We Will Not Surrender Our Freedom to Travel: Gender-based Terror and Tempting Fate
Last Friday, a male acquaintance of mine made the following comments on a Facebook thread in response to this article about Brandon Lavergne’s signed statement detailing the murder of Mickey Shunick:
Just don’t go places alone in the middle of the night!…
If my wife or one of my female friends told me they were planning to bike home alone at 2:30 AM, I would insist on giving her a ride. I would never blame a victim. My only aim is to prevent similar tragedies. It’s a sad fact, but the world is full of monsters. It’s not unfeminist to acknowledge reality. You can call my attitude paternalistic. I’d rather be perceived as paternalistic, though, than be a widower…
Wishing the world weren’t the way it is won’t make it so. Of course we should teach boys and men not to prey on women. But, sad to say, there never will be a time when men don’t prey on women. That might be cynical. I think, based on history, that it’s realistic. Taking an indignant stand against that fact isn’t heroic, it’s folly…
Being alone and exposed (I mean that as in on a bike, not as a reference to dress) in the middle of the night, no matter what neighborhood you’re in, makes you vulnerable and attracts predators.
Clearly, he means well, despite responding to the violent and disturbing details of an abduction and murder with the warning to other, still living women that it’s really simple to not get abducted and murdered – just don’t ride your bike late at night! Oh, okay. Thanks, well-intentioned male acquaintance.
Despite his good intentions, his arguments are highly problematic. Many men (and women) have made and will continue to make similar arguments. They will defend those arguments by saying they are interested in preventing these kinds of crimes. They will argue this is the only feasibly effective type of prevention, especially in discussing particular cases such as Mickey Shunick’s murder. In their opinion, the only way to prevent this type of crime is for us women to make “smarter” choices, seek protection from the plenitude of “good guys” in our lives, be “more careful,” and make ourselves “less vulnerable” and therefore less likely to “attract predators.” Others will label this as victim blaming, and they will resist that label. Focusing the conversation on what was wrong with the victim’s actions, to them, does not constitute victim blaming.
You’re expressing a firm national commitment that’s so important, that we will not surrender our freedom to travel, that we will not surrender our freedoms in America, that while you may think you have struck our soul, you haven’t touched it, that we are too strong a nation to be carried down by terrorist activity.
-President George W. Bush, speaking at O’Hare International Airport on September 27, 2001
When it comes to political terrorism in America, we are told to assert our freedoms and not let the terrorists win. By contrast, when it comes to gender-based terrorism in America, women are told just the opposite – to relinquish our freedoms and let the homegrown terrorists win. With this essay, I object to the problematic positions that support this unfair expectation – and hope to win some hearts and minds in the process.
“Tempting fate” is a necessary way of life for women and other vulnerable groups, and we are already more afraid and less free than you likely realize.
We women tempt fate every day of our lives, not through foolish and lackadaisical refusal to take simple precautions, but because by the very nature of our existence we tempt fate. We tempt fate by having, on average and due to our biology, physically weaker arm muscles than men. We tempt fate by having vaginas. We tempt fate by going to bed at night in our homes and by living as single women. We tempt fate by engaging in relationships. We tempt fate by becoming pregnant and having children. We tempt fate by leaving abusive relationships. We tempt fate by going out with friends. We tempt fate by engaging in healthy and unhealthy behaviors. We tempt fate by following and ignoring rules. We tempt fate by entering public spaces and living in private spaces. We tempt fate by running errands in broad daylight, as this recent abduction and rape in Baton Rouge reminded us.
But to call it tempting fate is to say that we’re asking for something bad to happen to us. Really, what we are doing is taking calculated risks in order to live our lives – always aware, on some level, that taking these risks may result in our death. We live with terrifyingly violent scenarios ingrained in our consciousness. We live with acute awareness of our vulnerability. We take precautions when doing things men don’t think twice about doing.
We are statistically more likely to be assaulted, raped, or murdered by someone we know or have an intimate relationship with than by someone we don’t know. Despite this, we are generally not taught how to recognize and address unhealthy or abusive behavior in intimate relationships, or how to assertively demand respect in relationships, but we are absolutely taught how to police our own behavior and to stifle our freedom and independence in order to protect ourselves from the stranger in the bushes, whom we are taught all our lives to fear.
The mythic image of the rapist as a masked man who hides in the bushes and waits to leap out and attack women continues to resonate powerfully, because while this image strikes fear in the hearts of millions of women and girls every day, it is also oddly reassuring—for both women and men. For women, it means that if they are smart and take the necessary precautions, they will drastically reduce their chances of being assaulted. For men, the image of the crazed rapist diverts the critical spotlight away from them…But the reality of sexual violence is much more complex than the mythology. Stranger rapes occur with alarming frequency, and can terrorize an entire populace—especially women. But they constitute only about 20 percent of cases. Most sexual violence happens between people who know each other…The perpetrators can be family members or friends of their victims. They are often ‘nice guys’ whom no one would suspect.
