“Keep your keys in your fingers,” “Let a male friend walk you home” and “Have someone on the phone” are just a few pieces of advice that women might receive when walking alone at night. Often, they’re urged to avoid walking after dark altogether. While the media and the public mean well, this persistent call for safety breeds fear that isn’t substantiated. American culture overexaggerates the danger of walking alone, imposing restrictions on women that enforce a misogynistic way of thinking.
Many women have had friends or family members try to prevent them from walking alone after dark. It’s often presumed that women who walk alone at night are at a great risk of being sexually harassed, assaulted, kidnapped or even murdered. Yet, walking alone might be safer than most people think. Crime rates have been dropping in the U.S. since the ’90s. In the U.S., homicides account for approximately 19,000 deaths per year, while car crashes are responsible for about 37,000 deaths. In terms of rape, it’s rare that someone would be targeted by a random person on the street. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, “In eight out of 10 cases of rape, the victim knew the person who sexually assaulted them.”
The fear women feel is valid, as the media constantly shoves horrific stories of violence down their throats. Twitter feeds are flooded with stories from women who’ve been followed or have escaped potentially dangerous situations. In a poll, 62% of women reported that they felt safe walking alone at night, compared to 89% of men. For most violent crimes, however, men are targeted at a higher rate. This is a classic example of the Mean World Syndrome, a term coined by George Gerbner to describe this phenomenon of fear. People are more fearful of crime and violence because of their heightened awareness through the media, even though crime rates are decreasing.
This isn’t to say that women shouldn’t be cautious of their surroundings. Sexual assault and rape are prevalent in our society, but walking alone at night is falsely attributed as a high risk situation. In the media, women are often singled out to take steps to prevent assault when walking alone. Men are also at risk to be a victim of violent crimes, even though they are at a lower risk for rape specifically. This presents an inequality between women and men. Women can’t achieve full equality if they have a curfew.
8% of rape victims are targeted in the workplace. The public is OK with the media telling women not to walk alone, but telling women not to work would be wrong. This contradiction presents a faux pas of the modern media. A restriction placed on women is limiting, regardless of the intent: it furthers the power imbalance. Women’s independence should be normalized, and telling a woman she’s safer walking with a man reverses strides for equality.
Risk can never be eliminated entirely. Women are more likely to die in a car crash than by homicide, but no one would ever suggest that women should stop driving. It’s harder to escape from an attacker with high heels or hair in a ponytail, but most women aren’t going to abandon their fashion choices cold turkey. Most victims already know their perpetrator, either as a family member, intimate partner, person of authority or an acquaintance.
It’s important that society educates women — and people of all identities — on how to practice safe habits. When walking home alone at night, everyone should be aware of their surroundings and know how to handle dangerous situations if they arise. While women should be prepared to handle an emergency, it’s imperative that the public portrays these scenarios as rare emergencies. The danger lies in our culture that educates women that they aren’t safe to exist in certain spaces, showing them that their role in society can’t override the objectification they may face.
Diana Witt is a sophomore theatre and media arts and design double major. Contact Diana at firstname.lastname@example.org.