One week ago, the world celebrated International Women’s Day. It was also a day that folks around the globe mourned the death of Sarah Everard, a young woman in the UK who was killed while walking home.
Everard’s death brought forth a rush of anger — rightfully so — and discussion about how the daily activities of women are so often dictated by their need to take measures to avoid dangerous situations that might be incomprehensible to men. Like faking phone calls, or texting friends that you got home safe, or walking around with keys between your fingers. Or taking a longer, more crowded route home to avoid someone on the train who wouldn’t stop staring, or looking over your shoulder after every turn, or making sure you are capable of running (actually running) in heels. Or not wearing headphones when outside so you can hear if someone is approaching. Or crossing a street to see if the creepy person behind is still following. Or asking your rideshare to drop you off at your “fake” house so they don’t know where you really live.
Why take these sometime extreme measures? In a 2018 survey, 81% of women said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault. And the onus often ends up back on women to prevent the situation from happening.
Let’s talk about what that meant Saturday when going out to watch Ohio State basketball in the semi-finals of the Big Ten Tournament.
I was going to watch the game with my husband and some friends at a local bar. First things first, I made sure my phone was charged in case I got separated from the group — not because I was planning on texting with a bunch of folks or sharing stories to the ol’ Instagram, but so I could make an emergency call or request an Uber if need be (and then be able to share my ride with my emergency contacts).
We were heading to the driving range before the bar. Before leaving the house, I had to put thought — actual thought — into if the workout pants I was wearing would garner unwanted attention at the bar.
I also had to consider what to do about my wedding ring, since I normally don’t wear it to golf. I wanted to have an artifact at the bar to let people know I am, in fact, married, since saying so to lurkers often isn’t enough to get them to back off.
Upon arrival at the bar, I made a point to make eye contact with the bouncer. I nodded at him, and held eye contact until he nodded back at me. I thanked him for checking IDs. I wanted him to remember me and who I’d come in with.
I felt extremely safe once we had sat down. COVID restrictions meant the place wasn’t too crowded. Tables were spaced far apart and the wait staff was responsible for bringing drinks rather than heading to the bar. Plus, I’d asked for the TV directly in my line of sight to be changed to the Ohio State game so I never had to turn my eyes away from my drink.
Even so, I still worried when I watched our young waitress manage a young man who approached and whispered a little too close about his drink order. I felt much better when the person and his group left.
After a big win for the Buckeyes, my group left uneventfully. On the subsequent walk, I ensured I wasn’t at the back of the pack, and kept my head on a swivel to make sure the other women in the group were still all together.
To be clear, this was what I would consider a great experience as a woman out on the town. It was daytime. Folks weren’t too rowdy. I was never alone. A waitress was bringing me my food and drink so I didn’t need to worry about it being spiked. My phone was fully charged.
Things aren’t always so straightforward.
Please indulge a short list of some of the more alarming experiences I have had while out and about:
- While sitting at a bar during an afternoon football game, a group of men crowded around my chair and jostled me. They referenced their wives’ genitalia, and tried to get me to join the conversation. At one point, one of the men told me he had “white pubic hairs older than you are.”
- I’ve waited in a bathroom for more than 15 minutes before to make sure a guy who I thought was following me left the bar.
- One time two men asked to buy me a drink. When I said no thanks, I’m married (as if I need to have an excuse), they insisted on seeing the ring, and attempted to hold my hand to examine it more closely.
- For some reason, a lot of folks find it acceptable to treat women’s bodies like a railing or chair back, holding waists and shoulders as they nudge by.
When these events happened, they set off my alarm bells. Every time, I wanted to scream. I wanted to be out of the situation, but the world tells me to not be overdramatic. No, society tells me to chill out, to not make a scene. And yet, when these things happen, I wonder if I’ll be able to make it home safely. Margaret Atwood once said “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
The reality is that I’ve had to artificially limit my behavior in ways that I’m confident men don’t have to. As we emerge from COVID, and the world slowly reopens, these realities come back with full and terrifying force. Because it’s not just the occasion when women go out to watch sports - it’s the precautions we have to take every time we go to a bar; every time we go for a walk; every time we leave for work or to go back home.
Often it seems that when women express the sentiment that they don’t feel safe, the bigger issue gets lost, and the onus for fixing it gets put back on those bringing it up. “You should take a different route home,” or “why would you walk home by yourself at night?” or “you shouldn’t wear that if you don’t want attention.”
Every woman has been told she can’t do things because, while the rest of the world understands the danger, it’s easier to limit a woman’s freedom than to get at the source of the issue. It’s easier to say “if you do the right things, you’ll probably be okay.” And yet, as we saw with Sarah Everard, doing the “right thing” wasn’t enough to keep her safe.
So this weekend, when you’re out and about watching the opening round games (hopefully safely socially distanced), take a moment to be grateful if you have the luxury of safety — of taking as a given that you’ll end up home safely. Because it’s not a feeling many can share.