August 5, 2004 8:26 AM   Subscribe

In another thread, somebody posted the following bit of advice to a 35 year old woman considering a very long car trip:

"if someone stops to help, stay in your car and from behind the closed window smile, tell them you've just called the highway patrol and that they'll be by in a minute... then thank them and wave them on"

I find this a pretty shocking piece of advice, and said so: "what kind of paranoid freak lives by this advice ... That's a pretty unpleasant mental space to be living in"

And JanetLand responded: "Frankly, that's what life is like for a woman. I try not to live there, but any letters sent there will definitely reach me."

So, here's my question - is this really where most women spend their mental lives?

And if so, why? Is it really that bad out there? I've read repeatedly that the violent crime rates in this country are at historic lows. Am I wrong, or is this part of the culture of fear that the media pushes?
posted by Irontom to Society & Culture (111 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Yup, that's the way I live. It's not about paranoia ("Everyone's out to get me"), but more about situational alertness ("Hm, dark alley.. better go the long way around.") I have no problem living like that - doesn't keep me from doing anything that I want to do. And even if women aren't getting violently assaulted, that doesn't mean I want to walk on the same side of the street as drunk homeless guys who're going to call me a cunt (daily occurence).
posted by some chick at 8:40 AM on August 5, 2004

it's not really that bad out there. but yes, myself and every single woman i know over the age of 22 "lives in that mental space" at least some of the time.

i can't walk through the business district in a business suit at high noon without hearing three or four vulgar comments directed at my ass. in the most unexpected places, at the most unexpected times, i am reminded that the odds of my being dehumanized, quantified as little more than my parts, perceived as something less than an entire autonomous human being are higher than anyone would like to believe.

damn straight i'm not going to let my guard down when i'm alone, in an unfamiliar, isolated place, with a broken down car. half the time i can't let my guard down in the alley between the extrenely well-lit grocery and the doorman at my apartment building.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:45 AM on August 5, 2004 [1 favorite]

Google search for woman + kidnapped + car = 160,000 results. Woman + carjack = 8700 results. I think "paranoid freak" is a little strong. That being said, I regularly exercise after 11pm in a big city, though in areas where there are lots of park police around. But I also have friends who would never walk anywhere at night by themselves.
posted by onlyconnect at 8:52 AM on August 5, 2004

I second (or, at this point, fourth) JanetLand. I suspect that very few women who have not personally experienced domestic violence or an actual assault spend the majority of their mental time in fear. But based on my own experiences and those of other women I know, most of us do occupy that space on an occasional basis.

I live in a city with a fairly safe reputation, but I still get very nervous going to my car in a parking ramp at night. I also wouldn't camp by myself--something many of my male acquaintances do without a second thought.

Thinking of yourself as a potential victim can be taken to unhealthy extremes, but in moderation, I think it's plain-old smart. It pushes you to take sensible precautions with your behavior and maybe choose to avoid high-risk situations. It sucks, but that's life.
posted by clever sheep at 8:55 AM on August 5, 2004

Yes. I certainly do, when needed, and I expect my sisters, my mom, and my friends to take the same attitude; anything less would be incredibly naive and stupid. Our freedom to travel cross-country, to walk in the street after dark, or to drink alone in a bar comes with a real awareness that we are often physically smaller than people who might want something from us we don't want to give - be it sex, money, or just a good old-fashioned scare. That doesn't mean we can't enjoy our independence, but certainly smart women enjoy it with a modicum of responsibility for our own wellbeing.
posted by pomegranate at 9:01 AM on August 5, 2004

I ran afoul of this on a MeFi thread some time ago where I tried to figure how reasonable it was for women to "treat every man as a potential rapist" -- based on numbers such as how many sexual assaults are reported each year, a ballpark guess about how many strangers you will meet in a given year, etc. I was immediately taken to task for even attempting the exercise and told that I was being cold and calculating, when what women needed was basically to have their fear respected. This despite the fact that my back-of-the-envelope calculations concluded that (IIRC) one of two or three women would be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, which was pretty shocking to me and does seem to justify some level of fear, or at least vigilance.

(Disclaimer: my conclusion could easily be way too high or too low; it was a quick estimate, like the puzzlers where you're supposed to estimate how many gas stations there are in Texas. The idea wasn't to come to an exact number but to demonstrate the process. You probably shouldn't draw any conclusions from it. But given that you will pass thousands of strangers in your lifetime, and very few will pose a real threat, going so far as "treat all men as potential rapists," which was the particular meme in the thread I'm talking about, seems to be an overreaction.)

Rationally, you don't fear things until you understand how much of a threat they are, but of course, people tend to default to fear when they don't understand something. Still, if you study something and the actual threat to you personally is basically nil, or at least less than things you'd never worry about, then the fear goes away. Now there are such things as phobias, which are irrational fears that are very difficult to overcome with reason, and it's easy to induce these if you start while people are young and impressionable. I'd wager there are a lot of women who are phobic about men because of all the precautions that have been drilled into them -- precautions that were intended to make them feel safer, but which paradoxically have had the reverse effect. That's the only reason I can come up with for some people's extreme reactions.

But then, I tend to assume that most men are like me, i.e., polite and respectful of women, which biases me to minimize the threat in my mind. This is probably true of you, too, Irontom. The good news is, ladies, any man who feels you're being a paranoid freak when you talk about the precautions you take is almost certainly not a threat to you, so you can engage them with confidence.
posted by kindall at 9:04 AM on August 5, 2004

according to this, Every two minutes, somewhere in America, someone is sexually assaulted. It's just sensible. We all adjust our behavior to the surroundings in some way.
posted by amberglow at 9:05 AM on August 5, 2004

No one wants to think like that, but out of common sense and desire for safety, it's a part of our lives at least some of the time--usually when out on a city street. Not fear, exactly, but an awareness, a keeping your eye on things.

Creepy-but-true case in point: just last night, I was watching an episode (on TiVo) of Six Feet Under, which featured Lauren Ambrose and Mena Suvari debating whether to start a relationship (mrrrow!). After mentally debating who I would rather go to bed with (a total toss-up, since they're both beautiful), the hypothetical question arose: if I had to choose, which one of them would I rather look
The taller, curvier Ambrose, who also looks like she has put on a little weight this season, won out over the skinny/fragile/shorter Suvari. Again, they're both beautiful women. But Suvari's size and body type, unfortunately, screams "vulnerable! would snap like a twig!" to me--at least, it does when specifically compared to Ambrose's--and if in some weird hypothetical universe you did get to pick which one to look like, I would go for a body type that has a fighting chance against an attacker.

And yes, this all automatically flashed into my brain last night while watching TV. And no, I've never had a bad experience walking down a street, and have never been violently attacked or mugged (though I have been witness to domestic violence against a friend of mine). But that awareness is there and internalized just the same.
posted by Asparagirl at 9:06 AM on August 5, 2004

agree with all of the above. and growing up in S Florida, especially so. even my husband would agree that if his car got broken down in S FL he'd hope no one stopped, and he wouldn't stop for anyone else either.
posted by evening at 9:07 AM on August 5, 2004

correction above: "which one of them would I rather look like?"
posted by Asparagirl at 9:09 AM on August 5, 2004

It isn't how I think all the time. But it's how I think some of the time. I actually strive to cultivate a mindset that's closer to that than my sort of lacadaisical attitude about personal security - a result, I think, of growing up in a small town where personal security wasn't as much of an issue as it is now that I live in the big city, at least not in the scary strangers sense.

I have to remind myself sometimes that I do need to be more vigilant because there are scary people out there and they sometimes do scary things. I was once brazenly groped on a crowded bus in broad daylight: I was sharing a double seat with a man, and he grabbed my breast repeatedly and wouldn't let me get up and leave until I grabbed one of the fingers he was using to grope me and twisted it until it popped; I may have broken it, I'm not sure. That's the sort of thing that happens. The scary paranoid mindset is there to defend against them, because the next guy who decides that my body is his plaything might not do it on a crowded bus, and I might not be strong enough to fight him off.

Even if the man walking down the street / sitting next to you / offering you help is a perfectly innocent, nice person, you basically have no way to know that until they're finished walking by / sitting next to you / helping you and have managed to go away again without molesting or otherwise harming you in the mean time. It's not that I think all men are bad or scary, it's just that I can't tell the difference.

I wish more men would realize that this is the way women legitimately think about things, and perhaps they would be able to make their behaviour a little less intimidating. I can't count the number of times I've had men get too close and try to strike up conversations while we were the only two people at a bus stop at night. I jokingly tell people that either those men are too stupid to realize that they're scaring me, or they're actually trying to scare me, and stupid or scary, I don't want to talk to them. I say it jokingly, but I mean it as absolute truth. Whether they're legitimately threatening or merely ignorent of the threat they suggest, I really don't want to talk to them - at least not until they put a whole lot more physical space between us.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:13 AM on August 5, 2004

i can't walk through the business district in a business suit at high noon without hearing three or four vulgar comments directed at my ass.

Hell, I challenge you to find a post on MeFi that is not about sexuality (attractiveness/sex/looks/whatever) where the linked site has a picture of a woman on it and some jackass male mefite doesn't comment on "hitting" (tapping/whatever) "it". I shake my head every goddamn time.
posted by dobbs at 9:22 AM on August 5, 2004

I grabbed one of the fingers he was using to grope me and twisted it until it popped; I may have broken it, I'm not sure.

I actively hope you broke it.

But then, I'm one of those guys that tries not to sit next to a woman alone because I figure it'll make her uncomfortable.
posted by aramaic at 9:25 AM on August 5, 2004

kindall--it's not necessarily fear of sexual assault, or belief that every guy's a rapist. it's a bit of a contradiction, especially given that many of us are offering examples of lewd comments. it's more a response designed to keep your space free of lewd comments, friendly come-ons, or any sort of machismo. it's like that famed city dweller ability to ignore what's happening around you. sometimes, it's less about fear and more about protecting your space. but sometimes, it's about the fear.

you imply that the fear is irrational (and i don't think it's usually fear) because the actual threat is too low to worry about. what i am saying (and what my friends say) is that our response is direct to the number of times we are depersonalized in our daily lives. for every male coworker or friend or family member who treats me like a person first and a woman second, there are five or six coworkers, friends, and family members who do not. and countless strangers. . . i have no way of knowing when that casual depersonalization (which, frankly, everyone does with strangers) is going to cross over to the guy next to you on the bus copping a feel, which has happened to every woman i know who has ever been on a bus, and sometimes, it's not an accident. so, it's almost always better not to engage. which makes it really hard to meet people in a big city.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:27 AM on August 5, 2004

I don't live in that space.

I have driven cross-country by myself, I have hiked/camped by myself, I have traveled around the world by myself. Under normal circumstances, I do not fear being raped or attacked.

The one concession to 'gender' I make is that I do not hitchhike by myself in the US. However, I certainly have accepted roadside assistance and rides from strangers when I needed them and have only had positive experiences. A few come-ons, maybe, but nothing a simple 'no' hasn't taken care of. I don't enjoy walking past a gaggle of loitering men because they are pretty much guaranteed to make some unwanted comments, but it doesn't stop me from doing it. Addressing them first helps.
posted by widdershins at 9:31 AM on August 5, 2004

I tend to assume that most men are like me, i.e., polite and respectful of women

You do realize that this is completely irrational, don't you? Yes, it's natural at first to assume most people are like oneself, but one should get over it by the time one leaves college. Around 1970 I read an article by a woman describing what she goes through just walking down the street every day (cf crush-onastick's comment above), and ever since I've been extremely respectful of women's concerns about men they don't know.

