Solo in the City: An Education in Fear

I haven’t posted in while and that’s because I was on vacation in New York City.

Be jealous.

This was my first time in New York. This was my first time travelling alone.

I won’t bore you with the details of my trip, but I had a fantastic time.  No music or podcasts, no social media or texts, I was on my own. Just me.  The ability to go where I wanted, when I wanted, was liberating.

Also, when you’re alone nobody can judge you for eating pizza every day.

I ate it all.

Before I left on my trip, I started to notice a pattern. I’d tell people about my plans, letting them know I was going solo. Most reactions were, “Oh that’s so fun, you’ve never been? You’re going to have a great time.” This was usually followed by recommendations for what to do in the city…. But then there would be further advice: “Be careful”, “Watch out.” One male friend relayed a cautionary tale about a female family member who had gone to New York and almost been forced into a van by a group of men, “Watch out for that.” Essentially his message was to watch out lest I be attacked, kidnapped, or sexually assaulted. Don’t get raped. I understand that these warnings from family and friends come from a legitimate place of concern for my well being, but I couldn’t help the nagging feeling that no one (or at least not as many people) would be saying this to me if I were a man travelling alone.

I started to get defensive. Particularly sarcastic and facetious, Oh… So…DON’T GET RAPED? Well, shucks I never thought about it that way…But I’m on vacation goddamn it! I already have to worry about figuring out the subway and THIS too! However will I manage to make it?

 

I started to take these comments as a little patronizing. I mean, I’m a woman already living and working in a big city who does a many number of things alone. At night even. Unaccompanied. The horror.

But when I actually thought about it, I realized how much this is actually on my radar. There is an education I’ve received based on the fact that I’m a biological female: Always be on guard. Don’t take drinks from strangers. Don’t walk alone through the park. Don’t wear certain clothing if you don’t want to be considered a slut, and therefore somehow more susceptible and deserving of an attack.

This is actually the way I move in the world. There are places I won’t walk alone after a certain time of night. If I’m at a bar have had drinks, I will most likely opt to take a cab home, not only for convenience, but for safety. If I do walk, especially at night and there is a man by himself walking behind me, I’ll use the reflection from storefront windows to see where he is. Often, I’ll slow down or stop, pretending to check something on my phone and let him pass me so I can keep on eye on him. I get nervous when a car slows down next to me. Then there’s the key trick–I’ll slip them between my fingers in the advent that a three inch key is going to save me from the attack that I have been warned will, statistcally speaking, come.

Stay back.

It’s a sad realization, but the truth is—I live a lot of my life in fear.

I didn’t always have this fear.

I grew up in a small town where we didn’t lock the front door, or even our cars. I would walk around town without the slightest notion that anyone would ever want to hurt me.

Then I grew up and moved to Toronto.

In my second year of university I was living just outside Moss Park. It’s a pretty rough area with quite a few homeless or under housed people. There were sex workers who were very friendly, but there were times where my roommates and I would encounter a man in a car attempting to pick us up. Occasionally, you would hear a popping sound in the distance followed by sirens that could have quite possibly been gunfire. But we weren’t scared.

There was one night where I was walking down Sherbourne after having gone on a date. I had just past Filmores, a particularly suspect strip club. It was the end of summer at about 2:45 in the morning. I was wearing a white sundress and had walked, for the most part, alone from Queens Quay. As I rounded the corner, a cab stopped next to me. The driver pulled down the window, “I’ll drive you home.” I responded that I didn’t have any money and I just lived around the corner, “That’s fine you don’t have to pay. You shouldn’t be walking here.” I accepted his offer and directed him to my house. He was almost angry with me. “Young girls like you shouldn’t be walking about all alone so late” he said. Before I stepped out the door he instructed me, “Next time, take a cab home.”

My education continued when several attacks were reported on the campus of my university, stories from friends about being followed or threatened, catcalls and sexually aggressive comments directed towards me on the street. Once I gave the finger to a group of men in a car who had called out, “I want to fuck you in the pussy” they threw a beer bottle out of the window that shattered at my feet. It’s quite an education, to learn that you’ll never be safe, just because of your biology and appearance.

The irony is, is that if a cab driver offered to drive me home for free now, I would probably be hesitant. I wouldn’t trust him.

Now I’m not the first person to point this out, but maybe if we conditioned men to you know, respect women as equals and escape this whole rape culture thing, I wouldn’t have to live with such fear. What would it look like if men were given the same kind of education when it came to not harassing maligning or disrespecting not just women, but other bodies and identities that have been deemed fair game for this kind of treatment?

When I say gender, you say equality!

I didn’t take a vacation from this fear. It’s something I carry with me. But I will say there was never a time on my vacation where I felt unsafe. I encountered some of the loveliest, nicest, kindest human beings. From strangers offering me directions, friendly hellos, interesting conversations, I felt nothing short of welcome in the Big Bad Apple, but I was still on guard.

 

 

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