Fear Factor

Claire McGowan explains how well-meaning Government and media campaigns to protect women could be focussing on the wrong issues. Preventing male violence, she argues, can not and should not be solved by women living in a state of terror, complying with unofficial curfews or restricting their own freedom.

, 1 February 2007

About a year ago the Mayor of London launched a campaign to stop women using unlicensed minicabs. The picture showed a woman with her face in shadow, head bowed. The text read: ‘To find out what an illegal minicab could cost you, ask a rape victim’.

We are told that statistically ten women a month are sexually assaulted in illegal minicabs, and so the message is stark: book a cab home or pay the ultimate price. I don’t dispute the numbers or the need to raise awareness of this issue. But the danger of assaults in taxis is part of a wider issue of violence towards women. I wonder if making us more afraid, more restricted in our travel, is really the best way to tackle it.

Women get into unlicensed cabs for a whole variety of reasons. It may be ignorance of the problem, in which case the heightened awareness will do no harm. It may be a false sense of security brought on by alcohol. It may be lack of availability or a disinclination to wait alone for a booked cab to arrive – choosing the more palatable of two unpleasant options. Or it may be an issue of cost, which often seems to get ignored. We don’t all glide home in taxis after a night out, like the women in Sex And The City. Some of us can’t afford to take cabs at all. Might it perhaps be an idea to take some of the vast advertising budget for these personal safety campaigns, and put it towards improved public transport options for night travel?

the danger of assaults in taxis is part of a wider issue of violence towards women

I can’t afford to get taxis, licensed or unlicensed, so I often walk home after dark. I take night buses and sit next to vomit-stained men, and I squint at an upside-down A-Z and find my own way down unfamiliar streets.

A few years ago I was living in what is considered an unsafe area of London. There’d been a serious sexual assault a few weeks previously on a road I had to walk down to get to the Tube. At the time, I always felt worried about my safety. When it was dark I walked a different, much longer route to get home. I didn’t use personal headphones. I crossed the road if a man started walking behind me, with my heart hammering. I watched out for cars slowing down and walked facing the traffic. I was constantly vigilant. I was constantly afraid, all the time. I rarely went out after dark because I didn’t want to walk from the Tube station on my own. It was no kind of life.

These days, I refuse to live in that kind of fear. When I head off alone to go home, my friends look at me askance. ‘Will you be OK walking home? Text me when you get back.’ These are the paltry weapons we have against fear. I have no idea whether or not I’ll be OK, but that’s not the point. I should have the freedom to go on a night out and come home without being attacked; without violating some unspoken curfew after which any stray women on the streets are fair game for heckling, salacious comments, groping, or even rape. I shouldn’t have to get myself home by a certain time if I want to stay safe, like some unruly Cinderella.

an unspoken curfew after which any stray women on the streets are fair game

As the starkly grim ad campaign suggests, we are often not entirely clear about what it is we fear in the dark. On the recently released television ad, we see up to the point where the taxi with the lone woman pulls into a deserted car park, and then the camera pans away. There’s a certain refusal to show what happens next. Our fears are vague and unformed, some amorphous terror of generalised hurt and abuse. Despite our conditioned fear of a man in black behind the door, in the wardrobe, a hand clamping down on us as we walk on a narrow street, a taxi slowing down in a lonely lane, what we are afraid of is often not as concrete as rape, or pain, or bruises. It is to an extent fear of fear itself.

Dare I say it; grim warnings about ‘stranger rape’ could be covering up the real source of the fear. A third of women worldwide say that their first sexual experience was forced on them. One in four of us will be sexually assaulted at some point in our lives. So perhaps women should be afraid: there are definitely things to be afraid of. Attacks on women by strangers are still far too common, whether in taxis, in deserted train carriages, or on the streets. Far greater though is the number of women and girls attacked and abused by people they know.

