One of the joys of life is walking alone, taking in the world around us. I love it. I love walking around cities in the day and night, looking at buildings, watching people, learning the lay of the land, but even more I love walking on the beach or in the forest - surrounded by trees and sand and rocks and water and birds and animals and clouds and sunrises and sunsets.Walking alone, taking it all in. Sometimes, I even run on tracks like these, challenging myself as I negotiate the twists and turns on the concrete paths, roads or bush tracks.
One of the places I often walk and run is the Lighthouse track in Byron Bay. It's beauty and accessibility makes it a very popular track with all kinds of people, from those returning from watching the most easterly sunrise on the mainland, to pairs and groups of women walking and chatting, pairs of men walking (and chatting?), as well as lots of people on their own running and walking, often with earphones in, listening to a soundtrack as they go.
I'm most commonly one of the latter - on my own, walking or running, with or without music. I always feel free and happy (and breathless) as I enjoy the scenery and my luck that I get to call this place home.
I know my feeling that way is not fair, but experience has taught me to be wary. Over the years, as I've walked through cities and forest paths alone, I've been touched, stared at, grabbed and made to feel uncomfortable. Once, in the middle of the day in the middle of a city, a group of men asked me the time as I walked past, and as I looked at my watch, one of them grabbed my breasts and then they ran away laughing. Perhaps that was funny for them, but it wasn't for me, I stopped wearing a watch that day and learned to take a step back when men approached me to ask for the time or directions. It was yet another moment of everyday threatened and real sexual assault that has littered my life: men in cars pulling over as I walk home at night to ask 'How much?'; men driving alongside me and masturbating as I ride a bike; unexpected hands up my skirt while their mates laugh at the joke; unwanted kisses from strangers in bars; men following me home late at night after I caught a bus home from work; men peeping as I get changed by my car after a surf. Often, afterwards, I'd tell people, and they wouldn't believe me, or they'd play it down and tell me I was over-reacting or mis-interpreting the moment. So I'd question myself. But these things did happen.
This incomplete list of stories has accumulated over my lifetime, starting when I was a teenage girl and continuing today. Each of them alone is horrid enough, but after a while, sadly, I've become slightly numb to them. Sort of. But they have effects. They make me feel alone and vulnerable as I walk thought a city, as men ask me the time, as I get changed by my car after surfing, and as I walk through a popular bush track. It's not fair - on me or the man I avoid and feel concerned about - but with so many experiences shaping those responses, it's hard to consider changing my thinking or reactions.
Today, a story came out in the local paper about a man who is approaching women on the Lighthouse track, grabbing their bodies and then running away. (Update: Here's a link to a longer news article from 26th May.) I felt so sad when I read it. I felt sad for those women, I felt sad that people will worry on that section of the walk, and I felt sad that my own concerns about being out and about and walking alone are once more validated. The are tracks that people know well, that they've been walking for years, or maybe just a day. Places that people feel relaxed, free, calm, upbeat. Places they feel safe. This guy and his hands are changing that, for some women at least. I'll still walk that track, but I'll definitely be on the lookout while I am. And that sucks.
Of course, I've had many more experiences where men have asked me the time and that is all it is, and where they get changed at the next car without staring at me, and where men have helped me feel safe, secure and independent. And I remind myself to focus on those more usual everyday experiences of care and generosity. I don't feel ashamed of my body or my movements when I'm out in public, I'm usually not scared and I don't hide. But all of that is largely consciously chosen as well. Because ignoring the cumulative bad moments when I felt threatened, afraid, ashamed, or assaulted, ignoring those and not letting those change my responses, that is impossible.
Sometimes I respond to men's looks or movements towards me with great suspicion, or in ways that shut things down or move them along un-necessarily, and I know can make those men feel shitty for something they weren't actually doing. Sometime I do explain, 'It's not you. It's just... things have happened.' But my reactions are born from moments like the ones happening to women who are just out for a walk on their own.
But this applies to surfing too. I've heard stories from some female friends about how intimidating it is to be a woman alone in a lineup of men. Mostly, there's no issue, but you get one creep and the whole thing can feel terrible and threatening. For women who travel to new spots or to remote places, this weight can be even heavier, but it can happen at home as well. A good friend once had a close call in a carpark at a popular break. It was winter though, so there were not many people left by the time she got out of the water. There was however, a guy and his mates, who'd been hassling her out in the water for her number. They walked over to her as she looked for her key behind the wheel but she'd lost it. The guys circled the car and she was starting to worry. Luckily a male friend came in at that moment and was able to drive her home ad back with a spare, taking her away from that situation. She was rattled.
I'm not writing this post to make anyone feel bad (unless you're hassling women and in that case, fucking STOP IT!!!), but I wanted to highlight that getting changed in a carpark, walking though a city at night, or going for a walk in the morning or a surf in the evening, should not be experienced that are worrying.
Women should not be made to feel vulnerable just for doing things alone.
I also want to give some insight into why women might jump or act worried at men's sudden appearance. Why they might look continuously over their shoulders as you walk behind them, or stop or cross the road so that you go past them and they know where you are. While they might glare at you if they catch your eyes on them - even for a moment - while they're getting changed. Why they might snap at an errant but accidental touch in a crowded place. I'm not saying I do any or all of these things regularly, but I have done them all, and I've seen other women do them as well, and they are responses born of gross experiences. It's not about you guys, it's not personal - it's about terrible people doing threatening things.
I so hope this guy is caught.