The writer Will Self has told of his proclivity for city walking at night: “In sodium-tinged darkness the city takes on a phantasmagorical air and the imagination takes flight into realms at once lofty and obscure. Of course, what makes it possible for me to unreservedly enjoy these peregrinations is… my penis.”
Self is patently aware of the privilege he shares with many men — myself included — and with far too few women: the privilege to roam through twilight cityscapes and urban parklands unimpeded by the tightening grip of fear. How few women? According to recent one survey, around 45% of women in the U.S said they’d be afraid to walk alone at night in their neighborhood. That’s compared to around 22% of men.
Perhaps these numbers are not too surprising. Other studies reinforce how the general concern women have towards their own safety is grounded in experience. In 2016, ActionAid conducted a survey on street harassment and found that instances directed at women were desperately high.
For instance, 75% of women living in London reported having been subjected to harassment or violence in public. In cities in Thailand it was 86%, and in Brazil as high as 89%. In Australia, a 2015 survey of 1426 females found that 87% had been verbally or physically attacked while walking down the street. 40% of those surveyed said they felt unsafe walking around their neighborhoods at night.
A recent European survey showed that more than half of the women in the EU avoided particular situations or places for fear of being physically or sexually assaulted. 40% women avoided public places when there were no other people around. They opted to avoid walking alone at night, would cross the street if they felt unsafe, and often changed routes or form of transportation on the basis of a perceived threat.
The ramifications of this type of constraint can be profound. If significant proportions of the population feel the need to alter basic patterns of their behavior in our public spaces, then not only are individual women not as free and fluid as they should be, but the movement towards equality of the sexes will be curtailed by ongoing invisible prohibitions.
In a recent tweet, Danielle Muscato pondered, “Ladies … what would you do if all men had a 9pm curfew?” adding: “Dudes: read the replies and pay attention.”
In this thought-experiment, the number and sheer exuberance of replies tells its own story. One person said she would enjoy “No fast walking with keys in your hand”. Another would “walk a few blocks without sprinting/checking over shoulder/keeping phone screen on/faking phone conversations. Not have to carry pepper spray and a rape whistle.” “I’d take a taxi without needing to feel on guard. I’d wear whatever shoes made me feel good instead of planning for escape” said another.
Some responders disagreed with the tainted picture of men the topic presented: “I would protest it — because 99% of men aren’t the animals you are trying to convince everyone they are. Stop being sexist.”
Intricate forces are at play when the concept of “perception” is considered. For some, the very existence of these sorts of discussions contribute to an increase in levels of fear. It is true that perceptions do not necessarily correlate with reality, and if women’s perception of danger is being stoked, then the discourse may be more alarmist than helpful.
Yet, I would argue that perception is an important aspect of reality, and moreover, goes on to shape the realities we may yet create. The social geographer Guy Di Méo has assessed how women find post hoc justifications for prohibiting their movements in urban environment, discovering there are many places some females do not go on the justification that “there is nothing to do there” or “there is nothing to see,” it is “of no interest” or “too far” from home. Such places include social housing projects, shady areas, parking lots, and wastelands, overly deserted places.
In these justifications, Di Méo finds that women rationalizing their ‘choices’ by adopting/reinforcing gendered social roles, suggesting that in a city like Bordeaux, “women are under the control of a social order imposed by [gendered] family values. This order is supported by political power, urban planning, public transport, the retail and services sector, the organization/location of places of work and leisure, etc. It aims to get the greatest possible value… out of women’s work, whether it is paid or unpaid.”
The answer to this problem, undoubtedly, is to look deeper at how we all use public spaces and to seek methods of opening up all areas of the urban landscape for both sexes. “On any given day, public spaces are the setting for a myriad of gendered social interactions. As a result of these interactions, public spaces themselves become gendered,” argues one movement for safer urban environments for women. In response, they asks that planners and architects take especial care in considering ease of access, visibility if the entire space, street lighting, open landscaping, urban furniture, signage and security personal in new urban spaces. The purpose is affect the both the perceptions of the women who interact with these environments and the men who might treat them as their own selfish playground.
How to begin? A 9pm curfew is, of course, not a realistic answer. But maybe we should try it just once, and watch what happens?