Friday, 16 September 2011

The Fear of Fear

Photo of train tracks with a several switches or points.
This may be a metaphorical representation of the complexity
of the psychological journey we must make, or it may just be
a random pic I found on Google image search.
When my partner and I were looking at houses about eighteen months to two years ago, we seriously considered one where the most practical transport route into town was via what is now our Second Closest Train Station (SCTS). The only way to the platform at SCTS is via a long underground tunnel under the roads on either side. I remember, when we were weighing up pros and cons of the house, how I'd feel about walking through that in the evenings was a significant factor against. In the end, that wasn't why we didn't buy it, but it still made me angry.

And then, around the time we moved into our current house, a woman reported being sexually assaulted in the (much shorter and lighter) subway to the platform of Closest Train Station (CTS). Around a week later she retracted her complaint. I remember thinking that I would feel so much safer if I could just believe she was a lying slut that made it all up for attention, when in fact all kinds of possibilities kept racing through my mind. Maybe the police treated her like crap. Maybe she was threatened. Maybe her family felt it reflected badly on them and put pressure on her to keep it quiet. Maybe she made up an assault by a stranger to cover up and assault by someone known to her. Maybe she just wanted to stop talking about it.

Fast forward a few months, and we're living about 25 minutes walk from CTS. The bus is much closer and it works well for commuting, but during summer I often prefer the train; the walk is pretty, a train pass is cheaper and when the train works it's a lot quicker. But I have a choice of a train or a bus pass (there's no suitable combined option) and the single bus fare home is expensive (and this sometimes applies year round anyway as trains sometimes run later than the buses). Walking home from the station is no problem if I go straight home from work, but I often don't. Later in the evening I have a couple of options:

The first is to take the train to CTS and then switch to a bus which takes me almost to my house. It costs a little extra but not too much. In theory the bus connects with the train. To be fair, in practice it usually does, but if it doesn't there's the risk that I'll have to (a) wait an hour (that's assuming it's not the last bus, which it often is) (b) walk - and it's really pushing the boundaries of what I can walk whilst carrying a bag or (c) call a taxi, which aside from the expense, can often take a while to arrive. Meanwhile, there's a large open space where the bus stop is which I've already experienced verbal sexual harassment just walking across - waiting there for any period of time does not sound like an enjoyable experience.

The second is to get off the train at SCTS and walk home. Most of the walk is along a reasonably busy road with lots of open space. It's not a problem. But for the first section I have two options. The first - and slightly shorter - one is through a semi industrial area. At night it tends to be most abandoned with the odd passing car. There are effectively no houses. The other is through a largely residential area, where you can usually expect a few people to be wandering around. It's an area of mostly state housing and has a strong reputation for being a neighbourhood with significant gang connections. It's the latter that I feel safer in; I always feel safer when there are people around. But I walk through the deserted semi industrial area, the one that makes my heart race and I'm clutching my hands against my bag strap as I keep thinking I see people jump out of shadows. It's an utterly horrible experience, even though it only lasts five minutes.

And I've only just realised why I make that choice. It's because, if I were attacked (and I don't think that's particularly likely) I believe I would get far more criticism for taking the long way round through a gang neighbourhood at night.

The point of this post is not my public transport woes (though a rant post complete with phone camera photos of Annoying Loud Music Playing Woman is certainly tempting). This is just a subsection of equivalent stories I could tell - I haven't gone into details of how creepy my workplace feels at night, the spate of (attempted) assaults in my city or that a bunch of schoolkids at the bus stop last night seriously beat up another - I only saw the end of it, as someone intervened, but an acquaintance who'd witnessed it was pale and literally shaking. 

It's that most of my fears are not of assault. They're fears of the fear of assault, of how unpleasant being scared is, and they're fears of what would happen to me if I were to be assaulted. It's that knowing - through feminist reading or bitter experience - that the streets at dark are not the dangerous place, is not enough for women to be able to fucking get home from the train station at 10pm without it being a fear inducing drama. And that's not just because  - even if its incidence is disproportionately cited - stranger rape does happen. It's because we do face street harassment all the fucking time. It's because we've been trained to be afraid - and most worryingly we've been trained to be afraid of people from particular racial and socioeconomic groups. And it's that - if anything does happen - we know we're going to be faced with shit and have every decision we made scrutinised.

I wish being able to relate my actual fears to real possibilities, and know why my fears are problematic, was enough. It's not.


katy said...

Since moving into the area a year or so ago I have gotten into the habit of walking around One Tree Hill in the evenings as it is close to home and a pleasant trot of about 45 minutes, great for winding down between day time and evening activities. During the winter it was difficult to get there in time to finish the circuit while it was still light.

At first I wasn't really thinking of finishing the walk in the dark as a dangerous activity at all, I always feel quite safe in Auckland, it was only when I was walking there one evening with a male friend and the sun started going down and I could see that he was becoming very tense and nervous and uncomfortable at possible danger that I started thinking about it as a potentially dangerous place. After that, quite a few times I found myself feeling quite guilty for having started late so that it got dark while I was only half way around but still enjoying walking through the trees in the dark; in general I love the quiet and sense of being alone that comes from walking at night. As I was also pregnant if I had fear it was of how much trouble I would be in if I was harmed, rather than fear of harm itself.

Scar said...

This is something that trans women face constantly, even in broad daylight.
I know exactly how you feel.

Emily said...

"And I've only just realised why I make that choice. It's because, if I were attacked (and I don't think that's particularly likely) I believe I would get far more criticism for taking the long way round through a gang neighbourhood at night."

This. Last year I would often walk to a friend's house at night and would ALWAYS choose the residential shortcut over the 1-minute-through-the-Gardens shortcut, even though it was slower and seems to me to have had just as much potential as an assault-spot. I did this because of how I would feel if I was assaulted in the Gardens - like it was inevitable and my own fault for walking there. I would feel so angry each time I took that walk.

AnneE said...

This is such a distressing post, but it's also such a brilliant evocation of how fear continues to control what we do - and it's a completely justified fear. Just because most sexual assaults are by men known to us doesn't mean stranger assault in public places doesn't happen. But the fear of how we'll be viewed and treated if it happens and we report it is also totally justified, and that's appalling.