Stop Limiting Women, Start Protecting Them

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ANDREW BEECHER/THE OBSERVER

The responsibility of protecting women’s right to live freely should fall on society — not individual women.

By ALYANA VERA, Staff Writer

Being a woman online is almost as exhausting as being a woman in real life, especially on Twitter. For the past two weeks, my timeline has been full of more tweets about women being kidnapped, attacked or going missing than ever before. 

For every tweet from a survivor warning other women in the area or a loved one asking Twitter to help bring their family home, there are as many patronizing tweets telling women to “stay safe.”

The mass circulation of these posts imploring women to “stay safe” is often accompanied by the alarming claim that “sex trafficking is at an all time high” — a claim that is unsubstantiated and only serves to fuel the anxiety women already feel being in public. These tweets are as performative as a tweet that says “thoughts and prayers — ” empty words that make the user feel like they contributed to the issue at hand without ever having to do anything real. 

No matter how well intentioned, these reminders to “stay safe” are paternalistic because they assume that women don’t know what is best for them and that they can’t take care of themselves. There is no need to remind women of something they already know, and doing so places the onus on them to “stay safe” without changing the actual reason why being a woman in public is unsafe. 

My freshman year at Fordham, my roommate and I were walking home from Trader Joe’s and were followed by a man from Lincoln Center into the law school. When we spoke with Public Safety about the incident, one of the first questions we were asked was if we had told the man to leave us alone. Both these “stay safe” tweets and the incident my freshman year place the burden on women to protect themselves while presuming that gender-based harassment and violence is just something that women have to live with.

Women are constantly told what they have to do in public in order to protect themselves, with some encouraging women to just stay at home. From a young age, women are trained to be hyper-aware of their surroundings, nearly to the point of paranoia. My own understanding of navigating the world extends far beyond what most kids learn from “stranger danger” and there are things I have been told I have to do to avoid danger because I am a woman. 

I don’t let strangers walk behind me on a sidewalk. I don’t walk near the street on sidewalks. I don’t enter a room alone. I don’t go out if my phone battery is low. I don’t turn off my location sharing. I don’t open my door unless I’m expecting company. I don’t talk to strangers or give them my number. Whenever I read a post warning women to “stay safe,” or hear that thought paralleled in real life, I realize my list of “don’t”s has to get even longer. All of the energy that I put into protecting myself is exhausting, especially because I know that these precautions will do little to stop men from hurting me. University of Illinois at Chicago student Ruth George, Class of 2022 didn’t respond to a man harassing her — and yet he still killed her.

There is advice I choose to ignore, not because I don’t care about my safety but because I want to be able to live my life. I go out at night, I drink, I do what every young person should have the ability to do. It sucks to feel limited, and it’s even worse when you feel like you will be blamed for not taking the necessary precautions if something does happen to you. How much more do women have to do in order to be safe in public? 

There is already a plethora of preventative measures you can take, and an entire industry that profits off of women’s fear for their safety. There are collapsible guns the size of wallets, cat-shaped rings with sharp ears, apps that notify authorities instantly and even criminal marking sprays that make it easy to identify someone if they try to hurt you. It seems that society as a whole is doing its best to treat gender-based violence as an individual matter — one that women can take into their own hands — rather than a systemic issue.

The response to gender-based violence has increasingly been to regulate women in ways that restrict how we move in the public sphere. I’m tired of being told what I can’t do, what I can’t say, where I can’t go and when I can’t be out just because regulating women’s behavior is easier than calling for the societal change necessary to make violence against women stop. This would mean recognizing that violence against women is not normal and that we need to hold each other accountable for the safety of women.

Call out and educate your friends when they disparage women, cat-call or generally make women feel uncomfortable. Stand with survivors of sexual assault and refuse to let rapists go unpunished. Be more aware of the way you occupy space. Imagine and empathize with the daily work women have to do to be safe in public. Offer to walk a friend to their car or to accompany them on errands, or even just have them text you when they get home safe. Have an open conversation about how sexual assault and harassment disproportionally affects black women, non-black women of color, women with disabilities, undocumented women and queer women.

We can brainstorm more ways as a community to fight gender-based violence, and keep women safe. I’m reminded of a Fordham student initiative around the time of the 2016 presidential election, where students would offer to ride with commuters who felt unsafe after the election. During my time at Lincoln Center both the Coalition Against Relationship and Sexual Violence (CARS-V) and the Socialist Students Coalition (formerly Students for Sex and Gender Equity and Safety, or SAGES) have emerged to change the culture around how we address gender-based violence. At Rose Hill, students have comforted sexual assault survivors and initiated a frank conversation about sexual assault

These efforts are important steps in changing how we think about violence against women, but there is still work to be done. We as a community need to step up, to target a system which devalues women and makes them susceptible to gender-based violence. Women already know how to “stay safe” — we need to work on making the world safer for them.