A small thing made me cross today

So here is what has made me cross today. It’s a little thing that I happened to read. It wasn’t because I thought it might make good blog fodder but, lo, I am ranting.

dark alley

There’s an article on BBC online about a fancy new Personal Rapid Transport system planned for Heathrow Terminal 5. You get into a little pod capsule, tell it where you want to go, and it duly whizzes you off to your destination. So far, so space age. One of its great advantages, apparently is that you just travel by yourself or with others in your party – no more crowing onto airport buses with the rest of the hoi polloi. And then there’s CCTV. Personal safety is cited as one of the major advantages of the scheme which offers, we’re told “obvious advantages to women”.

Hang on. Obvious advantages to women? Being safe? There was I thinking that *everybody* enjoyed being safe.

Of course men like to feel safe too. Fortunately for them men get to feel safe most of the time. Women get to feel scared. Most of the time. It is our place as women to be scared. Mostly about the dark. It is bad for women, the dark. We are trained to be scared of walking down dark streets at night, scared of waiting for a bus at night, scared on the tube, scared of meeting strange men in bars (“always meet in a public place, always tell a friend where you’re going…”). Men can do all of these things and more, without being scared. Or at least without being told they *should* be scared. Quite the reverse in fact. When was the last time a man asked you to walk him home because of an unlit route?

Here are some interesting facts. After dark, 62% of women are scared in a multi storey car park. 60% are scared on the tube. 59% are scared walking to or from the stop or station. 49% are scared at bus stops. In each case, more than twice the percentage of women report feeling scared than men (Department for Transport, 2005). We spend a lot of our time being scared.

Here are some more interesting facts. 6% of male public transport passengers have been the victim of physical assault. 5% have been the victim of robbery or mugging. 10% have experienced the threat of violence. In each case, more than twice the percentage of men report an actual incident of violence or robbery than women (Department for Transport, 2005).

Here is yet more data, in case you think that public transport is an isolated example. In 2006/7, stranger violence and mugging were down by 11% and 6% respectively from 1995, the peak year for crime. Men aged 16 to 24 are the group at the highest risk of experiencing violent crime – 13.8% in the last year. The only category of violent crime in which women are at higher risk than men is domestic violence. Violent crime figures includes rape. Rape is known to be underreported, but this data comes from the British Crime Survey (thought to be more representative of true experiences of crime than police reporting rates) and underreporting tends to be more of a problem in cases where the rapist is known to the victim than in ‘stranger rape’ cases. 44% of violent crime against men is stranger violence, compared with 23% of violence against women (Home Office, 2007).

My point is this. Overwhelmingly, men are the ones who are *at risk* on public transport and on the streets. Overwhelmingly, women are the ones who are *scared* on public transport and on the streets. We are constantly made to feel we must be vigilant, must take caution, that we never know what strange man is lurking round the corner. And what this does, in a real and measurable way, is curtail our freedom. It makes us think twice about going out if we know we’re going to have to travel home alone. It makes us think hard about where we rent a flat, lest there’s a dark alley to be negotiated on the way home from work. In real, tangible ways every day, women’s choices and actions are constrained by an institutionalised fear which, whilst not baseless, is grossly overstated.

But do you know when we’re not scared to go out at night? We’re not scared when men are with us. Where is the logic in that? Why are we training girls to be scared of what’s round every corner? Why are we insisting they’re chaperoned when they’re out late, or ideally, having them not be out late at all, keeping them home and “safe”. Except, of course, women and young people aren’t safe at home – indeed it’s the place they are most likely to be killed. 45% of the women who were murdered in 2004/5 were killed by their partner or an ex (compared with 6% of murdered men). 43% of murdered children were killed by a parent (Home Office, 2005)

And even whilst we’re busy telling girls it’s too dangerous for them to be out alone at night we are sending boys out to walk them home! Still less sense! Why aren’t mothers sleepily getting into their cars in their pyjamas at midnight to pick their teenaged sons up from the pub? Why aren’t fathers refusing to let their sons out at night ‘dressed like that’? Why, when I read that article about a geeky new transport system, didn’t the BBC inform me how it will have “obvious advantages for men”?

By the way, in case you were waiting for answers to those questions I don’t have anything definitive. I know that parents are genuinely concerned for their daughters, and I know that that it’s not that they lack concern for their sons. Undoubtedly this is tied up in yet more perceptions of what men and *are* – men being strong, masculine, protectors, women being weak, feminine, protected. It probably has quite a lot to do with not wanting women to get above their station. In these days when we can less explicitly be told how to behave the best way to control us might be to scare us into behaving like the demure weaklings the patriarchy would have us be. I’m absolutely sure that this is rarely if ever at the forefront of a concerned parent, friend or partner’s mind when they’re asking if you’re “okay to get home?” But I’m no less sure that some parts of society – or at least the Daily Mail – would breathe easier if we women did a little less going out; a little less acting autonomously without the authority or even company of our menfolk; a little less spending our own money and a lot less “binge drinking” (translation: going to the pub unescorted in the same way men have for centuries). I know that some parts of society wishes women did a little more staying at home, doing as we’re told, submitting.

So here’s a really radical thought. This Christmas after your office party, when some chivalrous gent offers to see you home, don’t take him up on the offer. Walk home on your own. You’ll be fine. Nothing bad will happen to you. On the other hand, if violence on the streets is still worrying you, perhaps you’d better offer to escort him home.

Image by siljegarshol, shared under a Creative Commons license.