We hear it over and over: “I never take public transportation…” “I never go into the city…” “I never go out alone after dark…” “I never go south of the Loop…” “I never go south of Devon…”–all the “I-nevers”, the ways women give up their freedoms in exchange for feeling safe, sometimes at great inconvenience to themselves and others. I teach a course in the suburbs under the auspices of a city university, and some of my students cannot conceive of going downtown to use the university’s library, either because they never go downtown, or because they never go out alone after dark. A friend of mine made her debut as a semi-professional cantor some years ago, and her mother would not come to hear her because the congregation met in a neighborhood her mother never went into. One of my clients almost didn’t get her divorce because the hearing was held downtown and she–you guessed it. I submit that these “I-nevers” are a subclinical form of agoraphobia, which we do not notice as pathological because all women are trained to exhibit its symptoms, and we are all–men and women alike–trained to consider it not only normal but necessary.
It starts early, of course. It starts just about the minute a mother decides her daughter can safely be out of her sight for even a few minutes. Some mothers won’t let their daughters use public restrooms (some mothers never use them themselves.) Some mothers won’t let their daughters take public transportation to school (or anyplace else.) But just about every mother gives her daughter a catalog of “nevers” that includes not talking to strange men, not smiling at them, not making eye contact with them, not accepting any favors from them, not going out alone after certain hours or to certain places, not wearing certain kinds of clothes, not drinking too much or laughing too much in public, and so on.
The logic of the “I-nevers” is weak. Women are in a lot less danger of being victimized by crime in public places than men, statistically speaking. And, on the other hand, when women are the victims of assault, rape, and murder, it is usually at the hands of someone with whom they are intimately familiar–a current or former husband or boyfriend, a stepfather or father, brother, or other male relative–and it usually happens at home, or, sometimes, at work. But no mother ever taught her daughter to beware of the men she lived with. I have never heard a woman say “I never go home…” “I never spend any time alone with my ex-boyfriend…” “I never invite my boyfriend into my apartment…” “I never accept rides from my stepfather…” “I never go to work…”–all things that, statistically, a woman concerned about her personal safety might be well-advised to “never” do. I submit that women worry more about violence on the street than violence at home because being aware of the real danger that awaits them from those they are entitled to trust the most would be unbearable. We displace our anxiety from the unbearable real dangers to the bearable unreal dangers.
The “I-nevers” do little to increase a woman’s real personal safety. They serve two other functions, however, one for her and one for the larger social system she lives in. From the individual woman’s own point of view, the “I-nevers” are ritualized compulsive behavior, a kind of “deal” she makes with the universe. “If I give up this particular freedom, the universe won’t let me get hurt, or raped, or killed on the street.” Imagine two women, walking together down Madison Street toward State Street at lunchtime. One of them is there pursuant to her private deal with the universe, which involves not going south of the Loop, and not going downtown at night. The other one is there as the result of a momentary lapse in her deal, which involved not going into the city at all. So she feels, at some level, that she is fair game for any would-be rapist or thug who comes along. (The hypothetical thug, on the other hand, has no way of knowing which of these two women is his properly licensed target, and doesn’t particularly care.) If he spares her this once, she classifies it as a narrow escape, and vows never to take the chance again. While the first woman, who has played by her rules and been rewarded appropriately, has her belief in the system reinforced. For these purposes, the specific freedom she gives up doesn’t matter much, since the “deal” is likely to work most of the time–in fact, she probably won’t get hurt, or raped, or killed on the street. So her particular “I-never”–whatever it may be–relieves the anxiety she would otherwise feel when venturing out in public, and gives her a sense of control over her life.
And, in the process, the whole game of focusing women’s anxiety on dangers from strangers in public places, and then defusing it with an “I-never”, serves to completely distract all of us from the real dangers to women, at home and at work, from the people we have loved and trusted. Additionally, it relieves men from any feeling of complicity in sexism as long as they are not street rapists or serial murderers, so long as they do not harass or assault any woman to whom they haven’t been properly introduced. In fact–and here is where the chador in the title comes in, in case you were wondering–the game serves precisely the same function as the chador does in Middle Eastern societies. It allows a woman to venture outside the domestic realm only under strictures that make free, responsible participation in public life difficult or impossible. Which in turn means that she is likely to tolerate, ignore, or deny all but the most brutal threats to her safety in the domestic realm–the only realm in which she has been allowed to feel safe–believing that she has literally nowhere else to go.
Women are not the only players of the “I-never” game. I have met black male teenagers who had their own version of the game, and never ventured into eastern European ethnic neighborhoods. There are probably analogous versions of the game among white male teenagers. The difference is that, in both instances, adolescent males really are at high risk of violence from strangers in public places (though they are at even higher risk from people they know in public places.) Their ritualized compulsive behavior bears a considerably closer resemblance to a rational avoidance of real dangers than is the case for women.
The main reason for this, of course, is that there actually is a course of action that constitutes rational avoidance of real dangers for adolescent males (or adult males, for that matter.) It’s easy to stay off the streets, or the streets of a particular neighborhood, and statistically it comes fairly close to working, for a man. What could a woman do to avoid the people and situations most likely to cause her harm by violence–enter a convent? Staying home certainly wouldn’t help.
The homefront will continue to be the most dangerous place for women as long as we go on believing that crime is what happens between strangers, on the street. It is time to get the point across in all the places ordinary people learn about crime and violence (most notably network television) that violence committed in the home, within the family or between lovers, is not only criminal, it is the most dangerous and despicable kind of crime there is, and the people who commit it are worse than street rapists and serial killers. “Home” has been rest and recreation, leisure and safety, for men, for millennia. It is time for women to experience the same pleasure and security at home. It is time for us women to warm ourselves by the home fires we keep burning.