Walking While Female.

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There’s been a hell of a lot of assaults on women at night in Melbourne making the news lately. Acquaintances I’ve spoken to in passing about the news ask why is such a deluge of assaults happening now? I would argue that they’ve been happening pretty frequently since the beginning of time but they’re only just making the news, more so since the brutal rape and murder of Melbourne woman by way of Ireland, Jill Meagher.

One Facebook status a friend sent me a screenshot of, which I found particularly ignorant, asked why women insist on walking at night in Melbourne. Um, because we’re human beings?! The status came from someone who lives in a small town where everyone has cars and it takes ten minutes to get everywhere. When my friend pointed out the implausibility of the status in the comments, she got the reply that if women must walk at night, to do so in groups.

As a person from said small town who doesn’t have a car and who now lives in the city, I can tell you that suggestions like these are just not viable. Taxis to get from one side of town to the other can cost you hundreds of dollars. Not everyone lives close to public transport and most likely have to walk to and from train stations and bus and tram stops. This is not to mention people who can’t afford taxis and public transport, people who use wheelchairs or other mobility assistance apparatuses (apparati?), the elderly, the homeless, etc.

None of my friends live in my area so it’s not like we can organise a buddy system of pick ups and drop offs. Melbourne is not a town where everyone congregates in one park or on one stretch of shopping mall; many people don’t walk for fun, but for necessity.

Some other helpful hints to protect young women are as follows: don’t walk your dog before or after work (it’s almost the dead of winter in Melbourne and daylight only exists from 8am to 5pm, the hours many people are away from their pets at work); if you must walk in the dark, make sure you have a dog with you; and don’t wear headphones when walking alone. These suggestions are, again, completely out of touch. Most pet-owners have to walk their animals; not everyone has a pet; and while I can acknowledge the argument against loud headphones limiting their use in this tech-obsessed society is pointless. And many women use headphones as armour regardless of whether they’re listening to anything through them. Sometimes I’ll have headphones on on public transport to avoid being spoken to by entitled men who must know what you’re reading or to remain alert in uncertain situations unbeknownst to others. (Someone recriminated me for not being alert whilst wearing headphones because they honked at me on the street but I “didn’t hear them”. Anyone who’s walked whilst also being a woman knows responding to honks on the street is “asking for trouble”, as so many people are wont to accuse us of.)

In the furor surrounding Jill Meagher’s murder and the seemingly random Brunswick and Yarravile attacks, as well as the attack on a schoolgirl in Glenferrie, we’re forgetting that people we know, trust or even live with are the most dangerous to us. Remember in the past few months the influx of intimate partner murders reported in the news?

Because men have perpetrated all of these attacks, maybe we should be telling men who match the description of said assailants to limit their nocturnal movements outside of their homes lest they attack an unassuming woman just going about her daily business. Now wouldn’t that be a controversial idea.

Related: Sexual Assault, Moral Panic & Jill Meagher.

Sexual Assault, Moral Panic & Jill Meagher.

For the past two weeks it seems as if Jill Meagher has been exclusively in the media. Then, since her funeral last Friday, her name has all but dropped out of the headlines, if not from our collective consciousness.

Her tragic disappearance, rape and death sure played on my mind after some colleagues talked about it not-stop a few days after Jill went missing and transferred their obsession with the case onto me.

As I wrote last week, tragedies like this that are hyped up by the media rarely affect me. Obviously there is something about Jill that has permeated our abovementioned collective consciousness, if the outpouring of grief, support for her family, flowers out the front of the store where some of her last moments were captured on CCTV and the 20,000 Melbournians who turned out to march for peace two weekends ago are any indication.

Jill’s murder was no doubt horrific and it’s heart-warming to see so many everymen affected by a woman they never knew. But since her killer was charged and her body was found and laid to rest, I’ve started to get a bitter taste in my mouth about all the hoopla surrounding Jill’s disappearance and death: what’s so remarkable about this situation that has everyone calling for safety on the streets?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for safe streets, but I resent the fact that it’s women who are being cautioned not to walk alone at night, to get a taxi or a friend to accompany you home.