-Jackson Katz, The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help
While women live with constant awareness of vulnerability day in and day out, we also understand that it’s not statistically likely that any of us on any given day or night will be abducted/raped/murdered by one of these strangers in the bushes (a.k.a. monsters, a.k.a. sociopaths), even when we do decide to exercise some sort of liberty that men mostly take for granted (a.k.a. engaging in risky behavior that will later become the subject of critical conversation when this most awful of situations does come to fruition). We take risks sometimes. We go out alone. We come home late at night. On top of the precautions we must take against every other threat the world throws at us, we look over our shoulders, clutching mace, keys, and courage, as we travel from place to place with the stranger in the bushes on our mind.
For most of us, the stranger in the bushes never materializes. Years of taking risks to live a full life and not getting abducted or murdered conditions us to continue taking risks. We come to understand that the world is not “full of monsters,” though we are acutely aware it contains too many of them. We let go of exhausting, crippling fear out of rebellion or rationalization or necessity long enough to ride our bike home late at night with a still present but more manageable fear and awareness. Occasionally, the violent stranger finds us and does something awful to us, and maybe to make themselves feel better about the situation and to distinguish the victims from their more perfect loved ones, they say we should have known better. What did we think was going to happen?
Victim blaming is victim blaming.
Victim blaming is more than commenting on what a victim was wearing or saying she was “asking for it.” It includes focusing public attention and discourse on the actions of the victim rather than on those of the perpetrator. Any variation of “what did she expect to happen?” is absolutely an example of blaming the victim, no matter how pragmatic one’s motivation for asking the question.
Now, I have some better questions: why is it more worthwhile to ask why Mickey Shunick thought it acceptable to ride her bike at 2:30am than to ask why Brandon Scott Lavergne thought it was acceptable to smash his truck into Mickey’s bike, abduct, and murder her at 2:30am? Why is it considered more normal and worthy of less scrutiny that a man stalked, abducted, and murdered a woman at 2:30am than that a woman was riding her bike home at 2:30am? Where was his escort? Why wasn’t he taught from childhood to “tell a buddy” if having thoughts of abducting, sexually assaulting, and/or murdering women? Why didn’t his parents and society ingrain in him how to become “less vulnerable” to life imprisonment? Why does our culture, by the way we discuss and respond to these types of crimes, necessitate that women carry the primary burden of responsibility for preventing our own murders?
Because in the real world, where “monsters” exist, women exist, too. In this real world, women travel and work and have fun with friends and engage in relationships and run errands and enter public spaces and live in private spaces. It is unrealistic to expect us to always take “simple precautions” that are often quite inconvenient or even impossible. It is insulting when your only proposed solution is to tell us to be more afraid and less free than we already are in response to a reality manifested by violent men. It perpetuates gender inequality to expect women to rely on protection from “good guys” to survive attacks from “bad guys,” as if the difference between the two is that simple and easily recognizable. It perpetuates rape culture to deflect responsibility for male violence onto women. It perpetuates gender violence to assume that the public health impacts of so many men’s lack of empathy toward women cannot be better addressed. It perpetuates sexist stereotypes of men to assume that men cannot assertively hold other men accountable for the way they treat women, or that male violence is more a product of biology than a product of our culture.
Like someone once said, taking an indignant stand against these facts isn’t heroic, it’s folly.
Change is both possible and necessary.
Throughout much of our national history, many of the freedoms we currently possess as American women appeared to be completely out of reach. Yet we possess these freedoms now because visionaries believed they were possible and worked to create a new reality. This is why it is dangerous for anyone to make the pragmatic “world as it is” argument without envisioning and working for the world as it could be.
What we need is for women and their allies to envision a world where this kind of stalking, abuse, assault, and murder is an unacceptable, horrific aberration, and where women can truly be free or at least not be judged for exercising freedom. If on the one hand you say, “This is how your world is,” and on the other hand you say, “This is how your world will always be,” then even if you are not a perpetrator, you are identifying yourself as a perpetuator.
The last thing we need is for anyone to comment on the behaviors of victims of violence. You’re not saying anything helpful or new when you do that – we’ve heard it a million times before, as have the men who rape and/or murder us. Rather than perpetuating this reality, we respectfully request that you recognize and publicly acknowledge that change is both possible and necessary. Then join us in fighting for it. Because we’re here, we live in fear, and we’re not going to get used to it.
We will not surrender our freedom to travel.