Women’s Safety

The murder of Sarah Everard whilst walking home in London earlier this month has ignited a debate about women’s safety in public spaces.  The feedback from women is pretty consistent – that our lives and safety depend on our constant hypervigilance in every public space. Very often we are not even fully conscious of this; it’s simply permanent background noise in our heads, a kind of reflex borne of years of being made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe by men.

Now the conversation has shifted to women’s safety in bothies, Scotland’s free-to-use outdoor shelters. Phoebe Smith’s excellent article (A safe space for women? We need to talk about bothies.) broached the subject for the first time that I am aware of.  It is a conversation that is long overdue, and belongs as part of a wider discussion about the practicalities and realities of women’s safety.

I am a member of several Facebook cycling groups for women.  Every few days a new woman joins and asks the same question: how can I access the great outdoors and remain safe?  It’s clear that for many women the expectation that they will be unsafe is a major barrier to accessing our wonderful outdoor spaces.  They really want to go but everything they have learned has taught them that they will be putting themselves in danger if they do so. That expectation doesn’t square with some of the women’s blogs and posts they see about going out (alone!) into the wilds, and so they are confused. How are these women doing something so inherently unsafe and getting away with it?  What’s their secret? What do they know that I don’t?

(I will give you answers to this later – keep reading).

Another bikepacking forum to which I belong is, I estimate, about 90-95% male.  These are a really nice bunch of guys, and many I would now happily describe as friends. I wouldn’t hang out there if they were a bunch of arseholes, and yet even there, they have this whole issue so very wrong.  After someone shared a link to Phoebe’s article a whole pile-on ensued: men’s opinions as to why she was wrong or why their own experiences were just as valid gave evidence to depth of the problem.

Women’s voices are drowned out by men’s, time and time again.  Guys, we don’t want to hear your opinions or have our own reality refuted or denied.  The single most important thing you can do is just shut the fuck up and listen.  Just fucking listen.  This is not something you need to have an opinion on.  This is something to listen to and learn from and take away with you into the hills or just anywhere in your life.  Be an ally.  But firstly don’t deny a woman’s lived experiences by telling us (again) about your own.

In the forum I tried to explain how hearing men refute Phoebe’s feelings felt like hearing a white person claim that racism wasn’t a problem because they hadn’t experienced it themselves. This is women’s reality, not men’s. You don’t get to have an opinion on this.  Also saying that it is just as applicable to men because you once felt unsafe in Blackpool on a Saturday night is no different to saying that ‘all lives matter’ in response to ‘black lives matter’.  This isn’t about you. Just shut the fuck up and listen. We don’t need you mansplaining as to why our feelings are incorrect or invalid.

I was disappointed that these guys gave no thought to consulting the women on the forum who actually go out to the wilds alone and stay in bothies alone. Think of Phoebe Smith’s plea to men to “be aware of space,” and then recognise that these men are failing to even give space to women’s opinions and experiences. A woman recently posted in the forum asking about safety, but by the time I had spotted her post, there were two pages of well-meant but utterly irrelevant posts from men offering her advice.  Despite wanting to chip in with my advice, I felt that my voice would be lost or worse – that I would risk having my opinions and experiences denied or refuted.  So I backed away, but guys – next time how about leaving it to the experts – ie those without a penis – to respond?  You can’t possibly know what it feels like to be a woman in this world, so please – stop thinking that you do and for fucks sake stop answering for us.

By this point most of the arsehole guys will have left because I am being so strident and rude in my opinions.  I am not behaving in a demure, compliant sort of way that many men really want women to and for that I offer no apology whatsoever. If you are still here then you are either a woman or a nice guy and both are very welcome. 

So what advice do I have to offer women?  Well, as a woman who has travelled either alone or with a child (something that just makes me doubly vulnerable since I have to keep us both safe), I feel qualified to offer my opinion. Fancy that.

I think women need to turn everything they have been taught about personal safety on its head.  You really aren’t safer at home than out in the world.  Statistics show that sadly, most women come to harm at the hands of a man they know: a husband, boyfriend, father, uncle, brother, son or even grandson, and most of these assaults take place in the home.  You are actually far safer outside.

