Lucky? And/or smart? Solo Women and Safety

So I’ve been thinking about the “white chicks shouldn’t” theme for awhile, now, and about how, consciously or unconsciously, most women have a strategy for dealing with the threat of sexual violence. I’m at a stage in my life where I rarely traverse the nighttime streets alone, but I do walk home from work on dark winter evenings, and sometimes the adrenaline surge I get from hearing the approach of heavy footsteps or from seeing a hulking silhouette on a lonely corner makes me almost nostalgic. In my 20s, when I roamed often alone through cities and countries, this edgy wariness was a frequent companion. My strategy was that I would not circumscribe my movements too much, that I would not always take the safest course of action, but that I wouldn’t be blindly stupid, either. I would remain vigilant; when necessary, I would trade off attractiveness for protectiveness; and I would sharpen my spidey sense of male character like a blade. Calculated risk. Cautious optimism. Bravery. Bravery that some might call stupid.

In this spirit, when I had the chance to take an indefinite solo backpacking trip in the 1990s, I went. But instead of going to Central America, as I was most inclined, I choose to go to Southeast Asia because I heard it was a much safer place for women to travel, and I wore short hair and baggy men’s clothing in an attempt to, if not pass as a boy, at least distance myself from unwanted male attention. (The bad haircut and ill-fitting clothing might also have distanced me from any chance of looking like a respectable person, but that was an issue of which I was blissfully unaware.)

As soon as I embarked for Thailand, the heightened calculations of risk and reward began. Waiting in Hong Kong for a connecting flight to Bangkok, I was approached by a man who asked me if I was headed to Khao San Road, and did I want to share a cab. He had identified another backpacker on board, too, another man, who was game to split the fare as well. We chatted a few moments before boarding, and then I had the last leg of the journey to decide: Did I split a midnight cab with two strange guys? Or, looked at another way, with two North Americans who looked comfortably hippyish in a mature, REI sort of way? Or did I get in a cab alone and get dropped off alone as well, at 1:00 AM in a strange country with nowhere determined to lay my head? (Yes, I know. I could have and probably should have arranged accommodation for at least that first night, but that’s not what I did. I was determined by budget and inclination to be a ragtag backpacker all the way.)

Not only did I end up splitting the cab with the men, I ended up sharing a room with them after we had trolled the Khao San area and found guest house after guest house filled up. When finally presented with an available quarter that was fitted with one double and one single bed, I turned to them both and said “I will share this room but I am NOT sharing a bed.” The older man congratulated me on my forthrightness and sort of paternalisticly—it was as if he’d been worried about me before—told me that I should always be as clear as that. He and the other guy bunked together in the double bed.

But still, despite their apparent deep decency, I slept that night, or half-slept, in the sweltering room with my sleep sack pulled tight around my neck.

But still, they weren’t the last strange men towards whom I had no sexual intentions with whom I shared a room on my trip.

But that’s not the story I started off meaning to tell. Khao San is sort of a half-way house to traveling, and in sizing up western white guys, I was on familiar territory. The harder calculations were yet to come, the ones I’ve been pondering on since, the ones that have been a major impetus for my writing. I’m going to post about them soon. Soon, soon, soon.

In the meantime, I wonder what the response to my travel-strategy and room-sharing would be if I were posting on a blog that large numbers of people actually read. I was not sexually assaulted in any of my wanderings, despite a bunch of “high-risk” behavior. Was I lucky? Yes, although I bristle at the way the term implies that the avoidance of sexual assault is akin to winning a prize. And how much of my “luck” do I attribute to my vibe—to my androgynous dress and my straightforward attitude—and to my ability to quickly asses character? And if I attribute my luck to those sources, if I claim some power and ability to keep myself safe while out alone in the world, am I suggesting that victims can be blamed? Does one thing necessarily imply the other? Am I being arrogant? I almost hate to type that, because of the way it evokes images of schadenfreude and comeuppance.

