"Click" on Personal Safety and Privilege

As a middle-class white girl growing up in Lewiston, Idaho, and then Spokane, Washington, I never knew fear. Not real fear. Not the fear that someone is going to hit me, hurt me, rape me, kidnap me, steal from me, kill me. 

When we moved from Lewiston to Spokane it was just as the South Hill rapist, Kevin Coe, began his string of attacks. I was turning 13 that year. I remember my mom at some point letting on that she was worried about this move to the big city and the inherent dangers of the metropolis. I think she told me to be careful, but I'm pretty sure she also tried not to scare me.

(I pause here to add a laugh track for people familiar with the area: We moved into the Ponderosa subdivision in the Spokane Valley, on a street where every other house had the same floor plan and split levels were big. Gritty it was not. That doesn't mean there weren't assaults, domestic violence, and more in those "nice" neighborhoods, but we weren't moving into an area known for its high crime rates.)

I had tons of privilege I didn't even recognize. Reading Ms. magazine starting in high school opened my eyes to just how many women were attacked, beaten, raped, killed every day -- the hidden epidemic of violence all around me that had never touched my family directly.

Even with at least some consciousness raised, it took me a while to develop any kind of self-defense awareness and practice. College had its share of weird alcohol-impaired encounters, but even then I generally moved in a pack with other women and counted on safety in numbers.

After college, living alone in an apartment for the first time I locked my doors and carried mace on my keychain. I took a 6-week self-defense class at the YWCA taught by a 6'4" fourth-degree black belt. I paid attention to where I parked my car and didn't get in without looking underneath and in the back seat. 

I walked assertively and made eye contact with everyone who passed me. I played "eyewitness": Observing every man walking toward me and developing a quick list of things I would say to the responding officer and then the sketch artist. (Note the privilege right there? I was sure police would respond appropriately, believe my account, and help me.)

I still operated from a fundamental belief that most people are good, not bad, but at least I started paying attention in case that belief was misplaced.

When I had children my sense of danger and awareness expanded. We read books on the difference between good touching, bad touching, and secret touching. I talked to them about what to do and who to ask for help if for some reason I wasn't there (seek out a mom with kids). I looked at men walking toward me in full Mama Bear Mode: assessing whether they looked like they'd hurt my children more than whether they looked like they'd hurt me. 

When I began bike commuting I paid attention to personal safety through yet another lens: Do drivers see me? Are they driving accordingly? Do I have an exit strategy in this badly designed corridor if something goes wrong? This round of safety thinking wasn't about being attacked so much as it was about the physics of trajectories and impacts. 

I'm not 100% consistent. I don't keep my guard up at all times. But I have an ongoing low-level awareness that my personal safety is my responsibility. I feel a great sense of freedom and strength when I'm riding my bike, while maintaining a sense of situational awareness.

This was brought home to me yesterday morning when I rode for miles behind another rider who never looked around to see if I represented any kind of threat whatsoever. As a woman, no matter how complacent I may be at times about the many wonderful people in the world, I would never ride for miles with someone right behind me without looking at the person, without paying attention.

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