We were on year eleven snow trip. I remember the muted cold that followed us, even in the tiny cabin that the handful of us had occupied. I remember the tension, the revelation. I remember it suddenly making sense why one of my teachers and friends had taught us how to hold your keys between your fingers, and how to use different improv weapons.
One of the girls had been groped by a stranger on the ski lifts. So the female teacher who'd come with us sat us down and explained to us how we needed to be on our guard, all the time. It covered picking your seats on trains, watching your drinks, dealing with creeps, and where you should park your car at night.
In retrospect, the only reason why we had this talk at sixteen and seventeen was because we were from a conservative town, and a conservative school. They didn't know that I'd been catcalled from passing cars at thirteen. They didn't know I already had felt and known that fear. But there it was. We sat in that cabin, in the quiet, until it was time to go, and we left to have pizza. The fear stayed, though. It's still there.
I've been meaning to write about this for a while. A few months back, I had a conversation with a bunch of people about the rise of the 'strong female character'. The topic was concern, that the rise of such an unrealistic character would set women up for failure, frustration, and an inability to conform to a certain standard of womanhood. My addition to the noise was a need for such female characters, because of this fear.
What is this fear? It's probably important to define that now, after all.
As a woman, I am aware of my smallness. I am aware that in a fight against a man, unless there was a significant factor to tip the scales, I would lose. I am aware that I live in a world that is not safe. I am aware that I could be attacked, could be overpowered, could be raped. I am aware of my vulnerability, and I am aware of how in a lot of assault cases, the blame is placed on the victim for the incident.
This is not an irrational fear, that you could dissect. This is not an irrelevant fear, that you could dismiss. This is a very real fear, that follows you. I feel it resting on my shoulders, tickling the back of my neck, as I walk back to my car in the dark by myself, after work. Can I run in these shoes? Should I throw my first punch with my right or left? Would I be able to start my car if I've just used my car key to stab an attacker? Do I wear my hood up and hope that my over-sized coat disguises my gender, or do I wear my hood down so I can use my peripherals to track any incoming movement? Where can I put my hair so they can't grab it?
I once shared this with a guy. The look on his face and his response were genuine, unscripted. He'd never even considered that women had to think like this. He apologised that I had to feel like this. He held my hand tightly when we walked through a night-shrouded shortcut that I wouldn't have gone near with a six-foot barge pole. But it was a naive outlook at best, and a myopic one at worst. Because it doesn't solve the problem.
I'm not always going to have a bodyguard. I can't rely on there always being some dude around to fix my problems and save the day. Because there's not. That's not even a post-breakup cynical stereotype thing - it's a reality. Sometimes, you might have someone nearby. Sometimes it'll be another girl, sometimes it'll be a guy, sometimes you'll be hanging out in a pack of people. But that fear doesn't go away. It lingers in the back of your mind, like a rank aftertaste, reminding you that you are small in a bad way, and that you have to stay on your guard, all the time.
What is there to be done?
I don't think the fear will ever go away. There are times when it is safer, but for the most part, my brain will always check exit routes, the blown street lamps, and where I'll be when the sun goes down. When I'm on the train, I'll scan for the solo seat, because there's no room for someone dangerous to sit nearby. Despite how I'd love to go walking at night outside by myself, I know that it'll nearly never be safe to do so in the city, so I won't. And I won't wear shoes I can't run in. I'll blend, as much as possible. Then, if they can't see me, I might be safer. It's a lie we tell ourselves. But it makes things easier.
When we were in school, the girls had restrictions placed on our attire. Rash shirts or one-pieces on swimming excursions. Board shorts, if you got 'em. No thin-strap singlet shirts, low-cut tops, or short shorts on mufti days or camps. They told us it was for sun safety (a valid thing in Australia), but in retrospect, the choice was rooted in the same decisions that controlled our skirt length. I understand that the decision might have been made for our safety, but I don't think they protected us from danger all that much.
So what can be done?
I'll never stop being guarded. But making the in-between spaces safer for the vulnerable can be met from both sides.
I'm sharing this, so that the folk who've never had to consider what it might be like to feel the fear, to understand that it's there. That it doesn't go away, ever.
I'm sharing this because I want to teach the kids growing up now that people are to be respected and valued. That we're not just a collection of body parts for the amusement and use of each other. I want for us to raise a generation of protectors. And for them to raise a generation of protectors. But I'll teach kids how to be safe, too. Because I know that even if I taught every kid I met to look after other people, I know that I'd miss plenty who've grown up with the mindset that it's okay to use people. And I know that sin depraves the best of us to the lowest level.
In the meantime, I think it's okay for us to have well-rounded, female characters in our fiction - in case you were wondering about that still. I might have worked out where to park my car for my new job that isn't halfway down some nothing road with no lights, but there will be other car parks to navigate. There will be other train carriages to assess. There will be more creeps. And this will be true for others for a long time. So I think it's important for women to feel like they're allowed to be brave and powerful too. Because feeling vulnerable and powerless in a situation where you're so aware of it sucks.