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Saturday, November 15, 2014

Afraid of the dark

How could it be that the thing I was most worried about when I went to university at 17 years of age was not my grades, not my finances, nor my new environment but whether or not I would be raped. It speaks volumes that this was a constant worry in my late teens. And that it was something that I didn't talk about with any of my female friends whose shared experience might have helped me deal with that fear.

When I went to university in Halifax in 1991 there were warnings from the police about walking after dark. There were reports of a rapist hiding out in the densely foliated lawns of the South end where my school was located.

To combat this 'fact of life' a campus car service was implemented; the Husky Patrol. The service would take you home after class if you were on the St. Mary's campus (within a given radius from the university—luckily I lived within the permitted area). That was a lifeline; especially after daylight savings time clicked into play-- making a walk in the dark inevitable unless you were off campus by 4:30.

Despite the car service, I still ended up walking in the dark. I had an evening class on the Dalhousie campus that required a long walk down Robie Street. There was no way, other than paying out of my own pocket, to avoid walking alone after dark. So not only did we women have to live in fear, we also had to pay more to attend classes if we wanted to feel safe. And just to be sure I am clear, I am talking taxis not buses-- there is nothing scarier than standing on a mostly deserted street corner for fifteen or twenty minutes in the dark waiting for a bus.

Poster campaigns littered the walls of all the womens bathrooms telling us who to call if we were raped and what defensive measures we should take to avoid being a victim; carry our keys slotted through our fingers, add a rape alarm to our keychain, etc. I never once saw a poster directed at men telling them how not to be raped.

After a while I think we all internalized these warnings—and what they really meant. First, this was a woman’s problem. Second, as women we would never be safe.

During my years as a young undergrad I did some things that, in retrospect, were stupid but they should not have been. It shouldn't have been up to me to be constantly on my guard. How many of the young male undergrads were worried about date rape, walking home at night, or if they were placing themselves in a dangerous situation by coming back to my apartment? I am guessing not many.

When I went home from the Northern Pikes concert with a cute guy from Iona-- I should not have been kicking myself the next day for the possibly dangerous situation I had put myself in. Luckily for me he was the gentleman my female friends, who knew him from back home, said he was.

Now, over 20 years later I am back on campus. Last week I was walking to my car after dark. I have a night class, and I thought to myself how liberating it was not to feel afraid. My lack of fear was not due to a decrease in the probability of danger that a woman walking alone at night faces-- my fear was diminished because I now felt that my maturity would help me better handle whatever life might throw at me.

These days I am mostly afraid for the young women I know and my daughters. Things don't seem to have gotten any better then when I went on my first 'take back the night' march two decades ago. At this point I want to write a reality cheque to those who think such actions make any difference to the plight of women and the potential for sexual violence that we all face. Such marches, like all movements that confront the issue of sexual violence, will not have positive results until as many men as women attend these events.

I sincerely hope that the current discussion around sexual violence will create a movement towards change in which everyone will participate. I don't want my daughters to grow up fearing what lurks around the next bend in the road, behind a seemingly vacant bathroom stall door, or within the young man they just met at a concert.

I am tired of being afraid of the dark.

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