Monday, January 14, 2013

On Not Being Fearless, But Walking Anyway

Today a friend posted a link to part of this comic.  It's all about the idea of empowering women by advocating that we become fearless.  I wrote this post earlier this year on not being fearful, but I'm not *fearless*, not at all.

It's been pointed out to me that I occasionally give the impression of being 'ten feet tall and bulletproof'.  I'm not, and I know I'm not.  I am competent, and level-headed in a crisis, and pragmatic, but I am not invulnerable.  I'm just refusing to accept fear's limitations.

There was a minor kerfluffle with my dad lately, in which he said he wishes I would not hike alone, because 'something might happen'.  I tried to explain that I carry food, and water, and a jacket and a cellphone and a multitool, that I'm getting a handheld GPS so I'll be able to better know where I am, that I take reasonable trail precautions, but he's still holding on to 'something might happen.'  Later that evening, one of the dinner guests, a friend of my stepmother's, asked me about hiking, saying "And you hike by yourself?  Are you really sure that's wise?"  I said, shortly, "Yes, it is."

I know that things can happen.  I know that it's not a safe world for women, that it's specifically less safe for women than for men.  I know that the thing my father won't say out loud is not that I might get hurt or attacked by an animal.  He is afraid I will be assaulted, raped, or murdered, and he's correct in his knowledge that my gender makes me more likely to be so.  What he doesn't understand is how aware I am that I might also be assaulted, raped, or murdered by someone I meet at the grocery store, or someone who lives in my apartment complex, or the acquaintance of an acquaintance I meet at a party, or a partner, or any one of a dozen other scenarios.  There is no guarantee that any place is a 'safe place' for me, not my own house, not even his house.

It bothers me when people like my stepmother's friend offer "Are you sure that's wise?" in hushed and scandalised voices, with significant looks to make sure I understand the unspoken "...for a woman?"  They wouldn't ask this of either of my stepbrothers, one of whom has been working in bars and at after-hours parties in all sorts of parts of Austin and San Antonio pretty much since he finished college -- and neither of whom has the sort of skills and experience I have at taking care of myself.

The conversation with my father trailed off when I tried to explain that I was refusing to accept what I felt were gender-based attitudes towards my need for fear.  I said, "You wouldn't ask those questions of a son.  You're a father of two daughters you didn't raise to be cowards.  Doesn't it bother you that I'm expected to live a life in fear, that I'm just supposed to accept that the world is more dangerous for me?"  He didn't have an answer, except that "It's just the way the world is."

He thinks I'm being fearless.  I'm not being fearless.  I'm often very, very afraid, so afraid that my hands shake and my voice threatens to give out on me, but I know that being afraid must not stop me.  There are times when I am in a situation, on a trail as the sun sets or walking further than I remember to my car late at night, and I think, "If something happens to me, they will say 'she should have known better than to do that in this dangerous world' and shake their heads.  They will say I 'got myself' hurt, and that of course I didn't 'deserve' it, precisely, but what did I expect?"

But I walk on, and I force myself to hold up my head, to project confidence, to make each stride firm and decisive.  In part, it's because I have no other option.  I can't call my dad, or some other male, to come and walk me back to my car or finish that last half-mile of trail with me.  I can't just stop living, stop moving, stop having experiences just because my gender makes me a target.  I can't pass up my life just because I'm afraid to live it without an escort, a chaperone, a bodyguard, a buddy.

There's another reason, a stronger one, that makes me brave when I am scared: I never know who's watching me.  Maybe it's a predator looking for a soft target, who'll move along when he sees my squared shoulders and easy stride.  More than that?  Maybe it's another woman, another frightened woman who's being told she must stay in the light, must behave, must follow all the rules, must never walk alone, must never trust in her own companionship, and maybe she'll see me and straighten her own back, hold up her own head.  And maybe it's a little girl, building the character of the woman she'll be.  Maybe when people push her to fear, to hide, to stay with the herd, she'll remember me, walking alone in the places I have every right to be, and she'll accept the danger as I do, steady her hands, and set out to choose her own way.


  1. Gorram. Thanks for sharing this, Rowan.

  2. i very much agree, but i have to say that i can't really relate. i am not remotely afraid to walk alone, to dress however i like, to get drunk at the bar, etc. i am a young woman living in a ghetto of a large city, it would make sense for people to tell me these kinds of things all the time, and no one does. maybe that's part of why i'm not afraid? maybe it's because i'm goth and from a young age have been part of the "people your parents warned you about"? maybe it's because i'm canadian? maybe it's because i avoid the news like the plague? maybe it's because i know that i'm statistically MUCH more likely to be assaulted by someone i know than a random stranger on the street? maybe it's because i carry a large knife and the skill to use it? i have been assaulted several times by people i knew and trusted so i understandably have problems with relationships, but i walk past crack addicts at 2am alone in a mini skirt and am far more concerned about missing my bus because it's cold out than someone trying to hurt me. this was my love letter to my subculture and general rant on the subject:
    and just in case you didn't know, jacqueline carey reads your blog. her posting a different article on fb brought me here and you are awesome :)

  3. A friend linked me to her posting, and I am not ashamed to say I did a total muppethands snoopydance flail and hyperventilated a little bit.

    I don't know why you're not afraid, but I'm *GLAD* for it. Maybe it's a generational difference and things really are changing. I'd be pretty happy if that was so. I graduated high school more than 20 years ago, and one of the best illustrations of how the world prepared young women, to me, was that upon beginning college I attended probably a dozen orientations and seminars, and every last one told me how to avoid date rape -- and not one told me how to work on my study habits, find a mentor, choose a major, or plan my career.

    I'm profoundly grateful to hear that you're not starting the way I did, firmly convinced that there was a rapist behind every bush, but that if one could only be 'good enough' and make it through that sidewalk without stepping on the cracks, he'd take the other girl. I'm ashamed, sometimes, when I thought about how often I came home feeling I'd 'dodged a bullet' by not being attacked or assaulted, because I extrapolate it and now see that I was taking my comfort from "Tonight was someone else's turn to be hurt, not mine." In my head, I was willing to sacrifice those imaginary women for my own peace of mind and safety. It never occurred to me to ask why I always had to frame it as if the assault itself were destined, and the only control I had was in not being the one it happened to.

    I'm in a much better, much different space now. I like your description of your community in that post; that's the environment I'm working to create within pagan community. I've been doing festival safety for years now, and one of the primary things I work to do is create a space where people feel they have the right and responsibility to freely establish and communicate their boundaries, and where those boundaries are reinforced and protected with community support.