Except that he was a man.

Last night I was walking home from the gym. Our apartment complex is pretty big, with sprawling grounds and winding sidewalk paths throughout (wow, that made it sound way nicer than it is). I had my headphones in one ear, just one, and was finishing up an episode of This American Life.

As I came to a fork in the path, I glanced over and saw a young guy, walking down the opposite fork, in the same direction as me. He was a young twenty something, tall, generic looking, wearing a black t-shirt and jeans.

trail at night

Instantly, I was fearful. I took my headphone out and sped up my pace, cell phone in hand ready to call, ready to scream. This person had done nothing to make me think that he would hurt me in any way. Except that he was a man.

And how weird is it? Because I’ve grown up female, my natural instinct when alone at night is to be fearful. To feel small and weak and attackable.

I’ve joked before with N about feeling very attackable. It sounds silly when I say it like that but truthfully, it’s how I feel. Perhaps I should be more trusting of people but any time I’ve been alone after dark, I’ve been fearful of every male I’ve encountered. I often wonder if every woman feels like this. From what I understand from my friends and loved ones, they do.

I’ve never been attacked. In fact, I’d venture to say that no man has ever even made me feel uncomfortable. I spent hours (days) of my life in frat houses in college and never once did any guy act inappropriately towards me. But I’m in the minority and I know that.

So I guess I just wonder, what must it be like for men to live their lives not being afraid of strangers simply because of their gender? I’ve seen N walk in from the gym wearing both headphones, completely oblivious, something I’d never do. Taking away hearing takes away an awareness that, when walking alone, I feel like I need. I constantly look around, check behind me, and am completely alert. Almost ready for something to happen. Sometimes I feel like men take that feeling of safety for granted.

I’m not really sure what we can do about this issue as a whole. I’m fairly sure that decades from now, the world will not have changed enough for my daughter to not be fearful. Still, sometimes it’s hard not to wonder what it would be like to keep my headphones in and walk home alone in the dark. Fearless.

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  • Ugh, I know what you mean about feeling attackable. When I walked home from class in college, I tried to stay on busy streets even if it added extra time. Just felt safer. Sometimes I’d call my boyfriend so I didn’t seem kidnappable. And I always had my keys ready once I was a couple blocks away. It sounds so silly to lay it out like that, but when assault is a fact you might as well do all the little things because you never know. I’ve never felt truly threatened, but I’d attribute that more to only walking alone in certain neighborhoods. I’ve also wondered what it’s like to be man and not even think about this stuff! I think some of those #YesAllWomen tweets were great for promoting awareness of everyday things women do to protect themselves.

  • It would be a wonderful thing to never have that fear. But I’m right there with you. Always ready for it and fearful. Which isn’t fair to either party I guess.

  • I’m COMPLETELY the same! Whenever I’m walking alone at night I’m ridiculously vigilant wherever I am! x

  • JC

    I must be crazy because I don’t feel this way. However I am also pretty confident in my ability to kick ass. My dad was always adamant that I could do anything that a man could do if I put my mind to it, and that I learned to protect myself. Maybe I am over confident now, but I have faith that should anything actually happen, I would make the jerk sorry for a very long time.

  • I think about this all the time. I’m not even what I’d call a “paranoid” person at all. I can barely remember to lock the door and I’m very trusting of people. But it’s that weird unspoken but ever-present threat of man vs woman that I feel like will always be there. It sucks, and I have NO idea how to solve it. It doesn’t help that my husband and the other men in my life tell me that I SHOULD be paranoid and aware. If the good men in my life are telling me that I have something to be concerned about, what does that say?

  • Amber Renee

    This is interesting, I’ve never felt like this. I’ve walked miles late at night with headphones on and barely a street light to light my way. I lived in a crime reduction area in a large city and never felt like this. In another place I’ve lived a friend (male) was mugged two blocks from my house and I still had no fear. I wonder why people fear what they do…

  • Ever since I was old enough to go places on my own, my dad’s last words to me as I’m leaving have always been “watch your back.” It’s just second nature now. I guess I’d rather be overly cautious than risk something bad happening. I’ve only felt seriously threatened once, at a gas station, and with phone in hand, I looked the guy in the eyes and said to back the F up or I’d scream at the top of my lungs. Haha! He looked more scared than me at that point! 😉 But my husband is just like N…it’s not even a thought in his head!

  • I feel like this constantly. I feel like women are almost trained to feel this way.

  • it’s so unfortunate. it really is. my husband jogs at night when it’s too hot. i would love to do that. but i can’t- i’m too afraid!

  • When I started reading this sentence: “So I guess I just wonder, what must it be like for men to live their lives not being afraid of strangers simply because of their gender?” I was thinking that you were going to write what it must be like for men to know the woman that is walking on the opposite side of the path is scared. Like, pretty much every time a guy is walking alone at night and encounters a woman who happens to be also walking along at night, she’s calculating how fast she can run to get away or searching the path for a rock or stick she can use to defend herself. Do they think about that, I wonder?

