February 7, 2005

safety questions

I've had a number of conversations with my parents that start out with me telling them about my exciting ideas for cool things to do, and end up with them telling me to be careful, usually by taking someone else with me. The most recent was today, about going up to Yosemite Valley; the most memorable is something I'll probably never forgive my dad for saying. I was talking about hiking one of the long trails - the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail - and he said, "I'm sorry, but there has to be a male on that trip." They're mostly not worried that I'll twist an ankle and not be able to call for help for a couple of days; instead, they worry that I'll be attacked, raped, and murdered. One of my grandmothers has the same worries: she insisted on lending me her cellphone when I drove from Chicago to Philadelphia alone, and regularly sends me those stupid forwarded emails with new schemes that kidnappers, carjackers, rapists, or whatever supposedly use.

So let's put aside the fact that I'm a lot less likely to need protection from lascivious or violent humans on one of those trails than in my daily life. Let's put aside the fact that any help I'd need from another person would almost certainly be some kind of medical care, and in that case I'd want someone with a cellphone, emergency medical training, or ideally both. Let's also put aside the fact that I have pretty darn good wilderness medical training myself, and am at least as likely to be doing the helping as to need the help. Instead, let's talk about women and safety.

There are a lot of supposedly basic precautions I don't take. I don't feel I need a partner to go backpacking, although I don't often go alone because it's so much more fun to go with someone. I walk home alone at night, sometimes in sketchy or unfamiliar neighborhoods, sometimes when I've had a fair amount to drink. I take the subway or the bus instead of a cab, because I don't have money. I took a ride up to my snow skills training from some guy I'd met once, and I'd take a ride from people I'd never met if I knew them through some context, like as friends of someone I'd once met. Tonight I went running: there was plenty of light when I started and I had originally planned to do a short run and be back before dark, but I really wanted that long run. So it was almost fully night in a public park and there I was alone, doing some stretches next to my car.

I've only been hassled twice, once at 11 am on my way to the train station three and a half years ago, when a guy riding by on his bike grabbed my breast, and an evening that same summer when I was waiting for the bus in a neighborhood I didn't know and ended up waiting for about half an hour. Someone who seemed to think I was a prostitute came up to me and kind of mumbled at me in a language I didn't understand, and someone else drove by and offered me a ride and then came back to repeat his offer after I refused, which frankly kind of scared me. It was my first time living in a major city, and I don't think I knew the kinds of tricks I know now about how to walk so you look confident and aware of your surroundings, even when you feel like shit.

Not looking vulnerable only does so much good, though, especially since I'm small and female and that makes me look vulnerable even when I'm walking assertively. The worst part is that I can never tell which fears are rational and which aren't. Is it reasonable to go for a run at night in a city? Is it reasonable to have four beers at a bar and then walk home by myself, because my friends want to stay longer and I'm tired? What's reasonable? The woman at the temp job I'm doing tomorrow said they'd pay for a cab on Tuesday, because they want me to work til 9 pm. That's nice, but of course I take bigger risks than a bus ride in a posh SF neighborhood all the time.

And the real question: what's the alternative? I could decide not to run, but I really want to run; tonight, I really wanted 6 miles instead of 4. I also like (by which I mean love and need for my own sanity) to be out in pretty places by myself: should I give that up? I could take cabs back from all my social events, but then I couldn't afford to go to social events. I could make my friends walk me home from the bar - something they'd probably do, if I asked - but I'd feel like a burden. I could stop drinking except at home and at friends' houses where I can spend the night. I could always drive my own vehicle. Not walking alone at night was kind of reasonable in Des Moines, where everyone drives everywhere, but try doing that in a major city. Basically, I could spend a lot more money and fuck up my life to deal with a relatively minor risk, because most people who attack women are people those women know. Not to mention the fucking highway, which is way more dangerous than Yosemite Valley and all three trails combined.

The really ridiculous thing is that all these nonspecific fears don't actually help me - or anyone - stay safe. They don't help me make good decisions, because I need or want to do so many "unsafe" things. They don't help me respond to bad situations. They don't address the bad situations I'm actually likely to encounter. They just give me a big pile of guilt and worry to take the edge off my joy in my life and my independence. Thanks, culture, and fuck you too.

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