Having a relatively busy nightlife, I’m often travelling home alone at night, usually by bike. This involves a decision between taking busy roads, or quiet local streets and parks. Usually I opt for the quiet streets, figuring that statistically speaking, getting hit by a car is more likely than being attacked by a stranger. Also, I’ve often thought that the busy streets are just as dangerous because if you think about it, waiting in a deserted park in the off chance someone will come along probably isn’t the most efficient way to cause trouble.
I’ll never give up my right to get home independently late at night. But I have to admit that a lot of the time I don’t enjoy it. I see shadows moving in the corner of my eyes and visualise people jumping out at me. My heart starts thumping and I ride fast, reluctant to slow down even at intersections.* If I’ve got headphones in, I started getting worried about not being able to hear the sounds around me, and whatever music is playing seems foreboding. But if I take them out, I start to get freaked out by ordinary night-time noises.
It seems unhealthy when you break it down, but for me this state of mind’s become quite normalised, just something that often happens when I try to get home alone. This not to say that the factors underlying it, whether the risk or my own perhaps excessive paranoia, are acceptable, but at the same time I don’t expect either of those things to disappear any time soon. There’s only a tiny risk** (and anyway, there are risks associated with every activity), but for me there’s a lot of horror attached to that risk. I also suspect the fear is also reinforced by some kind of cultural paranoia, but I need to think about that a bit more.
Although I do think the risk of being assaulted by strangers is probably greater than statistics suggest. I’ve been harassed but, at least not in Australia, never been in a position where I felt my safety was actually at risk. The worst that has happened is probably groups of guys physically stopping my bike, and that’s happened a few times, but they’ve always disappeared when I told them to fuck off, and in the end what disturbs me about it the most is that they think it’s acceptable. But often when I’ve had this conversation with friends, they’ve told me a story involving more menacing behaviour or even assault, and usually they didn’t report it.
Jill Meagher’s death was very close. She was my age and it was bizarre how much she looked like me or my friends. Just demographic similarities, I guess, but that didn’t have anything to do with the way I experienced it. The spot where she was taken is about five minutes walk from my house, and I go to Bar Etiquette all the time, in fact had been there on both the Thursday and the Saturday night.*** I kept thinking about how those last few moments, the subject of so much media attention, actually bore no relationship to her rest of her life, and how it was just awful that they would be seen as part of her narrative at all.
I devoured every media story while at the same time feeling increasingly sick in the stomach, disgusted at the media and at myself for being addicted to it. Some of the media coverage – particularly in the Herald Sun – had the feel of a feeding frenzy: feeding off the community (my!) fear and morbid curiosity, and feeding it too. I do believe that genuine concern for a fellow human being, including among journalists, some of whom must have known her, was there, but it seemed to me that these things were all mixed up. One piece, Herald Sun I think, ended something like ‘who knows what twist in the tale tomorrow will bring?’ as if the Jill’s disappearance were a murder mystery.
There was also the victim blaming, including the Herald Sun’s snide ‘review’ of the now apparently mean streets of Brunswick (‘It’s [sic] looks more like a 20-something’s living room than a stylish nightspot but is perfectly suited to the young inner-city types sipping on their boutique beers’). This was an incredibly disrespectful and cruel piece: what, was Jill meant to get a taxi 100 metres to her home and then get her husband to meet her at the door? She wasn’t doing anything that me and many of my friends haven’t done 100 times.
I did change my ways in few weeks following what happened, catching taxis instead of the tram and going home earlier than usual so I wouldn’t have to travel on deserted streets. I was annoyed at myself because I knew the risk hadn’t changed, but my mind was just in the grip of horror, so I decided not to push it.
There’s this backstreet route I take home between Carlton and Coburg, the ‘Brunswick Shimmy’, which involves cutting through a park. When I first moved to the area, I found it hard to go through that park, but after a while it felt like a familiar, safe space (irrational assumptions operating there). After Jill was killed, I couldn’t take that route for a while, then I would go most of the way but detour onto the Nicholson Street footpath instead of the park, which actually didn’t feel that much safer; I just kept thinking about how all the people in cars were looking at me.
I was even getting a bit scared at home – it didn’t help that my friend had recently had her house broken into and her door broken down. One night I was home alone and my imagination just got carried away – possums are very noisy – so I rang a friend overseas who was really extremely worried and sorry that she hadn’t called – she’d heard about what happened but didn’t realise it was in my neighbourhood. The conversation ended with her telling me not to take unnecessary risks, which was upsetting because I was scared enough already and needed reassurance to go back to my old ways.
After it happened I tried to think about where I’d been that night, and then realised I’d chosen to ride to my friend’s house along Merri Creek. This was clearly an unnecessary risk by my friend’s, as the bike routes along to my friend’s house are quite good. I was just feeling a bit delicate and thought it’d be great not to share space with cars at all, while at the same time avoiding catching public transport. But as soon as I descended onto the dark, narrow path, completely deserted and surrounded by bushes, I realised I had overextended myself and the heart started thudding. At the same time I had this irrational notion that turning back would attract bad luck, like it would in a horror movie. So I just ripped along that path until I got to the end, and pity any poor person who’d got in my way.
