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No Safe Place
No Safe Place: Violence Against Women
A Woman's Worst Nightmare

by Mary Dickson
© 1996

"Lots of Men Are Glad One Woman is Gone," a recent newspaper headline announced. "Some men believe Stephanie Dawn Kirk is their worst nightmare come true," the article by a Salt Lake City writer began.

I've been particularly curious lately about a man's worst nightmare. After spending more than a year working with producer Colleen Casto on No Safe Place, a PBS documentary about the origins of violence against women, I know a lot about women's fears. Men's fears are more foreign to me. Stephanie Kirk, the subject of the newspaper article, looked harmless enough. She was young, with long brown hair, and too much eyeliner. But apparently, this young woman is a man's worst nightmare.

What had she done to strike terror in men? She had never physically hurt any of the men mentioned in the article. What she had done, they claimed, is to falsely accuse them of raping or beating her.

I don't mean to underplay men's fears or this woman's damaging accusations. But what this story underscored for me was the very different way that men and women perceive their own safety.

Another story played in the local media the same week, a story that represented a lot of women's nightmares, though no reports described it as such. A woman was jogging at 5:45 a.m. in a suburban neighborhood when a man grabbed her, dragged her behind a cement wall, repeatedly banged her head into the wall, and brutally raped her. The rape is the kind of story that makes women realize how vulnerable we really are. It makes us think twice about walking through a darkened parking lot, running a simple errand after dark, or jogging alone. We are targets everyday in ways we don't even realize. Because of our gender, we must constantly think about how to be safe. Fear proscribes how and where we live, where we walk, where we park, where we sleep, eat and travel. As women, we know there are some things we cannot -- or rather, should not -- do, some places we should not go. We've seen the movies, we've read the articles, we know the statistics. The media is our collective storyteller and the story it tells us over and over again is that there is no safe place -- not on the roads where we drive, on the streets where we walk, not even in the house where we live. We feel at risk because we are.

When we started working on our documentary film, we began keeping a file of clippings about the abuse women suffer at the hands of men -- a pregnant young woman shot by her boyfriend, a woman assaulted and run over by her attacker's car, a woman who had suffered a stroke bludgeoned to death by her husband, a young mother and her two-year-old daughter murdered by a spurned boyfriend, a seven-year-old sodomized by her fatherís friend. Sometimes the stories appeared almost daily, often two or more in the same paper. Our files so soon started to bulge that I gave up adding anymore disheartening evidence. Not one of the accounts ran a headline declaring, "he was a woman's worst nightmare," even though the accused's crimes included stabbing, raping, choking, beating, and brutally murdering females.

At the same time, we started hearing stories from our own acquaintances about their experiences: stalkings, sexual assaults, battering. We were shocked a highly successful friend told about a husband who had pointed a gun at her head and threatened to kill her if she left him. We were stunned when we learned that the mother of a friend was raped in her own home at 10:30 on a warm summer night. Everyone, it seemed, had a story. A womanís worst nightmare? For too many of us, the most intimate of crimes is a bitter reality.

According to Senator Joseph Biden, who pushed for the law to punish violence against women, "the single greatest danger to a woman's health is violence from men." Of course, the vast majority of men -- honorable men -- don't hurt women, and women aren't the only victims of violence. But the fact is, women are physically more vulnerable. We learn early that we must take extra precautions to protect ourselves.

We may be afraid of strangers, but it is the most intimate of strangers -- a husband, a lover, a friend -- who is most likely to hurt us. According to a U.S. Justice Department study, two-thirds of violent attacks against women are committed by someone the woman knows. Can we ever be too wary?

A woman's worst nightmare? That's pretty easy. Novelist Margaret Atwood writes that when she asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women, he answered, "They are afraid women will laugh at them." When she asked a group of women why they feel threatened by men, they said, "We're afraid of being killed."

If you ask a woman what she is afraid of and what she does to protect herself, she'll give you a list of specifics. Ask a man the same question, and he might not understand what you mean. While we were working on our documentary, we conducted an informal survey, asking that very question to men and women. Their answers were enlightening. Typically, women were afraid of physical violence or they were afraid for their children's safety.

"I worry sometimes that I might get attacked or something by some guy because I run in the morning and it's always real dark. I got a dog, so that I can run with him, and I also carry mace on me now when I run."

"I'm most afraid of being attacked by a man, especially if I'm out jogging or riding my bike or walking. I don't go out alone at night. I used to run with headphones on and I don't do that anymore so that I can be aware of what's going on around me."

"I'm always afraid in a situation where there's somebody that could overpower me easily. I lock my doors, park in lighted areas, don't run in dark areas."

