A woman walking at night. You can see her back and city lights around her.
A woman walking at night.

It’s nighttime, and the street is not quite as populated or well-lit as I thought it would be. Mostly I’m alone or there’s one other person, always a man.

The walk to my car is only about 8 minutes, but I’m already starting to regret rejecting my date’s offer to walk me there. I find it ironic that he is offering his presence as safety. He runs a startup; I’m an empowerment self-defense instructor. I’m pretty certain that if I were attacked, I would know how to protect myself better than he would.

But it’s his presence, not his skills or physical abilities, that provides safety. He is (or would be, if he were here) a signal to would-be-attackers that I am not a vulnerable woman alone and therefore not a good target.

Despite my feelings of unease as I head toward my car, the reality is I’m actually much more likely to be assaulted by my date than any stranger on my walk home. I know this, but I, like many women, am much more afraid in the dark on my own than I was in his house earlier. Somehow, for many of us, our fear instinct has not evolved to alert us to the dangers that are most probable.

I feel I need to interrupt myself here on behalf of my date and tell you that he is a lovely person and I am very confident he would not cause me harm. Both because he didn’t, and because before I went to his house, I had done my version of an assessment. For me that includes:

  • Assessing his ego by gently poking fun at men and masculinity. Someone who is easily offended by that, in my opinion, has not done a lot of critical thinking about the damage toxic masculinity causes to women, nonbinary people, and men who are not seen as sufficiently masculine. And I imagine many men who would assault others have fragile egos, so it feels pertinent to test that out early.
  • Assessing his allyship by talking about feminism and other equality movements. Noticing too whether his response seems performative or genuine (is he trying to show me how much he knows or that he can say the right things, or is he interested in what I have to say?).
  • Assessing his ability to hear and respect “no.” This is probably the most important one and the one we teach in our classes. It’s also the one I have the most trouble with as it often requires disappointing the other person. But one of the reasons I felt comfortable going to his house despite knowing I did not want sex that night was because we had already had moments where I had said no to physical contact and he had accepted that no. A couple weeks earlier on a date with a different person I said no to kissing and he kissed me 5 minutes later. I did not go to his house.

I am sure most women have their own version of this. Whether our fear response is tuned into the statistics, we’ve all had experiences and we know dating is inherently risky. According to a Pew Research Center Study from 2019, a majority of women ages 18 to 34 on dating apps have had someone continue to contact them after they said they were not interested; a majority from the same group report having been sent an unsolicited sexually explicit message or image; and 19% say someone on a dating site or app has threatened to physically harm them. And then there’s the risk of meeting these strangers in real life, and possibly choosing to be alone with them. Those spaces that can offer the greatest potential for building intimacy are also the spaces in which we are most at risk.

I taught a mother-daughter class recently where the daughters were in college, and the mothers were rightfully concerned for their safety. In my early 30s, I am positioned between the generations; I am both able to empathize with the mothers’ concern while feeling like my life and my risk level more resembles the lives and risk levels of the daughters. We had just done a scenario where the student practices getting loud and firm with a man who is trying to block her exit from the room after making an unwanted sexual advance on her. The moms were processing, and I could tell they were trying to come up with a non-victim blaming way to implore their daughters not to go into the room at all.

I cut in: “They will, though. Because getting older is about having experiences, and some of those experiences involve getting to know someone in an intimate setting.” I didn’t want the daughters to leave the class feeling like it was their fault if they went into the room and something happened to them. That mentality is a recipe for guilt, which is a recipe for inaction. Studies show that women who feel self-blame during an assault are less likely to respond assertively, which could look like using a strong voice, using physical self-defense, or leaving.[1] We both want them to be able to access that assertive response without being hindered by self-blame, and to know that no matter how they respond, what happened was unequivocally not their fault.[2]

“Notice how that person is responding to you,” I told the daughters. “Anybody who shows a lack of respect for your comfort and safety does not deserve your sympathy or consideration when you’re thinking about leaving the situation or protecting yourself.”

My belief and my hope is that our class gave them the tools to create their own ways of assessing people that will help them make safety decisions that feel right for them. But even if one of them grows up to be self-defense instructor, she will probably still feel on edge walking alone at night. We can change ourselves faster than we can change the world.

[1] Sexual Assault Risk and Reduction page 67 https://www.elsevier.com/books/sexual-assault-risk-reduction-and-resistance/orchowski/978-0-12-805389-8). 

[2] The research of Christine Gidycz of Ohio University shows that feminist self-defense classes succeed in this goal: women who experience sexual assault after having taken a feminist self-defense class are more likely to blame the perpetrator and less likely to blame themselves. From: The Evaluation of a Sexual Assault Self-Defense and Risk-Reduction Program for College Women: A Prospective Study. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1471-6402.2006.00280.x