Unfortunately, it's typical of male psychology that men feel free to give women unsolicited advice (lighten up! it's all in your head!) based on how they think the world in which women live ought to be (despite the fact they've never experienced it as a woman); fortunately, most women are too smart to listen to them.

On preview: widdershins, I'm guessing you're pretty young. I'm glad you're able to live so confidently, and I hope you can continue to do so.
posted by languagehat at 9:39 AM on August 5, 2004

Let me start with this... Yes, be aware of your surroundings. Yes, be aware of the body language of the people around you. However, keep in mind your own body language. Does it say you're confident or a victim waiting to happen?

amberglow, how many of those sexual assaults you point to are done to the woman by someone she already knows? If I remember correctly, few attacks are from strangers.

I have been assaulted and I refuse to live my life in fear. What have I to be afraid of? That I'll be assaulted again? Sure, it could happen and I may even be killed or mutilated by it. But, I could be killed in a car accident on the way home tonight. As for the fear of mutilation, screw it! I have scars from the first time around. I know I am a strong enough person to cope with anything that is thrown at me.

I have driven, by myself, for hundreds of miles on several trips. I have been in strange towns, had to ask directions, and interacted with people I didn't know and would never see again. I felt NO MORE fear than I would had I done that in my own city. I strike up conversations with total strangers and find that the vast majority of people I meet are pleasant and helpful.

This culture of fear really bothers me because it made the little boy who was lost in the mall shrink from me when I offered to help him find his Mom and because it makes other women fear to be out on their own. I really hope that guys like kindall and my husband continue to offer assistance to anyone they encounter who needs help. If they listened to this fear, then the woman who broke down in the middle of an intersection wouldn't have had my husband helping push her to a safe spot out of traffic, call motor assistance and sit with her to make sure she was taken care of and making himself return home from work 2 hours late one day. Do I believe his story? Absolutely. It turned out the lady is the daughter of a gentleman he knew from work and he came to thank my husband. If it wasn't for kind souls, I would have struggled with the 40lb bag of dog food when I was 8 months pregnant instead of thanking the man who offered to put it in my car for me.

So, ladies, walk with your heads high (but not snooty), look people in the eye and believe in your abilities. Know that you really can read people and their intent. Know that the majority of people in the world are there to help and not there to hurt you.

Besides, if you never talk to strangers, then how do you meet people?
posted by onhazier at 9:39 AM on August 5, 2004

Please look me in the eyes when you're speaking to me and not at my boobs. k. thx.
posted by pieoverdone at 9:51 AM on August 5, 2004

how many of those sexual assaults you point to are done to the woman by someone she already knows? If I remember correctly, few attacks are from strangers.

I've heard that statistic too. It does not make me feel any better. I'm safer with strangers? What a world.

onhazier -- I believe your points are absolutely right. That is precisely the way I would like to live. Unfortunately, the part of me that feels the fear does not respond to logic.
posted by JanetLand at 9:52 AM on August 5, 2004

Response by poster: You know, languagehat, I get the distinct impression you don't like me very much, and I don't get what I ever did to earn your disdain.

I asked because I don't understand the viewpoint. I am not trying to be a condescending jerk, or an insensitive jackass, or anything else. I'm asking a question about a real difference that I have a hard time seeing - I know I don't share this perspective and I don't understand it.

Finally, I can't imagine a more condescending thing to have said to widdershins. That crack about feeling free to give unsolicited advice about how to live a life seems pretty spot on. Supercilious much?
posted by Irontom at 9:52 AM on August 5, 2004

But then, I'm one of those guys that tries not to sit next to a woman alone because I figure it'll make her uncomfortable.

I also thought that was just good etiquette (besides not freaking people out). On the NYC subway it is (somewhat) the unspoken word that you go for the empty pair of seats/seat area (depending on the make of the subway car), then leave a chair between the other person, then at the last resort, sit next to someone. That being said, I have met a bunch of interesting people on the subway (usually being stuck on the subway).

Back on topic, when I lived in San Francisco, it seemed that I was a crazy people beacon on the Muni Bus. Once, a seemingly normal guy sat down next to me on the bus. A minute later, he looked right at me, turning 90 degrees to face me. Then he grabbed himself a big chunk of my leg. I threw it off, and yelled at him that he was an ass, and that he needed to stop. The driver even yelled at him. He laughed, then scooted away. Not five minutes later, he did it again. This time I grabbed him with my left hand and clocked him with my right. Knocked his ass right out - everyone on the bus cheered. The next few times involved homeless men with diseases. The moral of this story is, there are wack-jobs out there, and (has been said above) most people (men and women) get on high guard when anyone gets inside their space.

Additionally, as a man, I can't even begin to claim to understand what women go through. I don’t know how many times I will be walking with friends, and the women of the group (who usually cluster) will start to get accosted when myself or another man is around. And it is not like I am very intimidating, but it is the gall that these “men” will do that when women are alone, but don’t have the balls to do it when I’m walking with my s/o. I don’t know how many times I have had to catch up or slow down to them so that the catcalls and the close walking ends. I mean, if all you hear on the street is, “Mera Momi” or “Hey, lady, that’s nice” or whatever, the street becomes less of a neutral public space than a series of obstacles to get around. And don’t get me started on different culture’s definition of acceptable behavior (at least in NYC - I’m looking at you Latin America).
posted by plemeljr at 9:53 AM on August 5, 2004

> i can't walk through the business district in a business suit at high noon
> without hearing three or four vulgar comments directed at my ass. in the
> most unexpected places, at the most unexpected times, i am reminded that
> the odds of my being dehumanized, quantified as little more than my parts,
> perceived as something less than an entire autonomous human being
> are higher than anyone would like to believe.

And how often are any of us actually perceived as entire, autonomous human beings? A handful of occasions in a lifetime, maybe. The rest of the time...parts, just parts. If they don't stare at your ass and perceive you as a detached, free-floating pair of buns, they'll look at your suit and perceive you as a suit. Welcome to Earth.
posted by jfuller at 9:58 AM on August 5, 2004

This is a subject of some interest to me.

My ex-wife has done all the things women aren't supposed to do--driving off on 7000-mile road trips alone, camping in the desert alone, hitch-hiking alone, talking to strangers, etc. She's gotten verbally hassled from time to time, but nothing worse, and she typically takes such harrassment as either a misguided compliment or a challenge to come up with a really ripe insult. She really believes that if you meet the world with the right attitude, you'll probably be OK. So far it's worked. The fact that she's 5'10" probably doesn't hurt.

My current wife is more cautious, though hardly a shrinking violet. She and I have had some discussions about the validity of the fears that she says most women feel (and she insists that it's most women).
posted by adamrice at 10:06 AM on August 5, 2004

I don't think that's it, jfuller.

I once worked in an IT position where I was the only girl on the team. The guys I worked with had a comment or five for every girl in the office, and they expressed them out loud. Now I have a lot of tolerance for men being men, but after a while it gets tiring, and it's sort of defeating to think that even though I might be brainy and a good worker, I am still nothing more to them than a piece of steak that talks.
posted by pieoverdone at 10:07 AM on August 5, 2004

Um... I guess I should comment.

When giving advice, I tend to the more cautious advice... the asker wanted suggestions on allaying here family's (and her own, I suspect) fears, and being cautious is one of the best ways to do that.

In my own world, I pick up the occasional hitch-hiker — though I do call in stranded vehicles rather than stop for them — but that's my choice. I'd much rather deviate from a very cautious norm, than constantly live in a world where it never occurred to me to do "X".
posted by silusGROK at 10:09 AM on August 5, 2004

languagehat, I don't know what you consider to be pretty young, but I'm 33, which certainly doesn't feel too young these days... : )

In case it sounded like I was somehow bragging, I'm not. I am not a better person than the rest of the women who have contributed to this thread. I just refuse to live in fear, and I trust my intuition. I have had wonderful things happen to me because I've allowed strangers to do nice things for me. I've also had my share of crap, of course, but nothing that made me scared of strangers. Actually, it's been the people closest to me who have hurt me the most.

Anyway. I'm one of those people who try to see the good in others, and as a result that's usually what I find.

Actually, a perfect example: when previewing this, I saw Irontom's comment about languagehat's comment to me. Yes, I could take it as condescending, but because I like languagehat, I didn't even think to take it badly. I just took it at face value - I might even have formed that impression myself. A really good example of what I just said above about trying to see good in others.
posted by widdershins at 10:16 AM on August 5, 2004

kindall-- I think the flaw in your reasoning is you're looking at the percentage chance of an assault instead of the expected value of such an assault. While the % chance might be extremely low, the payoff is potential loss or ruination of one's life. Most people would still assign a high (negative) value to such an outcome in spite of the likelihood.
posted by yerfatma at 10:19 AM on August 5, 2004

My Mother taught me the secrets of womanhood when I was 13 years old
And My body became something it hadn’t been before
My voice: an alarm system
My hands became weapons of defense
She told me
When you’re walking to your car at night
Put a key in between each finger and ball your hand into a fist
Like this
Aim for his face and you better not miss
You would be amazed at how many parking lots I’ve crossed at night
With a makeshift metal claw trembling at my side
She trained me in this keen weaponry
Like it was a burden like it was a mission
Some subject she hadn’t had much of a say in
And as my mother was molding her daughter
Your father was teaching you how to be tough
How to fight, how not to cry
So now there can be no real friendship between you and I
Because my tits and your dick get in the way
They’re like some flesh and blood barricade
Some pink or blue haze to squint through
And I want to know how we got here
How did I learn to walk in shoes this fucking uncomfortable
How did you learn to stare the way you do
Cause BABY someone had to teach it to you
Someone had to teach it to me
I being all women
You being all men
I want to tell you
How much I miss you
Remember when we were three or four of five
And we spoke as equals in some simpler language
Took our shirts off without shame
Knew each other’s faces without fear
Now I have memorized the silhouette of a man in the distance
Because when I see him coming I clench my fists
Funny thing is
I don’t think any of us wanted this
So lets retrace our steps back into our childhood rooms
Back into our mothers wombs
And show the people that made us
How to make us better
I think we could teach them a new song
I think they’ve been waiting for us to show them
All along.

--a poem by my wife, t. holt.
posted by th3ph17 at 10:20 AM on August 5, 2004 [3 favorites]

As women, it is undeniable that we are simply more vulnerable…not necessarily by our own physicality or sex, but by the perception of others who believe that women are devoid of their private rights, and can be freely harassed, duped, and violated. Again, it’s not necessarily about paranoia or fear. I think it’s more aversion. Women just don’t want to put themselves in harrowing situations. Why not err on the side of caution?

