It’s the never right amount of fear

We’ve been thinking a lot about safety and public spaces this week, for obvious reasons.

It’s the single most important thing we need to fix if we want to make parks work for teenage girls. The research is clear on this.  

But looking at the coverage this week I can’t help thinking that it’s a miracle that women and girls leave the house at all.  The wider statistics about safety are frankly horrifying.  Rachel Hewitt shared some studies last week which showed that many girls do not have a single public space which they would describe as safe.

A 2020 Plan International survey reported that two thirds of girls had been sexually harassed in public space, and 35% had been hassled while wearing school uniform.  In work done in Barking, half the women asked said that they had given up on feeling safe in public spaces.  A recent Girlguiding survey found that 80% of all girls and young women feel unsafe when they’re out on their own.

Most shockingly of all, a survey of young men in the UK found that one third had made sexually harassing comments to a girl they didn’t know in a public place in the last month.  The last month.  I’ll give you a moment to let that sink in.  

None of this is a surprise to women.  It’s why we don’t go into dark places, why we head home with our keys in our hand, why we get cabs at night (while at the same time worrying about the driver) why we try not to be alone.  Why, sometimes, we don’t go out at all.  Marina Hyde described the mundane terribleness of what is required of women, in her very brilliant piece about this:

The women who love you have to communicate the fear to you when you’re still a girl, knowing that one day you too will have to communicate it to the girls you love. They pass you down their strategies – their defences – like your birthright. And when you’re big enough to be out in the world on your own, those same women spend their time hoping till it hurts that this fear, which they had to gift you out of love, will somehow save you.

The teenage girls we talk to have been told this all too well.  They know about the dark entrance to the park where you have to pretend you’re on your phone if you walk through after six.  Girls as young as ten are changing their routes home from school so they don’t have to walk past the skate park or football pitch and get catcalled.

But what is less well known is that there is a name for this, which is ‘safety work’.  And it turns out that when you name something, the landscape shifts a bit.  Because safety work doesn’t simply describe all these measure that women and girls take, day in and day out, it has other points to make too.

Women are so often told (by men) that they are over-reacting, because men are more likely to be assaulted when they are out and that the actual danger is very low.  Safety work says, well yes, but there are so few attacks precisely because women and girls do all this work in advance, not because the outside world is a safe place for them to be.  These efforts are invisible and unnoticed because – most of the time – they succeed.

Safety work points out what one researcher has called “the ubiquity of fear” for women, that we spend our whole time calculating the risks, making judgement calls about where we can and can’t go and when we can do it.  This takes up huge amounts of headspace, reducing our joy and experience of life and it makes us smaller.  It reveals that “women need to be less – less vocal, less visible, less free – in order to be safe”.

And by naming what women do, safety work also turns it into something which is no longer invisible, something that men might be able to see and understand.

But do you know what I like best about safety work?  It’s angry.  By naming this labour and dragging it into the daylight, it gives us the possibility of change.  And safety work is not going to go away until that happens.

With huge thanks to Anna Shaikly and Julia King at the LSE who first introduced us to safety work.

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