Next, wrap your head around the idea that you are more and not less safe the further you are away from centres of population.  This goes against everything we’ve been told about keeping to well-lit, populated areas, but women come to harm in the places wherever men are, therefore the odds that something will happen to you diminishes the further away from them you are.  Wild camping in the woods miles from anywhere may feel incredibly unsafe (nobody can hear you scream!) but actually the odds of some creepy weirdo spending twenty years hiding in the bushes on the off-chance of a lone female happening by are so laughably small that they can be dismissed completely. You are far more likely to come to harm on a Saturday night in a big city. The only real danger when camping, hiking, or in other solo pursuits comes from a predatory male who has cottoned on to your plans and followed you. Be sensible, and don’t share your plans publicly – online or in conversation.

When Jenny Graham cycled solo around the world she spoke of being conscious not to advertise her solo status by going into truckers’ cafes and so on late at night when it would be obvious that she was alone.  These sort of steps are advisable, and also keep a ready stock of replies for when asked of your plans.  When asked where I am going, I usually reply ‘Home,’ and that shuts down the conversation pretty fast.  Brag about the three nights you spent with nothing but wilderness for company afterwards – not before or during your adventure.  Be stealthy when setting up camp for the night, too. Wait until near dark and use as little light as possible to draw attention to yourself.  That way nobody will know you are there, and you won’t be disturbed. Men do this too – it’s just common sense.

The truth is that most people don’t expect a woman to travel alone and will assume a man or another woman is with you somewhere just up ahead or following behind. Although you may feel vulnerable and as though you stick out like a sore thumb, you are unlikely to appear so.  Even if your tent is spotted, most will assume a man is inside; in this way, the very lack of women wild camping actually works in your favour.

But the issue that kicked this post off in the first place – women’s safety in bothies – feels different, and I have to admit that I am torn. I want to encourage more women to visit bothies and see no reason why they shouldn’t do so alone, but at the same time, I really can’t promise they will be safe in the way that I feel confident they are while wild camping.  In truth I have often felt vulnerable in bothies, something that has never happened when I have wild camped. Bothies are where the men are, and therefore (as we learned earlier) they aren’t as safe as the middle of nowhere.  

I have rationalised by telling myself that most outdoorsy types I have met have been nice people – men and women.  There is something about submitting yourself to the rawness of the natural world that tends to strip away the bullshit and leave behind a thoroughly decent person, but unfortunately these aren’t the only people you’ll find.  Bothies also draw pissheads, stoners or survivalist nutjobs – none of whom make pleasant fireside companions.  

The answer to this problem is *gasp* to publicise bothies more and not less. (Bothy Bible haters can feel free to leave now).  The more pink-cheeked, bobble-hat-wearing, healthy, outdoor types who find their way to bothies, the more they will feel – and therefore beaccessible to all. 

It also helps to step back and consider the odds of ‘something bad’ happening to you in statistical terms.  For that to happen 100% of the men present would need to be bad apples, a probability that actually decreases the more men are present in the room.  There is always the worry that a lone man might turn up in the middle of the night when you can’t really pack up and choose to sleep elsewhere, but in that case they will probably assume that the person wrapped up in the sleeping bag in the corner is male and not a lone female. There is also the distinct possibility they would be disturbed if they did try anything so that decreases the risk.

People love to tell women that they are unsafe if not accompanied by a male chaperone. Ignore them. It usually (but sadly not always) comes from men, particularly those who have a lot invested in the patriarchal system.  Don’t let them use fear to control you, because you have as much right to be outside enjoying the world as anyone. Be sensible and do a risk assessment by all means, but don’t allow the tiny risks stop you from doing something as enriching and life-affirming as spending time in the great outdoors.

There really isn’t a magic answer to the women’s safety issue. Most of it is a state of mind. Humans are animals, and like them, smell fear, and so I am careful never to display any.  Confidently belonging in a space is probably the best defence any woman has.  Bullies are cowards really, and won’t pick a fight they don’t think they can win, even if they are not quite sure why you don’t appear to be afraid of them.

To all the men still reading this: thank you.  Please, be an ally.  Read Phoebe’s article and do what you can to help if the situation arises.  Even simple awareness of a woman’s experience of the issues can help a great deal.  We all need to be on board if we are to bring about lasting change that can allow women to feel safer in the world.

To all the women – happy travels.

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