    Great, post, thanks!

    • That’s a really interesting thought! I wonder that too, now!

    • I’ve had multiple discussions with my boyfriend about this. Every time I told him I felt like I was followed half the way walking to his apartment in college he would tell me that he was that guy every time he walked me home on his way back to his apartment. He said many times he’s been walking back to his apartment at night and seen girls pull out their phones, tense up, and speed up in front of him and he knows that they are afraid of him, but there isn’t anything he can do, he obviously isn’t going to attack them, but there is no way for them to know that.

  • Totally reasonable fear – I’m the same way. For me it’s the fact that I do not want to mess with anyone or anything that I cannot predict and that I believe to be stronger than me. That being said, it’s not just men, but animals too… Just last summer, I hid on a stranger’s porch for more than twenty minutes when I came across a stray pitbull on a run… it probably wouldn’t have harmed me, but I always try to let my instincts trump when in situations like that.

  • This is SO true! I always try and tell myself I’ll be fine and that this guy is just trying to get to his destination. But I am ALWAYS on guard… Maybe I should take a self-defense class and then I might not be so fearful!

  • Holy crap, I understand this 100%. I wonder the same thing you do- what is it like to be a man who doesn’t have to constantly worry about how vulnerable they are? I wouldn’t be able to take away my hearing either- and I’m also hyper aware. I distinctly remember walking around downtown with a female friend of mine around 9 pm, headed to her apartment. I would CONSTANTLY be looking around us as we talked, ready to start running should something happen. There was a man behind us for a while, and I instinctively started walking super fast, glancing behind me several times before he eventually turned. I’m not sure how some women don’t feel hyper alert like this? It was always ingrained in me to be vigilant in case something should happen, or to just be aware. I almost wish I wasn’t so worried or cautious, but hopefully it’s kept me out of potentially bad situations or perhaps will in the future too. (although, obviously, just being aware or cautious doesn’t always prevent crime)

  • As a woman, this feeling is too familiar. Going to school in a huge city doesn’t help. Also, standing at an astronomically unimpressive height of 5 foot even REALLY doesn’t help. I clench my bag when I’m on the subway. If the only open seat is next to an older guy, versus an older woman (each unfamiliar, who could potentially harm me), I’ll opt to stand for my ride.

    It’s how I was raised, and it’s really sad I jump to those conclusions. Sometimes, I wonder the conclusions and assumptions strangers make about me…

    Still, I do feel attackable. And I’m always aware, always as ready as I can be.

  • I go through phases. I’ll have times when I’m fearless I don’t think about it at all. Then out of nowhere I’ll be crazy paranoid. When I really think about it, I realize if I were ever attacked I’d be a goner. I’d like to think I would be able to kick someone in the balls or something – but in reality IDK if I could simply because I’m small and not very strong. But usually I’m pretty confident.

  • I did that all the time in college. I walked alone at night with both headphones on. It was in Britain in a city where the odds were good for a girl. See the suburbs were full of “gangs” but those guys took fights to be a sign of pride. Bottom line – only the weak ones attack women, children, etc. No man wants to be seen as weak, hence women are safe. The city is marked as one of the most dangerous cities in Europe though, because obviously strong healthy men are somewhat less safe.

  • When we were in college I would walk to Bryan’s apartment almost every night after I had done my homework and ate dinner and I always walked with my cell phone in hand ready to call if anything happened (we went to college in one of the safest college towns, according to studies). Sometimes I would get down to his apartment and tell him that some guy had followed me half the way and my heart was racing, to which he would always reply that every time he walked me home at night in his sweatpants with his sweatshirt and hood on he was that guy I was so afraid when he casually walked back to his apartment. It’s weird though because as much as he is completely right that the guy making my heart race because he is walking behind me is most likely just walking home himself I can’t stop the feelings.

  • Being the oldest of 5 girls in my family, I feel exactly what you are describing everyday. Not only do I feel it for myself anymore, but my little sisters as well. The world is a terrifying place. My mom has always taught me to be extremely aware of my surroundings. Whether some people think I’m too paranoid for my own good or not, I’d rather be on guard than unprepared should something happen. This is a great post … Thank you for sharing!

  • I totally get how you feel. As much as I’d like to be completely comfortable and oblivious like a man can be, it’s kind of become a fact of life that as women, we sometimes need to be more careful. I’m like you, though, in that I’m afraid everyone is going to attack me! I don’t know if there’s a good solution for us!

  • I feel the exact same way. As women, we have to be this way for our own safety! When I run in the mornings it’s still dark out. I don’t listen to music at all and have my mace in one hand. It’s sad, but I’ve been seconds away from using it on several different occasions. With the messed up things that happen in this world, I think it’s better to be safe than sorry… or dead.