Some of this “concern” was directed my way last weekend at a friend’s birthday not far from where Jill lived, partied and was abducted. I was asked by a friend to please not walk alone at night and, as the non-owner of a car who is often without money for a taxi, I responded that I don’t have that luxury. It’s decadent to catch a cab two streets from the train station to my house, and unless that friend is going to offer to chauffeur me around the city, I think I’ll take my chances. It doesn’t come naturally for me to live my life in fear, not to mention the fact that the chances of experiencing a violent crime the likes of which Jill did are extremely rare. My friend is more likely to be involved in a car accident than I am to be attacked while walking home.

Upon further thought, my male housemate, who is out late many nights per week at work, rehearsals for a play, jogging and being social, was also there when my friend expressed her misguided anxiety about my after dark activities yet not a peep was directed his way. For those alarmists who think that any female on the street post-sunset is doomed to the same fate as Jill, please be mindful that according to the Australian Institute of Criminology, non-sexual assault is the most common form of violent crime, more likely to be committed against men than women. Why are women the only ones who are deemed less safe after Jill’s death? And why is it our responsibility not to get attacked? Maybe we should be focussing our concentration on teaching boys (and even then, it’s not just men who rape and women who are raped) not to rape and on a better screening process for criminals who are likely to reoffend, as Jill’s murderer, Adrian Bayley, did.

And another thing: abduction, rape and murder were just as scary and real before Jill made the news as after. In fact, because her killer is now in custody, the streets could actually be deemed safer (no thanks to the legal system who knew of Bayley as a repeat sex- and violent crime-offender but he’s only off the streets now that someone’s dead). That’s part of the reason why the moral outrage this incident has incited rubs me the wrong way: how many abductions, rapes and murders (not so much in Australia for the former and latter, but definitely so for the second crime) happen on a daily basis that we don’t hear a peep about? Or if we do, it’s only after it’s too late. All of the horrible things that happened to Jill were in existence before she experienced them. What’s so unique about her case?

I think it’s because she’s the “perfect victim”, if you will. Young; beautiful; white; middle-class; a migrant. If Jill had’ve turned up alive after her sexual assault, I think we would have heard the whispers of victim-blaming that circulated in the early days of her disappearance become a lot louder. She was drunk. She was out too late. Her shoes were too high. What was she wearing? Why did she talk to/go with her attacker? Don’t you think it’s weird her husband wasn’t with her? (This is a direct quote I heard from several people specualting about her disappearance.) Why didn’t she insist someone walk her to her apartment only a couple of blocks away along a route she took frequently? But because Jill did meet a fatal end, she’s become a martyr for making our streets a safer place as opposed to just another slut who was asking for it.

A blog post about Jill and the subsequent Sydney Road peace march and Reclaim the Night rally still to come talked about how SlutWalk is a radical feminist phenomenon that’s got its heart in the right place in theory, but that the Jill rallies are much more palatable. These sentiments are echoed in some of the comments on the post, that SlutWalk isn’t right for them but marching for Jill is. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion (as is the catch cry of my concerned friend. Indeed, you are entitled to feel scared on the street at night if you so desire just as I am not to be.), but I don’t understand how taking a stand against victim-blaming, slut-shaming and rape culture isn’t “right for you”. But somehow a march to honour the memory of a woman we’ve only come to know in the tragic circumstances surrounding her death, without the clear objectives that SlutWalk, marriage equality marches and the banning of live exports rally over the weekend have. Did 20,000 people turn up to those?

In no way am I being a rape-apologist or trying to suggest that rape isn’t an increasing problem, both in practice and in our culture. I myself, friends, family, colleagues and people I’ve only read about have all experienced intimidation and harassment, if not something more sinister, on the streets and within circles we thought of as safe. But perhaps instead of using Jill Meagher as the scapegoat who warns women to keep themselves locked away in their homes after sundown or, at the very least, be clothed in shapeless, unrevealing garb with a chaperone present at all times, we should be focussing on the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in society, perpetrated not only by strangers, but more likely by those close to us as well, and our reluctance to deal with its true cause and prevention unless it happens to the right kind of person woman and only after the fact.

Related: To Live & Die in Brunswick: Reflections on Jill Meagher.

Elsewhere: [Australian Institute of Criminology] Trends in Violent Crime.

