The Long Walk Home: Experiencing the City as a Woman at Night

Last night I drove my car out to West Philly and planned to catch the trolley back to Center City and my apartment. It was about 11:15 pm. I felt reasonably wary, standing under a streetlamp on a corner in a city in the middle of the night. I had my earphones in–as is my custom–less to listen to music and more to ward off any unwelcome human interaction. A few minutes after arriving at the trolley stop, I turned up the volume on my music to drown out the sound of a car full of men who were catcalling and making salacious comments toward me while they waited for the light to change.

As the minutes dragged on, I became more and more nervous, and when a man walked past me and then lingered 15 feet away or so, I felt the beginnings of legitimate panic blossom in my chest. I tried to ignore him and carefully avoided eye contact. After a few minutes, I realized he was waving to get my attention. With my heart pounding, I looked up at him. He was gesturing toward me and looking angry and saying something I couldn’t quite make out.

“What?” I said, more anxious than ever.

“You’re making yourself a target,” he said again, and then gestured to my earphones. “You’re an easy target. Someone could walk up behind you and you’d never know.”

My panic morphed into an uncomfortable mixture of embarrassment and cold fear. Glancing at the dark street behind me, I knew that he was right.

“Thanks,” I said, nodding with a grimace dressed up as a smile as I removed my earphones. He hung around for a few moments, presumably to look out for me, and then apologized and headed off into the night.

It struck me that my experiences at the bus stop spoke to three screwed up realities about being a woman:

1.) I used music to drown out the inevitable sexual comments and sounds thrown at me by men and thus made myself an easy target for legitimate predators.
2.) By contrast, turning off my music to be more aware of impending threats required me to be fully present for all of the abusive and degrading comments offered me.
3.) My wariness in response to both of the above made me naturally hesitant to identity and receive help and advice when it was offered.

Several long minutes later, I saw the trolley appear up the road and stepped out into the street to make my presence known. The trolley sped right past me.

Frustration warred with renewed panic in my chest. Knowing it would mean another 20 minutes of risk to wait for another trolley and seeing no taxis, I began the 45 block walk home.

My guard was fully up and at first I stuck to the well-lit major road that I was on. I stopped at another trolley stop closer in to town and was passed again. At this point, I resigned myself to walking the full 4+ miles home and cut over to University City which was well lit and somewhat more populated, and where my whiteness, my youth, and my backpack were less distinctive markers.

Over the course of my long walk back to my apartment, my mind raced. Here is what I thought:

– I wish the rain hadn’t soaked my jeans and left me wearing these leggings and short shorts.
– I wonder if my short hair makes me more or less of a target? My long legs? My relative lack of make up?

At a certain point, my heart still beating a steadily panicked rhythm, I decided that it was more likely than not that something bad would happen to me, and my thoughts shifted:

– If I end up dead, everyone will say that I was stupid for walking home.
– If I die, everyone will say that my shorts and leggings meant that I was asking for it.
– I know that if you’re being raped, it’s smartest to just give in, but could I really ever live with myself if I didn’t fight?
– If something happened and I went to the police, would they believe me? Would it be more trouble than it’s worth?
– I wonder what it’s like for women who are homeless? How often do they get violated?

I made it home just fine. Maybe I was never in danger, or maybe a different choice of routes would have ended much worse. 24 hours later, so much of me is embarrassed to post this; to make a big deal out of it. But I’m posting it nonetheless. Because what’s disturbing about my experience is not that it was particularly unique or particularly harrowing. What’s disturbing is that it isn’t. And it’s even more disturbing that I had more than 4 miles worth of thoughts about rape, and the danger of being female, and worst case scenarios to think through. And perhaps most disturbing of all is that the next morning I felt silly even talking about it. Because there’s a name for what I experienced Sunday night; there’s something we call it.

We call it “being a woman” and we say “that’s just the way it is.”

But it shouldn’t be. We live in a world that turns women into objects and then acts surprised when men treat them inhumanly. We live in a world that criticizes men who aren’t predatory enough, and that blames women for their own abuse. We live in a world that looks at the disturbing, atrocious reality of being a woman today and says “that’s just the way it is.”

I say, it’s high time we stopped being so comfortable with saying that that’s what it means to be a woman. It’s well past time that, instead, we said, “no more.”

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2 thoughts on “The Long Walk Home: Experiencing the City as a Woman at Night

  1. I was walking home one night, in the city. At one point, I came up behind a woman about a block ahead of me – we were the only two on that stretch of street, and it was obvious that I was walking faster than her, so I’d eventually overtake her. Now what?

    – Just keep going, and eventually overtake her, as she wonders if I’m an attacker?
    – Slow down so that I don’t overtake her, as she wonders if I’m attacker?
    – Say “Hi, I’m not an attacker”? (A sure sign that I’m an attacker)

    This happened many years ago, and I still don’t know the answer.

  2. Win, thank you for sharing your experience. I encountered somewhere between 30 and 40 men on my walk home Sunday night (and only 3 women!). Occasionally one would be walking behind me for a time and that was especially nerve wracking. At the same time, I found myself wondering about their own experience of encountering me and if they realized I saw them as a threat and how it made them feel. Unquestionably, the state of things in regard to this issue is damaging for both men and women.

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