark while I’m there.

    I hate the fact that this is standard operating procedure, not just for me, but almost every woman I know.

  4. Jezebella says:

    What kills me is when you explain this sort of daily defensive behavior to dudes, they diagnose you as “paranoid” and tell you to stop “living in fear”. That’s when my obstreperal lobe blows (again) and all I can do is sputter about how violent and dangerous men are, and how they should all be sent to an island until they can learn how to stop raping people.

    Of course, fail to follow any one of these precautions, and the victim is at fault.

  5. yinyang says:

    “Of course, fail to follow any one of these precautions, and the victim is at fault.”

    [apologism]Well, you’re a woman walking alone at night, so you’re still at fault! I guess we women (and other oppressed groups) should just stay inside our houses, then! Because they’re safe; there’s nothing to be afraid of there at all![/apologism]

    ::rolls eyes::

  6. eloriane says:

    I’d love to comment, but I don’t feel qualified to talk, except to sympathize and say I hope things get better for you.

    I just wanted to say, Eng, that that’s really the best response in this kind of space, and I do sincerely appreciate your sympathy and your hope. I want to let my readers know that I struggle with anxiety/depression problems a great deal, and that this posts’ incident therefore ended with me cocooning myself in blankets on my couch, physically sick to my stomach from the fear. But that’s just extra. I left it out since I knew it was more unique to my situation.

    Which is why, Eng, I want to note that a statement like “I hope it get better” would not be appreciated by a woman who deals with only the “normal” amount of crap detailed above. I’m not calling you out– you knew that I have my own, special anxiety issues and you’re right, I do hope that they may improve– but in general, “hoping it improves” doesn’t mean “getting over your anxiety,” but rather, “overthrowing the patriarchy.” Again, no problem here, but I wanted to address it in case you find yourself in similar conversations elsewhere, or in case there’s someone reading along who would benefit from hearing it.

    Everyone else– yeah, I hear ya. This shit stinks sometimes. Hence the calling-out.

  7. eloriane says:

    Actually, I want to respond to Jezebella specifically, too – I actually am paranoid (well, sorta – the word I usually use is anxiety), but the thing is, this isn’t me being paranoid. I’m being paranoid when I refuse to tell someone what my favourite book is, even though it fundamentally altered my life and shaped my values system, because I’m worried they’ll think the cover looks silly. I’m being paranoid when I ignore emails and phone calls from friends and family, no matter how kind those messages are, because I believe that they don’t really want to hear back from me, they just want an excuse to make fun of me.

    This? Being in red-alert mode when walking at night? Not paranoia. I see a therapist for this shit, and she tells me when I’m letting the crazy keep me from doing things I want to do, and she tells me to let go of my fear– but she also tells me to keep my keys ready when I walk through empty parking lots, and always keep my apartment locked.

    I live in fear half the time, and it sucks, but it’s only stupid when I’m inside or with people, and perfectly safe. The rest of the time, it’s just practical.

  8. Jo says:

    It may be practical, but it’s also a mechanism by which the patriarchy keeps women enslaved — whenever fear limits a woman’s movement to within her “own” man-dominated sphere, the P wins.

    Of course, the only way to truly combat this is to smash some patriarchy. I was pretty sure that’s not how Eng meant it, but that’s sure as hell how I read it.

  9. Jo says:

    Just wanted to add: I do this too. I used to do it more than I do now. These days I just walk like I own the place (like Teh Menz, ya know), and try not to let the defensive key garbage creep in.

    (I tried to edit my previous comment, but the Update Comment button didn’t respond to my clicks. Ah well. This works too.)

  10. genderkid says:

    My sympathies. I’m a transguy, and I recently noticed how much safer I felt on the streets; very possibly a consequence of being perceived as male. Not so long ago, I avoided walking alone for fear of queer-bashing, although the worst I got was taunts from strangers.

    I hadn’t realized how much more comfortable I felt on the streets until one day when I met up with a friend downtown. I said that I liked the neighborhood, and she told me that she didn’t like it at all: some men kept staring or whistling at her. That made me aware of my newly found privilege, and I felt frustrated that she couldn’t enjoy the same comfort because of all the unwanted attention she drew.

    As a guy, I try to be as nonaggressive as possible: on the street, I don’t stare at women (or anyone, for that matter; it’s disrespectful) and I avoid getting too close so they don’t feel attacked. I’m not sure if that’s the right approach, but I don’t know what else to do about this particular issue. Maybe the only solution is fighting the patriarchy in general?

  11. eloriane says:

    Genderkid, thanks for being as understanding as possible. It would say at an individual level, simply not being aggressive to women can be one of the best ways to help make public spaces safer for women.

    I would add that if you ever find yourself walking behind a woman, especially at night, especially if she’s alone, consider crossing the street. It can be very stressful knowing a man is walking behind you, knowing he probably doesn’t even really realize you’re there, but also knowing that he might be dangerous. If he slows down to increase the distance between us, that’s OK, but it’ll make me wonder, “what’s he doing?” Speeding up to pass me is TERRIFYING until after he’s passed, and then I sort of appreciate it. But crossing the street puts a safe distance without a scary aspect to it.

    In general, though, we just have to fight the patriarchy, I think. A good way to use one’s male privilege to do so is to address aggressive men in the ways that women often can’t– by intervening in public harassment and by, generally, calling out male acquaintances on any inappropriate behavior.

    Of course, to do so safely generally requires unimpeachable privilege, which is why I rarely speak out. Ultimately, only those with power can end the abuse of that power. The rest of us can try to convince them to change, but we’ve got to look out for our own safety, too.

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