In mulling these things, I’ve recalled the brouhaha that occurred in 2008 regarding Lizz Winstead’s interview with Moe Tkacik and Tracie Egan, two women who were at the time editors at Jezebel and identify as feminists. They were drunk, and they said a lot of politically incorrect things, especially about rape. At one point, Tracie said that she hasn’t been raped because she’s smart. She and Moe (who talked about having been raped) were taken to task by the audience and by Lizz Winstead and all over the blogosphere, and for good reason, but the drunken, tone-deaf conversation is also pretty honest, on some level. I suspect Moe and Tracie are saying things many people think, or half think, or have done, before the knowing-better clicks on and shuts them, or us, up about it.

Now, when I sometimes quicken my pace nervously on my way home from work, and when walking home from the train at 9 or 10 PM makes me feel sort of wild and free but also like stalked prey, I’m amazed at how far out on a limb I regularly went on my own. Lucky? Or smart? Probably some combination. I hate to think stupid.

White Chicks Shouldn’t

[Photo by Lisa Meehan Williams]

Most of my Facebook friends I know personally, but a couple of them are just vague internet acquaintances, if even that. It was one of these, a guy, who posted a link titled “White Chicks Shouldn’t,” and because this phrase caught my eye, I clicked. The link was to a three-minute video clip taken at an outdoor Jamaican dancehall.

The first shot shows a thick white woman—green shirt, denim mini, red skin—grabbing her ankles while a (presumably) Jamaican man grinds into her ass, his hand on her back, his leg eventually up over her shoulder, pressing her down deeper. They’re doing some seriously dirty dancing. It takes me aback, since those moves would definitely violate my safety-zone, especially if I were so visibly an outsider somewhere. But it looks like they’re both into it. The video quality isn’t good, but it looks like they’re having fun. The woman makes some theatrical faces, thrusts her butt rhythmically. The man takes her hat off her head, cocks it sideway it on his own, caps it back on her.

The next shot shows the woman dancing alone at the edge of the circle. She’s a good dancer, doing a sexy little booty dance, and the deejay invites her, orders her almost, to the middle of the floor. Now we see a different man approach, and the two become a dancing pair. I am transfixed, at this point, and I suddenly get the appeal of these live action clips, because there’s a sticky energy that comes from being off script, that comes from not being sure what you’re watching. I’m like: damn—suddenly they’re on the dusty ground, the man’s boots up by the woman’s face; he’s humping her in a sort of 69 position—does she WANT to be doing this? Now she’s face first on the ground. Is that a dance move she’s doing, sort of swimming with her arms, or is she trying to get away? It becomes clear, as clear as it can be in a grainy, quick-cut video: She’s trying to get him off of her. I start to feel queasy. She manages to stand up, but the guy is at her again. She pushes him, angry. They’re shoving each other up against the speakers. She turns to walk away again, and the first guy lunges at her, gets his hands around her waist from behind. She’s back on the ground, and he’s humping her. The crowd is watching indifferently—men, women, a couple kids. The video cuts. Now a few men are holding her; there’s a guy on each leg pulling her spread eagled. Another guy is jumping off the speakers to land between her legs. He has something white in his mouth. Is it her underwear? Cut. The video shows the guy leaping onto her again. Cut. Again. Cut. Again. Then we see the woman shaking herself off, red-faced, departing. Some jumbled footage of men speaking indecipherably. Cut. The end.

What the hell? What did I just see? Why was this posted on my Facebook newsfeed with nothing but a couple benign ha ha comments posted after it?

I turned to the internet for answers and found that indeed, as one commenter noted, annoyed that the clip was being presented as a new diversion, the video is all over the place. It’s from 2008, and it’s frequently titled “Dance Hall Tourist” and described as “tourist girl getting wild to dancehall.” Is that what I saw? A tourist girl getting wild? I’m a white chick myself, a white girl, or I used to be one. Now I’m a white middle-aged mom, and I’ve never spent much time in the recesses of the internet where the side bars are stacked with thumbnails for Pole Dance Fail and the World’s Boob Slapping Contest. I had forgotten. I had forgotten, if I’d ever exactly known, how common this perspective was, and I felt a muddled disbelief. But then I found a description for the video that I thought was accurate: “Dance hall tourist gets raped publicly.” Yes, that described what I thought I saw. I scrolled through dozens of comments on various sites to see how people were responding. Typically, they reacted as if to a funny joke: “hahahah.” “THAT WAS HILARIOUS.” “Ha. They ain’t got shit on me. I’m talking jumping outta planes and landing in the punanny.” “White girl got SCHOOLED. Did you see her face hahaha.”