Harassment is degrading, tiring, and annoying. Growing-up in the suburbs of a big city, it's a rite of passage for young women to learn how to cope with unwanted advances, whether they are physical or verbal. It’s unfortunate that I tend to enjoy the colder months so I can walk the streets unfettered by ogling and catcalls...layers and scarves to restore and camouflage; my dignity.
posted by naxosaxur at 10:21 AM on August 5, 2004

jfuller, you'll note, i am perfectly aware of that. however, most women i know, at some point in their daily lives, avoid some perfectly ordinary activity (like get into a subway car with a lone guy in it at night) because the sheer amount of depersonalization your average american woman goes through in a day makes you think better of getting into that mostly empty subway car.

and i'd much rather be coded "suit" by strangers in the street than "tits and ass". one is not viewed as a helpless commodity to be used at will and the other is.

and i've driven cross country, alone; i've moved alone to cities wherein i knew no-one; i go out at night, alone; i talk to strange men in bars. like i also said earlier, it's not necessarily "fear"--just a strange vigilance, just a constant awareness of some level of vulnerability.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:25 AM on August 5, 2004

I wonder how much of this depends on where you grew up/what type of city you live in? In S Florida, where crime is the norm (you heard stories of people getting shot on the highway for cutting someone off; don't know if its true, but that's the kind of place it is/was), you have to think defensively.

Growing up hearing about German tourists getting shot in broad daylight because they pulled over, got out of the car with their map to ask for directions. Guess what? When I'm a tourist, I try to make sure I'm not an obvious one. In places like that, you learn to not trust strangers, whether or not you need the help. Hitchhiking was for lunatics.

That stays with you. I live in Vermont now, and I sometimes see people with their finger out for a ride. I still think they're nuts. Can't help it. But at least I know if I'm stuck on the side of the road, I'm probably not in the same danger as I would be in S Florida.

So, to me at least, where I grew up has a large part in my mental state in these types of situations. I still think about how to protect myself by trying to think like a criminal (no walk out basements for me, thank you very much).

And being 5 feet doesn't help. I know that if in a bad situation, chances are I'm not going to be much good fighting the guy off, just because of the size difference. Think if you were in a world with people bigger, stronger than you. I'm sure you'd think about these things too.

on preview, what naxosaxur said.
posted by evening at 10:31 AM on August 5, 2004

I do not live with that mindset, but I think that is directly related to where I live. If you break down on the side of the road in Alaska, there may not be another person, not even a trooper or town, for a hundred plus miles. Add that to temperatures in the negative fifties and sixties in the winter, and people will always stop for someone with car problems. Running out of gas can turn into a life or death situation, so we take care of each other.
posted by rhapsodie at 10:36 AM on August 5, 2004

You know, if women put out more often to guys far under their level, they wouldn't have the problem of these same guys making unsolicited advanced to them.

And for my non-troll comment: I'm often amazed how some people can get so nervous in a huge city, but then feel perfectly safe in a small town. I say that as someone who, having forsaken the life of the big city for a small town is now quantifiably more nervous walking around alone at night (and I'm a guy). In a city, you're surrounded by people everywhere.

Even ignoring the over-hyped lack of bystander intervention in big cities, at least there's a chance someone might come to your aid. As opposed to the middle of nowhere small-town, where, God-forbid something bad should happen to you, you're completely on your own and potentially well and truly fucked.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:37 AM on August 5, 2004

onhazier, right on!

th3ph17, that's excellent - please pass along my compliment to your wife. I can pretty much promise that every woman has at some point wondered the same thing - how did men and women get from that place at "three or four or five" to where "my tits and your dick get in the way"...
posted by widdershins at 10:42 AM on August 5, 2004

It's not that I treat every strange man as a rapist or am shaking with fear each time I'm walking alone at night, but I'm in a constant state of hyperawarness in shady situations. It's a type of street smarts that's become so natural to me that I don't even notice it anymore.

Being aware of your surroundings and honing your instincts for people and potential danger is something I believe everyone -- male and female -- should do. It's not living in a constant state of fear or overdramatizing a situation; it's about paying attention and making quick, sound judgements. I believe there's potential good in everyone, as widdershins said, but I also believe there's potential violence and to ignore that factor is dangerous, I think.

Back to the question: without even thinking about, if I'm walking alone to my car at night, I have my keys in between my fingers. In reality, a key tip would probably be a shitty weapon, but it's something I do that reminds me to be aware. So, yes, I would say I personally am in the mindset you speak of most of the time.

I've never experienced a random, violent incident and I didn't grow up in a particularly violent place, but I don't think there's anything paranoid about being observant and concerned for safety.
posted by Zosia Blue at 11:03 AM on August 5, 2004

I think this is one of the best threads I've ever read on a MeFi site. I particularly like the poem, and the comment from onhazier. Random thoughts that have been percolating in my head as I read through the other comments:

I am a 35-year-old man. I consider myself a nice guy.

My wife — a strong feminist — has made this "mental life" of women quite clear to me; I'm well aware of it.

Still, I tend to forget about it, because I am a man and not a woman. I occassionally try to strike up conversations with strange women. Twice in the past couple years, I've stopped to help women stranded on the side of the road. (In both these cases, the women were nervous, and I understood why, so I tried to minimize their fear by taking well-traveled well-lit streets to take them to help.) I make inappropriate comments among friends, though never directly to a woman, especially a stranger. (That just seems rude.)

I grew up in a small town and have only recently started spending a lot of time in the city. I'd be much more frightened for my wife alone in the small town than in the city, for exactly the reasons Civil_Disobedient states. In a small town, there are fewer people to hear you scream. (On the other hand, there are fewer people to cause you to scream.)

And yet, I'm part of the problem, too. I would never accost a women verbally or physically, but I do so mentally all the time. Meaning: too often, I admire the phsyical features of a woman I see or meet instead of minding my own damn business. And I supect that a lot of other nice guys are exactly the same way. Maybe I'm not so nice. :(

Why is the way things are? Why have women been forced to live in this mental space? Have things always been this way? Are they improving? Getting worse? Were all of the formal societal structures of past centuries specifically erected to protect women from unwanted assaults? Are these assaults part of the cost of progress?

What exacerbates the problem? What amerliorates it? Do the mass media and popular culture make things worse? Does education improve the situation? Does religion help? Are certain classes of men more dangerous (or perceived as more dangerous) than others?

I have lots of questions. Maybe I need to take a women's studies class at the community college.

This is a great discussion, full of thoughtful comments.
posted by jdroth at 11:04 AM on August 5, 2004

My next comment isn't so much about the danger issue as it is about the differences in men’s and women's perspectives.

Yesterday I ran into my brother at the grocery store. A woman passed and we both noticed her; he said, "She looks just like so-and-so from the neck up." When I looked at her body it seemed to me that the differences were minimal between the stranger and the women we both knew. He explained that the woman we both knew had wider hips and bigger legs. As a matter of habit, he always looks at women's bodies in an evaluative manner, and would know many women by their silhouette alone. My brother isn't a creep, or doesn't see himself as one - he's just always noticing women's bodies first. I'm a lesbian but I don't "see" women that way - I rarely notice anyone EXCEPT from the neck up.

It's really just living under that view all the time - it gets tiring to have men talk to your tits or whatever; after a while you do learn how to just push past it to try to make a different kind of connection, but I think most women are aware that most men initially view them from an attraction or sexual standpoint.
posted by pomegranate at 11:20 AM on August 5, 2004

When I first moved to Chicago, I was surprised to learn that women (a) really didn't like walking alone at night, and (b) would almost unanimously accept my offers of walking them back to their apartments (and certainly didn't think my offer meant that I thought they were incapable of taking care of themselves, as I was afraid they might.) It really drove home the lesson that yes, women really do view the world differently from men. Which is not to say that said view seems somewhat alien to me, but I'm learning to understand it. (M, 25.)

Were all of the formal societal structures of past centuries specifically erected to protect women from unwanted assaults? Are these assaults part of the cost of progress?

I recently reread The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood; it's set in a dystopian future where women have been forced back into submissive roles in society, ostensibly for their own protection. I highly recommend it if you haven't read it already.
posted by Johnny Assay at 11:32 AM on August 5, 2004

I would never accost a women verbally or physically, but I do so mentally all the time. Meaning: too often, I admire the phsyical features of a woman I see or meet instead of minding my own damn business. And I supect that a lot of other nice guys are exactly the same way. Maybe I'm not so nice.

"Mentally accosting" women to me sounds like you're fantasizing about attacking them (or at least openly leering/ogling them), but what you then describe sounds to me, though, like you're simply checking women out. Which -- to me -- doesn't necessarily make you a not-so-nice guy, provided of course that you're capable of looking at a woman's eyes rather than her breasts when you're talking to her.

Anyway, count me in as a woman who also "lives in that space." In general, I mostly try to project physical confidence -- head up, shoulders back, always aware of my surroundings, purposeful stride, etc. I'm tall but very thin (I've been described as "fragile" or "twiggy" more than once) but I make every effort not to appear physically vulnerable. But it's also more than that, occasionally -- I never walk through a dark parking lot or parking garage without having my keys out and positioned so that I can get into my car immediately (and use them defensively if I'm grabbed). I will always accept an offer from a male friend to walk me to my car if it's dark and, if given a ride home, I expect anyone (male or female) to watch to make sure I get into my apartment. Then I always make a mental note when I get inside to see if anything looks out of place to indicate a break-in. It's not called "paranoia" -- it's called vigilance.

And yet...when I got a flat tire at 2 in the morning outside San Clemente a few years ago (damn that ghost of Richard Nixon!) and discovered that my jack was gone (these were in my pre-cell phone days), I accepted the help of a trucker who stopped to change my tire for me, and I'm still here to type this. So I guess it's not exactly like I live a life depending on the kindness of strangers [/Blanche DuBois], but I also don't live a life completely cut off from the possibility that such kindness exists. Like many other women here, I've taken long road trips and vacations by myself. I've moved to cities where I didn't know a soul. It can be tricky balancing the instinct to stay safe with the practical needs of staying engaged in the world.
posted by scody at 11:45 AM on August 5, 2004

Staying in your car with your windows up is good advice. I am also a savvy solo world traveler, but I would never roll down my window or get out of my car for a stranger in an area that I was not familiar. Nor would I stop for an unmarked "police" car. Use your cell to call for help. It's that easy. This doesn't mean that I'm paranoid. It means that I'm smart. Period. Most men just don't get it.
posted by Juicylicious at 11:47 AM on August 5, 2004

You know, if women put out more often to guys far under their level, they wouldn't have the problem of these same guys making unsolicited advanced to them.

I know you're kidding. And yet that's precisely the perspective my small-town neighbor has when he calls me up drunk late at night and complains that I'm a frigid bitch because I'm single [or was, when this was happening] and won't give him some sort of a chance.

I live in a small town. I pick up hitchhikers occasionally. I walk around alone at night. I drive long distances without a cellphone. I smile at strangers. I answer my own phone and have my own name in the phone directory. I behave more or less like widdershins was describing, but with the hyperawareness that Zosia describes. There have been a few occasions where I was walking home alone at night when I used to live in Seattle and a male acquaintance of mine would see me and -- attempting a joke -- would call out to me from across a street pretending to be some random homeless guy following me. Big fun. By the time they caught up with me I was often two blocks away and nearly crying hoping I could safely get away. All three times my male friends were flabbergasted, it wasn't what they were expecting from me at all. This isn't how I normally behave. I'll be the first to sass some guy who is hitting on me at a bar, or on the bus, or at work, or anywhere where a conflict gone wrong won't turn into a me vs some bigger guy hand-to-hand battle [I'm 5' 2"].

