At the weekend I was followed by a man in the woods. He was leaving the nature reserve as I arrived. We passed and he smiled inanely at me in the car park. Said hello twice. Too familiar but then folk sometimes are.
I gave him a curt hiker’s smile, locked my car and entered the nature reserve but not before checking he’d gone, and felt some relief at his scrawny back retreating.
There were four different paths and the sky so blue, the sun’s warmth on my face advocaat yellow and I forgot all about him. Far off up ahead, I saw two men walking a tiny dog. I changed the lens on my camera, took some sky shots. Chose the red path because it took the longest. Fifteen minutes later I stopped to put my lens cap on and realised I wasn’t alone. Turned and there he was: the man I’d seen leaving the woods. He’d walked all the way back even though I’d watched him leave. Smiling inanely and only a few metres away.
Two choices: I could walk into the deep with him close behind or turn around and head to the car. I opted for the latter but that meant facing him. He assumed the same position walking behind me, then came at the side of me and within obscene physical proximity. Asked me personal questions. His game of cat and mouse was clear. I won’t give the impact of his behaviour on me too much typeface because I refuse to fetishize a woman’s fear but let’s just say my discomfort reached disproportionate levels. It was sheer luck that the two men with the tiny dog drew level with us on the path and the man legged it. Back at my car and wobbly from adrenalin, I wondered what his intentions were?
Only the man in the woods knows that.
Later, drinking tea with my dad he said he couldn’t understand why I go to places like that on my own. Isolated places. Raising two children whilst their father works away means I’m independent by default. Go places on my own. Weekends away. Days out. Trekking. I won’t use my partner or friends as a social crutch if I need head space.
It’s for sanctuary, dad, I said. My father has deep wounds from raising two daughters. He had brawny mates on speed dial when guys we’d met wouldn’t take no for an answer. He’s laid his leather jacket down for us and I remember staunching blood from his split lips when one boyfriend became agro. So there we were again. Father and daughter; still having the same soulless conversation about female safety and the necessity of staying plain in sight. Obeying the limitations of my freedom. Just in case.
This is not new. At sixteen a man on the Leicester train penned me in to the window seat and told me all the fucks he wanted to give me whilst I tried to count down the stops and not vomit from the reek of his Scotch-laced mouth. Three indecent assaults in public places. Consistent sexual intimidation in the workplace. As routine as breakfast. In 2016, Nottingham became the first county in England to recognise misogyny as a hate crime. Unsurprisingly, an international survey into street harassment by Hollaback and Cornell University found that 90% of women in the UK first experienced street harassment when they were below the age of 17.
Women don’t make themselves vulnerable.
Men make women vulnerable and women are given a social code to adhere to in reducing the likelihood of that imposed vulnerability resulting in assault, or worse. No woman wants to put herself at the receiving end of unwanted attention, inappropriate behaviour or danger so the majority of women acclimatise. Conform. We avoid unlit streets, we seek safety in numbers. Society perceives women who go out alone after dark or to isolated places without ‘a minder’ as irresponsible. It’s our duty to minimise the probability of our own attack by sacrificing the things we love doing alone to keep the wolves at bay. Like running at dusk when the sky’s mauve recedes to ink. Or running first thing when the light’s just cracking and the only sound for miles is bird sibilance, the music of feet on the canal towpath. Wild walks in the sticks on peachy days.
It’s indisputable that women miss out on the impulsive social freedom that fosters positive mental wellbeing. Men are afforded this ‘lone’ status unquestionably. Freedom to be solitary, to walk without threat in remote places, to recharge in locations where mobile network coverage is patchy and the people are few. It’s life affirming to wander home alone from the pub after closing: the sole reason for walking merely to stretch your legs.
I don’t like damage-limitation safety advice for women.
It reinforces and endorses the male predatory behaviour society so readily accepts. Take taxis for instance. I like to pass by all the men waiting in their taxis. The licensed ones. Campaigns have pinkie-promised those cabbies won’t hurt women, the drivers women can trust in their politically-sanctioned metal enclosures. Well, I like to skip right by them whistling an old Madonna song with my hands in my skirt pockets and hang a left up the only jitty without street lights.
I’ll go back to the woods, too. Without a friend. Where the network coverage is patchy. I’ll be the woman in the woods and I’ll keep on taking a foot after a foot after a foot and if he comes for me, he’ll have to find me first and then, sisters, he’ll have to keep up.