During my first week of college freshman year, I received a plethora of campus maps, activity and club lists, some guidance on picking courses, condoms and a rape whistle. For four years, I dutifully carried the whistle on my key ring.
At 18, I entered into a then-unknown world in which drinking in excess was the norm, and a woman’s safety was up for grabs. During one of my first nights of the university’s “Welcome Week,” which was essentially a week of ongoing partying with campus-sanctioned events sprinkled in, I witnessed a girl passed out unconscious on the front lawn of a rumbling, party-filled house with no one to speak for her. I called an ambulance and they arrived with haste, thankfully. That same night, I found myself repeatedly calling and checking in on my new friend, as she had wandered off drunkenly with a guy she’d just met.
I did not always make the perfect/safe choices I could have during my time as an undergrad. However, as a young girl on campus, I often feared for my safety at night. Call it Jewish paranoia or call it good sense, I spent a lot of time managing and negotiating travel after dark. Whether I needed to get home late from a night of studying at the library, or wanted safe passage after a night out with friends, maintaining my safety was a chore. I developed a mixed routine of calling a late-night safe cab, making friends walk me home or talking on the phone with friends or family until I got to my apartment. After dark, a college campus becomes a silent war zone for women; much of the same can be said for women living in urban areas such as Chicago.
I am no stranger to living in an urban environment, nor am I a timid resident. I prefer urban environments and always have. During college, I studied abroad and traveled around Europe with little hesitation. I’ve lived in Chicago, proper, for several years after college. However, I’ve had numerous moments in the past several years in which my heart has leapt into my throat with fear or panic from sketchy encounters.
In a recent RedEye opinion article entitled, “Take women’s safety seriously,” contributor Niki Fritz examines women’s safety on public transportation in Chicago and her feelings around the lack thereof. Fritz recalls a ride on the “L” in which she witnesses a nearby passenger touching himself in her presence.
“Panicked, I jumped off the train five stations before my stop,” Fritz said. “I felt violated and scared—but also kind of initiated to the ‘big city.’ This was what my mother warned me about; this was part of being a woman in Chicago.
“As Chicago comedian Ever Mainard explains in a memorable joke,” Fritz added, “every woman has that moment on the ‘L,’ walking home or waiting for a bus when they see someone suspicious and think, ‘Welp… this is it. This is my rape.’”
Similarly, while I was abroad, I took a spring break trip with a friend through France and Spain. One night, after our late arrival in Nice, we settled into our dilapidated French hotel and scoured the nearby area for a restaurant. We were surprised to find that parts of Nice—a well-known, luxury resort destination—had some rough neighborhoods. We found a small, empty bistro near our hotel and sat down for a tired dinner. In the middle of eating, my friend alerted me to the strange man outside of our restaurant window, touching himself while we ate. To this day, I will always remember Nice’s glittering pebble beaches, its beautiful buildings, and the man who joined us for dinner without an invitation. That sense of “violation” that Fritz describes is still palpable.
Just last week, I walked through my neighborhood alone in the early evening to pick up some take-out. A suspicious-looking man crossed my path and seemed to be walking to an apartment building. I passed him and turned back to look and noticed he’d changed directions and was now walking behind me. I began envisioning his attack and my demise. I sped up to walk close behind a couple strolling down the street. I thought to myself, “They’ll hear me when I scream.”
Embarrassed, I recalled the story to a friend the next day, and she shrugged and said she’d had similar moments. She said intuition is a powerful thing, and it’s worth following. I was both comforted and disturbed to learn I wasn’t crazy.
I’ve had many discussions with female friends, in which we negotiate which neighborhoods are safe to walk late at night, which “L” stops can be ridden alone after dark, and when it’s time to call a cab. Each of us, it seems, sets artificial time deadlines in which we won’t roam freely alone in the city at night.
Women are in a constant dialogue with each other, themselves, and their environment about how to keep themselves safe. Unfortunately, much of the public discourse surrounding rape and violence against women is not directed at helping women, but rather blaming them. If we’re not blaming women, we’re reminding them to be gatekeepers for men’s behavior or to avoid men who can’t control themselves.
“I also felt this creeping kind of shame,” Fritz said. “Despite knowing that some dude jacking off on the train had nothing to do with me, I kept asking myself what I did wrong. Should my neckline have been higher? Should I have had a male chaperone? Should I make sure I’m dead bolted into my studio before dusk?”
Similarly, I button myself up, clutch my cell phone, my keys (a weapon) or pepper spray, walking briskly with hope and an appearance of purpose.
Fritz laments bits of advice warning women to keep their eyes open or refrain from taking public transportation alone at night. I agree with her. Authorities (and our loving parents) are advising women to avoid danger. However, this advice fails to address the bigger problem at hand: We continue to live in a society in which it’s OK for women to be afraid.
As Fritz said, “Instead of asking women to ‘protect themselves,’ we need to end rape culture: the mentality that makes women’s bodies public property, things to be commented on, touched and violated in public.”
While we can “blow the whistle” on individual cases witnessed at “L” stations and on street corners, a bigger discussion needs to take place. This discussions needs to take place early in schools; women and men need to be taught early and often (much like Chicago voters) about what it takes to make society safe for women.
I wish my university had handed both my female and male classmates that whistle freshman year with instructions to raise some hell.