My sister carries mace. Last week she had some guy follow her home for 25 minutes, across two subway transfers and down her block in Boston, mumbling about how pretty she was and what he'd like to do to her. She still walks the streets by herself, but this isn't the first time this sort of thing has happened, and I'm sure it won't be the last. At some level, if she weren't paying attention to this sort of thing -- and looking out for the next creep who might be bothering her -- it would almost be naive.

I know anecdotes don't prove any point specifically, but this is sort of how it's been with me forever. Random guys comment on my "rack" when I'm walking down the street. Guys hit me on the ass in the McDonalds'. English teachers comment on how pretty I am. Guys in high school talk about how easy you are because they know you're on the pill. Random men in cars holler as they drive by, and sometimes turn around and drive by again. Guys in the library ask me out when I'm at the reference desk and then ignore me once I've politely said "no" sometimes for months. Trips to Central America are much easier when I travel with a man. Trips to the drive-in with a woman result in being called dykes from the kids in the next car. I don't find it too oppressive -- I'm sure things are tough all over for everyone -- but as pieoverdone says, it's tiring, and some days it would be nice to go without it at all. Most guys I know are excellent individuals, noble steeds all, and yet they're not the ones [I hope] that are the antagonists in the above scenarios.

When I called the cops on my neighbor who lived across the street and was threatening to come over at 1 am and get what was coming to him, the police took 35 minutes to arrive because, well, they're about 30 miles away. I had to call another neighbor who I didn't even know to come park in my driveway in case the guy showed up. I don't have any other neighbors. Since I've been living with my boyfriend, the late night calls have stopped, apparently because I belong to someone else now and that's the way of the forest where I live. I can't say that all these episodes have changed the way I act, but they sure as hell change the way I think, and the way I react to unknown men in ambiguous situations.
posted by jessamyn at 11:52 AM on August 5, 2004 [1 favorite]

"Mentally accosting" women to me sounds like you're fantasizing about attacking them (or at least openly leering/ogling them), but what you then describe sounds to me, though, like you're simply checking women out.

Right. I see that now. Scratch mentally accosting. "Checking women out" is what I do, but I still think it's part of the problem.

Great comment, jessamyn.
posted by jdroth at 12:12 PM on August 5, 2004

I'm part of the problem, too. ...too often, I admire the phsyical features of a woman I see or meet instead of minding my own damn business. ... Maybe I'm not so nice.

I don't even know what to say to that.
posted by majcher at 12:13 PM on August 5, 2004

Why is it "tiring" to know that men make comments or look at various parts of your body? Is it tiring for them to have to put the toilet seat down? Or feel our eyes on their backsides as they walk away? Why should you allow their rudeness to effect you?

Speaking as a big busted girl who wears low-cut blouses all the time, I figure if a guy can't look me in the eye, that's his problem; not mine. Some days, I do it deliberately and enjoy the looks I get. Some days, I don't and it still doesn't bother me.

As for the jokes or comments, you have choices. You can sit and quietly stew about, letting it bother you. You can politely inform the guy(s) about which comments you found offensive and why. You can joke back at them. Or, if you're in the workplace, you can take it to the point of a harrassment complaint. I found it irritating when a former coworker used the term "mongoloid" to refer to a young man with Down's Syndrome. So, I politely explained why I was offended by the word choice. The phrase was never used around me again. (Remember, I believe that most people are good and helpful.)

Either way, the comments and the looks are the burden of the person who issued them; not you and definitely not me. I am the one to define myself. I don't allow others to define me. If they underestimate me because they can't get past my breasts, that's, again, their problem. So, why let them be "tiring"?
posted by onhazier at 12:15 PM on August 5, 2004

widdershins, I'm guessing you're pretty young. I'm glad you're able to live so confidently, and I hope you can continue to do so.

You know, I think my confidence and comfort being alone in the world, even at night / alone on a bus/ etc has increased rather than decreased. I grew up in NYC, never felt specifically scared by the city streets (seemed more worrisome walking alone in a park than a street, actually), was mugged once in SoHo when I was around 18. In retrospect, the guy mugging me was probably just as freaked out as I was. Now I really don't think he'd choose me as a target, and I really don't think I'd let him get away with it, at least not completely. He didn't have a weapon, I don't think - hand in the shape of a gun through a pocket. I think I'd offer him money but not the entire wallet with all my ID and stuff, and wish him good luck (because mugging people for a living is just not a good life).

Anyway. Maybe studying martial arts has built up my confidence (not that I think I can kick someone's ass - in a way the opposite - I'm more aware that I can take a little roughing up, I'm more aware that no one is omnipotent, that everyone has weak points, including attackers -) or maybe the longer I'm around the more it seems to me that it's stupid to decrease your experience because something abstract might go wrong.

On the other hand, I don't think I was ever that afraid. My sister and I hitchhiked together from NY to Maine when I was in my late teens /early twenties, and had a great time, met some interesting folks, and were given a lot of advice about how we shouldn't be traveling just the two of us). We had pepper spray and code words and had agreed to trust one another's intuition, etc, but never had a second of worry during the whole trip. We hitchhiked back, too, and we did one other trip that way at some point... But neither of us ever tried that alone - though I think largely because it wouldn't have been halfway as fun.

Someone above says no woman has ever ridden the bus and not been groped. I'd just like to mention, I have ridden the bus (I use public transport in NYC every day) and never been groped by a stranger. I get basic catcalls from guys on the street, but they strike me as on par with kids who don't know how to edit themselves yet - they feel the thought and just spill it without a reflective moment to confirm it. Weird, a little sad, but it's their problem, not mine; I feel pretty indifferent to those comments.

On the train fairly recently a guy sitting near me kept making weird sounds, sort of singing, and was sort of looking at me a little too often. I raised my eyebrows at him at some point when he was staring. He got louder and his body language got more aggressive so I just ignored him for a while, until his sounds/singing got too loud, and I turned and asked him to please be a little quieter. He was sitting one seat away from me, and after a moment he responded by punching the wall between us about six times in a row (back hammer fist style). I looked at him while he did this but was not afraid and gave him basically the same raised eyebrow face. He stood up and walked away after that. I think he probably was trying to freak me out, but I never really thought he would try to punch me, and what do I care if he punches the wall? (The wall can totally hold its own). If he had actually gone for me, I would've either ran or struck him in the groin, or depending on the situation perhaps something else, but I can't imagine my life would have been in danger.
posted by mdn at 12:31 PM on August 5, 2004

When I was younger, I was much more brazen. I hitchhiked and picked up hitchhikers regularly, walked alone the four miles home after my 4-midnight shift at work ended, I invited people I’d just met to stay at my house if they needed a place to sleep, I accepted rides – sometimes long distance rides – from people I had just met. And I got myself into more than one uncomfortable situation, which luckily, never got out of hand. I credit this to a combination of living in areas and moving in social circles where that type of behavior was not as unsafe as others, not looking frail (5’6” and a solid 150 pounds), not being afraid to be loud, giving off a general air of confidence, and dumb, dumb, dumb luck.

I didn’t look at these decisions as potentially dangerous. I looked at them as adventurous! And as widdershins mentioned above, the positive overall outweighed the uncomfortable parts.

Would I hitchhike, pick up a hitchhiker, invite a total stranger to my house, or walk four miles down dark and mostly deserted streets at midnight? Fuck no!

I attribute this change of attitude to age. I got myself into some uncomfortable situations, but I was in my early to mid 20s and due to my chosen lifestyle, discomfort was kind of a way of life. I’m 31 now, and I like feeling safe. I don’t like being in a situation where I am checking out potential exit routes from a room, just in case. I don’t like sizing myself up against a potential attacker, strength-wise, just in case. I don’t want to have to break someone’s finger on the bus because the fucker wouldn’t keep his hands off my tits. I don’t like having to look for the closest lit doorway and plan out a running path should the creep walking behind me as I unlock my car decide to break into a run. I’d rather expend my energy figure out a way to perfect my chocolate chip cookie recipe or visiting museums or going to concerts or reading or just about anything other than mentally preparing myself to fight off an attacker.

Therefore, I don’t walk alone at night down darkened, unfamiliar, or dangerous streets. I don’t pick up hitchhikers. I don’t hitchhike. I don’t invite strangers into my home. I don’t give my phone number out to people I meet in bars.

And I don’t do these things because I live in fear. I do these things because I don’t want to live in fear.
posted by jennyb at 12:32 PM on August 5, 2004

im 5'2" 23 and look 14 or something. i once tried to run an errand in broad daylight and encountered a sketchy man in a van asking me if i wanted a ride 'no thanks!' i replied went into a store, came out and proceeded home. shock of all shocks if the man wasnt parked blocking the short cut route behind the shopping center undoubtedly after following me for a few blocks. once again he offered me a ride. id never been more terrified and i ran and ran and ran home. and i do NOT run as a rule.

as long as that can happen i figure it will happen every time i try to go somewhere. i carry pepper spray now after being followed a few blocks by a belligerent and amorous homeless man on my way to work in broad daylight at 10am on a residential street.

guys dont understand usually because nothing like this has ever happened to them. in fact a few taller more grown-adult looking female friends of mine find this experience alien as well.

i explain it as well as i can to them by noting that i am small, i am portable and if someone wanted to steal me they probably could. providing that i hadnt popped their eyeballs out with my thumbs yet.
posted by c at 12:43 PM on August 5, 2004

I've never been assaulted or anything awful like that (thank god) but I have taken a full-contact model mugging class. It cost a lot of money ($600) but I felt it was worth my safety and sanity. This is the type of class where the "attackers" are big guys in these spacesuit looking things. The suits distribute the load/shock when they're hit. The guys really do attack you. Sometimes two at a time. You know, walking around with your keys in your hand is just not the same as acually knowing wat it feels like to hit someone in the nose (upward thrust) or knee someone in the balls with my full strength, to fight a huge guy off (5 feet) who's knocked you on the floor and knocked the wind out of you and has you pinned. It's a very powerful feeling and a rush and I feel so much safer. Women...TAKE A CLASS LIKE THIS IF YOU CAN. Men, get the women you love to do it. I tell you, if all high school freshmen took this, there would be a LOT less rapes.

I am vigilant, but not actively scared. But maybe I should be. I thought i lived in a VERY safe area and then a month ago a guy was murdered at the bottom of my steps...the robber approached FIVE guys and killed one. That's a bunch of guys on a well lit street across from a bar. So no one is safe, really!

I'm more terrified of something happening to my daughter. I am terrified she's going to be kidnapped or molested or raped and told that "if you tell your mommy I'll kill her" and that she will be too scared to tell me or my husband.

I think it is definitely getting worse and more dangerous for women. Not better.

BTW-I check out guys ALL THE TIME, so don't feel bad about doing it-and I'm totally happily married. It's just guys aren't subtle about it. They stare, open mouthed, at the women and their "parts." Women do it so much more discreetly and most would NEVER say something or grab. I think that's a men's feeling of entitlement or something.
posted by aacheson at 12:45 PM on August 5, 2004

Why should you allow their rudeness to effect you?