  • Sadly, I completely agree with your feelings here. Even when I’m running on a trail during daytime, I find myself constantly looking over my shoulder, or going over emergency action plans in my mind. But, I’ve grown up like this, taught to be fearful. I think to myself how it shouldn’t be like this, but then I watch videos about topics like sexual assault or harassment, and I read the negative comments from males, and I understand why I live in fear. I just wish it didn’t have to be that way. And I don’t even know where to start making a difference.

  • I’ve absolutely felt the same way. Depending on the situation I know I’ve changed my path, crossed streets, and all sorts of other things that as women we’ve been taught to do to protect ourselves while walking alone. Living in the city and knowing that it is completely possible for a man to come up and do a variety of awful things at any point is a real reason to have fear and be careful. I wish we didn’t have to live this way, but unfortunately we do.

  • Kelley

    I feel this same way unless the person is also huffing and puffing like I am, drenched in sweat, earphones in, workout clothes on etc…making it obvious they’re not out there to “get me”. I went to school in the downtown area of a big city and one of my first two years there a girl was shot and killed in her car in a neighboring parking lot. Needless to say I didn’t venture outside too much by myself after that. I also watch too many crime shows, and unfortunately I think it’s made me a little bit paranoid.

  • It is a shame that walking alone after dark is so scary it isn’t something I like to do

  • its better to feel that way, so that you are always on your guard

  • I’m the same way, even though I’ve never been attacked. Although I was approached by a stranger once when I was a kid. Maybe that’s part of why I still get freaked out by strangers.

  • I wouldn’t know if all woman feel this way but I certainly have. I’m from South Africa and fear has been instilled in us but the truth is, nothing has ever happened to me either so I do feel a bit bad to judge a man just because he is a man but I think it’s better to be aware than to be caught off guard.

  • This post makes me think of Ferguson and all of the protests happening there. I think that situation is bringing awareness that it’s not just women who feel ‘attackable’ but also black males and females. I just think the world is a scary place for everyone, really! But, I will say that when we’re moving to a new place, Tim never worries about whether or not it’s a ‘bad’ or ‘good’ neighborhood, because he feels secure walking around just about anywhere (within reason).

  • I am loving your posts lately. Great topics. I guess I have never given it too much thought but I am the same exact way. I feel super anxious and nervous when walking in the dark and I see a guy. I too have no reason to feel this way but nonetheless it happens every time.

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  • On one hand it is good to be slightly paranoid and observant, because it could really save your butt some day. But on the other hand, we can’t live our lives in fear. When I was working for Curves my shift started at 6 a.m. and most mornings I would have to walk a block to our office passing by multiple homeless men and other random strangers. When it was light out I wasn’t bothered, but when it was closer to the winter months it was dark in the morning. I was scared and nervous, so I started walking with my keys between my knuckles and walking more confidently. I would say hi to the homeless men and the strangers that I passed. Just walking confidently and having my keys helped me feel less like I would get attacked.

  • It’s the unfortunate truth, isn’t it? I can’t say that I become fearful, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t become cautious when a man is walking behind me at night. In a few towns over from me is a bar I frequent with my friends. There’s a parking lot behind the bar, and it’s often deserted. I always manage to find a parking spot on the street in front of the bar.

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  • Filipa

    Hey there!
    I’m new to your blog and was just looking around your most popular posts when I reached this one, and I felt the need to comment because I totally understand what you wrote.

    As a petite woman (5 foot only!) I feel really vulnerable when I’m walking alone. I have this feeling that I wouldn’t be able to protect myself if someone lunged themselves onto me, so, like many others have said, I will normally call one of the girls or my other half just for the safety of knowing if anything happened someone would be alerted straight away and it wouldn’t take them a week to find my dead body. Otherwise, I won’t listen to music whilst walking home alone and I really do pick up the speed. Crazy I know, but sometimes I even wish that here in the UK we could at least carry some form of pepper spray / mace – even if its only to keep my mind sound.

    My point is, we are DEFINITELY not alone in thinking this way.

  • Diane Burnett

    You have every reason to be fearful. A couple of years ago I was assaulted in broad daylight (8am) on my way to catch my bus to work, by a complete (male) stranger, directly across from my own house. He pushed me to the ground and the next thing I knew he was on top of me. I screamed and screamed but no neighbours came to my aid. He never spoke or even grunted (drugs?). Luckily for me, I bit his arm and screamed at him to get off me, which he did. He then leisurely (barefooted) walked back the way he had come. He was never apprehended by the police – but it’s left me with the legacy of always carrying a personal alarm and always crossing to the opposite of the street if approached by a single male. It happened to me out of the blue – it could easily happen to any of you.

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