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Women Still Can't Walk Alone Without Being Harassed

10/21/2014 12:37 EDT | Updated 12/21/2014 05:59 EST
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Nearly every woman I know has a self-defense strategy when she has to walk alone at night. A popular one is the key trick: you slide a key between two of your fingers and it serves as a makeshift pocketknife. Or more specifically, something you can quickly ram into your assailant's eye. To be extra safe, clutch your keys for the whole walk.

I've been lucky. I haven't been assaulted; or rather, not on the street...yet. Too many friends haven't been as lucky.

That doesn't mean I'm left in peace. I still get whistles, catcalls or creepy gawks. Mostly, I get followed. Sometimes at night, sometimes even in broad daylight.

It's fairly easy to notice that someone is walking a few paces behind me at about the same speed. A girl is taught that when this happens, she shouldn't turn around and acknowledge him, especially if she's afraid because her vulnerability encourages him. If she ignores him, maybe he'll move on. Maybe.

Note that I've learned how to react to potential assailants. I don't know what's taught to potential assailants so that they won't feel like assaulting me or keeping me in a state of perpetual fear.

It's not like I wear anything to incite this behaviour. Then again, no outfit has that much power. The real cause is a deeply indoctrinated value system that's convinced too many generations that a woman's body is innately seductive, so it's her job not to get raped and her fault when she does. Whether or not I wear a mini-skirt, I'm expected to tolerate a constant carnal gaze.

To throw off my follower, sometimes I'll cross the street very suddenly. Most of the time, it works.

Sometimes, if I'm on a busy commercial road, I'll stop by a storefront, pretending I saw something eye-catching. Most of the time, it works.

But one out of five times, the follower stops as well. He'll start casually chatting, as if he hasn't been following me for four blocks.

He'll inevitably ask me personal questions, usually starting with, "do you have a boyfriend?" When I say yes (I always say yes), he'll go, "oh, why isn't he with you?" Subtext: how could a woman walking alone be anything but single and mine for the taking?

If my boyfriend were with me, no one would follow me. The presence of other guys is the only thing preventing followers from intimidating me on the street; not some profound respect for my right to not be intimidated on the street. Otherwise, it doesn't bother followers at all that they make women so uncomfortable.

My rights aren't only compromised when I'm walking alone on the street. It happens in crowded environments too.

Once, I met an artist at a party. An educated, self-declared social justice warrior, he even gave me a lovely spiel on the importance of his freedom. I said to him, "that's all well and good, but women don't enjoy the same freedom you have." And the thing is, he actually agreed.

Shortly after, he told me he was attracted to me. I immediately said I didn't feel the same way. I had to tell him again a few times because he kept putting his hands on my waist and my back in a sensual way. Each time, I'd tell him to stop. Each time, he'd try again a few minutes later.

Finally, I turned to him and said, "Do you know why women aren't free? Because when women tell men like you to stop touching them, men like you don't listen!"

It worked, but how did we even get to that point? I was very clear: I said "no." I said "stop." Why didn't I get through to him until I used his own rhetoric to demonstrate how obstructive his behaviour was? What would have happened if I hadn't thought of that argument?

Ask any woman if she has a story like this, and she'll tell you she has several. The threat is always there, on the street, at parties, even at home, where every possible media platform converges to propagate what's essentially the same message: "you'll never have complete control over your bodies, ladies, so learn to take it."

Taxis were supposed to be a neutral zone. During this tiny little break, we thought we could rest, maybe even leave our keys in the bag.

When a Montreal taxi driver recently assaulted a young woman, she went to the police to report him. "They believed me," she said, as if that was shocking enough to point out.

The police then told her that it wasn't the first time they'd heard something like this. In fact, there'd been many such cases lately.

Avoid going into a taxi alone, they told her. And don't go into a taxi if you've been drinking (which some of us do to avoid drinking and driving in our own cars).

The police never warned the public about the spate of taxi drivers assaulting women. I suppose that means it didn't seem important to them. Plus, their idea of protection doesn't involve punishing those taxi drivers, or anything that might actually put an end to this kind of assault. No, they put the onus on women to prevent these attacks.

Getting home without being assaulted or hassled should be a given. It should so common that we don't even have to think about it. Nothing more than the same right men enjoy on a daily basis, really.

But as long as the police won't do anything to seriously tackle these issues, as long as their inaction is universally shrugged off, as long as victims are expected to thwart their own aggressors, and as long as no space -- not even a taxi -- is completely safe for women, I'll always need a key trick.

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