It shouldn't, and we shouldn't. But that doesn't stop us from hearing them, and if I can hear them then the bastard making the comments is already too close for my comfort. Regardless of how I define myself, the other guy's words define me as a piece of meat. I can't always tell, if I don't know him, whether he's joking, and from what he's already said I don't think it's worth sticking around to find out.

SoBe comes in such nice heavy glass bottles.
posted by casarkos at 12:47 PM on August 5, 2004

SoBe comes in such nice heavy glass bottles.

Just as an aside, don't hit anyone in the head with a glass bottle unless you're willing to accept the possibility that they'll die from a fractured skull. I'm not saying you shouldn't do it, just that you should be aware of the risk. It's not like TV.
posted by aramaic at 12:57 PM on August 5, 2004

As opposed to the middle of nowhere small-town, where, God-forbid something bad should happen to you, you're completely on your own and potentially well and truly fucked.

I agree. I live in a small, rural area and I am very vigilant about not getting into a situation like that. I don't live in fear so much as being aware of what is around me.

I'm a short, fat, disabled woman. I look like an easy target. But, I don't go out in the dark to areas where there aren't a lot of people, alone. I don't accept rides from strangers, nor do I travel long distances alone (especially in my old, wheezing car.)

I was raped, by two men, at 15 years of age in this same small town. There is no completely safe area.

Of course, I went one step further in self-protection by owning a handgun and training in how to use it properly. Even with that, I'm not willingly going to put myself into dangerous situations.
posted by SuzySmith at 1:00 PM on August 5, 2004

Wow. Interesting, and somewhat surprising, thread. As a woman (disregard the "man" in "Birdman"; for that matter, disregard the "bird" too) I guess I'm in the minority when I say I don't automatically consider "safety for women" as a factor when planning what do do or not do that day. I've lived most of my life in Chicago and Minneapolis (in not so great neighborhoods), and shortly will be living in New York (oddly, in the safest neighborhood yet). I've lived alone at times in both cities and will live alone in New York; I frequently went to bars alone in both cities (one of my favorite things to do, not to meet the people, but to watch the people), and in Chicago, routinely walked home at night from work (~11 pm) 10 minutes from the train stop. I didn't do all of of this with *no* regard for my safety, meaning I never wore headphones while walking and I was always pretty conscious of who else was around, but I never had a cellphone with me (it was the old days), never considered *not* going out or going to work because of the safety factor, and was never bothered. I think part of it was attitude (as suggested above) and part of it was that I actually lived in the neighborhoods, as opposed to living in fear in the neighborhoods. Meaning, because I was out all the time, I *knew* the other people out all the time, and they knew me. If some guy was walking towards me at night, I usually knew if he lived around or not, I usually said "hey," he said "hey," and we went on our way. More importantly, I knew where the 24 hour corner stores were and the owners knew me. I guess this was my safety net, and it seems to have worked for 10+ years of living in fairly gritty urban areas. Personally I think that whole "not looking people in the eye" thing is crap. Usually, if you look someone in the eye as they walk by, they'll say hi, or you say hi. It's much nicer that way.
As far as not driving alone or camping alone-- you don't know what you're missing. Seriously.
I guess my take is if something happens, it's not because you were doing whatever you were doing alone, it's because there are some dangerous people in the world.
I have encountered violence over the years. Still, I think every woman should just operate on the level she feels most comfortable with. This doesn't make some women "paranoid freaks" and it doesn't make others "stupid and naive."
posted by Harvey Birdman at 1:00 PM on August 5, 2004

Google search for woman + kidnapped + car = 160,000 results. Woman + carjack = 8700 results.

Google search for man + kidnapped + car = 239,000 results. Man + carjack = 18,000 results.

The number of results from a google query are rarely good evidence of anything. Not saying anything about the legitimacy of women's fears, etc. just saying that google results actually weaken your point, rather than support it.
posted by rorycberger at 1:04 PM on August 5, 2004

It's just guys aren't subtle about it. They stare, open mouthed, at the women and their "parts." Women do it so much more discreetly and most would NEVER say something or grab. I think that's a men's feeling of entitlement or something.

I agree with the "most women" aspect of this, but many are not as subtle as they might think. I have an attractive male friend and I have seen some truly shameless ogling and invasions of personal space. He's good natured about it, but it happens quite often. It would seem that the same symptom shows up when any person is objectified.
posted by milovoo at 1:09 PM on August 5, 2004

You can politely inform the guy(s) about which comments you found offensive and why.

This will make it worse.
posted by pieoverdone at 1:22 PM on August 5, 2004

Hell, I live there and I'm a guy. Where you live mentally has everything to do with where you've lived literally, even when you move away from "there." All it takes is being too close to something horrific once, even if it doesn't happen to you personally... and your default worldview is shifted to "on guard." For good.
posted by frallyth at 1:32 PM on August 5, 2004

Response by poster: "I think it is definitely getting worse and more dangerous for women. Not better."
But the Department of Justice says that rape declined 1.9% from 2002 - 2003 (pdf). And violent crime rates are at their lowest level since we started recording these things. I say this not to minimize the very real problem of rape, but to illustrate my larger point about the climate of fear women seem to live in.

So no one is safe, really!
I would take a different lesson from your story, and conclude that nobody is totally safe. Nobody is immune from random bad luck, but it seems to me that you are still just as safe today as you were the day before the murder.

This cartoon, while not directly on topic, seems relevant.
posted by Irontom at 1:36 PM on August 5, 2004

Men - imagine a world where a guy larger than you on the darkened street could possibly hold you down and rape you, and you could do nothing about it. Imagine you have friends this has happened to. I think you'd have a healthy distrust of strangers at night as well.

In regards to the key thing - ladies, don't do the keys in between the fingers thing - hold one key out in your hand if you're to do that. Keys in a makeshift claw like that can immediately be turned against you - simply by someone grabbing your fist and squeezing two keys together. Try it if you don't believe me - it's excrutiatingly painful.

See? It's so sad to think this way, but because I've had more than my fair share of comments and gropings, and friends who have been raped and assaulted, I'm not taking any chances with dark alleys and strange men.

Same goes with being too drunk at a party with strangers, etc. If I ever get assaulted, god forbid, I want to know it wasn't because I wasn't careful.
posted by agregoli at 1:36 PM on August 5, 2004

(rorycberger, can I just note that your googlesearch results include all the results for women being carjacked by men? If you limit your search to exclude articles with women in them you get 92,900 results and 9570 results. Flawed in that it assumes that most kidnappings and carjackings are committed by men, but still. In any case, even if men get carjacked/kidnapped more than women do, the google search shows that it happens to women alot, and I still think that makes it reasonable for women to be attentive to such things.)
posted by onlyconnect at 1:40 PM on August 5, 2004

I often think how weird it must be for women to have men look at them all the time. Whenever I have friends as passengers in my car, I always notice how their eyes follow women on the street and how they're always looking for something to ogle.. and these are generally decent guys. Any woman who's mildly attractive (which is most, if they're young at least) must be getting thousands of people gawking at them each day.. and that sounds like a really weird sensation!

As a man, pretty much no-one looks at me, unless they think I'm about to steal something of theirs.. so I get the polar opposite feeling. Unfortunately for someone who holds themselves up to crazy levels of morality, this tends to put me off to talking to women uninvited because I can already recognize myself as being yet another one of the thousand pests who attempt it each day. This is probably my biggest flaw.
posted by wackybrit at 2:15 PM on August 5, 2004

Is this an American phenomenom or is it all over the 1st world? Being an introvert, male, geek I can't say I've ever really observed this kind of behaviour in medium sized town Canada but I could be just clueless. I've had a few female friends ask me to escore them to their cars but that was always in bar parking lots and I'd figured it was to ward off the drunks.

onlyconnect: Google search for woman + kidnapped + car = 160,000 results. Woman + carjack = 8700 results. I think "paranoid freak" is a little strong.

I'm not sure of your point with this stat but this isn't even a semi valid statistical method. Search for world+trade+center+terrorist+attack you'll get about 1,370,000 hits but it only happened twice. Search for hospital+birth and you'll get ~3.7 million hits but a lot more people have been born in hospitals than that. Search for empire+state+plane+crash you'll get about 55,000 hits but it only happened once. There's a lot of duplicate and meta reporting. Plus no thought to time frames.

evening: [...] if his car got broken down in S FL he'd hope no one stopped, and he wouldn't stop for anyone else either.

From the other end of America:

rhapsodie: If you break down on the side of the road in Alaska, there may not be another person, not even a trooper or town, for a hundred plus miles. Add that to temperatures in the negative fifties and sixties in the winter, and people will always stop for someone with car problems.

Firmly on rhapsodie's side here. This is what totally blew me away about the original comment in the road trip thread. I just can't imagine not offering to help someone broken down on the side of the road. What if there is no cell coverage? Buying into the hype, what if they've been shot? Is a highway patrol officer that likely to pass by? When I was storm chasing down in Oklahoma we could sit by the side of a highway for hours and not see a cop pass by.

Juicylicious: Nor would I stop for an unmarked "police" car. How the heck does this work? Do you just keep driving until you see a marked unit with the unmarked unit chasing you with the lights flashing? Is this one of the reasons there seem to be so many televised chases in the States?
posted by Mitheral at 2:25 PM on August 5, 2004

Anyone can buy a "police light" and put it in their car and pretend to be a non-uniformed police officer. Always wait for a real uniformed, police-car marked car.
posted by agregoli at 2:30 PM on August 5, 2004

I dunno. Maybe you should just hang out with more fags. I don't even realize you've got tits to look at.
posted by joeclark at 2:33 PM on August 5, 2004

I may have had an epiphany. In Victoria BC[1] after about 6pm (IE once rush hour was over) the bus will drop you off anywhere along the route. Occasionally, if the bus was empty because it was 1AM and it was raining hard, my driver would even go a block off his route to drop me in front of of my house. I'm not sure if either were official policy but looking back with this thread in mind it wouldn't surprise me if at least the first was.

[1] at least when I lived there about 10 years ago.
posted by Mitheral at 2:40 PM on August 5, 2004

Generally, it's not our friends we hang out with who are checking us out. Hopefully.
posted by agregoli at 2:40 PM on August 5, 2004

I had an experience once that really helped me understand this state of mind. I was walking down the street, and there was a woman a few yards in front of me, on the other side of the street (it was a residential area, and there were few other people around). It seemed we were going in the same direction, because we took the same turns and went down the same streets for several blocks. I was just minding my own business, but I could tell after awhile that I was making her nervous. Each block that went by, she would look over her shoulder more and more often. So at the next corner, I turned and walked down a different street, away from my destination. I figured the annoyance of having to walk a couple extra blocks out of the way was worth it if the woman was able to calm down because of it.
posted by falconred at 2:40 PM on August 5, 2004

snopes and the unmarked police car (it's a true story, by the way, documented cases from the 40's, 90's and 00's). actually, most of the cops i've come into contact with in my job say absolutely, if an unmarked car tries to pull you over, drive to the nearest police station or well-lighted, populated parking lot before doing so. unmarked cars do not routinely pull cars for traffic violations. generally, they pull cars because the car or driver matches an outstanding warrant and they usuall call for a marked back-up first.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:41 PM on August 5, 2004

Compendium of reccurent barbs while walking in NYC:

"I can afford you." & "How much?"
"I can smell your pussy."
"God bless you, beautiful."
"Shake that ass." & "Show me what you got."

