The Editor’s Desk: I’d love to be laughed at

Given the choice of being laughed at or being killed, the answer is a pretty simple one

Novelist Margaret Atwood once asked a male friend of hers why men feel threatened by women, given that men are (on average) bigger, stronger, and faster, and have more money and power. “They’re afraid women will laugh at them,” he replied. She then asked a group of female students at a poetry seminar she was giving why they felt threatened by men. “They’re afraid of being killed,” was the answer.

I was recently speaking with some other women at a meeting we were all attending, and talk got round to the Fraser Canyon highway, and the dearth of amenities along it: open gas stations, washroom facilities, well-lit places where one could pull off in case of an emergency. One of the women said she was travelling the route one night and needed to pull off, but didn’t, because there was nowhere that was lit, and as a woman alone she didn’t want to take the chance.

A few weeks ago I was travelling — alone — to Penticton from Ashcroft, and had to stop and use a washroom en route. There was one at a picnic area at Yellow Lake, so I pulled off. It was late afternoon on a sunny day beside a busy-ish highway, and there were no other cars in the parking lot, but as I got out of the car I instinctively looked around to make sure there was no one lurking around the washroom. When I got back in the car I made sure I locked the doors before starting the car and buckling my seat belt, just in case.

When I got to my hotel in Quebec City last month I went for a walk to stretch my legs and get some fresh air. It was around 10 p.m., and the area was well-lit and still busy, and I had fun absorbing the new sights and sounds, but was always conscious of who was around me. If I saw a man approaching I mentally noted the fact and did a quick scan of the area to see who else was around, whether there was an open restaurant I could seek refuge in if need be, and how quickly I could cross the street.

Ask any woman if she knows of — or has used — the safety tip of holding your car keys so that the keys stick out individually between your fingers, turning your fist into more of a weapon, and I suspect a lot of them will say “Yes.” Many women know to park their cars in a well-lit, public area (especially at night), watch their drinks if they’re in a bar or club in case they get spiked, not walk too far off the main road if they’re alone, not pull off the highway if they’re by themselves unless it’s somewhere with other people about (unless, as in my case, you really do need to visit the loo).

These thoughts aren’t (at least in my case) at the top of my mind, but they’re there in certain situations, a sort of low-level monologue going through my head. It’s like a radio that’s on in another room and that you’re not really listening to, but which you know is on, and of which you become conscious every now and then.

I’ve asked several men, over the course of my life, if they’ve ever felt this way, if they’ve done (or not done) certain things to keep safe, or even thought about them, and the answer has always been “No.” It’s simply not something they’re ever had to consider.

“No big deal,” I hear someone say. “Women are just taking sensible precautions.” True, but let me tell you, it’s tiring, having to be mentally (and sometimes physically) anticipating what might happen, or what the result of a given action might be, and preparing for it, however subconsciously. And it goes without saying that it shouldn’t be necessary. I shouldn’t have to know how to turn my car keys into a weapon, or be worried about pulling off the highway, or not go down an interesting-looking street because I’m alone and there aren’t many people about.

What’s the answer? I don’t know. What I do know is that, given the choice of being laughed at or being killed, I’ll choose the former every time. It would certainly make being a woman, alone, a lot less wearying and a lot more safe.

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