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Street crime

When I was eighteen and a college freshman away from home for the first time, I learned that I was supposed to be afraid to walk alone in urban areas after dark. I learned this on the phone with my mother. I was telling her about my experiences settling into college life, and we had an exchange that went something like this:

Mom: You walked across campus? By yourself? At night?

Me: Yeah…?

Mom: You weren’t afraid?

Me: Why?

Mom: (pause) You could be attacked.

Me: I… guess. In theory.

Mom: Promise me you won’t do it again.

Me: How about I don’t tell you about it anymore, and you can pretend I don’t do it?

(I didn’t mention that I had already walked at night by myself in downtown Bellingham, because I worried she’d blow a gasket.)

Anyway, the news that I was supposed to be wary of such activity came as a complete shock. It had never come up before — as a teenager, I lived in way-out-there suburbs without a car of my own, so there was nowhere I could go alone unless it was walking distance, and there was nothing walking distance except more suburbs, and there was certainly no reason to go there at night.

One of the things I loved most about college was that I could go where I wanted, when I wanted, full stop. I could walk to the store, or the movie theater, or the coffee shop. I could walk to a friend’s house. I could walk to Denny’s. I had, for the first time in my life, freedom, and autonomy. That was adulthood, baby. There was no way I was giving that up. Anyway, my mom was a big worrier about everything, so I figured she was the outlier.

At some point — I must have been home for the summer or the winter holidays — at her urging, I accompanied her to a self-defense class. I don’t remember if this class was specifically for women, or if it was coincidence that all attendees were female. We learned how to use something called a kubotan, which is a little black plastic stick that you can use as a keychain, and as a weapon.

This is probably the same booklet

We were given tips for preventing purse-snatchings, muggings, carjackings, home invasions, and being generically “attacked.” The words “rape” or “sexual assault” were never used. Still, it was obvious that all of us imagined a street crime narrative went like this: a woman is walking alone at night through an urban area, some thugs take her purse, and then they take more. Certainly, this scenario appears in fiction fairly often — that’s the moment the superhero appears, right in between “purse taken” and “the other thing.”

I admit, at that age, I accepted that scenario as a thing that happens. I still pictured the typical mugging victim as female and I still believed that rape was often like getting mugged for sex. But it seemed like such a remote possibility in a place like Bellingham that truly being afraid of it seemed ridiculous.

I carried the kubotan around for a while, but when the “feeling like a ninja” novelty wore off, and I found it too large and heavy to sit comfortably in a jacket pocket, I put it in a drawer and forgot about it. I never had to use it, of course. If I had, maybe I would still be carrying it around.

In four years and one quarter of college, I was never once attacked while outside, alone, at night. There weren’t even situations where I was almost the victim of street crime under those circumstances — where I had to take evasive action, or felt threatened. It simply never came up.

However, I did have somebody threaten to rape me, once. I was walking from the campus to Fairhaven with a male friend — I think it was early evening, dark but not late. Some guys (we’d call them “dudebros” now) drove by in a car and yelled something insulting, and I yelled back that they were jerks. They turned the car around so they could drive past us again, yelling, “I could rape you, you know!” I shouted back, “Yeah? I’d like to see you try it!” My companion grew quite alarmed and tried to shut me up, but the dudebros drove off and no further trouble ensued.

Obviously, my reaction was no more well-considered than dudebro’s ridiculous threat. I was mad. I lost my temper. And I had absolutely no fear that the dudebro would be able to carry out his threat — in fact, I was pretty sure he wasn’t even going to try it. But if he had tried it, I was so angry that, deep in my heart, I knew I would RIP OFF HIS PENIS AND WATCH HIM BLEED TO DEATH FROM THE WOUND.

Later, I thought about that incident a lot — why would anybody feel compelled to throw out rape, actual rape, as a stupid threat-from-a-moving car? It seemed so out of scale compared to the dumb things people usually yell out of cars, something only a psycho would even come up with. Was that the idea, to convince us that he was a psycho and therefore scary? So why wasn’t I scared? Because I wasn’t. Not even a little. I was just full of rage. And it was righteous rage, too, because I was convinced that if somebody really did try to rape you, it was okay to kill them.

