Writen by Avril Paice, November 27, 2011.

I’ve heard women and girls say they don’t feel safe at home, in their relationships, in parking lots, in stairwells, in elevators, on either campus, in class, at the gym, at the bar, leaving a drink unattended or having a drink mixed by someone they don’t trust, at parties, at the park, walking on trails, walking at night, on transit and waiting for transit.

Are actual safety and perceived safety two different things? Or are we only as safe as we feel?

And if you stop doing things because you feel afraid, does that make you a victim?

I’ve heard it said that most of us are actually quite safe, and the horror stories only happen to a small percentage of women.

Except… it felt rather close to home the night a drunk man tried to kick in my front door. When a woman I went to school with was raped and murdered in Kelowna, it made that possibility seem very real indeed.

We wouldn’t have the fear if the threat wasn’t real. The percentages of women who have reported various types of assault are staggering.

The Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women and Girls says that half of all of us will experience at least one incident of sexual or physical violence in our lifetimes.

Between you and me, it’s me.

Several years ago, I started working with a group of people on a series of workshops for women around personal safety. We got a huge response from women looking for such a service.

We also got some backlash from groups who said that women shouldn’t be made responsible for protecting themselves from those who would assault them. They said that this kind of approach puts the responsibility on the victim, not the perpetrator.  

Regardless of whether it was the right approach, I still don’t feel safe, and I’ll bet all those women who wanted the workshops still don’t feel safe either.

About a year ago, I was walking with a male student on one of the post-secondary campuses, and I commented that the landscaping is very unsafe for women walking at night – there lots of places for perpetrators to hide and pounce. I noticed it right away, because I walk around feeling afraid, and he had never given it a single thought.

Could landscaping really be the answer to women’s safety? Some people think so. A quick Google search will turn up lots of ways that communities can reduce opportunities for offenders, and increase women’s feelings of control and safety, through collaborative design. There are even toolkits you can download.

A poster on sexual assault prevention tips is making the rounds on Facebook. It offers tips not to women or communities, but to men. These tips include things like:

“Use the buddy system. If you are not able to stop yourself from assaulting people, ask a friend to stay with you.”

The poster catches you off guard, and then it makes you laugh. When it appeared on our screens, thousands of us immediately hit the “like” and “share” buttons. This idea that women don’t have to be on guard, and that all men will be responsible for their own behaviour, is refreshing because we have never experienced it in our lifetimes.  

Think about it… a person could have breasts AND equal access to the public spaces in a community.

I’m not implying that all men assault women. That would be far from the truth. I am saying that all female persons are harmed by those few men who do commit these acts.

Social media has a lot of influence in our lives now. But how much responsibility does the traditional media hold for protecting women’s safety, and for women feeling unsafe?

Think about all the news stories on gropers, flashers, rapists, murderers, child pornographers and pedophiles. Do you feel more or less safe when you are officially warned? If you are like me, the answer is both.

I love to go for long walks by myself. I even enjoy walking at night. I consider pepper spray to be a multi-functional product. You should try it on a nice Caesar salad sometime.

One day you might come across a news story that says, “Police are warning perpetrators to be alert, use the buddy system and avoid being out on the Greenway at night, after a crying man with no pants (who smelled like pepper) was spotted peddling his dented bike frantically out of the area.”

Safety is a complex social issue, with many potential solutions.

Take Action on Dec 6th!