A new campaign makes a refreshing change from all the times women have been told to modify their behaviour for their own safety.
Don’t look at your phone when walking at night. Actually, don’t walk alone at night, full stop. If you do, make sure to stick to well-lit streets. Don’t wear headphones on your own after dark. Don’t dress ‘provocatively’. Thread your keys through your fingers to use as a weapon. Learn self-defence. Stop getting drunk.
For as long as anyone can remember, women have been bombarded with tips on how to keep ourselves safe in public and protect ourselves from sexual assault. But this advice, however well-meant, is always flawed. For starters, the vast majority of women are already acutely aware of basic personal safety strategies: we’ve had them drummed into us since we were children.
More importantly, though, these suggestions place all of the onus on women to reduce the risk that we’ll be attacked. They paint a picture in which male assailants hardly feature at all, as though women are routinely assaulted by invisible, ghostly figures who cannot be held to account.
This sort of advice also suggests, implicitly or explicitly, that women are partly to blame if we get assaulted. It’s a notion that is as dangerous as it is pervasive. Last year, psychologists at the University of California San Diego conducted five separate studies that concluded that sexual assault prevention advice that tells women how to behave and dress leads to an increase in victim-blaming – and shifts perceived responsibility away from male perpetrators of assault. It’s not difficult to see how devastating this line of thinking could be in a court of law.
All of this makes it thoroughly refreshing to see a new campaign that advises men on how to make women feel safer on the streets. The ‘Walk like a Woman’ campaign, launched by the charity Plan International, features seven tips on how men should behave in public:
1. Keep your distance
“When walking behind a girl or woman at night, remember that the closer you are, the more threatening you seem. So make sure to leave a good amount of distance between yourself and her.”
2. Don’t run up from behind
“Having someone run up behind you at night can give anyone a fright, but for a girl or woman it can be terrifying. Next time you’re out for an evening jog and see a woman walking ahead… cross the road or make sure to leave a good amount of space while passing.”
3. Don’t stare
“If you’re by yourself, being stared at is intimidating and unsettling. Taking out your phone and focusing on something else can go a long way to showing you’re not a threat. Look out the window to focus on something else, or call a friend to have a chat.”
4. Keep comments to yourself
“What you might see as just a bit of fun, or even flattering, is actually harassment and can be terrifying to lone women and girls.”
5. Keep your mates in line
“You may not harass women, but if you stay quiet while your mates do then you’re part of the problem.”
6. Be an active bystander
“If you notice a woman is uncomfortable with someone’s behaviour, show your support by being an active bystander. It can be as simple as standing between a woman and her harasser to block their line of sight. Ask her if she is OK, and back up anyone else who is intervening.”
7. Share the walk
“Keep the conversation going by sharing these tips, and helping girls and women feel safer at night.”
Some of this guidance will sound blindingly obvious to women. But in aiming the ‘Walk like a Woman’ initiative squarely and solely at men, Plan International is doing something quietly radical. This campaign sends a clear, unmistakeable message: if women want to feel safe moving through the world at night, it’s men who have to modify their behaviour – not women.
Crucially, the ‘Walk like a Woman’ campaign addresses all men. It reminds ordinary guys – men who consider themselves good people, men who would never dream of deliberately making a woman feel uncomfortable – that their very presence can frighten and intimidate. It asks them to put themselves in women’s shoes, and adapt their behaviour accordingly.
So far, the campaign has only been rolled out in Australia – a fitting place to start, given the outrage seen in the country last summer following the rape and murder of Eurydice Dixon. After the 22-year-old comedian was assaulted and killed by a man while walking back to her home in Melbourne, Victoria state police advised women to “consider their personal safety and be aware of their surroundings”.
But as Daniel Andrews, the head of the Victorian government, subsequently wrote on Facebook, Dixon “was keeping an eye on her surroundings. Looking out for herself. Being responsible. Doing everything we expect. But [she] did not make it home safe… Women don’t need to change their behaviour. Men do.”
It’s a message that people of all genders, in Australia and around the world, could do with remembering.
Images: Getty Images