Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Reason We Are Afraid at Night

Hello blog world. I know we barely know each other at this point, but I’d like to talk to you about something that I’ve been thinking about.

All of my roommates left town to do various things in other places, and I was left to run the house. The only living things nearby were my cat, my guinea pigs, my roommate’s suckerfish, and my dying tulips. With all this quiet my mind started to race. I began to create elaborate nightmarish scenes in my head. Every creak was someone tip-toeing through the dark; every bang was someone breaking in. Paranoia may have got the best of me, but I seem to find that this happens in basically any situation where I am alone and in the dark. I know this is not unique to me, either. Many of my female friends have noted the same responses. So, I’d like to talk about what I think this means for me as a female and what it means for us as a whole.

Is the fact that I’m afraid to be alone at night something that is just a part of who I am, or has this fear been instilled in me by society?

One side of the discussion says that, yes, it is just a result of who I am. I am a small girl; there’s no denying that. You see me, and your first thought is this girl couldn’t withstand even a mild gust of wind, let alone any sort of attack or physical situation that she may get herself into. So, it is possible that a lot of my fear stems from this obvious size situation. I am fearful because I can’t face what might be out there.

But then there’s the other side of the discussion that says a large portion of my fear is a result of society telling me that it is not only acceptable, but it’s expected for females to be fearful for their lives. This can be seen in the discourse around rape. When public organizations and groups, like universities, try to be more conscious about the outstanding rape statistics, they often implement programs to protect females from would-be attackers at night when they are alone. The types of programs implemented on my own undergraduate campus included escorts and the “blue light system.” Both of these are great buffers to the rape prevention discussion, but they fail to enact any true change in numbers. When looking at the statistics, 43% of attacks occur between 6 pm and midnight, but roughly 80-86% of all sexual assaults/rapes are committed by someone the survivor knows. Both measures, the escorts and the blue lights, are trying to prevent stranger rapes, but seeing as females are far more likely to be raped by someone they are acquainted with, both measures are missing their mark in the bigger picture.

I don’t want you to think I am trying to discount primary prevention of rape through these types of programs. Many females feel safer knowing that they have access to the police with just one button at the blue lights, and they also feel safer knowing they have police escorts to walk them home. That is great; feeling safe is an essential part of living. But this rhetoric about making females feel safer is in itself eliciting fear. To feel safer, we must first feel unsafe. As a whole, society tells females that we are constantly at risk of becoming victims. If this weren’t true, females wouldn’t be afraid to go out after dark alone and wouldn’t carry pepper spray to evade would-be attackers. Don’t get me wrong, not all females are afraid and a lot of females are fully capable of handling themselves in a sticky situation, but that’s exactly why we must fight this fear campaign that is being thrust on us. It is unreasonable for females to accept that we just should be afraid because we are females.

The best way to prevent sexual assaults/rapes is to educate people. By spreading information that is at most only partly true, the facts are being missed. As a society, we can’t target females and tell them they need to protect themselves from rapists. We need to be educating all people about the statistics (like 1 in 4 college aged females will be raped; 52% of rapists are white) so we can dispel the myths about rape. We also need to be focusing more of our efforts on preventing males from becoming rapists, rather than preventing females from being raped. There are some programs started, like Men Can Stop Rape, that are working exclusively on this.

As a female, I don’t want to go to a party and be afraid to drink because I’m not sure if that cute guy standing in the corner flirting with me is going to hold me down in the middle of the night and rape me since he thinks my lack of a “no” is essentially a “yes,” even though I am intoxicated and can’t give consent. I don’t want to be afraid at all; hence one of my resolutions this year is “no fear.” This seemed easy when I forced myself to apply to positions that I would have never applied to before, and it seemed easy when I made conversations with strangers in public places. It isn’t so easy, though, when combating society’s insistent need to tell me to be afraid of being a female.

I find myself afraid when I’m in the dark alone, but every time I feel that fear, I make sure I acknowledge what that fear stems from. In understanding why I feel the way I do I can begin to move to a happier and fearless life where I can walk wherever I want whenever I want. I can also begin to alert other females to this fear campaign against us and teach men how to be proactive in not making us fearful in the first place.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on this in the comments. Also, most of the links are location specific, but a simple Google search can tell you more about your specific campus, state, country, etc.


  1. You make a good point in your observation that being afraid is born from being told you should be--you can't protect someone without first convincing them they need to be protected. It's similar, I think, to the conception that "survivor" is a negative term when used to describe those who have gone through some horrible ordeal--every time you call them a survivor you remind them that they were first a victim.

    I'm a woman, and I went to the same school as you, and I never felt remotely unsafe walking around campus after dark, even when I was completely alone. The most I was ever scared of then were silly things like ghosts because I would remember ghost stories I'd read as a kid--the thought of a rapist instead of something like that never crossed my mind. It had nothing to do with blue lights or escorts, I just always felt I'd be able to defend myself. It had nothing to do with strength or size or anything like that--I just thought a sort of survivor instinct would kick in if it had to. I felt less safe going to bars or parties--not because I was afraid of losing control myself by drinking, but because I was afraid of the others who were. I hated being around people bigger and stronger than me who were losing control of themselves, because someone who's perfectly polite sober . . . well, you never know who someone'll be when alcohol is involved. I always made it a point to never be alone with someone I didn't know extremely well when they were intoxicated.

    You're right in suggesting that society sort of misses the point on that one. All the effort is made to make women feel safe alone, in the dark, in the open, but little is done to make anyone feel safe surrounded by people in a bar or at a party or whatever. It's an interesting conundrum.

    I think, though, that while one could argue that pretty much all things are somehow socially dictated in our modern lives, there would still be a level of fear because there's the human factor to consider. Rape would still exist because even if society didn't tell us about it, someone somewhere would come up with the idea, as sick as it is, to perpetrate it as a crime. Of course, assuming that a man invented the crime against a woman, one could argue that that might not have been the case if society and history hadn't consistently billed women as the weaker, more subordinate sex.

    What has always bothered me is the assumption that it has to be men who protect women. I have nothing against the concept of chivalry, and I would be lying if I said I didn't totally love it when my fiance got all protective of me and stuff like that. But it doesn't HAVE to be that way. I had friends in college (people I think you know) who were a couple. And the rule was that if people were at their place at night, and a girl who was visiting was walking home, the male half of this couple had to walk with her in order to protect her. Now, I'm sorry, but looking at this particular male, my thought was always, "I'd be the one defending him from a rapist if it came to that, because I'm bigger, stronger, and probably braver." I have nothing against him personally, but I thought that assumption was ridiculous--sure he's kinda wimpy but he's got a penis so it'll be OK. I never liked that.

    Sorry for rambling. But thank you for making me think. :)

  2. Insightful as always Skye. Being a guy, I forget how fortunate I am to not have to live in that kind of fear for my own personal safety. It is a social issue that needs addressing.

    Changing the public's view on gender roles and empowering women doesn't happen overnight, and our society today tends to worry about other issues (many of which are so insignificant in comparison). Guys need to step up and lead by example rather than go and 'be guys' like society dictates to us.

    Keep them coming Skye. Glad to see you blogging again, I love reading your stuff!