[Dangers Untold & Hardships Unnumbered] Jill Meagher, SlutWalk & Reclaim the Night Sydney Road.

[unWinona] I Debated Whether Or Not to Share This Story.

Image via SBS.

To Live & Die in Brunswick: Reflections on Jill Meagher.

I’m not usually one to be so deeply affected by violent crimes resulting in the deaths of people I don’t even know, but there’s something different about Jill Meagher’s brutal abduction, rape and murder that has touched the hearts of many. Perhaps later this week or next I will attempt to unpack what Jill’s death and the litany of speculation surrounding it means to me, but first, I thought I’d ask a friend who lived in the suburb that Jill also lived and (presumably) died in for her experiences in Brunswick.

Laura Money is no stranger to guest posting on The Scarlett Woman, just as she’s no stranger to the pitfalls of living in Brunswick, a suburb that both I and she, and I’m sure many other women, have experienced street harassment in. Maybe it’s not just Brunswick, as Laura asserts below. Maybe it’s just a Melbourne thing. Or maybe it’s what comes with the territory of being female in public.

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Hi, I’m Laura and I’m from Brunswick. Sounds like a confession. In the wake of the rape and murder of Jill Meagher the idea of living in Brunswick has become hollow. I lived in Brunswick from 2009 to January this year after moving to Melbourne from Perth. It’s a similar story to Jill’s: her family are in Perth as well.

When I first moved to Brunswick I was so excited. My street had beautiful old cottages and Victorian-era terraces. Old people peered over their white picket fences to chat to one another. They gave me lemons and sometimes herbs. (Always legitimate!) It was a beautiful place to live. My boyfriend and I secured a one-bedroom unit you couldn’t have swung a cat in but we loved it. One of the reasons was its location: we were only two streets away from Sydney Road, where Jill disappeared. Pubs, bars, late night restaurants and enough kebab shops to ensure that your night out ended well and not regretfully.

Sydney Road was also a place where I felt pretty safe. I must have walked alone to get home so many times I’ve lost count. Until moving to Melbourne, though, I’d never really experienced much street harassment. Sure, I had a guy show up at my work every day to propose until I had to hide in the back room while my colleagues told him I didn’t work there anymore. I also had one guy decide he liked me that much he brought his whole family to my work to meet me, even though all I’d said to him was “hi”. My mistake, obviously, victim-blamers would decry. There was a creepy guy who requested I grow my leg hair for him and a couple of other incidents. But being harassed on the street was new to me, until Brunswick.

I’m not going to document everything but I will give you my top three not-feeling-so-safe-now moments. Firstly, I was reading on the train. I do this a lot. I was getting so involved in my book that I missed my stop. I do this frequently too! I got off at the next stop and decided to walk; hey I could use the exercise. It was about 6pm and the street was deserted so I decided to be a little cocky and keep reading while walking along the pathway near the train tracks. Hey, it was a really good book! I hadn’t been walking long when I noticed a small group of young men up ahead. As I got closer the cat calling started. I ignored it. They followed me. I ignored them. They postulated how they wanted to “shove that book up me if kept ignoring them”. I put down the book, placed it under my arm and told them to get lost. I then half walked, half ran to a tram stop and caught the tram the rest of the way. Walk home ruined.

Secondly, I was waiting for the tram. My stop was the first one, and the tram came empty from the depot so I always got a seat. As I was waiting, I was reading and standing next to the giant picnic bag I had. An old man came over and asked me for the time, presumably so he could look at the timetable, though I could have told him that it had been vandalised ages ago and you had to text for the next tram time. I told him the time and he asked where I was going. “I’m going to the city. I’m having a picnic with some friends,” I replied. “Oh, are your friends men? Are you married?” “No, just a few girlfriends. I’m not married.”

At this point I put my book back up and hoped the tram would hurry up. The tram came and I hoisted my picnic bag up, found a seat and continued reading. The old man walked up and down the tram before sitting down next to me. Seriously, he had the whole tram. I tried to keep reading.

“You must like that book, is it good?”

“Yes.”

“What’s it about?”

(Why did I answer?) “Oh, it’s just a detective series I’ve been reading.”

“So, are your friends single?”

