The death of Instagram influencer Gabby Petito and the murder earlier this year of Sarah Everard, a British woman killed while walking home alone, have shaken women around the world. We’re concerned and angry. Mostly angry. We identify with these women, as well as the countless women whose names don't make headlines.
Like, Everard, I've lived in London and walked home alone more times than I can count. How many times had something not happened to me that easily might have?
Gabby's fiancé no doubt understood the dangers when he left her alone in the wilderness (whether or not he committed homicide is not yet determined). In the Sarah Everard case, the perpetrator was a police officer. A man charged to serve and protect.
In the artist Louise Bourgeois' piece, “Spiral Woman,” she depicts a woman gripped by what looks like a boa constrictor or a mollusk. The drawing evokes the essence of life as a female on this planet, the feeling of restriction. Trapped by caution. Fear. Can’t go out at night, or even during the day sometimes, without being afraid that someone might hurt us.
There But for the Grace of God Go I
Eleven years before living in London, I’d been a college student interning for a news station in Miami. En route to cover a story, my cameraman, Manny, and I crossed paths with his brother-in-law, a police officer. Later that day, Manny told me his brother-in-law wanted to ask me out. He took me as his date to a family event. I felt safe in his company. He was a police officer, after all. He behaved as a perfect gentleman, opening the car door for me and planting a chaste kiss on my cheek at night’s end.
A month later, he was arrested for sexually assaulting a prostitute.
My father called me at college, his voice shaking. “You need to be more careful who you go out with,” he said.
“Dad, how much more careful could I be? He was a police officer. I knew his brother-in-law, we went to a family event and came right home.”
I understood why he was so upset. What if it had been me? The people who share women’s constant vigil of concern for our safety: our parents.
The other day, I took a hike with my daughter, her friend and her mother. We’d hiked way out to the middle of nowhere to explore the remains of an abandoned dairy farm. We saw a young man out there taking photographs. Most likely for the ‘Gram or maybe an art project. He stood inside the frame of a dilapidated structure, wearing all black and on his head, backwards, a clown mask.
Something’s off, I thought. Then I questioned my instincts. No need to be suspicious of an eccentric artist, I told myself. California’s full of them. Nonetheless, when he finished and moved in our direction, I turned to my friend and said — joking, but not — “Do you have pepper spray?”
It’s never occurred to me to carry mace or any other kind of weapon. What must it be like to be a man, afraid of nothing? To be alone on a remote trail and think, “I’ll be fine.”
I rarely think to take such precautions because (knock wood) I’ve been lucky so far. Like the time I was almost sexually assaulted, and my friend Gregory appeared out of nowhere to save me.
I was out for drinks in Venice, California with a man who I thought was a friend and future colleague. He was my friend’s boyfriend. We met up to discuss the idea of working together. There had been flirtatious vibes, but I didn’t think much about it. It’s just his way, I told myself. As we consumed more alcohol, he crossed the line. Soon he was dragging me down the street by my arm, forcefully, toward his studio. Like a frigging caveman. I tried to pull away, but he stood 6’5” tall and strong.
Out of nowhere, in stepped Gregory. I heard his voice first.
“Pam. You ok?”
The man I was with happened to know Gregory as well and stopped in his tracks. He let go of my arm and, after a brief exchange with Gregory, I walked in the other direction, back to my car.
How different my life would be right now had the man succeeded in forcing himself on me, then shaping the narrative to say I’d wanted it, that it was consensual. Which, I learned later, is exactly what he told my friend (his girlfriend).
I told her my side: that he’d gotten handsy at the bar. I’d frozen out of shock or — I don’t know. Why do we freeze like this? It had taken me a minute to untangle myself from him. Did he kiss me and I let him? I don’t remember. There was alcohol. Luckily, my friend believed me. “It sounds like him,” she said. Why she stayed with him five more years, who knows.
How fragile was that moment, which could have changed my life. How vulnerable it feels to be female, the “weaker sex.” It doesn’t matter if we’re strong of mind, independent and fully capable— as women, we’re still afraid to go outside alone.
Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness
Women are at a tipping point right now. Hopefully, the murders of Gabby Petito and Sarah Everard will not be in vain. A massive shift in consciousness is taking place, a re-learning between men and women. The pendulum has swung far in one direction, and now some men are afraid of their every move. I feel for them. I know what it’s like. All women do.
But I don’t want men to be afraid either. I love men.
What will it take for us to co-exist peacefully, respectfully and, when appropriate, sensually? I long for the day when my daughter and I can walk the streets alone and feel safe. To be truly free.
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