The best are the "rubbers"...the pervs who position themselves behind you on a crowded subway car or at concerts and rub their crotches into your ass. That's always fun. Now do you see why some women are particularly guarded? We don't invite this crude behavior, but must deflect it constantly. It's tired. Maybe some of you mefi guys can come up with diffusive & witty statements to extinguish the revolting comments?
posted by naxosaxur at 2:43 PM on August 5, 2004

onhazier, it's tiring knowing that they're checking my body out and trying to make some sort of human connection past that. Actually th3ph17's wife's poem captures what I was trying to say perfectly.
posted by pomegranate at 2:56 PM on August 5, 2004

I used to be an oblivious-to-my-surroundings guy until I went to college and met a few women that explained their viewpoint much like the original post that prompted this. Then in psychology classes I learned rape wasn't a sexual crime, but a violent one (I didn't really think about it before), and after I had a few girlfriends that routinely used the campus late night walking service (you phone, they show up and walk you to your car or dorm), it all kinda freaked me out for my own safety.

I try not to put out vibes of vulnerability late at night if I'm walking alone somewhere, but inside I'm usually pretty edgy and/or scared shitless in some situations, and I'm a 200lb, 6'4" guy. I can't imagine what it must be like if I were female.

Also, once I got caught leering at a woman when I was 15 and getting embarrased by her publicly mocking me for doing it pretty much put a stop to that.

I give women their space and have gotten into such a habit of not staring, leering, or oogling that I rarely notice a woman's body. I'll hear comments like "wow, she must be pregnant, her boobs are like twice the size they used to be" from my wife and I never notice those things.
posted by mathowie at 3:07 PM on August 5, 2004

I have a question that's bugged me for ages: why do certain men feel the need to make inappropriate remarks?

I don't get it.

Have women ever responded positively to those remarks, so that it's a question of playing the odds? Is it a way to mark dominance? Is it a matter of "showing off" to nearby men?

I once asked a guy why he bothered with "pick-up lines" and he simply said it was statistics. Ninety-five percent of women told him to buzz off, but five didn't, so he was playing the odds. If he tried to pick up enough women, one would take him up on it. Watching him work, I could see that he was right.

...but that doesn't seem to directly explain crude remarks (I don't think). I'm completely serious: can someone explain them to me? I'm especially interested in first-hand explanations, if anyone wants to admit being the sort of person that's made crude remarks in public before.
posted by aramaic at 3:16 PM on August 5, 2004

I have heard of a woman who, after feeling someone grab her butt on a crowded metro, grabbed the guy's hand, lifted it into the air, and screamed at the top of her lungs.... "Who belongs to this hand? I found it on my ass!"
The guy RAN For the doors the next chance he had.
I always liked that one.
posted by aacheson at 3:17 PM on August 5, 2004 [1 favorite]

Great thread. Lots of openness, thoughtfulness, and good advice.

Two small contributions:

1. I am always amazed at the number of women in New York City who do not want someone to escort them home, no matter where they live. I figure it's because they think the guy wants to be invited in and the dangerous guy who might not materialize is a better risk than the guy they think is horny who is definitely standing there. Double-edged sword for the guy, like me, who considers it good to make sure a woman gets home alright. Also, I guess it's easier, if one feels unsafe, just to take a cab, although women who are walking even a fair distance often refuse an escort.

2. While I don't doubt there are far more male frotteurists than female, I've lost count of the number of women on the subway who have rubbed up against me, even when I back away multiple times. Breasts, hips, butts, whatever. Usually it's the "why don't I rest my breasts on your arm?" bit. There was the time I was holding the vertical pole and a woman leaned up against it, her breasts on each side of the pole and my hand. And the time I was sitting down and a woman straddled my right leg, with her standing facing me, as close to me and the seat as she could get. Male and heterosexual I am, but it's still problematic. Did you ever see that Rosie Perez short on HBO about this? A couple have a touching-on-the-subway-only relationship until he ruins it one day by talking.
posted by Mo Nickels at 3:31 PM on August 5, 2004

I have been a volunteer walker on my university's walking service (like the one mathowie mentions above) for the past two years and will be a paid officer this fall. We have about 100 volunteers, men and women, and walk every night of the school year, whatever weather, from 7pm-2:30am. The first question we always recieve, without fail, from a new client is: "Do you get a lot of calls?" or, more clearly: "Am I normal?"

I have walked literally hundreds of women (and men!) home to their dorms and I can say with pefect authority that the nervousness, the willies, the wanting to have someone with you to cross even the shortest path across a campus you know perfectly well, is normal and extremely common. Maybe it's because we're all afraid of the dark, or maybe because we live in a culture of fear, I'm not sure and I don't really care. The biggest benefit of my job is that it means people don't have to be afraid because someone is there, someone who doesn't even know them personally understands and will take them home. I like actively contributing to the idea that the world is full of good people who will help a stranger.

But I still have to deal with catcalls mocking our uniforms, occasionally mocking our clients. This is the world we live in. You can chose to be afraid and let it rule your life, or you can chose, as I do, to accept the facts and live with them. I don't invite danger into my life, yet nor to I live in the constant state of mind that something bad is going to happen to me. I take the rational potential for something to happen, and make the right choices. That's not being paranoid, it's being smart. That, and I get to catch up with all my SafeWalk buddies when I put in a call myself!
posted by nelleish at 3:33 PM on August 5, 2004

well, another data point - i just asked pauli (my so), and she wouldn't follow the advice about staying in the car with the window closed, although she thought a celular phone was a good idea in case you were miles from nowhere.

the reason why i think this is vaguely relevant to this thread is that, living in chile, she gets way more comments and general harassment from men than most (north) american women (at least in our experience there is much more "machismo" here) and some of the posts above seem to try to link the two.

however, as i said, she's hardly the most random of samples - she will also regularly turn round and start arguing with men that make comments, etc, which is somewhat unusual here. and, of course, neither of us know much about driving across america.
posted by andrew cooke at 3:44 PM on August 5, 2004

Men - imagine a world where a guy larger than you on the darkened street could possibly hold you down and rape you, and you could do nothing about it.
As far as size goes there is no imagination here, it's my daily life. Ever had a knife or gun pulled on you? These are true situations that may occur in everyone's lives. Not something one must walk around imagining to protect themselves. Watching your back - is being wise & savvy.
posted by thomcatspike at 3:51 PM on August 5, 2004

...because it will keep you alive.
posted by thomcatspike at 3:52 PM on August 5, 2004

Well ain't that interesting. In Alberta it is a $287 fine for failing to stop plus 3 points. Plus of course the points and fines for what ever you were being stopped for as it seems unlikely you'll be given a warning. I would have never gotten my license renewed back when I was driving a car that looked fast[1]

Lots of unmarked cars on highway duty in BC and Alberta. On some of our highways the next populated area could be a long way away. We don't really have the small town police departments here though. Really big cities like Vancouver and Calgary have their own cops and Quebec and Ontario have provicial forces. Besides that it is RCMP all the way. I wonder if that makes a difference in the public perception.

I just checked and my campus has a safewalk as well that works like nelleish outlined but thet'll also walk with you up to 10 blocks off campus.

[1] Classic profiling harrassment. I got pulled over more than a dozen times over the course of a couple years while driving a 95hp sport car. And I never received a ticket. While driving my much more capable 400hp sedan, which accounted for ~50% of my kilometres during this period but looked like something grandma would drive, I wasn't pulled over once. Let me tell you a black sports car is an absolute cop magnet.
posted by Mitheral at 4:14 PM on August 5, 2004

in case I wasn't clear with my first comment:

# of google search results != statistics

onlyconnect: none of your numbers (original or revised) say anything about whether this happens more to men or women. Neither do mine. That was my whole point. In the future find a real statistic. A google search is not a bad place to start, but it's not evidence by itself. Mitheral: thanks for the back-up.

As for my thoughts on most of the general issues at hand, I'll simply say that I don't like being thought of as a threat any more than women like being thought of as a target. Thank you cretinous assholes for making both of these the case.
posted by rorycberger at 4:20 PM on August 5, 2004

When you're a small skinny guy you get harassed too, although without the nasty sexual element adding to it.
Ten years ago, when I was 24, I weighed a shade over 140lb. I'm now almost 180. It is remarkable to me how much my attitude has changed since I got heavier and crankier, and it is also remarkable how other people's attitude has too.

It seems to me that the revolting harassment described above partly stems from the well-founded belief of the perpetrators that they are safe from revenge or attack. And they are. Although smart comebacks like "hey, it's like a prick only smaller!" sound funny in the abstract, the humiliation they cause may provoke violence as likely as prevent it. Thus silent acceptance is rational but serves to encourage the offender to try it again next time.

Of course a 40lb weight gain is only available to those with the inclination, time and hormones, which sucks. I have no idea how to make society, or rather the male half of it, behave better. As jessamyn noted, the men who do this don't try it on if they think another man might interfere, so there aren't many opportunities for reeducation.

When I walk at night alone, which I do quite a bit, I tend to cross the street if there's a woman in front of me, just to avoid freaking her out. I cross back once I've overtaken her.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:48 PM on August 5, 2004

carjacking stats say men are more often victims than women. that's not the same as risk, however - for example, if 99% of all drivers are men, and all women drivers are carjacked, you'd get the same result.

more relevant to this discussion, 93% occurred in cities and suburbs. but again, that's where the cars are. why can't people who produce these stats normalise them?
posted by andrew cooke at 4:50 PM on August 5, 2004

(on the topic of threats, though (rorycberger), almost all carjackers are male (93%). most crime is by males. young men are agressive, dangerous assholes - it's a fact of life).
posted by andrew cooke at 5:02 PM on August 5, 2004

aramaic-- My guess is that they're just too juvenile to know how to express themselves better. It's really something many men don't learn. I mean, in a sense they're all just trying to say "Gosh that woman is attractive" or even "I want to have sex with you" but they don't know how to do it in a way that actually works.
(FWIW I don't make crude remarks in public but I definitely check out women's bodies, although I always stress discretion and subtlety. Positively no staring.)

I don't buy that "playing the odds" thing, either-- you can play the odds by asking every woman you see on the street if she'll have sex with you, but your chances are very low, and even if you do get lucky, you'll be having sex with a woman willing to have sex with a complete and total stranger. (And the parallel-- if you're trying to pick up women by ogling and leering at them, you're only going to get women who find that kind of behavior attractive. I'm not sure I'd want a woman who dug that sort of thing.) Some people say acting that way takes fearlessness but it also takes a certain lack of self-respect.

There are ways to go about it that are better and have better results.

Okay, all that aside, this thread has been really enlightening. I didn't realize so many women felt this way. I suppose it's tougher to balance that line between talking to an attractive stranger and having her think you're a creep than I initially thought. (I'd like to think I can still do it though.)
posted by nath at 5:10 PM on August 5, 2004

Hey andrew: I'll assume you just forgot the "are significantly more likely to be" in that last sentence. Otherwise I would have to take umbrage, and you wouldn't want that since in that case I would be an aggressive, dangerous asshole.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:14 PM on August 5, 2004

In the future find a real statistic.