Now I think I understand it a little. We had a primate power exchange, basically. Dudebro tried to say (to me and my male companion): you are lower in status, you are rape-able. I responded: no, as a matter of fact, I am not, and I call your bluff.

This is what rape threats mean, I think, when random Internet trolls pull them out — they mean both, “I am a sociopath who primarily conceives of my relationships with other people in terms of power and hierarchy” and also “Get back in your place, which is below me and defined by me.”

I graduated from college and lived on Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood for a year, where I continued to walk alone, at night, through a much larger city. My female roommate and a male companion were once mugged (though not hurt) as they walked through Freeway Park. This made me a bit wary of Freeway Park, which is deliberately labyrinthine and designed to mask sounds, but it didn’t stop me from walking elsewhere.

Walking was always okay, but sometimes waiting for the bus was a pain. You’re basically just standing there — I often felt like a target. A target of panhandlers, mostly. I have a zero-engagement policy regarding panhandlers. I just don’t talk to them if I can help it, not even to say “sorry, no change.” This is partly because I’m an introvert and don’t usually want to talk to strangers anyway, but it’s also because it has always seemed to me — based on observation, news reports, and also instinct — that on the rare occasions when panhandlers do intend violence or intimidation, it starts with some kind of engagement — they talk to you as an “in” to getting you at a disadvantage.

(In April of last year, a woman panhandling on Aurora stabbed a man to death when he wouldn’t give her more money, after already giving her a ride and five dollars. So I’m not completely nuts for thinking that.)

After a year working in Seattle, I quit my job and went on a two-week trip to Europe, a package tour. I walked alone, at night, through London, Paris and Rome. Rome was the only on that gave me any trouble (other than getting lost) — not in the city proper, but when I was walking back to the tour campground from the bus stop, along a fairly desolate semi-rural area. This guy in a car paced me for a while. He said things in Italian that were probably dirty and I told him in very angry English to go away and leave me alone. Eventually, he did.

Was I afraid? Not really. Maybe a little apprehensive because it was a foreign country. I didn’t want to have to kill a guy in a foreign country.

After the tour, I moved back to Bellingham to be with Paul. We walked a lot together, but I would still walk alone at night if it came up, which it did fairly often. This activity continued to be uneventful.

One night, some of the women in my belly dancing group got to talking about how they never went to downtown Bellingham because it was so scary. I was fairly incredulous, and tried to figure out what on earth they could be talking about. Nothing in particular, it seemed. Downtown Bellingham just seemed scary to them. Drunks and panhandlers and graffiti and so on. But once again I saw that narrative from the kubotan class, that idea that random street crime is something that women, especially, have to be afraid of… because they take your purse, and then they take more.

The scariest thing that happened to me in downtown Bellingham took place in the middle of the day with lots of people around, although I did not have a companion myself. A young panhandler took offense at the fact that I ignored him. He yelled at me, while touching — my arm, I think — to get me to stop. He was all, like, “how dare you ignore me, bitch?” and I was like, “I’ll ignore anybody I damn well please and if you don’t leave me alone I’m calling the cops” and he was like, “Fine! Call the cops!” and I was like, “I AM CALLING THEM RIGHT NOW HEAR THE BEEPING AS I PRESS NINE ONE ONE” and we yelled a few more things and then he went away. I hung up, but the 911 people called me back. I told them I had an incident with an aggressive panhandler, but everything was okay now.

In 2007 I went to New York to conduct software training. On the second morning I was there, the guy I was coordinating with asked me what I had done the previous night and I talked about how I took the subway into Manhattan and went to a member’s preview night at the Guggenheim.

He did kind of a double take. “You took the SUBWAY?” Then he thought about it and said, “Well, I guess it’s not like it was in the 70s.”

I laughed. “Yeah, everything seemed really cleaned up. I didn’t even get panhandled, which totally would have happened in Seattle.” Then he told me that the New York Philharmonic would be giving a free concert in Central Park that night, so I took the subway in again, and did you know that in July Central Park is full of fireflies? Because it is, and it is awesome.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, I started writing this essay in response to an argument that I just seemed to keep having with commenters on the Stranger blog and elsewhere. For example, this article [Sunday Morning News 2012-12-09] very casually throws out the phrase, “If You Needed Any More Encouragement Not To Walk Alone at Night” to introduce an incident of a woman who was assaulted in a Capitol Hill park, when alone, at night. The phrase assumes that of course we already have plenty of reasons not to do that thing, and this incident — where something bad actually happened to somebody doing that thing — just gives us ONE MORE REASON.

