There is universal acceptance that women are constantly under threat of attack. It is in the air we breathe. Don’t go there, don’t do this, don’t wear that, remember I’m only telling you this because it’s common sense. We live our lives exposed, vulnerable and never able to forget it.
I think it is rare for a woman to walk anywhere alone without weighing up the risk, not just of being assaulted but also of being held responsible for any potential assault. I do this as a matter of course. It doesn’t stop me moving from place to place – I barely acknowledge that it’s happening – but it does mean I’m constantly feeling “I shouldn’t be here”. As a woman, wherever you are – at home, the workplace, somewhere in between – you know that this isn’t really your space. Men know it, too. Women are penetrable, weak, raw meat on show; there’s no way of redeeming them, so the only thing to do is keep them in the background as much as possible.
So we talk about what women can do to minimise the risk as they make their way through this foreign territory known as the entire world. The risk comes not from men, of course, but from women themselves; it’s our very being that is the problem. Talking about male violence – as something men do to women because they are raised to believe it is their right – is considered not only pointless, but offensive. Because #notallmen, right? Because what does “male” mean anyhow? Because aren’t you just putting women at greater risk by telling them there’s an alternative to this hunter-prey relationship? Because actually, isn’t it essentialist and conservative to talk about male violence (but not at all essentialist and conservative to tell women to simply suck up the fact that this unnameable thing is all around them)? Because aren’t there always “bad people” out there (ignoring what it is that over 90% of said “bad people” have in common)? Because, because, because.
Of course, you can name some threats to women: other women. Radical feminists. Femmephobes. SWERFs. TERFs. All of them magical mind-controlling witches, governing the minds of violent men, feeding their violence simply by naming it, creating stigma by describing why and how men hate. And then there are the women who question victim-blaming “safety” campaigns, those useful idiots, daring to suggest that telling rapists women are in control of their own rape-ability might not be such a good idea. There are also those women who are too bold, too clever, too outspoken, making it only natural that a man would want to hit back at the rest of womankind. If you feel exposed, cherchez la femme. The hands around your throat might feel male but they’re just hands. It’s not real hate; real hate lies with the woman who calls it out. Until she speaks none of it has context and none of it has to be seen.
Transport for London’s #homesafeselfie campaign urges young people (no, let’s be honest, women) to post a selfie on social media to show they have arrived home unharmed following a night out. But what is the selfie-taker safe from? Bears, lions, tigers, dragons? It doesn’t really say. Just general badness that is out there, lurking. There’s a curiously jaunty feel to this particular approach to the dangers women face. The use of technology makes it almost computer game-y. How many selfies can you collect? Hey, why not break it up, taking one at each stage of your journey home, one at the bus stop, one after you’ve seated yourself as far as possible from the braying drunks, one as you disembark, one as you walk down your own street alone (boss level)? The baddies in the bushes, in the pubs and clubs, in your bed, they’re not real men, are they. They’re not human beings who could change. They’ve just been programmed that way and there’s nothing you can do but play the game.
Feminism sounds insane and hysterical to some because it points out that this isn’t a game. Women don’t regenerate once they die. You don’t get back the courage you lose following an assault. It isn’t fun, especially when you know that whatever you do, you can never, ever win. The fact is, we play because we have no choice, but we have to question those who seek to add yet more rules rather than blow the whole thing apart. There are other ways to live, authentically and with space that is genuinely shared.