You will have to pry my google searches from my cold, dead hands! :)

I'm a woman, and this thread has opened my eyes to why my smaller, shorter women friends take more precautions than I do. I really liked the "I'm portable" comment above by the woman who is 5 ft 3. Thanks.
posted by onlyconnect at 5:17 PM on August 5, 2004

sorry, johnny assay - i did forget that.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:25 PM on August 5, 2004

What a great thread. A couple of follow-up remarks:

I get the distinct impression you don't like me very much

Chill, dude. I have no emotional attitude about you, and my remarks were not directed toward you. Your question seemed to imply a certain reluctance to admit the validity of women's fears, but that's perfectly natural in men who haven't spent a lot of time looking into this stuff, and I figured the thread would provide a good education, as I trust it has. It was noble of you to come to the defense of widdershins, but as it happens, you didn't need to; she's quite right to interpret my remarks as she did. I did think she was young (younger than 33, that is, though that's young to me!), and I'm genuinely glad she can be that confident. I want very badly for all women to be able to live that way. Unfortunately, it's not just a matter of attitude. The world is a screwed-up place, and every woman has to make her own decision about how much weight to give her own experiences, those of others, and the vast range of conflicting statistics out there. (Most of us don't make our life decisions based on statistics; the human mind just doesn't work that way.)

Great comments by jdroth, jessamyn, scody, jennyb, c, aacheson, and others. I hope the thread stays alive longer than the usual AskMeFi mayfly.
posted by languagehat at 7:38 PM on August 5, 2004

andrew cooke — No harm, no foul. It's just that I do my utmost to not be an aggressive, dangerous asshole, as do (I think) the majority of males aged 18-25. I'll certainly grant you that there are some asswipes who mess it up for the rest of us, though.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:58 PM on August 5, 2004

Someone clarify this for me, please--is it maleness or size that women find threatening? As a small and skinny guy (5'6" 130 pounds) I'd be quite surprised to find women, many of whom are bigger (and stronger) than I am, to consider me a threat at all when I'm walking all by my lonesome self at night, as is my wont--and yet the brush of "men are dangerous" in this thread is painting things alarmingly far and wide. Am I somehow more threatening than a woman of my size simply because I wield a penis? (Note: not wielded openly while walking in public.) Are these (understandable) fears on the part of solitary women purely a physical intimidation issue, or are there self-reinforcing gender stereotypes at work here?

In other words, should I be worried about bumping into a bigger woman alone on the streets at night? Why or why not?
posted by DaShiv at 9:13 PM on August 5, 2004

is it maleness or size that women find threatening?

Personally, it's neither, exclusively. It's creepiness that I find threatening.

rorycberger said, "As for my thoughts on most of the general issues at hand, I'll simply say that I don't like being thought of as a threat any more than women like being thought of as a target."

I'd like to say that I don't find all men threatening. I actually find most people not very threatening at all. I credit the safety-mindedness I mentioned above for my ability to maintain this attitude. If I take basic precautions to guard my well being (which, to tie it in to the original question, would include not rolling my windows down for a strange person if I were in an unfamiliar and not very populated area), I don't have to view every strange man as a threat, because, thanks to my (common sense, IMO) precautions, every strange man isn't a threat.

Someone above said that you might get raped, or you might get hit by a bus (or something to that effect). That's true. But I think that taking steps to not put yourself in danger of attack is the equivalent to looking both ways before crossing the street. Anything could kill you, but that doesn't mean you should eschew habits that protect you from obvious threats.
posted by jennyb at 9:40 PM on August 5, 2004

are there self-reinforcing gender stereotypes at work here>?

Yeeeeees, but: other things, such as a genuinely greater propensity for violence, also reinforce those stereotypes of men. Those stereotypes do not spring out of a vacuum, they are informed by unpleasant experiences, catalogued above. Honestly Dashiv, your alarm sounds either naive or disingenuous.

And of course everyone is more easily scared and everything looks scarier at night.

In other words, should I be worried about bumping into a bigger woman alone on the streets at night? Why or why not?

Yes, but not as worried as if she were a bloke.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:42 PM on August 5, 2004

In other words, should I be worried about bumping into a bigger woman alone on the streets at night? Why or why not?

Maybe. It depends on your own personality and experiences. For instance, when we were in college, my friend had an RA who was mugged across the street from his dorm the first week of school. He always called for the escort service (which was somewhat funny considering that another friend of mine was one of those "community service officers" was about your size, but apparently since she carried flashlights and pepper spray that made her less of a target) or had me walk him, although he didn't seem too concerned about me walking back alone (probably because I walk at a very brisk pace when I'm alone out of habit).

As for bigger women specifically, I doubt it, since the vast majority of crimes are committed by men. There probably are gender stereotypes and disproportionate media given to assualts or attempted assaults when dozens of people are killed each month in the streets of Los Angeles by gang violence and it makes only a blurb in the wires. My mom is disconnected from mainstream American media and rides her bike to and from work, including in the dark during the winter. She walks at night in our neighborhood occasionally without any problems, and she's 5'4" and 120 lbs. On the other hand, men offer women rides unsolicited but never offer guys the same rides. My mom was offered rides dozens of times at a freeway bus stop when she was a maid, all of which were turned down, of course. I've been at that same bus stop many times and everyone passes me by like they should, since that particular bus never stops running.
posted by calwatch at 9:47 PM on August 5, 2004

it's stupid to decrease your experience because something abstract might go wrong.

That certainly sums up my perspective. I don't deny that a lot of the concerns expressed here are very valid, but I respect everyone who doesn't confuse alertness with fear or vigilance with terror. In any context.
posted by rushmc at 9:54 PM on August 5, 2004

Men offer women rides unsolicited but never offer guys the same rides.

Sure, and there several reasons for that. 1, unless you're gay, you are not motivated by the potential for sex. 2, there is a default presumption that as a man you can take care of yourself, and that it is up to you to ask for assistance. 3, you are afraid of assault by your passenger. Different men will feel those in different proportions.

I am wary of male hitchhikers, especially in pairs, and will only pick them up if they have sizable bags and I feel like I can take them on. This is sad - one of my mates and I once went hitching together and got several good rides from generous women - but my personal risk calculus hits the limit at dodgy guys with no destination. And their friends.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:08 PM on August 5, 2004

Okay, so it's three o'clock in the morning and I want some beef jerky. I put on tennis shoes (because my sandals are slick on the bottom,) I put my ID and my money in a small changepurse that fits in my pocket (so I don't have a purse that can be taken from me, or used to constrain me,) and then I drive to the store. I park under a light (so I can see my path to the store, and when I leave the store later, I can easily identify my car and walk straight to it.) I turn off the car, put the keyring in my palm, and allow my car key- the longest and most jagged, to jut from between my first and second fingers (because this will be a more effective weapon than my non-existant nails, or mace, which could just as easily debilitate me.)

I go inside, buy me some beef jerky, and after I put my money away, tuck my jerky under my arm, I put my keys back in my palm, and look into the parking lot. If I see people in the lot, I consider who they seem to be and whether I find them particularly menacing. If I don't, see below. If I do, I ask a bagger or a security guard to walk me to my car (on the off chance that they turn out to be "the bad guy" it's a lot easier to say "I was attacked by the guy working third shift," than "I dunno, it was some guy in the dark, I didn't even get a look at his face.") If there's no one out there, I walk straight to my car, look in the back seat, look in the front seat, get in and lock the doors. Then I drive home and eat beef jerky.

Putting it down in words, it sounds like I'm terrified, but I'm not. If I were, I wouldn't go to the store at 3 am to get beef jerky, which I do on a fairly regular basis. These are just the automatic precautions I take so I don't get hurt while getting that 3 am bag of beef jerky. I'm tall for a woman, I spent time in the military, and in a fair fight, I'd probably hold my own if the guy weren't substantially larger than I am, but criminals don't fight fair. The advice given in the other thead, I would consider quite sound. There's no point in exposing yourself to someone who's a complete wild card when you *can* summon the police. Again, even if your police officer turns out to be the bad guy, there's a record of your call, and a record of his response that can't be erased.
posted by headspace at 10:14 PM on August 5, 2004

Honestly Dashiv, your alarm sounds either naive or disingenuous.

I don't know if "alarm" is the right word--with so many others here expressing so many reservations about their fellow man though, I'm wondering if I'm not being alarmed enough for my own well-being or something. After all, I've never considered myself any more or less vulnerable to violence on the basis of my gender--but I've also had female friends express reservations about their safety in situations where I hadn't harbored any consciously. The intuitive part of me immediately sympathized with them (cue male protector archetype), while the rational part of me was thrown into confusion ("but... you're bigger than me").

He always called for the escort service (which was somewhat funny considering that another friend of mine was one of those "community service officers" was about your size, but apparently since she carried flashlights and pepper spray that made her less of a target)

This is the kind of stuff I'm talking about. I've seen many diminutive, assertive female CSO's walking alone though my campus at night, armed with nothing more than a walkie-talkie. Their existence has always made me wonder if this whole thing weren't simply a "state of mind" issue. I don't have an answer to that.
posted by DaShiv at 10:18 PM on August 5, 2004

Great comment, headspace. It accurately describes how I behave during a late-night outing while alone.

Also, I'm a little miffed at the size issue. I'm a smaller girl (5'3. 110 lbs), but I honestly think I would feel the same "alertness" (I really hesitate to use the word "fear") if I were more imposing. And the truth is, if you're attacked by someone who knows what they're doing, it doesn't matter what size you are.

Also, to the question if the potential attacker's size matters -- for me, it doesn't. It's a combination of other factors that send my flares up (gait, perceived attitude, eye contact,etc.)
posted by Zosia Blue at 10:24 PM on August 5, 2004

Also, DaShiv: just because a woman isn't carrying a weapon or pepper spray doesn't mean she's not taking the "automatic precautions" headspace mentioned.
posted by Zosia Blue at 10:26 PM on August 5, 2004

These are just the automatic precautions I take so I don't get hurt while getting that 3 am bag of beef jerky.

Sounds like sensible precautions for anyone oot and aboot at 3am in any sizeable downtownish area. Dunno that, as a guy, I'd have the face to ask for an escort (and dunno why the escort should take all the risk, walking back alone!)... but I would be a bit more alert than usual walking across the lot.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:41 PM on August 5, 2004

Yeeeeees, but: other things, such as a genuinely greater propensity for violence, also reinforce those stereotypes of men. Those stereotypes do not spring out of a vacuum, they are informed by unpleasant experiences, catalogued above.

Which also reminds me: why is it not okay to make the stereotype that Blacks (or insert your favorite ethnic minority, depending on where you live) are potentially violent or criminal--even if you've been "informed by unpleasant experiences" as many have--and yet, some women consider it merely a matter of pragmatic necessity to assume that any man "might" be a rapist based on similar previous experiences from men? I'm not trying to troll or drag political issues like racial profiling into this equation--I'm simply wondering whether people are comfortable with this inconsistency in stereotypes based on personal experience. When is it permissible to draw expectations about others based previous experience from their kind, and when is it not permissible (i.e. negative stereotyping)?

I don't resent the fact that some safety-conscious women might readily make the "potential rapist" assumption about men like me, but I'm curious as to why they feel it's necessary to do so in order to keep their guard up. Is it necessary to demonize a large swath of the population to make one feel alert, especially when such practices are frowned upon in this country when applied to race?