"I'm afraid everytime I take my garbage out at night, because I know that women have been attacked and raped just by simply taking the garbage out, being caught unaware at nighttime. I always take my two dogs with me when I take out the garbage."

For women, the fears are specific. Men, on the other hand, tended to be more afraid of failure or being humiliated.

"I'm most afraid of being stupid."

"Failure is the dominant fear in my life."

"Making the wrong decision and having to live with it."

"I think I'm most afraid of an overall loss of control."

"As a man, I'm afraid of very little."

Most men don't understand the lingering fears of women. When a co-worker complained to her husband she didn't like working the late shift because she was afraid to go to her car, he asked her why she didn't just tuck her blond hair under a baseball cap.

It's not that women are perpetually frightened or immobilized by fear. Rather it's that we know we must constantly be wary. We look over our shoulder in the parking lot, hold our keys in our hands as we leave the building, check out who's in the elevator, lock our windows even on a sweltering summer night -- a hundred small gestures that become second nature to a woman. We take precautions a man never considers.

I recently spent an afternoon with a single friend while a police officer did a security check of her home. (She didn't want to be alone in her house with a stranger, even though he was a policeman). I doubt many man would have considered such a check necessary. Not long ago a friend of mine called to ask me to stay with her for a few nights. Her husband was leaving town and she didn't want to stay in the house alone. I went because my husband was out of town on the same weekend and I didn't want to stay home alone either. If you're a man this won't make any sense to you. But if you're a woman alone in a big house, doors and windows can keep you up at night. There are plenty of bad guys out there and only a door or a window separates them from us. Though my windows are painted shut, the doors double locked and deadbolted, I still have an escape route plotted out in case I actually hear someone climbing up the steep stairs to the hallway outside the bedroom. I realize this is ridiculous, but who can help the dark demons that the night summons? Do men go through these elaborate scenarios in the dead of the night, trying to map out an escape route? I've never met one who did. But most women I know have a plan. We take precautions.

A 49-year-old woman we interviewed for our documentary thought she had taken precautions. She was raped a few months ago in her home when she heard her dog barking and opened the door to let it in. A masked stranger with a knife grabbed her, dragged her into the house and raped her.

"I have mace on my keychain, but you don't run outside to see what your dog's barking at with your mace in hand," she says. "Maybe you should go everywhere with it in your hand. All women are vulnerable like I am. And if they don't realize it, they should. Because you never know what's going to happen. You never ever now when it's going to happen. And you always need to be checking your back."

It's a reality that makes Maggie resentful. "First it's the evenings that I lost, and now it's freedom around my own home. It seems like we just keep having more and more things that we have to watch out for, and more and more freedoms we lose, just by our gender."

The ever-controversial Camilia Paglia says women are dreaming if they think anything will change. "Feminism keeps saying the sexes are the same. It keeps telling women they can do anything, go anywhere, say anything, wear anything. No, they can't. Women will always be in sexual danger," she writes in her book Sex, Art and American Culture.

To illustrate, she relates the story of a male student who slept in a passageway of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. "I will never experience that. I am a woman. I am not stupid enough to believe I could ever be safe there. There is a world of solitary adventure I will never have. Women have always known these somber truths."

While we must remedy social injustice whenever we can, Paglia says we must realize that there are some things we can never change. An anthropologist friend of mine who comes from a perspective of looking at cultures past and present, agrees with her. She says women will forever be prey because of the differences between the sexes. They may be right. I doubt I'll ever walk alone in certain places or stop locking doors and windows.

"Women have well-founded fears," 24-year-old Jason told me. "I understand it, but I've never experienced it. I never plan where I walk the dog or park my car. Why should I? I'm a man." I hold out hope that more men, like Jason, are beginning to understand women's fears and to realize that women have a different reality of their own safety than do men. Society won't take women's fears seriously until men understand our vulnerability. Until men join with women to say no to violence, whether it's on the streets or in our homes, nothing is likely to change. As women, we can take all the precautions imaginable, but the ultimate answer lies within each man and woman and what we will or will not tolerate as individuals, as communities and as a nation to allow our daughters, our sisters, our mothers and all the women in our lives to live without fear.

Mary Dickson is the writer and co-producer of No Safe Place: Violence Against Women, airing Friday, March 27 at 9:00 p.m. ET on PBS. Her essay is the winner of the 1996 Vivian Castleberry Award for Commentary from the Association of Women Journalists.

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No Safe Place: Violence Against Women is made possible in part by a grant from the Albert and Elaine Borchard Foundation and the Dr. Ezekiel R. and Edna Wattis Dumke Foundation. The documentary is a production of public television station KUED in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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