The Body In Public Space; No, you really don’t know what it’s like

A man and a woman walk into a bar…

A man and a woman walk into an elevator, late in the evening. The man notices that she steps to the corner. He stands next to her. She diverts her gaze. He moves closer. She holds her purse tightly to her chest. Angry, he decides to say something. “Do you think I’m a criminal? That I’m going to steal your purse because I’m in a hoodie?” She looks at him, stunned. “No,” she says. “I was scared that you were going to hurt me.”

How might your experience of public space be different to a woman’s?

This more or less sums up what you miss when you do have the privilege (or sometimes freedom) to not think about someone being a threat to you. You don’t have to think about potentially being raped in an elevator because it is late in the evening, you don’t have to physically reduce your size and vision to avoid unwanted sexual contact. The simple fact of it is that women have to exist in the public space with caution.

You might not be a predator: statistically, you probably wouldn’t even think about harassing a woman. But she still has to live in the constant suspicion of assault. That’s why her experience is so, so alien to yours. The threats you don’t see are all around her.

Think about how close you stand to her. Is that a threat? Are you blocking her exit, or just standing in a lift? Where is your hand? What are you doing in your pocket? Have you got a knife, or chloroform? Does she have to run? How long have you been walking behind her? If she looks at you, will you take that as a signal for sexual attention? Why are you standing so close? What are you looking at behind her on the escalator? You haven’t even thought about this. You are just on your phone. But for her, every day is spent on a level of alert.

Too short too long too low too high too fast too slow too confident too vulnerable

To her, she is the thing in the public space. She has to watch what she does to avoid becoming the passive object in the active space. Men, women are taught from an early age, are sort of like wolves. Provoke them, even slightly, and they will, without thinking or responsibility, attack. So life becomes about never straying into masculine environments, never wearing something the wolves may get hungry for, and always watching for who is about to pounce.

The only space that is ‘safe’ in public is the female restrooms. No, seriously. Not the club. Not the shops, not the street, not the station, not broad daylight. Why? Because it is a sanctuary away from the continuous, unending mental load of potentially being attacked. Where do you go when a date is going badly? Where do you go when a creep won’t leave you alone in a bar? Where do you go when you need to regain your composure after that scary guy on the tube? Now do you understand why so many women go to the bathroom for ages? Mentally, it is a calm, safe space. A communal space where you aren’t being watched, stalked, touched or followed.

Now, I hear you men saying, this is unfair and hysterical. MOST men aren’t rapists. MOST men aren’t abusive. MOST men aren’t murderers or predators. And you’d be spot on. We know this. I know it, every woman I’ve ever met, knows that most men aren’t going to rape you in an elevator. But we also know that it does happen. We are told endlessly about our friend who was raped while drunk behind a club, we all know a woman who got followed home, and we all experienced some level of fear and harassment ourselves. It only needs to be 1 in 100 men to be a constant threat to you, because you have to take on the mental load of fear, suspicion and protection.

Public spaces are largely male spaces. We can’t go to parks at night, because we only have ourselves to blame when a man attacks us. We can’t go to bars or clubs unaccompanied, because we will get predators stalking us. We can’t go out in the dark, because a criminal might take advantage. We can’t exist in public without a chaperone or a sense of self defence. If we break these rules, we only have ourselves to blame. Look at the Brock Turner case. Or any rape case. The woman is in charge of censoring her space and actions in order to avoid dangerous men. Play by the rules.

Space is designed by men for men. Dark alleys or underpasses? The simple thought that that could make an area out of bounds for a woman never even crossed the male architect’s mind. Female toilets right next to a crowd of watching male desks? Your potential embarrassment didn’t even come into that decision. Loads of steps in an environment where women will be expected to wear heels? Of course. Escalators where women will definitely be using pushchairs? Of course. Fewer female stalls than the male ones? Definitely. The list goes on. This isn’t because men hate women or don’t care. It is simply that no one has ever challenged them to think about the public space from a female perspective.

So what am I saying? Just think about how other people live in your environment. Think about why they might be scared, or feel threatened. Think about how and where they are going to go, why, and what they will need to do socially to inhabit the same space.

Women shouldn’t be an afterthought in town planning and infrastructure.



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