But does the same blog, in their coverage of the shootings at Cafe Racer, suggest that people have just received more encouragement to avoid neighborhood coffee shops? [2012-05-30] Of course not. Because that was a horrible, random tragedy that nobody could possibly have predicted. A woman being sexually assaulted while alone, after dark, in a city park, however? That’s the expected narrative. That’s what we assume is going to happen — even though, actually, it doesn’t happen very often. Yes, it happens sometimes. But a lot of things happen sometimes — most of those things aren’t expected to drive half the population into a self-imposed lifelong curfew.

For example, the fact that most sexual assaults are committed by men who are known to the women they assault isn’t expected to keep women from hanging around men, full stop. My worried mother wasn’t warning me about date rape, or frat boys, or convention creepers who might do the badge grope. She didn’t even tell me to stay away from misogynists.

But I think the data will back me up on this: that guy you sorta know who is a raging woman-hater/MRA jerk is way more likely to try to sexually assault you than some random guy from the bushes. And when that guy jumps out of the bushes, he is probably a mugger, not a rapist. And if he is a mugger, and you are male, HE IS COMING FOR YOU TOO. That’s right. Shockingly, men are also victims of street crime. In fact, they are more often victims of violent street crime than women.

So why are we, as a society, so committed to an almost entirely false narrative about where sexual assault comes from? There are “realists” who say “it sucks, but women just have to deal” and women’s rights advocates who say “it sucks and we should FIX it” and hold “take back the night” marches. Nobody seems to be asking whether or not “the night” even requires us to take it back.

Sometimes I think it’s a primate brain thing, where we all carry around these irrational notions that women (keepers of the flame of reproductive capacity) have to be specially protected from certain kinds of threats, even at the expense of their freedom and autonomy — hell, even at the expense of their personhood — and also completely without regard to the actual danger posed by any of these threats.

Other times, I think it might be a way of deflecting our idea of a rapist from the normal-seeming clean-cut guy he probably is (think Ted Bundy) to a shadowy wolfman character who comes out of nowhere — because we don’t want to admit that rapists can be guys who might be our friends.

Sometimes I’m deeply, deeply cynical, and suspect that maybe robbing women of their freedom and autonomy is the point.

Isn’t that really what the threat of rape is all about? It’s to prove who’s in charge, and to prove it’s not you. So, I see this as a particularly insidious manifestation of rape culture, where the people who want to protect you end up perpetuating the rapist’s agenda, which is to take all your power away. We internalize the threat, and take all our own power away. Then we pass it on to our daughters.

Tomorrow, I go to Washington, D.C. on a trip for work. I expect that at some point, I will end up walking by myself through after dark through some part of the city. I don’t expect that anything in particular will happen. But even if it does, I will count it as the mostly random occurrence it really is.

Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 8th, 2013 06:58 pm (UTC)
Good for you! I walk alone at night too. Occasionally I get hassled by idiots, but a bunch of keys is actually a great weapon (I accidentally hit myself in the face with mine once!) and a fairly logical thing to be holding in your hand. I don't leave gay male friends to walk home alone, as I do feel they're less likely to get harassed if there's a woman with them - so maybe I'm a bit like your mom!
Dec. 8th, 2013 08:34 pm (UTC)
a bunch of keys is actually a great weapon

We covered that in the class! I guess you can also have them sticking up through your fingers as a kind of makeshift brass knuckles.
Dec. 8th, 2013 09:33 pm (UTC)
When I lived in Pittsburgh, back before I had a car, I walked around at night mostly around or between Squirrel Hill and Shadyside. Yeah, I never had a problem after dark.

Actually the one time I did have a problem was on a crowded street in Oakland, near the University of Pittsburgh, and I was following advice from a self-defense class. A guy had made me a bit nervous so after I passed him I looked back to make sure he wasn't following me. He apparently interpreted that as I was interested in him because suddenly he was walking next to me. I ducked into the school bookstore and he didn't follow me in.
Dec. 8th, 2013 10:08 pm (UTC)
I was following advice from a self-defense class

Oh no! The irony...
Dec. 8th, 2013 09:48 pm (UTC)
Downtown Bellingham is the best at night--that's when everyone is gone! I too have walked alone around many cities at night, and have never had even the appearance of a problem. I try not to take things for granted though, and always keep alert.