I'm guessing that feminists must already have a really well-reasoned article written about this dichotomy (i.e. making assumptions about the various propensities of the male half of the species but not about other demographic categories), of which I freely admit my ignorance and would like to remedy, if anyone can provide a link. The "psychology of women" class I took at my community college (of which I was the only male student, unsurprisingly) was woefully lacking in social theory. And I still don't understand women--or people at all. :)

On preview: thanks, headspace and Zosia, it does seem pragmatic to continue to do what one would normally do but to take some additional precautions as well. What interests me about the original question that was posed was where line between pragmatism and paranoia should be drawn, and how men and women have different "mental lives" when it comes to personal safety. Zosia, I mentioned the size issue because of this earlier quote:

Men - imagine a world where a guy larger than you on the darkened street could possibly hold you down and rape you, and you could do nothing about it.

There are lots of men and women larger than me who can physically assault me in all sorts of ways, rape being but one of them. But I seem to have a different threshold for physical intimidation than many on this thread, so gender and not size must be coming into play. I'm really curious as to how this difference is internalized, and why.
posted by DaShiv at 11:18 PM on August 5, 2004

To a guy or perhaps a superconfident or totally strong, fit woman, perhaps JanetLand, et al's, precautions sound over the top. To me, they sound like common sense and are things that I do routinely, especially the parts about parking under lights at night, having a buddy system to go to my car, etc. Being aware of my surroundings, including the people in them, always seems to be a good idea. And even as a somewhat older woman, I still note that guys always look at me - some respectfully, some not. Either way, I just pretend as if I don't notice them and move on, playing the role of Superconfident Woman going about her business. So far, so good (fingers crossed).
posted by Lynsey at 12:15 AM on August 6, 2004

I don't resent the fact that some safety-conscious women might readily make the "potential rapist" assumption about men like me, but I'm curious as to why they feel it's necessary to do so in order to keep their guard up. Is it necessary to demonize a large swath of the population to make one feel alert, especially when such practices are frowned upon in this country when applied to race?

I don't think you're getting the right message from this thread, really. It's not that women see and treat every man as a potential rapist. It's that women feel the need to be more conscious of their personal safety than men. Not because every man they meet is a rapist or potential rapist. But because they have no way to tell the difference. If they were requesting some kind of action - that men not be allowed to walk the streets at night, that men be screened for rapist tendancies, that would be stereotyping and profiling and wrong, but just being more vigilent about personal safety because you can't tell who might be a potential attacker is hardly some vast conspiracy to undermine men.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:28 AM on August 6, 2004

jaquilynne is completely on point. it's not about considering every man you pass a potential threat. it's about feeling on guard all the time because you live in a world where the fact that you are a woman alone means that you are a target. yes, everyone may under some circumstances be a target. i know several guys who've been mugged. but they all felt it was a fluke--that they hadn't been a target before; they aren't one now; they just happened to be there. the women i know who've been mugged felt a sense of culmination. John Berger famously observed that ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’.

the mental space that irontom asked about originally is not about fear of being targeted. it's about awareness of being targeted for everything from crude comments to full-bore violence everywhere you go, all of the time. men, when was the last time an unknown woman you didn't want to talk to wouldn't go away, no matter how pointedly you asked?

i think personal safety is only a component. i think personal dignity is a large part of it too.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:38 AM on August 6, 2004

It the "everywhere you go" part that is disturbing to me. I know that you were to come to my office; pass me on the street; or stand next to me at the bus you wouldn't hear comments about how "bitchen' your navel is" or any other crude remarks/intimidation. Let alone a groping. I guess when I see comments like this I feel sad that you feel I might be dangerous. Not me specifically but that you feel you never can tell.
posted by Mitheral at 12:29 PM on August 6, 2004

John Berger famously observed that ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’.

crush-onastick, thanks for reminding me of this quote! And I second everything you and jacquilynne just posted. DaShiv (and others), just to reiterate: The "place" most of us live in is increased awareness and preparedness, not paranoia or fear. As someone else said, I don't think of every man (large or small) as a "potential rapist"; I have just been trained to be aware of my surroundings and the people who occupy them in the event that someone (large or small, young or old, any race) decides to verbally or physically target me.

Obviously, the numbers of men who have targeted me are far outweighed by the numbers of men who have not -- of the countless thousands of men I've crossed paths with in 35 years, 2 have sexually assualted me (though more have harassed me). Percentage-wise, that's pretty low -- .0001% (or whatever), right? But it doesn't mean that I'm not going to take certain precautions every single time I walk through the proverbial dark parking lot. I don't live my life with my guard up; I live my life taking care of myself by being prepared as best I can in the event someone wants to hurt me because I'm a woman.

And yes, dignity is a large part of it too -- that's been a great benefit to me in learning to keep my head up: it's literally a safer, more aware way of being in the world (and it's better for my posture!), while figuratively I always feel I hold my head high, no matter what random strangers might say to me (or think of me/my body) as I walk down the street.

On preview: I guess when I see comments like this I feel sad that you feel I might be dangerous. Not me specifically but that you feel you never can tell.

Yep, in a way, that's it in a nutshell. It's not that we can "never" tell -- I'm pretty confident that, barring sudden onset psychopathic disorder, none of my coworkers or male buddies or family members will assault me. It's also not that I expect you, as a stranger, to harass or assault me if I'm standing next to you at the bus stop -- you're more likely to leave me alone than not.

But yeah, if you're the only person at that bus stop besides me, I may run a quick mental inventory: is he carrying anything? Where's the quickest place to run to? Is he sidling up closer to me? This happens reflexively -- almost instantaneously. I don't really think about it, and in a way I don't have an emotional reaction to it -- it's just part of the normal mental process: "hmm, it's getting humid... there's a dog barking... there's a man with a briefcase standing next to me at the bus stop... there's a car radio blasting that stupid Britney Spears song... there's a 7-11 halfway down the block in case I need to run... there's another woman walking up to the bus stop..."
posted by scody at 1:05 PM on August 6, 2004

Thanks for the responses--when it comes to the "every man is a potential rapist" phrasing, it seems that there's a line between "prepare for the worst" and "assume the worst" that got lost in the rhetoric for me. I can certainly understand the former but am a bit puzzled by the latter.

i know several guys who've been mugged. but they all felt it was a fluke--that they hadn't been a target before; they aren't one now; they just happened to be there. the women i know who've been mugged felt a sense of culmination. John Berger famously observed that ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’.

This is terribly fascinating--I would have instinctively dismiss being mugged as "wrong place at the wrong time" as well. After all, the muggers were looking to mug anyone vulnerable near them (and from a purely self-defense standpoint I would be just as vulnerable as any woman, ignoring issues of societal perception and assumptions) and not me specifically. I'm not saying that women aren't justfied in feeling targeted--I'm just making note of how differently we reach our conclusions about the same event based on our different starting points.
posted by DaShiv at 3:19 PM on August 6, 2004

I'll admit that I haven't read everything in here, but I did want to get this in while people were still reading: as a bigger girl (5'9", 180), I am certainly less scared than I would be if I were smaller. Part of it, I think, is that I assume that if someone were looking for a victim, I would not be his first choice.

Also, even when I am nervous (which is rare), I don't act like I am. Living in sketchy neighborhoods, I've seen people who look scared get fucked with, and, as the boy notes, with logical reason: how insulting is it to have people walking around the neighborhood you live in as if it is so scary? Then again, I'm not white. And as obviously middle-class as I look, I think that further decreases the likelihood that people will fuck with me.

Finally, this is another case where fatalism seems to help. If someone really wants to attack me, I can only decide what I will do after that. Once I've decided, there isn't much more to do, but live my life (which means not avoiding things I want because I might get hurt) & hope I'm lucky. At least that's how I figure it.
posted by dame at 4:31 PM on August 6, 2004

fivefreshfish: If it's an employee, I usually pull to the front of the store and watch to make sure he gets back inside okay. I would feel awful if someone got hurt because they took the time out to help me. If it's a security guard or a police officer, I figure they're safe enough to walk back on their own. :)
posted by headspace at 9:03 PM on August 6, 2004

I'd also like to point out (in case anyone is still reading), that women are not saying we're treating *every* man as a potential rapist. Just then ones we don't know who appear when we're in a vulnerable situation -- that is, alone, or at night, or in a broken-down car, etc. You're a guy who comes up to talk to me at a party when I'm surrounded by friends? I'm going to assume you're probably OK, at least while I'm still at that party. You come up to me while I'm waiting for a bus home by myself at 2am? I'm going to assume you're not OK until you leave me alone enough to prove otherwise.

It's not so much about being *constantly* vigilant as it is about being vigilant in certain circumstances, whether that means not getting into those circumstances to begin with or just having a higher level of awareness about our surroundings when walking home alone at night.
posted by occhiblu at 11:36 AM on August 13, 2004

Which leads to the question, though, shouldn't everyone of that particular size be vigilant? Is it machismo that they don't call for escorts or walk with their keys in their hands? Besides, at night, odds are the attacker is not going to know what gender you are until they get close enough to hurt you.
posted by calwatch at 12:37 AM on August 16, 2004

Wow - great thread. I'm sure no one is still reading but.....

is it maleness or size that women find threatening?

Maleness. I don't fear being attacked sexually by women. But even if you aren't a physically imposing man, you could have a weapon.

I've always been of the opinion that projecting a certain attitude is crucial - do your best not to look like a victim. Walk with a little swagger. I have no idea if this helps really, but it makes you feel better.

I'm a city kid and I've been though the usual gropings and catcalls and followings and such, though nothing really hideous. The worst, not because of what happened but because I was so young, was when a guy in broad daylight on the street, reached out and grabbed onto my 14-year-old boob as I was walking by. What guys don't tend to get is that yes, it didn't hurt, and no, nothing else happened, but I was freaked out for days and still am to some degree. That feeling of being considered a target, something to be manhandled - right out of the blue by the random guy on the street. He laughed at my fear too, the bastard.
That said, reading this thread makes me think I don't take way enough precautions. I've never done that keys thing.

Another thought: when I was young I lived in Italy and would take rides at night from strange men all the time. I look back and think I must have been insane, but it's something I did there and would never have done in the states. They would routinely proposition me but when I said no, I would still get the ride home. I guess I had some weird faith in the Latin honor of women that doesn't exist in the states. I think I remember reading stats saying there was far less rape in latin countries, but I don't know if that's true.

Hmmm. I just went to look.

Rape (per 100,000 people):

United States 37.20
Sweden 15.70
Denmark 11.23
Germany 8.60
Norway 7.87
United Kingdom 7.26
Finland 7.20
Japan 1.40

2/The (1991) rape rate in the United States was eight times higher than in France, 15 times higher than in England, 23 times higher than in Italy and 26 times higher than in Japan, according to the report.

I guess I got a little off topic, sorry.

To go back to the original issue, I have a friend whose cousin broke down and the only car to stop was a predator and well, it didn't go well. Definitely stay in the car unless it's a marked police car. I have a banner in the trunk that I can unfurl asking passing cars to call the police.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:22 PM on August 18, 2004

« Older How can I keep cats out of my yard?   |   When you die, what song do you want played at your... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.