By Krystal Lambert
Tragically, Mollie Tibbetts is a name we are all too familiar with by now. The 20-year-old
University of Iowa student disappeared on July 18th, 2018 while out on a run near her home. The man who later confessed to her murder when questioned by police, admitted that he had been following her while she was jogging and became angry when she threatened to call 911. Mollie’s death really resonated with female runners, as you can see from the #MilesforMollie hashtag trending on twitter. This story sends a chill down the collective spine of women everywhere, because it is all too real and common. Every single time we step foot outside our doors, we are keenly aware, if not subconsciously aware, that we are in danger.
We are socialised from a young age to fear strange men, to avoid talking to strangers, to have a plan in place if a strange man approaches you. When I was a little girl I remember being terrified of strange men and that fear has only grown with age. I wrote an article called The Psychology of Catcalling/Street Harassment a year or so ago which you can find here. That article is even more relevant to me now, as I still had a car at the time I wrote it. For the last year and a half, I have been walking literally everywhere. I didn’t realize when I chose to sell my car (thanks Capitalism) how long I would be without one, and how many dangerous situations I would find myself in while on foot.
I have always loved walking and I was genuinely excited to incorporate more walking into my daily life. Walking is my meditation, my alone time, my exercise and my method of transportation. Friends offer me rides often and most of the time I turn them down if the weather is nice enough. Zoning out to music or podcasts or audiobooks or listening to NPR, and being outside in nature are like a perfect anti-depressant for me. In fact, as someone who deals with seasonal depression every winter, I discovered last year that if I bundle up well enough and go for a walk, my mood improves dramatically. As of right now, I walk an hour and 20 minutes to work every single day. Aside from knowing at any moment I could get raped or murdered, you could say walking is my shit.
In the last year or so that I have been walking as a primary mode of transportation, the realization of just how unsafe I am walking alone has been astounding. I mean I always knew that if I was out and about walking alone I was bound to experience some cat calling and whatnot. Something about the sheer volume of harassment I have experienced in the last year shook me up. You start to realize, “Oh, this happens literally all the time.” Every single day, at all hours and locations. There is a nonstop epidemic of street harassment and violence happening to women everywhere, all the time.
“We have to start in schools with boys, with young men and really work on redefining masculinity. It’s a harder ask – it’s much easier to tell women to not go running by themselves than to tell men to not harass them,” said Kimberly Fairchild, an associate professor of psychology at Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York.
She says street harassment harms women on a psychological level too.
“Men use street harassment to assert power and enforce gender boundaries,” she said. “I think the #MeToo movement has helped to expose how universal the problems of harassment and assault are, but more work is needed to elaborate on the consequences and effects of harassment. From a social psychological perspective, street harassment is about power and privilege.”
The most mild and seemingly “harmless” form of harassment is honking. I average around 3-4 honks a day. It often happens right as they pass me and scares the shit out of me. It is a silly and lazy attempt at a power grab. The guy (it’s literally never not a guy) is asserting his “right” to ogle me and make sure I’m aware that he sees me. I think they must teach this in Caveman 101. “THAT IS WOMAN MUST HONK: A Novella.” Honking at random women just because you can is a microaggression and serves no purpose other than casually reminding women they aren’t allowed to exist without a loud, annoying acknowledgement from a man.
The level up here is the old, “Do you need a ride, Miss?” What wondrous chivalry, an offer of a ride in a creepy van with a stranger. I get ride offers from strange men AT LEAST ONCE A DAY. This fact, when you think about it, is truly terrifying. I’ve had as many as six offers for rides in one day. To think there are this many predators roaming the streets searching for prey at any given time…
How do I know these men are predators and not just being nice? I have a few clues. How often does a man walking get offered a ride? I have literally never witnessed this in all my walking, nor heard from a man that he gets offered rides by strange men all the time. Another clue is my attire. I’m usually in weather appropriate active wear, running shoes, headphones and sunglasses on. Why would a man feel compelled to offer a ride to someone who is clearly hella prepared to be walking, walking intentionally, and in no need of assistance? The simple answer is, I have a target on my back. I am a woman walking alone, I am easy and vulnerable prey. The most obvious clue that men are not offering women rides out of a pure and noble heart, is that they often get pissed off when you refuse. They speed off angrily, sometimes belting out a nice throaty “BITCH!” which only reinforces that you did the right thing by ignoring them.
The final and most jarring form of street harassment I experience on a regular basis is the face-to-face encounters with men. The sense of dread I feel when approaching a gas station, knowing there is a 90% chance some random man will say or do some creepy shit. Knowing I’ll be safer if I smile and acknowledge him than if I choose to ignore him. That moment when I see a man walking towards me so I cross the street, and he crosses it too. Y’all would not believe how many times I have played chicken across a four-lane busy street, trying to get away from a man who is clearly intending to chase or follow me. I don’t live in New York or LA or anything remotely close to a big city. I live in Joplin, a smallish town with one mall and one Target. As far as city scale goes, I feel that one Target is pretty indicative of the size of Joplin. In regards to street harassment, no town is too small or too safe.
A few weeks ago I was walking alone on The Frisco Trail, a wooded trail frequented by walkers, runners, bicyclists, and puppers alike. It was around noon and I was headed to work. I saw a man approaching me ahead, wearing a suit and holding a fancy camera. I thought it odd that he was dressed so formally, but figured he must be some kind of fancy photographer. He stopped me under the guise of asking for directions, which confused me since if you somehow managed to get to the middle of the Frisco Trail you must know how you got there. Against my intuition, I took out my headphones and explained the closest major street the trail comes out on. He then stepped closer to me and reached out to touch my arm. “Can I walk with you?” he said, and I immediately recoiled. I said “No you can’t” as firmly as possible and began speed walking on. He followed me for around 30 minutes, which made no sense because it was the opposite direction of where he had parked. I realized then that it was all a coup. The suit, the camera, the “Help me I’m lost” bit. During that time my heart was in my throat, I started to call 911 multiple times and then stopped myself because I realized I had no way of pinpointing my location. I was speed-walking on a trail in the woods, by the time the cops got there and walked down the trail to find me, I’d be out the other side.
As I reached the end of the trail I glanced behind me and the man had disappeared. It has occurred to me that maybe men don’t realize what a threat to women they are. Maybe it hasn’t occurred to them that approaching a woman while she is walking alone is inappropriate. To this I must conclude they should know better, and if they don’t they are part of the problem. You don’t have to be a cold-blooded killer to be a predator or misogynist. Just a simple honk or hoot as you pass a woman on the street is indicative of predatory/rapey behavior. In fact I think the venn diagram of men who catcall and men who rape would be pretty fucking singular.
I have many many stories like this. Most women do. So many stories that we could post about them multiple times a day, but we don’t because it is so constant and exhausting. Recently, I’ve taken to carrying a hammer for protection when I walk. A FUCKING HAMMER you guys. It is spray painted gold, an iconic weapon for the iconic super villian I imagine myself to be. Call me Killary, I came to crack skulls. In truth, the hammer doesn’t make me feel much safer because the thought of having to use it makes me ill. I don’t have a violent bone in my body and as much as I’m tryna star in Kill Bill Vol III it’s just not me.
I keep hearing that men are scared of women these days. Scared of being accused of sexual harassment, of rape, scared of their “innocent intentions” being construed as inappropriate. All I can do is hope and pray men continue to be afraid of us. I hope their fear increases tenfold, because the fear of being accused of something is nowhere close to the fear of being in actual physical danger. May you all shake in your boots at the sight of a woman. We’ve been doing this precarious dance of staying alive for centuries and it’s time men sat the fuck down and let women live.