“Sorry?”

“The girls you’re meeting, are they single?”

“Yes, it’s just a picnic in the park. Good weather, isn’t it?” I tried to change the subject.

“I’m single. Keep looking for a nice girl. I can’t go out with women my age, they’re all too boring. I need someone young, like you.”

At this point I start to panic and smile sympathetically for lack of another option.

“You don’t have to go and meet your friends. I’ve got a high-rise apartment in the city. If you come with me, I can give you a present.”

This on-sided conversation occurred throughout the entire tram ride, he even followed me when I moved seats and spoke like that in front of other passengers. A few of them laughed. I kept my eye out at the tram stop for him for weeks.

Thirdly, I was stalked home. I wrote a post a about it. It was pretty scary.

I know this sounds like Brunswick-bashing but hear me out. Despite all of these things happening, I just thought it was Melbourne. To a certain extent it is. These things happen anywhere. I’m back in Perth now and have already had a few incidents occur. My dad didn’t want me to move to Melbourne; he said it was too dangerous. In the first two months of me moving there there was a shooting, two bashings, a building collapse and a warehouse fire all within a kilometre radius from my dream-unit.  This didn’t stop me from living my life, though. I was often out late, heading home to my boyfriend. My mum reads and watches a lot of true crime. Because of this, I would call her or my brother in Perth late at night—time differences are great, aren’t they?— and say “I’m calling you while I ‘m walking home so that if I get attacked or something they will know my last whereabouts!” It was always a bit of a joke but I used to think that it was unlikely that they would attack someone on the phone because they’d get caught. When I saw the footage of Jill Meagher calling her brother in Perth shortly after talking to the man in the hoodie, I knew what she was doing.

To reiterate, my name is Laura and I used to live in Brunswick. I now live in Perth again and the harassment has slowed down. Actually it’s pretty much just at my new place of employment—gotta love that! For those who think, “if you felt threatened, why not just take a taxi?” Firstly, it’s only two blocks: so not worth it! Secondly, I used to get taxis after work f I was working late and the company paid. I got hit on in those taxis on most nights. Sure, I like a chat. I even chatted to a taxi driver so much that he remembered us later on when my friend left her phone in the cab. He was able to identify us because I’d been taking to him. By the same token, often when I got in the taxis from work, the male drivers would stare at my skirt. One driver focused the rear-view mirror onto my cleavage and one dropped the receipt onto my lap and groped around to find it. Fun stuff.

—Laura Money.

Related: On Stalking.

The Taboos of Sexual Harassment.

The Harassed & the Harassed-Nots.

I Ain’t No Hollaback Girl: Street Harassment in CLEO.

Elsewhere: [Daily Life] Brunswick, Alone & After Dark.

[unWinona] I Debated Whether Or Not to Share This Story.

Image via Daily Life.

Guest Post: On Stalking.

I am standing at a tram stop in Brunswick waiting when a poster catches my eye. Someone has stuck it over the City of Moreland sign—a prominent place. Its headline screams: “Women Should Be Careful.” I’m hooked.

Upon reading the article I become increasingly angered as it goes on to explain how women should cover up and not expose their bodies to men as men can’t help but be attracted to that “provocative attire.” Not only should women expect to be sexually assaulted if showing skin, they are actually “asking for it.” I am outraged and start tearing the poster down but the man (I would assume and hope) has stuck it on with liquid nails. I manage anyway, throwing the wad of paper in the bin with a satisfying clunk. A woman is sitting on the bench near me also waiting for the tram. She turns to me and asks, “Didn’t like what it said?” No, I didn’t like it at all.

*

The idea that a woman is asking for it if she wears revealing clothing is repugnant. Not only is it outdated in 2011, it also allows men to get off scot-free. Whatever the length of my skirt, I refuse to be an excuse for a man’s behaviour. It is a common misconception that most women are harassed, attacked and stalked because of their provocative clothing or behaviour.

When I asked a group of friends to define the look of a stalking victim the consensus was a young (18–25) woman, thin, attractive, large breasts and, most importantly, wearing “slutty” clothing. It was also decided that most of these women will be stalked by men who had seen them out at a club/pub and followed home at very late hours. This profile is not true. According to California State University, 77% of female victims and 64% of male victims know their stalker and 59% of female victims and 30% of male victims are stalked by an intimate partner. This changes the image of a creepy guy hanging out in your garden after watching you dance at a party.