The men you most have to fear from, statistically, are not the ones who whistle at you from cars as they pass or stare at your legs on buses. Statistically, and very sadly, it’s your own father you need to watch out for. It’s your own brother. It’s your husband and boyfriend. Your teacher, your uncle, your friend, your date. Men that you know, that’s who you should fear, if fear could protect you at all. For many women, walking alone on a darkened street would be infinitely safer than sitting in their own homes waiting for their partners to come home.

grim warnings about ‘stranger rape’ could be covering up the real source of the fear

Every single week in the UK, two women are killed by their current or ex partners. That’s every week. Imagine the horror and terror we feel when a girl’s body is found, naked and battered, murdered by a stranger. Now imagine if two women were found this way, every week of every year. Most of us would never go out after dark. But where is there to hide if the murder and the rape take place in your own home, carried out by the man you loved, the father of your children? Perhaps it’s so disturbing to imagine this kind of life and its implications for the family that we refuse to think about it. We tell girls to watch out for strangers on the streets and stay safely at home. Germaine Greer has pointed out the dichotomy of conditioning your teenage daughter to fear, while it is in fact your teenage son who is most likely to be attacked on a night out.

Women’s magazines and tabloid newspapers overflow with dire stories of women accosted in alleys and taxis. Of course it does happen, and I do not for one second devalue the suffering to which these women have been subjected. My main problem with the ad campaign, I think, is that it still places the onus on women to stop rape. What I challenge is the notion that they might in some way have deserved it, by getting into the wrong car, or by having one drink too many, or trying to safe a few pounds getting home. Follow that line of argument to the conclusion, and you end up arguing that she deserved it for wearing the wrong skirt, for looking at her rapist in the wrong way. You will argue that women who are punched by their husbands brought it on themselves by saying the wrong thing. You will point out that twelve-year old girls raped by their fathers were asking for it by wearing tight jeans. It’s no kind of freedom if you can only be safe by dressing down, staying coldly sober, and travelling in groups like frightened animals.

Personal safety charities struggle to give out advice about protection. I don’t suggest we become reckless with our safety to the point of ignoring our instincts. Innate fight-or-flight responses have served well for millions of years. It’s all very well to be vigilant, however, and watch for people following you, and turn off your I-pod, and carry a mobile discreetly, but it will not actually protect you when it comes down to it. While women remain physically weaker, or while men have access to knives or bottles or simply terror, their most potent weapon, no woman will be entirely safe.

I applaud the efforts of charities to raise awareness of these issues, but however vigilant women become it will not eradicate rape. What might protect us is a more widespread culture of women’s rights, an absolute zero-tolerance policy towards violence against women, and recognising rape as part of a continuum of behaviour. Men who are violent in other areas of their lives are more likely to rape and attack women. Recognising gender-motivated and domestic violence as hate crime, as it now is in official police policy in many parts of the country, may go a long way to changing attitudes.

terror is men’s most potent weapon

From a man’s perspective, it must be alienating and frustrating if after dark women suddenly look on you as a source of danger and fear. Films and TV shows fuel this fear, with the generic lurid story of the murdered girl, splayed out on the table of the morgue for all to see. A cautionary tale against prostitution, sexual freedom, and being out after dark? Against being young and pretty? In some ways, are these ‘monsters’ of film and TV acting as society’s agents of retribution, for the crime of being female? It’s worth considering just why as a society we are so comfortable with images of female suffering and pain, from hard-core porn to cartoons and novels.

When I travel at night, I refuse to be scared. It’s either that or stay at home, which I’m not prepared to do. I won’t take needless risks, but being sensible is not the same as being afraid. Walking alone at night, both men and women are at risk, but at some point the idea of ‘risk’ becomes meaningless. We are all constantly vulnerable to some threat or other, even when tucked up in bed. What I say is that institutions and cultural habits have no right to make us live our lives in fear. That being female should not mean being terrified, whether of cancer scares, or violence, or rape. I believe that women can be kept safe without forcing them to remain indoors, sequestered, in a state of near-constant dread. That isn’t safety. It’s imprisonment.

Claire McGowan lives in Oxford and tries to forge a career in charity work while watching lots of ads with a notebook and pen, cutting up magazines to make feminist statements, and pretending to deconstruct Hollyoaks.

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