I was trying to work out why I’d chosen to ride along the Merri, and then I realised a few little stories that had been bearing on my mind and perhaps putting pressure on me to go beyond my comfort zone. Firstly, at a party a few weeks ago, I’d quite admired an older sister of my friends when she’d insisted on riding home along the Merri to her house. It was almost embarrassing to see my male friend persist in his offer to drive her home: it was clear she wasn’t going to change her mind. She pointed out that if you’ve got your lights on bright enough, how would anyone know if you were a man or woman (assuming that they’re targeting women).
The Merri is one of the only safe (from cars) bike routes I knew in that area, so I decided to follow her example on the way home. But when I got to the narrow bridge that leads down onto the river, there was a man coming the other way. I would have had to get off my bike to pass him, and I couldn’t do it. I rode halfway towards him and then lost my nerve and turned back. It was just light enough for me to see the confused expression on his face. Obviously it’s not all about him, and self-preservation is most important, but I felt that it was a sad thing that I wouldn’t ride past him, and perhaps unnecessary.
Secondly, a while ago I was bitching about how the man assaulting women along Merri Creek (who seems like a bit of a doofus given that the last women actually took a picture of him with his phone, but could still be dangerous), had made me feel unsafe riding alone there. And someone I knew, admittedly they were being pretty insensitive but still, told me that I should just toughen up, stop playing the victim, get my D-lock at the ready, learn self-defence etc and etc. I was pretty annoyed at them, but also genuinely reflected on whether I was in fact being a pathetic, and I should just turn into hardcore woman. But I just don’t want to even get in the situation where I need to use those skills.
I think there needs to be some kind of balance between the pressure to be some kind of tough woman, and then staying within your own psychological comfort zone and not feeling guilty about that. I hope that women can support each other, and that men can support women too, in striking the right balance between being independent and doing what they feel comfortable with, as trying to recognise and confront the factors that make you feel unsafe at all. I’m think our society’s still experiencing the hangover from when women were the property of men, we’ve come a long way very quickly but it’s absolutely unrealistic to expect that misogynistic attitudes have been eradicated. I believe that what happened to Jill was a particularly egregious example of a way of thinking that is embedded within our society. For me, hatred of women, and desire to dominate and humiliate them, are very difficult to understand. That doesn’t mean they can’t be understood of course; I believe the ‘unknowability of evil’ is probably a myth – it’s just that we can’t stand to turn our minds to those dark places.
Talking about Jill Meagher’s death, Susie O’Brien in The Herald Sun wrote about how she’d caught a tram home late at night, and walked 700 metres home, as if that was the most risky thing ever:
‘I thought I was being smart when I jumped on a tram just after midnight. Then I got off near my house and realised this meant I had to walk about 700 metres from the tram stop home. It was late, it was dark and I’d had a few drinks. No one was around. If anything had happened, I wouldn’t have had a chance. At 50kg and 155cm tall, I would easily be overpowered by a strange man. My husband would have picked me up, but he was at home with the kids and I didn’t want to wake him. Looking back now, I realise I should have called him to come and get me. He was furious the next day that I had taken such a foolish risk.’
The article, well you can read it, is basically saying that what’s so disturbing about Jill Meagher’s death is that ‘she wasn’t doing anything wrong’:
‘There is an assumption women who get into trouble late at night are putting themselves in harm’s way because they make bad decisions. To be honest, it’s what I have often thought. They cut across a poorly lit field in a rough area to shave 10 minutes off their walk home. They flirt with men in dark, dangerous sleazy bars in the wee small hours. And they drink too much and make bad choices, like going home with dodgy blokes in the wee hours.’
O’Brien’s victim blaming of these women is sickening. And where does it leave our choices? You can get a taxi, but then there are dodgy taxi drivers too, and then you’re stuck in the car with them. You could get a car, but you still have to walk from the car park. The only solution seems to be to always have a husband/bodyguard with you, or if you’re single perhaps, stay home all the time. But even then, someone could break into your house and come into your bedroom. So nowhere’s safe then. So you may as well just to go on doing what you did before.
I’m feeling a lot more normal now, riding home on my normal route with only the faintest of queasiness, no longer pulling down the curtains in the living room at night, etc. We were at a bar in East Brunswick last week and a friend decided to head home. ‘Do you want me to walk you to the car?’ I offered, still not feeling 100% about people wandering around by themselves in dark places. But then I realised that that’s what I’d be doing straight afterwards, and I thought about how these kind of offers, while they are often welcomed, can actually make you feel more unsafe, and perhaps unjustifiably so, given that all what exists is a small risk that is pretty much present in all activities, and not just walking home at night. What are the implications for women’s independence if we all encourage each other not to go home alone? I changed my mind. ‘Actually, I can if you want, but I think you’ll be fine. Just text me when you get to your car.’
*I’ve often thought what an absolute indignity it would be to be hit by a car while you’re riding fast from fear of a much more unlikely possibility, and I try to make myself slow down.
**I also know that in about 3/4 of cases, violence against women is by someone they know, but I feel like nobody I know is going to do that, so it doesn’t make me fear for my safety.
***On Saturday, my friend and I walked past a whole bunch of police and we didn’t think anything of it. I was just thinking how much I hated the cops (which was admittedly a bit dumb and simplistic), when my friend said how they make her feel safe – someone had broken into her house, kicked down her door and come into her room while she was asleep. Luckily nothing happened, but it was traumatic, and she said the police were great in the aftermath.