SKIDMORE COLLEGE — Carrie Everett Baker wakes up at 8:30 am on most days, grabs her meals at the dining hall, and goes to class just like any other student would. She attends a small, liberal arts school, inside the lively, but small town of Saratoga Springs. It’s a quaint town, and a picturesque campus, where the streetlights shine on Broadway and the constant snow brings quiet. But something changes at night.
Carrie does not like the nighttime. Specifically, she doesn’t like walking alone at night because she is afraid. She talked about being catcalled, and how walking alone she is nervous “because a comment can quickly turn into a physical action.”
She’s not the only one that is afraid to walk alone at night. Grace whose name has been changed, was a victim of sexual assault, talked about the uneasiness she feels walking back to her dorm at night. She said that she tends to text someone when she’s walking, or walks faster.
Why does Carrie feel nervous? Why does Grace walk faster? Because of the danger lurking in the darkness: rape.
This was a common fear, a fear behind every comment, every method of protection the women I interviewed mentioned. Although almost none of the women specifically mentioned sexual assault or rape as the reason behind their actions, there was a clear unspoken idea that there was a “something” they were protecting themselves from. And that something was rape.
Carrie won’t leave campus, even during the day, unless a friend will go with her. “I won’t go get tape because nobody will go with me. And you sort of have to plan your entire day around somebody else’s schedule. If nobody can go with you at that specific moment, it impacts a lot.”
Heather, another student at Skidmore College, described an increased sense of self-consciousness when walking downtown. She admitted she “would never go downtown by myself or like walk around by myself, I would make sure I’m always with someone.”
Although these women do not want to walk alone downtown, most of the women described a feeling of safety on campus.
Both Heather and Monique, another Skidmore student, never feel nervous walking alone on campus. For Monique, this is because she sees Skidmore as “a little society,” where there are standards set in place about what kind of behavior is accepted, as well as safety measures, such as campus safety.
Although some of the women I interviewed felt completely safe on campus, all of them felt differently about downtown Saratoga Springs and other places outside of Skidmore.
Maybe that’s because of the increased chance of being catcalled outside of a college campus, specifically in downtown areas. Monique described an experience she had in downtown Saratoga recently: “When I was with a group of people, we were walking and a guy whistled at us, which was awkward and we just walked faster.”
All of the women I interviewed had, at one point or another, experienced a version of catcalling.
Carrie described a moment when she was walking in NYC and heard a guy say, “Damn, look at that ass” and when she turned around, he said “Yeah you know I’m talkin’ about you,” and she just kept walking.
For Grace, she describes walking down the street when two guys, a white man and a black man, called after her. They said, “Hey, you like black guys?” and she responded “Oh yeah!” and then they said, “You like white guys?” and she went, “Oh yeah!” and kept walking. She then explained why she felt she needed to respond in that way: “I felt like I had to joke with them, because, my defense mechanism is joking and sarcasm, and so I felt like if I hadn’t said anything, they would have kept following me.”
Grace told me that there were two ways she thought of these men. One, maybe they were drunk and bored. Or perhaps these were two men with a sinister mission. Maybe they were looking for a girl to sexually assault. So she responded in a way that she thought would protect herself.
This is common. For all of the women I interviewed, there was a pattern of methods used to keep safe from that unnamed danger, rape.
However, in all of these instances, the men these women were afraid of were strangers. But the reality of being sexually assaulted by a stranger is slim. These women were afraid of men they didn’t know, and they were afraid of being catcalled.
What they weren’t afraid of was being alone in a room with a guy whom they knew well.
Sadly, this is the most common instance in which women are sexually assaulted — by men they know.
This is the reality of sexual assault.
This fear these women have of rape from unknown men is not based on statistical probabilities. But that doesn’t mean this fear is any less real. This fear takes up space in these women’s minds. These methods of protection are constant and daily, taking up time, taking away freedom from these women to do whatever they want to do.
For Carrie, she refrains from flirting with guys she doesn’t know, avoids eye contact, and distances herself physically from men.
For Grace, these safety methods are carried into day to day interactions. She describes how if she has a question for a professor, and wants to go to their office, she will ask the question and then “get out”. In other words, she doesn’t linger, because she feels uncomfortable around male professors. She understands that this is unusual, and perhaps not a fear she should have: “But if it’s a guy, like a teacher — it’s not all teachers or professors — like a random guy, I do assume something’s going to happen. And I’m working on it.”
This is not a fear that goes away. It is constant. For Carrie, Heather, and Grace, the things that have happened to them, whether catcalls or other things, occupy space in their mind. For Grace and Carrie, they can even miss out on an opportunity, or a fun day, because of past memories or this fear. Carrie describes this as a good thing and a bad thing:
“..That kind of fear can just drive your life, and you can miss some really great opportunities, and you can, thankfully, get out of some really scary ones by having that fear, but ultimately that fear rules a big part of my life.”
For Grace, she recognizes that this fear of men, and her past experience with men, affect her. She explained enduring sleepless nights, and days filled with Netflix instead of friends because of her experiences.
At first, Grace makes light of how this fear affects her everyday decisions. She explains that it’s only a small-ish deterrence, but then realizes “it’s not that small, because it is a day to day thing.”
This fear, whether they want it or not, shapes these women’s lives in big ways and small ways. The way I see it, at some point, it becomes a part of who they are.
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