Trigger Warning: this post discusses rape anxiety.
“The first thought that goes through your mind is what you have been conditioned to think. What you think next defines who you are.”
It’s 1am. I’ve just finished a project I’ve been working on for a while, and I’m feeling pretty satisfied with how it turned out.
I’m on campus, using their Wifi because we’ve just moved house and our router hasn’t arrived yet. I work late most nights, finding evenings to be my most productive times. Most nights, however, I can work at home.
It’s dark. It’s raining. There’s nobody around. I’m new to the area.
And now I have to walk home on my own.
My first thought? Rhian, you absolute imbecile.
And now I’m going to unpick why that’s wrong. Welcome to my second thought(s).
I’m not saying it’s unfounded. In fact, that’s part of the problem. In the past two years of my life, I’ve had plenty of reasons to fuel this thought. I’ve been catcalled, I’ve been followed home, and I’ve even been spiked. Thankfully, I was fine every time, but the point stands – I have, first-hand, a reason to be scared.
You may or may not have heard of a phenomena called rape anxiety, but the name is pretty self-explanatory. It’s the fear of being attacked, and it pretty much single-handedly puts an end to the now-infamous argument ‘not all men’.
No, not all men are rapists. Duh? Call me a feminist but I like to think that men are just as important and deserving of respect as women. Unfortunately, however, ‘not all men’ goes both ways. No, not all men are rapists, but also, not all men are innocent. And therefore all women have reason to be anxious. That is not a slate against either gender – or any gender, for that matter (I can only comment on a female experience) – it is simply a sad fact of life.
So I’ve been working on this project for a while, and because I wanted to get it done, I’ve been putting off going to the loo, promising myself that I could go when I finished. Now I’m done, I put my laptop away, pack my bag, put on my coat, and walk straight past the toilet. Why?
Because one drunken evening with friends has provided me with this tip: if you’re attacked, and things get to a stage when you have literally no other way to protect yourself, you can pee on your assaulter. Who told me this? A girl who had used it.
It’s the last stage of desperation. I already have my keys safely nestled between my knuckles, to be used as a sort of weapon if necessary. I’ve also texted a friend to let her know my situation, and she’s sitting awake, waiting for me to text her again and tell her I’ve made it home safe. Or, if I don’t, to ring the police.
I have apologised twice already, once for being out so late and putting myself in a dangerous situation, and once for asking her to stay up for me and share in my anxiety.
And thus begins the incredibly long list of things that will scare the ever-living f*ck out of me over the next twenty minutes.
- A man restocking shelves in the 24hr convenience store I walk past is a potential attacker. I clench my fist tighter around my keys, until I can feel the shape of the metal in my skin. It doesn’t make me feel any better.
- A single car, waiting along the side of the road, headlamps on. As I approach, the engine starts. My heart rate doubles in seconds. Another potential attacker. The car drives past, and is gone.
- I don’t press the button at the crossroads. There’s a chance that there’s somebody who could hear the clicking, and I don’t want to risk unnecessarily telling someone that there’s a pedestrian nearby.
- I have my skinny jeans on. Thankfully, my raincoat is several sizes too large for me. I did have it done up over my bag, protecting my laptop and some library books from the downpour. I unzip it, loosening it and keeping it away from the shape of my body, risking my entire (not yet backed up) project to try and appear less obviously, immediately female.
- There’s a small park beside the footpath. Some of the trees are large enough to hide a person behind. The streetlamps don’t puncture the darkness far enough for me to see the houses that I know are only a few feet away on the other side.
- Two birds in a tree start fighting. In my already heightened state of fear, it sounds at first like a child’s scream. It’s over quickly enough, but it’s enough to make me jump.
- There’s a small, overgrown section of pathway that creates a delightful tunnel during the day. At night, it’s a hiding place. I take the long way round.
- I’ve been walking very fast. As the road turns uphill, my breathing gets louder. Already doing my best to soften my footsteps, I breathe as shallowly and quietly as I can. By the top of the hill, I’m so starved of oxygen I’m getting light-headed, but I daren’t stop to catch my breath.
- My coat brushes a tree, knocking some raindrops to the floor. I imagine them footsteps, and turn around, pulling my key-fist out of my pocket. I’ve never punched anyone in my life. For a moment, the shadows look like a person. It’s fine. They’re just shadows. There are no footsteps.
By this point, I’m nearly crying, but I push on. I reach the house in a state of almost panic. The door sticks, and I nearly think myself locked out, at a dead end, but it finally swings open and I dart though, slamming it behind me. It clatters, loud in the silence of the early morning, but I’m safe. It’s an auto-lock.
That is rape anxiety.
Please, consider this. If, as a person lucky enough not to experience rape anxiety, you are walking or driving around at night, try to consider the effects that your harmlessly intended actions might have on other people. Your simply going about your own business could cause somebody else incredible distress. Was I attacked today? No. Was I in any real danger? Probably not. Was it one of the worst twenty minutes of my life? Without a doubt.
And that’s not my fault. It’s not yours, either (at least I really bloody hope not, or my blog audience is very different from the one I thought it had) – it is what the world is like.
The point is, neither of us should have to change our behaviour because of this situation. It should not be a dangerous one in the first place – we should not have to avoid walking home alone late at night, we should not have to avoid taking the same route as someone else walking home or trying to mitigate the effects of being a threatening presence just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That is why my first thought was wrong. Not because it was unjustified, but because it’s not my fault that rapists exist. It’s their fault for being rapists.
It’s 2am. I am finally beginning to calm down. My laptop is fine, as are the library books, and my on-call friend has long been reassured and fallen asleep.
Tonight, I was lucky. Some people will not be.