I started jogging by myself when I was probably 14 years old. Living in Arizona, that often meant waiting until after the sun had gone down before heading out for my run. We lived in a nice neighborhood, and my own father (a police officer) felt fairly comfortable with me running a loop we had both agreed upon. But he still bought me mace to carry as I ran — just in case.
At the time, he worked in the Homicide Unit. I grew up hearing stories of unsolved murders over dinner, but it was always the stories of women attacked while out and about, just living their lives, that struck me the most.
I was forever aware of just how vulnerable I was, simply because I was a woman.
At the same time, I was also headstrong and adamant that I wouldn’t live my life in fear. So I learned to protect myself, as best I could. I took self-defense classes. I studied all the tips. And I continued to carry that mace with me any time I was alone.
Then, my daughter was born. And the mace went up on a high shelf. Not because I was no longer scared, but because protecting her from herself (and her tendency to get into things she shouldn’t) suddenly seemed to be the priority. And life continued on.
I live in Alaska, where I still love to spend time on our trails, exploring the wilderness around me — either on my own, or with my daughter by my side. The truth is, over the years, bears have become a greater concern of mine than any man who might want to hurt me. But even that doesn’t keep me indoors — I’m simply used to remaining aware of my surroundings.
Which means it was just a normal day when I threw on my running shoes a few weeks ago and headed out to a quiet trail I love after dropping my daughter off at daycare. The sky was overcast and there was a chill in the air, so I knew I wouldn’t see many faces on this random weekday morning. But sometimes, that’s part of the appeal — being outside and alone in all the beauty that surrounds me.
I had travelled about 2 miles when I rounded a bend and noticed a man walking the same trail, heading my way about a quarter of a mile down the path. He was largish, with long hair and ear buds in, walking with his eyes cast down to the ground before him.
I slowed my pace to a walk so that I could better assess the situation, just as I would upon spotting any potential threat — be it man or moose. As we drew closer together, I gripped my keys tightly in my hand (just as I had been taught to do long ago — so that they could be used for stabbing if necessary) and I tried to watch him without really watching him, just in case he were to shift course suddenly and lunge at me.
Of course, he never did.
He never even looked up to acknowledge me or catch my eye. He just kept walking, probably as aware of my vulnerability as I was. And as I passed him, peeking over my shoulder once or twice to make sure he hadn’t turned to jump me from behind, I just felt silly. And also sad to live in a world where women have to be so hyper-vigilant.
Because of course we do. I know this to be true, even though I personally have never been harmed. I know that if this man had wanted to hurt me on that quiet trail, there’s not much I could have done to stop him. I would have screamed and fought, but in the end, his size would have made it fairly easy for him to get whatever he wanted.
My unwillingness to stay home in reaction to my own feminine vulnerability makes me a potential target. And I know that. Even as I hate to think about it.
But it makes me angry. And on so many levels, it makes me sad. Because for all I know, this man I viewed as a potential threat was anything but. Just as plenty of men before him I’ve found myself eyeing warily while out and about on my own, because you never know. You never know who might try to hurt you.
I have to believe this is a truth all women instinctually live by. Haven’t we all been there, suddenly nervous in a situation where we find ourselves alone with a man we don’t know? Gripped by a sense of fear we aren’t even totally sure is justified, but still drives us to seek out exits and mentally plot plans of defense all the same?
Just in case.
There was another incident, not too long ago, where I walked out to get my mail as dusk was settling over the sky. While standing at my mailbox, I heard a male voice behind me.
“Hey, hey you.”
I turned only slightly, just enough to see that whoever it was, was in a nearby car. My pulse sped up. I quickly gathered my mail and kept my head down as I walked back to my home as fast as possible. I heard him call out to me once more, but I didn’t turn. Not until I was safely inside, at least. Then, I peaked out a window and saw he was still there — hovered over a map, and presumably trying to figure out how to get wherever he was going.
I instantly felt guilty for presuming the worst. Not guilty enough to go back and help him, mind you (I’m terrible with directions anyway, and it still could have been a trick) but guilty that this fear, which has been so instilled in me, would have me assuming every man is a predator until proven otherwise.
I hate that. I hate it for all the women who have been hurt, and therefore serve as cautionary tales. I hate it for the men, the good men who would never hurt anyone, who are often regarded as a threat through no fault of their own. And I hate it for my daughter, who I would so much rather be teaching lessons of trust instead of fear.
But I can’t. Because in this world we live in, women have to be vigilant. They have to be afraid. Because if they aren’t, if they let their guard down for even a second, they stand a greater chance of being victimized.
Yes, all women.
Which leaves me with no choice beyond teaching my daughter fear. Even as I simultaneously feel guilty for regarding a man as threat who was probably anything but, simply because he was a man, and a stranger, and I was alone on a trail I love.