Lazy times like today bring my mind back to when I was 18 and had just graduated from high school. A time when I was vivacious, thought I was brave, and believed I could conquer the world. Still, I didn’t know what to do with myself. There was no work where I lived, so I had two options: move and find a job, or, with a nice scholarship I had just earned, go to college. I did neither (immediately) but instead decided to catch a train to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia and back-pack alone south down the Appalachian trail.
I thought nothing of it. I had outdoor wilderness-survival skills, but I was naïve of the dangers of the world, having spent my teenage years in small town rural Illinois. At the end of my three week trip, I was fine and happy with my trip. But today, being slightly older and well-versed in the dangers of the world, I sometimes look back and want to ask my younger self, “What are you thinking!?!?” Why wasn’t I harassed? Why I wasn’t sexually assaulted? Why wasn’t I raped? I was a young single woman travelling alone in an unfamiliar territory, with only a small bottle of pepper-spray as protection.
Now my older 21 year-old self is wearier than my 18 year-old self. It’s only been three and a half years later, and I’m tremendously more cautious. Recently, a friend and I were planning a back-packing trip in Iceland this summer. When she had to back-out due to a divorce, I cancelled my plane ticket as well because I didn’t want to travel alone. But still I ask myself—did I avoid adventure for a perceived threat which isn’t really there?
Many women have told me they’d like to travel, back-pack, and go places alone, but they’re afraid of being raped. They need a male companion. In America many women are afraid of any space outside their homes. Look at the exodus of anyone with money from the inner city to the sprawling suburbs. Women leave their homes through their garages, into their cars. They are careful in the lots they park their cars in as they go to the shopping mall or grocery store, and then they get back into their car and drive home into their garages, and then they walk through the safety of their garages into their locked homes.
It’s the everyday uncomfortable encounters that scare us. Yesterday, as I was leaving the grocery store there was this man sitting on the curb eating sunflower seeds next to the bike racks. I went to unlock my bike with my back turned towards him to avoid any casual eye-contact. I was trying to ignore him as much as possible, when all he simply said was that it looked like I needed a new back tire. I said nothing in acknowledgment, I didn’t even turn around. I just pulled my bike out of the rack jumped on, and rode off through the parking lot. I took the long way home in case he followed me. So this story probably doesn’t seem like a big deal; he didn’t even say anything inappropriate. But women have “quaint” stories like this every day. We have self-conditioned ourselves to be weary of strange men. Is this fair to strange men? Is this fair to us? Maybe this man was just being friendly and making small-talk. My cynical self sitting in the back of my head thinks—probably not. But in all reality, he probably meant no harm.
Are we being over- cautious, over-anxious? Have we been taught we are weak and that we need to fear an over-proportioned threat, so that we can be kept inside, and out of the outside world? Or are we just being well precautioned in this dangerous society? We grow up reading and being told the stories of adventurers: Odysseus, Lewis and Clark, Robinson Crusoe, Sinbad the Sailor, Huckleberry Finn, Columbus, Marco Polo just to name a few—I could go on. The only female adventurers which my roommate and I could name off after much consideration were Amelia Earhart, Nancy Drew, Pippi Long-Stocking, Alice and Wonderland, and Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz.” Four of these females are children or adolescents, two complain that they want to go home the whole story, and one is famous for not her accomplishments in flight, but for having vanished over the Bermuda Triangle. The message can be interpreted to say, “Our mature womanly bodies cannot handle facing strange places. Our adventuring is a childhood dream, we will always want to go home, and we will get lost, vanish and probably die.”
The numbers tell us that most women who are raped are raped by men they know. Maybe we should just stop talking to men, stop trusting and having relationships with them. For extra safety maybe we should just stop travelling, going to the mall, grocery shopping, walking through our neighborhoods, leaving our homes. Do I sound frustrated? Because I am. We just can’t do this; we need to keep living. We need to travel and experience our neighborhoods, our countries, and our world. I hold the personal belief that, as humans, we are meant to progress and have new experiences. It is not possible for this to easily be accomplished by women around the world. And so it comes to be a dilemma, a really difficult one. Where is this balance between precaution and movement?