This article was originally published by The Rocky Mountain Collegian as a letter from the editor on March 8, 2018 for International Women’s Day.
Last week I tried to take my dog for a walk at 5 p.m. on a Monday night. It’s still winter in Colorado, so it was about to get dark, but it wasn’t yet. It’s the kind of dark in which the trees lose their color, only appearing as silhouettes — the kind of dark in which only half of the cars passing by have headlights on.
I was on a trail in some open space in north Fort Collins. I considered going to the dog park, but the last time I was there, a man wouldn’t stop talking to me even when I walked away. I didn’t feel like dodging people.
So, that’s how I ended up alone on a trail, between silhouettes of haunting oak trees, watching the light slowly disappear behind the foothills. And suddenly, I felt very, very scared.
I walk alone a lot. When I lived on campus, I walked home alone from work. Over the summer, I walked home alone from the bars. I often hike alone. I walk to class alone. I walk my dog alone (if you don’t count the dog) almost every day. Why did I feel scared today?
There was a white unmarked van in the parking lot when I pulled up. It was a city vehicle, but as I winded along the trail, every thriller movie ever kept pushing itself to the forefront of my thoughts. An owl began to hoot. It was harmless, but the same movies made it sound like a bad omen. There were no leaves on the trees. The long grasses were whispering in a breeze. The train horn blared in the distance.
Just a few minutes down the trail (actually, just a paved sidewalk), I felt a familiar creeping sense of paranoia I always do when I go somewhere by myself. But, I couldn’t squash it. I tried: Ninety percent of college women raped know their perpetrator. You’re more likely to be assaulted by a friend than by a random man hiding in the woods. You’re with your dog and she’d bark. Your phone is charged and you have service. You’re alert and know the area. The van is from the city, the owl means nothing and the trees are just trees. The trees are just trees.
I turned around and went home.
Before you tell me I’m dumb, silly or stupid for hiking/walking/being alone, consider: Fort Collins is a safe city and getting safer, according to data from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. I have my phone. I bring a map. I tell people where I go and when I expect to get there. I plan to be safe, likely much safer than any man would prepare to do the same activity.
It’s also worth noting that I spent a lot of time in the outdoors growing up. So, I’m not scared of the dark or of the trees. I’m scared of what’s not hiding behind the trees – but what I’ve been told my entire life might be.
I’m scared because bad things happen to women who walk alone, or at least so I’m told, over and over and over.
Bad things do happen to women, a lot. Our fears don’t come from nowhere.
In a study of 8,000 women and 8,000 men, 17 percent of women reported experiencing an attempted or completed rape at some point compared to only 3 percent of men. More than 90 percent of “systemic, persistent or injurious” violence is perpetrated by men.
My fear that a man will hurt me is perfectly rational, but my perception of who will hurt me and where is not. I go to my male-identifying friends’ houses, talk to men at bars and go on dates with men all the time. The data shows that I should be much more scared of those situations than being by myself. Bad things happen to women, but not usually when we’re walking alone. Bad things happen when we are with someone we trust, and that’s a difficult truth to reckon with.
When we tell women we care about — explicitly or implicitly — that they need to be escorted everywhere they go, not only are we perpetuating a myth of who and what will harm them, we rob our sisters, daughters, coworkers and friends of their independence. We rob them of the ability to feel safe moving freely about the world unless accompanied by some sort of bodyguard. The rhetoric breeds illegitimate fear.
From what I’ve seen, most women just try to make this work our entire lives. We sacrifice independence for a socially constructed and imaginary safety net. So, when we do have to walk alone, we get scared and we go home. Not because we’re weak and not because there’s a credible threat, but because after a lifetime of being told to carry pepper spray and look for blue lights, we’re paranoid.
Sometimes I can’t override the fear. Sometimes I give in and call a male friend to walk me home. I think what’s important is that I keep trying to not do that. Every time women walk alone, we push our collective psychological boundary a little bit further. We feel a little less scared. We move a little bit closer to liberty. We become a little more powerful.
The trees are just trees. I think I can handle those by myself.
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