If there was one message I got as a teenage girl, it was this: never walk alone at night. Bad things happen to women who are out by themselves after dark. This was in the days before cell phones, as well, which meant that if you were alone you were really alone.
I remember, very clearly, sitting in my grade 10 girls’ gym class, not quite 16 years old, and looking forward to my birthday so that I could get my driver’s license. Our teacher, presented with a room full of girls who would soon be driving, gave us tips to keep us safe when we were out on the road at night. If your car broke down, she said, you should pull over, lock all the doors and turn on your hazards. If a man stopped to help, you should open your window only the smallest crack, and ask him to go get help before you closed that window up tight again. If you had to walk through a dark parking lot to your car, you shouldn’t walk alone, and you should have your keys ready before you entered the parking lot both to reduce any lingering and to use as a potential weapon.
You don’t have to do much searching online to find safety tips for women who are walking alone at night, or people urging us not to do it. The message of danger is ever present, and women are told to be cautious and vigilant, in North America. I don’t know what it’s like in the rest of the world, but I know that I’ve heard the warning calls loud and clear here.
When I was in university and didn’t have a car, I found myself taking the bus after dark. This also meant waiting for the bus after dark. Mostly I was taking the bus from school back home, and the bus loop there was busy and well-lit and I was rarely afraid. Sometimes I was taking the bus from home back up to campus for my evening karate class, and that felt less good, standing on the side of the road in the dark by myself. I felt nervous.
Somewhat ironically, the only time I ever actually encountered something untoward at the bus stop was not at night. It was at about 2:00pm on a Sunday afternoon, in the full light of day. As I sat by myself on the bench a man walked by. I had seen him approaching, but hadn’t looked closely. It was only when he passed directly in front of me and stopped to lean against the bus stop sign that I realized he wasn’t wearing any pants. He had on a T-shirt, socks, shoes, and a sweatshirt tied around his waist so that it covered his rear end and passing cars couldn’t tell that his bits were hanging out. I contemplated how I would defend myself if he did anything, but he just engaged me in light chit chat (How long until the bus comes? Too bad it’s cloudy today.) until I got up and left.
Back in my apartment, I told my roommate what had happened and she fell down on the floor laughing. Later, on the phone to the police non-emergency line the woman asked if the man had exposed himself to me. I just kept saying, over and over, “He wasn’t wearing any pants.” The police sent someone to look for him, but I’d bet $5 he was long gone by the time he arrived.
Back to the point at hand. Lately, I’ve been out walking by myself after dark more often. I’ve attended a number of events at night that are a 10-15 minute walk from home, and at which I’ve been drinking. If I weren’t drinking, I would drive, because I’m honestly more comfortable not walking by myself after dark. But after a couple of glasses of wine that’s both unsafe and illegal. On top of that, with these events so close to home, paying for a cab just feels like overkill. My neighbourhood feels pretty safe to me, on the whole, recent cougar sightings notwithstanding.
So how foolhardy am I actually being, going for a walk by myself after dark? Does danger really lurk behind every corner?
I think that when we talk about the potential dangers women face after dark, we’re mostly talking about theft and sexual assault. Of the two, the more frightening for me (and probably most people) is sexual assault. Take my wallet, honestly. I carry about $17 in cash most of the time, and I can cancel all my cards. But don’t attack me.
So, let’s look at sexual assault rates. Apparently, 472,000 were reported by women in Canada in 2009, for a rate of 34 per 1000 women age 15 or older, or 3.4%. That’s sobering, for sure. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network in the US, 73% of perpetrators of sexual assault are not strangers. The US Department of Justice puts that number at nearly 80%. Of the women who are sexually assaulted by strangers, about 28% happen on the street or in a parking lot.
What this means, is that most sexual assaults occur at home, or in someone else’s home, at the hands of someone the victim knows. The actual rate of sexual assault on the street, by a stranger, is something closer to 0.2-0.25% by my math. It’s not negligible, and I do not in any way mean to discount it. Any sexual assault, in any place, by anyone, is one too many. We all need to be working, every day, to end rape culture. However, 186,543 Canadians were injured or killed in car accidents in 2009. That means my likelihood of getting hurt when I’m in a car is about 0.55% in any given year, and I don’t think twice about that.
So, I’m going to keep walking at night, in my neighbourhood, to meet my friends at a local restaurant or attend a wine tasting. I will likely still feel afraid, because it has been thoroughly drilled into me. But I will do it, because of the various options available to me, I think it’s the best, and likely actually the safest. And I also believe that I shouldn’t have to change my actions out of fear of what someone else may do. Walking at night is my choice, and I’m not asking to be attacked if I do it.
What about you? Do you walk alone at night? Are you afraid when you do? I’d love to hear your thoughts.