I do try to avoid the Broadway area at night. For one thing, I'm constantly getting emailed notices from the Safety Office about the various muggings and attacks around the school. The key seems to be avoid being out around 1-4am. I haven't gotten any lately, though. I guess muggers aren't fond of 20 degree weather.
I'm also always wary of Westlake and the 3rd and Pine area. I'm not so worried there about getting mugged as getting caught in some crossfire or fight of a drug deal gone bad or something.
Dec. 8th, 2013 10:16 pm (UTC)
I try not to take things for granted though, and always keep alert.

My main concession to the possibility of danger is to keep my ipod volume low so that I can hear what's going on around me -- this is probably in deference to Mia Zapata. (And Home Alive has always impressed me both for being sex-neutral in their messaging, and for addressing the other side -- having workshops on anger management and such.)

Paul and I actually have a very similar set of behaviors that we use to avoid things that seem like they could turn into confrontations or muggings or whatever, and those avoidance behaviors happen at a level I'm comfortable with -- sex-neutral, for one thing, and I also think that "try to avoid letting strange groups of guys corner you in an awkward dark alley" is worlds away from "never leave the house alone after dark ever."
Dec. 9th, 2013 05:14 am (UTC)
This is a terrific essay. I've been going back to it all afternoon, trying to think of a good comment to add, but really, I think you've covered a lot of the important bases here.

I believe you could kill someone who attacked you; you have a berserker mode in you. I don't think I have one, myself, but I'd just as soon none of us ever have to find out. I do have the trait that makes me have to do something about everything, so it's possible I have a berserker mode. I've certainly confronted people -- men -- who could easily have hurt me a lot more than I was likely to be able to hurt them, though in general, when I've done that, I've taken a moment's precaution to make sure I had a witness and that the man I was confronting could see the witness.
Dec. 9th, 2013 06:19 am (UTC)
I think not finding your berserker mode is probably always best. Mine seems to happen when I'm desperately trying to get sleep and someone's keeping me up; in that condition I chased four drunk guys out of my dorm, when I couldn't see (glasses) and wasn't fully clothed.

In the morning I realized that was totally idiotic. I'm still shocked it actually worked. The thing about berserker is that it rather turns your brain off...
Dec. 11th, 2013 03:25 pm (UTC)
The thing about berserker is that it rather turns your brain off...

That is rather a problem.
Dec. 9th, 2013 11:39 am (UTC)
you have a berserker mode in you

I do. Containing it was my issue -- I've always been much more afraid of my capacity to hurt others than of their capacity to hurt me. My stress response is extreme and tilted heavily toward fight. It always felt like a superpower -- this thing that was there if I needed it.

I know not everyone is like that. But the thing is -- I've never needed it when alone, at night.
Dec. 9th, 2013 06:18 am (UTC)
I discovered that I was supposed to be afraid at the same age as you, but not from my mother; it was my room-mate who freaked out when I walked home to the dorm late at night.

I suspect I did not reassure her when I flippantly said that it was 3 am and all the rapists were in bed. Oops. 18.

But, really -- in four years of late nights at the art building that had me walking home at all hours over all parts of campus, I never had a problem. I also walked down to Boundary Bay every Sunday night for music, and back home around 9 or 10, and never had a problem. Granted, I avoided Indian Ave, where that half-way house was, but the only time I felt really uncomfortable at night were when two guys near my dorm asked me if I was afraid to be out at night. I've walked through Seattle, Vancouver, London, Paris... all after dark. Like you, I've not had a problem being a woman walking alone at night. I HAVE had issues waiting for the bus, and on the bus, and stopped at stoplights while on my bike, all in broad daylight. Anywhere you're stuck -- that's where I've experienced street harassment. I had a guy follow me a bit in Paris, but it was 11 a.m. I've had people shout vulgar things in crowds at noon. But I've always gotten on just fine at night.

