Last year, within the span of three weeks, three of my female friends were attacked by men.
First I saw a Facebook post from a girl I went to high school with, describing how she had been pulled off a main road as she walked home from lunch. In an alleyway behind a shop, a man whose face she didn’t see shoved her to the ground and attempted to rip off her tights. She screamed and kicked and ran away, her legs covered in fingernail scratches.
A week later, a friend messaged me detailing how her boyfriend had tackled her in the bathroom of the home they shared, apropos of nothing, and tore out clumps of her hair in a violent rage. She escaped in to the kitchen, terrified, and called the police from the same phone he had called to ask her on their first date.
Only a few days after that, I was in a nightclub when a tall, stocky man appeared next to me out of the blue and made eye contact with a woman I was speaking to before throwing her to the ground. Muttering under his breath, he walked away. She had never seen him before and has never seen him since.
The experiences my friends have had, and I have had, with men are tame compared to many others. Each of us is still here, able to walk and talk and live our lives exactly how we did prior to these encounters. Slightly more fearful and more suspicious sometimes; but unlike many other women, we are at least alive to tell the tales.
When a man commits a violent crime against a woman, the popular response from media and law enforcement is to recommend that we ‘be careful’. Whenever another woman is killed – wherever she is killed – we are asked to be careful lest we find ourselves in the same situation.
We have to be careful walking to work, because Renae Lau was murdered on her way to work. We also have to be careful walking home from work, because Prabha Arun Kumar was on her way home when she was stabbed to death. In case you think driving is any safer, remember that Jackie Ohide and Dianne Chi were found dead in their cars and Rinabel Tiglo Blackmore died as she tried to escape from hers. Even once you get to work, you’re not guaranteed safety. Ting Fang was murdered as she worked and Stephanie Scott went missing from her workplace just last week. Strolling through a park, like seventeen-year-old Masa Vukotic? Bushwalking, as Kerry Lyn Michael did with her husband, before he bashed her to death? Look out. Even the home isn’t safe – in fact, it’s fast becoming the most dangerous place for a woman to be. Mai Mach, Salwa Haydar, June Wallis, Sabah Al Mdwali, Angela MacKinnon, Kris-Deann Sharpley, Tara Costigan, Ainur Ismagul, Traci O’Sullivan, Adelle Collins, Fabiana Palhares, Renee Carter, and Nikita Chawla all died in their homes; murdered by the men they lived with or loved.
In total, thirty women have died violent deaths this year at the hands of men. It’s April.
Tips on how to stay safe have arrived thick and fast, with suggestions ranging from the sensible (“Check the credentials of tradespeople,” from Victoria Police) to the absurd (“Invent an imaginary male housemate,” also from Victoria Police). None of these are new, of course – most women have heard things like this since the days when our mothers asked us to be careful going out at night and told our brothers to simply ‘have fun’.
I’m not the first woman to stand up and say that I’m sick of it – sick of being told to only wear one earbud or a fake wedding ring or flat shoes so I can run away from someone if I have to. But it’s a common misconception that women are refusing to do these things simply on principle: that we don’t want to be othered and corraled off in to a separate group reliant on safety tips to survive, we just want to be treated as regular people. Of course we do want to be treated as regular people – that’s indisputable. But these tricks to survival are doled out to us as though they’re things we’ve never heard of before, as if a lightbulb will suddenly appear over our head that will save our lives. That’s not the case. We don’t want to hear these things any more, not because we don’t want to change our behaviour but because we already have. Every woman I know takes a hundred steps a day to keep herself alive, and more. ‘How to stay safe’ isn’t even offensive now, it’s simply redundant.
— Kon Karapanagiotidis (@Kon__K) April 12, 2015
Women have an inbuilt suspicion of dark alleyways, of empty train stations, of parks at nighttime. I can’t think of a female friend who doesn’t automatically check the cab driver’s identification number, or look for a seat on the bus next to another female instead of a strange man. Equally I think every one of my girl friends has, at some point, asked me to text them when I get home from the bar or the party, ‘just in case’. I’ve done the same for them, of course. Women are experts at this stuff: lifehacks for not winding up dead. We watch drinks for strangers in nightclubs and pretend to be friends with women we’ve never met when we see men harass them on the street. We do all of this not because it’s recent knowledge, but because it’s habit.
Suggesting we don’t answer the door to a stranger or walk down a dark street is like suggesting that we cook chicken before we eat it or we don’t touch exposed electrical wires: we don’t need to be told. We already do it. It’s not ‘common sense’, it’s survival instinct. Disturbingly, anecdotal evidence suggests most women are far ahead of these simple tips – we have more complex strategies and plans. We text the addresses of one-night stands to our friends and keep license plate numbers in our phones not because these things are going to save our lives, but because they lay a solid trail of evidence in case we are killed. We don’t just think about how to save our lives, but how to document our deaths.
All of this still isn’t enough, though. One in five Australian women has experienced sexual violence and one in three has experienced physical violence. We all know these statistics by now, well enough to look around our homes or offices or gyms and know that out of three women we look at, one of them has likely been in the kind of situation that we think can be avoided by wearing a one-piece swimsuit under her clothing.
Men have been attacking and killing women since before the invention of high heeled shoes, of nightclubs, of taxi cabs; and it’s highly unlikely that they’ll stop if we simply opt-out of these modern conveniences. I would love to finish this by presenting my idea to stop violence against women – I wish I could say that I’m sure men would stop attacking us if we followed some magic instructions. But I can’t say that. Everything that we could possibly try, we have. Everything we can do, we have done.
And yet women are still murdered, raped, and assaulted in their streets, parks, workplaces, and homes. When I open the news to see yet another story detailing a missing woman, I check the photo to make sure she’s not someone I know.
Only then does my fear turn in to fury, which eventually fades down to sadness and exhaustion. I don’t know what to tell my female friends, if anything, to keep them safe. I don’t know what to tell myself. I don’t know what else we can do. Because we are, genuinely, doing everything that we can.
In writing this I referred to the ‘Counting Dead Women’ project kept by Destroy the Joint. It is accessible here, and is an extremely valuable resource. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can ring the Domestic Violence Line for help on 1800 656 463.