In a study by the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault it was revealed that only 1% of women surveyed were raped by a stranger. Clearly there is a different representation of this in the media. Still, even if most cases of stalking and rape will be carried out by someone who knows the victim, there are still instances when a stranger will take a shine to them.

*

I am on the train, coming home from work. I’m wearing a black dress, black stockings and a black coat and holding a bag of groceries. I sit down and accidentally knock the man in front of me with my bag.

“Sorry,” I say giving him a small apologetic smile.

“That’s okay,” he says, looking me up and down. “Are you coming home from work?”

“Yes.” I reply, not impolitely.

He then asks me where I work, what I do etc. I proceed to tell him, being polite but not particularly inviting. He then brags about working in an industry with a lot of money and invites me to join him at his work one day soon. I decline and then get off at my stop. He also gets off at my stop and I feel a tug at my bag of groceries. He offers to carry them for me and asks if I am married. I say no but that I have a boyfriend and he tells me that “we could always break up.”

He then asks where I live and follows me home. At this point I am pretty scared. It isn’t dark, it’s not isolated, I’m not wearing anything revealing… this isn’t how I expect the stalking story to play out. I panic and actually walk down my street before common sense kicks in and I stop two houses down from mine, pretending that it is my house, even going so far as to fumble with the letterbox pretending to check for mail. I get out my keys and ask him to leave. He then tries to invite himself in for coffee, then dinner, then a chat. I say no and am rude to him for the first time.

“Aren’t you going to go inside?” he asks, as if calling my bluff.

“Not until you are down the end of this street,” I say.

Then he says the words that stop me cold: “That’s ok, I know where you live. I can come anytime.”

The problem I had after this occurred was that I felt that it had been my fault. I shouldn’t have spoken to him, I shouldn’t have smiled at him, I should have been wearing a sack… all sorts of irrational thoughts went through my mind. Actually, the only thing I should regret is practically leading him to my door. That was stupid. When I told people, I was actually asked by one friend what I was wearing. Another told me I shouldn’t have used my “devastating” smile. The most common feedback I got, however, was that I’m just too nice. I shouldn’t be so polite and friendly to men because they take it as a sign that I’m flirting. This isn’t right! It just confirms what the poster said, that it’s the woman’s responsibility not to be stalked or get raped. I’m getting quite sick of men being blameless in these situations. It is the narrative that is constantly being touted by the media, in ads like the Razzamatazz stockings where you only see a woman’s legs in Razzamatazz and in the background are the men’s reactions to her sexy legs, implying they can’t help it. One of them spills a coffee, another trips over and a third is slapped by his girlfriend for looking. Unless ads like this stop then we will forever live in a sexist society that backs up the theory that the sexualisation of women is innate and part of our evolutionary journey.

At this point, I would like to say that I was living in fear every time I got on a train. I switched to the tram, I started calling my boyfriend to meet me at the station so we could walk home together and told all of my friends what had happened.

*

I am at work, re-entering the building after a break. He’s there in the foyer greeting me like an old friend. My colleague thinks we know each other, so walks ahead and leaves us alone. I am scared. I tell him I am busy and that I finish at 5pm. Why do I say that? The fear makes me irrational.

I try to tell him I’m busy after work and not to meet me, but he just smiles and says he’ll see me at five. I walk into the administration area, call my boss and start hyperventilating. Security sees me out at 5pm. I am flanked by two friends but I don’t see him. I can only hope that he is bothering another girl instead, then feel terrible for inflicting him on someone else.

*

I haven’t seen him since. I do live with the idea of him in that back of my mind, though. I just wish that other victims of stalking don’t blame themselves. Whatever I wear, wherever I go, yes means yes and no means no.

—Laura Money.

Related: Ain’t Nothin’ Gonna Break My Slutty Stride.

The Taboos of Sexual Harassment.

On Stripping.

Elsewhere: [California State University Department of Police Services] Stalking, Threats & Annoying/Harassing Calls.

[Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault] Statistical Information.