In fact, the only time at Western I saw someone startled by a strange dark figure emerging from the bushes, the strange dark figure was ME. For the last year and a half I lived in Birnam Wood, and I'd walk home from the art building by way of the arboretum path. It's nicer on your feet than concrete, it's more direct, and it preserves your night vision (The advice to 'stay in lighted areas' always seemed totally idiotic to me -- if there WAS someone in the bushes, which is astonishingly unlikely, they'd be able to see you and you wouldn't be able to see them. Stupid). So, naturally, at least once a group of people got very hushed because they heard something moving and the something turned out to be me, in the woods. :P

Olympia is also a very safe town, and there's a whole group of people who loudly complain about how dangerous it is, and how they'd NEVER go downtown, and they haven't gone in ten years. They all write letters to the editor. No one ever points out that since they haven't been in ten years they clearly don't have a fucking clue. Drives me crazy.

Dec. 9th, 2013 06:21 am (UTC)
Eek. That got rather long. You hit a sore spot. When I'm feeling generous I tend to say this kind of paranoia (and avoidance of the real problems) is just that -- a paranoid cycle, reinforced socially and by the media, based on stuff that 'everyone knows.' When I'm feeling more cynical, it really DOES feel like a concerted attempt to remove autonomy.
Dec. 9th, 2013 11:42 am (UTC)
In fact, the only time at Western I saw someone startled by a strange dark figure emerging from the bushes, the strange dark figure was ME


there's a whole group of people who loudly complain about how dangerous it is, and how they'd NEVER go downtown

Yeah, that attitude seems really common. At my hotel in New York, I encountered a couple from Virginia who were so freaked out by their first night in Manhattan that the next night, they didn't go into town -- they went to the multiplex across the street from the hotel and saw a comedy starring Reese Witherspoon.

This was the same night I got to see the New York Philharmonic, in Central Park, for free.

Edited at 2013-12-09 11:42 am (UTC)
Dec. 10th, 2013 12:08 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the putting-into-words of what I knew at some inarticulate-and-thus-impossible-to-riposte-with level.

When i was 21–22 and not long out of college, my boss saw me downtown one night and got all stern and parental on me. I kept thinkng, but did not try to say, "If I don't go out alone I'll never go out. Forget that."

At 26 I was working with people who drove into town, parked in the building parking garage and ate in the cafeteria and got right into their cars at the end of the day, bcs "the city was dangerous." I rolled my eyes in their general direction. Seriously? Portland?
Dec. 11th, 2013 03:34 pm (UTC)
my boss saw me downtown one night and got all stern and parental on me

That's so much at the heart of this. Essentially, that kind of extremely patronizing concern is somebody telling me "I don't trust your ability to evaluate danger, and you shouldn't trust yourself either. Trust me instead." When it's your mom or dad, it might be irritating, but understandable. When it's a boss, though? Or a stranger? Ugh.

In fact, from a "gift of fear" standpoint,a perfect predator strategy would start with some man you know, but not terribly well, taking it upon himself to give you a ride (and becoming quite insistent) because you're just not safe out there on your own.

Seriously? Portland?

Well, you know, it's got all those unreformed blutbaden running around... they can be dangerous.
Dec. 15th, 2013 04:55 pm (UTC)
Before I got my driving license I occasionally had to walk home alone if I couldn't get a lift (I finish work at anywhere from 10pm-11pm and there' no buses where I live), and everyone always acts shocked and aren't I afraid to work those dark and spooky country lanes at night, so yeah I've always felt a bit odd that it's never really bothered me. If anything I'm more anxious during daylight when I'm walking in a busy place with a lot of people around *g* I've always felt more confident walking at night when it's quiet and peaceful.

Edited at 2013-12-15 04:56 pm (UTC)
Dec. 15th, 2013 05:39 pm (UTC)
That reaction -- of people being shocked when other people aren't afraid -- is so common that it makes me wonder if there's something other than pure social conditioning going on. Like, maybe a lot of people are just afraid of the dark, the same way I'm afraid of spiders, and so they make up reasons for it.
Dec. 15th, 2013 05:57 pm (UTC)
Hmm yeah, I wouldn't be surprised of a lot of people just didn't find it creepy walking alone in the dark full-stop, without even necessarily thinking about the risk of predators. Someone at work gave me a lift back once, and now keeps talking about how spooky it is where I live because of how isolated it is
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )

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