Age of Outrage: How do women stay safe, and are they just paranoid?

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Getting home safely comes down to a series of choices. Walk or bus? Taxi or Uber? Dodgy shortcut or the long way around?

We all have to choose, but men and women think about those choices quite differently. 

A man staring down a dimly-lit alleyway might feel a twinge of discomfort, but he'll probably go for it. A woman won't. She'll already be in a surge-price Uber, having calculated those odds are more likely to work out in her favour.

Age of Outrage: How do women stay safe, and are they just paranoid?
Photo credit: Newshub.

Risk minimisation is a gendered skill, one that women learn from an early age but men seem largely able to do without.

This disparity was perfectly illustrated by - what else? - a viral tweet.

"Ladies, a question for you: What would you do if all men had a 9pm curfew?" asked US civil rights activist Danielle Muscato in September.

The tweet, posted in the middle of Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court hearing, garnered more than 8000 replies from women confessing their tragic fantasies.

Going for a run at night. Drinking alcohol without worrying about being assaulted. Walking to their cars wearing headphones. Things men do without a second thought are impossible dreams for women. 

Amanda Gillies also raised the subject on The AM Show, asking her male co-stars what they do on a regular basis to keep themselves safe.

When they struggled to answer, she rattled off her own list of precautions from checking the back seat of her car to never losing sight of her drink at a bar.

"When I go to my car I always have my keys out, just in case someone comes along, so it's a form of weapon. I'll never walk anywhere, especially at night, on my own. Even getting into a lift, if there's one man there I often will busy myself and say 'Oh don't worry I'll go up in the next one'."

The more women think about keeping safe, the more men seem to tell them they're paranoid.

Criminology lecturer Dr Alice Mills from the University of Auckland is an expert on safety, and even she gets men telling her to relax "all the time".

"I tend to ignore it because they're not necessarily experiencing the same level of fear that women are, so I think it's quite important to just go with your instincts."

She told Newshub it's not that men don't get scared when they're walking alone at night, but they're less willing to think of themselves as potential victims.

"There is some evidence to suggest that if you ask men about the precautions they take, they will take some of those precautions. But equally, they won't admit to being fearful in quite the same way that women do."

Newshub took to the streets of central Auckland to ask women how they keep themselves safe, and how men react to seeing them take those measures.

One AUT student said she's "definitely" experienced men belittling her for being concerned.

"Like 'why are you freaking out about it so much, why do you even think about it?'"

"I try to explain it to my husband, but I think men don't understand it," said Anna, a photographer.

"There is definitely a difference between men and women in that space," Master's student Elzanne said.

Men might fear being assaulted but they're far less likely to be the target of a sexual attack. Low reporting rates make it difficult to gather statistics, but reputable sources say between one in three and one in five New Zealand women will experience sexual assault as an adult.

NZ Police data found 22 percent of women had experienced "distressing sexual touching" compared to 5 percent of men, and 11 percent of women had been raped compared to 2 percent of men.

While the majority of these offenders are known to the victim, women inevitably feel more vulnerable than men in unpredictable environments like a dark street or a party full of strangers.

It's no wonder they develop strategies that wouldn't even cross most men's minds. When they're afraid, a lot of women will get on the phone.

"If I'm walking to my car at night and it's dark, I do tend to call someone," one young woman told Newshub.

"If I'm coming home late and catching a bus or something I would always call someone," said another, while a US exchange student said she also makes sure to call a friend in those situations.

Kiran, who is studying a Master's in management at the University of Auckland, said she always tells her friends or roommates where she's going when she leaves - or will even take them with her.

Women are generally smaller and weaker than men, so when it comes to self-defence they often have to play dirty to give themselves a fighting chance.

"In India every girl usually carries a pepper spray around with her," psychology student Diya said. She's had friends teach her some basic self-defence moves, while Elzanne opts for boxing to feel physically prepared.

Multiple women mentioned holding their keys between their fingers or clutching an umbrella as a makeshift weapon while walking alone. Several said they'd been warned not to go into Albert Park at night - wisdom not extended to their male friends.

Staying safe around alcohol - or, to be blunt, minimising one's chances of being drugged and sexually assaulted - is front of mind for many university-aged women.

"I definitely watch my drink, and I don't really accept drinks other than from people I trust," the US exchange student said. "I'm very aware of how much I'm drinking. I think I'm more cautious at bars than I am at house parties, which probably isn't the best."

Kiran said the possibility of someone taking advantage of her is enough to keep her away from too much alcohol as a rule.

"I don't like to get that drunk, especially if I'm outside of my house."

"I always make sure I've got a way home prepared," one woman said, while her friend mentioned always "keeping hold of your drink".

Age of Outrage: How do women stay safe, and are they just paranoid?
Photo credit: Newshub.

It seems women are constantly making choices to avoid becoming a statistic.

Dr Mills wants to see the conversation shift away from how women can avoid being predators' targets, and toward how society can stamp out predatory behaviours altogether.

"Back in the 1980s there was a pamphlet about how men could alter their behaviour to ensure that women around them felt much safer," she said.

"I have to say, whenever I put it in front of my students, I do get quite an interested reaction. Just that notion of actually addressing men's behaviour, rather than women's behaviour."

There's obviously a gendered discrepancy in the mental labour that goes into safety decision-making. Women feel pressured to make constant high-stakes choices because too many men are choosing to act in threatening ways.

Perhaps if our culture focused on solving that behaviour, fewer women would be walking with keys between their fingers.

Newshub.

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