There were also a few critical comments. One guy said he knew where he wouldn’t be spending his tourist dollars. Someone asked: “Why would they do that to her? Racism? Or was she rude?”

This is the stew I must have smelled in the title “White Chicks Shouldn’t”: the simmering mix of race, gender, tourist, local, sex, power, payback, dollars. The man who posted on the link on Facebook is from a poor, tropical country. Should I just ignore it? For a night, I tossed and turned on all the things it brought up for me as a white female, a former tourist chick, an author of a book about a white girl-brown boy romance. I commented on the link in my mind, wondering if I should say something like:

Maybe this clip should be titled “Jamaican dudes shouldn’t.”
“Black dudes shouldn’t”
“Guys shouldn’t”

“Men shoudn’t”

“People shouldn’t”

Or, the title being what it is, I wondered if I should pose some questions, like:

White girls shouldn’t what, exactly?

Dance in foreign countries?

Dance sexy?

Dance without a husband or male relative standing by?

Expect to move through the world unmolested?

Leave the all-inclusives?

Forget themselves? Forget for one minute that though they’re white, yes—and so might have some feelings of entitlement, might have some cash—they’re also female, and they can be raped.

In any case, when I next logged on to Facebook, the link had been taken down. Maybe someone else had given the poster a nudge. But since then, I’ve been walking around with the question in my mind: White chicks shouldn’t what? When I was traveling by myself, I probably asked myself some version of this everyday.

Girls shouldn’t what, and how much can they not do and still have autonomy, still have a full range of human responses, still travel, still live? I have a ramble about this half written out, but it will have to wait to be posted.

In the meantime, not long after I stumbled upon the Dancehall Tourist Facebook post, I read about the Richmond High School gang rape on Jezebel. (The story about a fifteen year-old girl who, upon leaving her home-coming dance, was gang-raped and beaten by a number of men for over two hours while a crowd of men and boys watched wasn’t covered widely by national msm.)

I don’t know with certainty the ethnicity of the survivor, but given the school’s demographic and the last names of family members, I assume she’s not white. White girls, of course, not being the only ones who shouldn’t. Whiteness, of course, being just one of a thousand perceived provocations.

It was another Facebook post (Danica’s) that alerted me to the conversation about the event on the SFGate web site, where commenters widely decried the act but where some also decried the proclivities of various races and the stupidity of a girl who would go into a darkened courtyard to drink with a boy she knew. One commenter, Lilypod, responded sharply to the implication that the girl could have saved herself if she’d been smarter, and Danica posted her excellent note, which I’m excerpting here:

“What do people seriously think women do every single day of their lives anyway? In various ways, to varying extents: they limit their movements and impose curfews on themselves; in subtle ways, often without realising, they rearrange their lives around the possibility of avoiding an attack; they avoid going places alone and curtail their independence; they come home earlier than they wish to; they have their keys ready in their hands when they’re walking up to their front doors; they double-check doors at night; they take taxis for short distances even if they’d rather walk and even if the expense is one they can ill afford; they walk the long route home rather than take a more convenient shortcut; they text each other to let it be known they’ve gotten home safely; they anxiously await friends’ texts for the same confirmation; they avoid jobs that finish late; they avoid certain jobs entirely; they pass up accommodation they might otherwise take because of poor street lighting.

“they avoid traveling alone; they change their jogging routes or stick to a treadmill indoors. Women take these attempts at avoiding attacks completely for granted and so does everybody else: it’s seen as completely normal, not as a sign of a damaged society. So what are we going to teach young girls from now on? To look around at the boys in their classes and see all their male schoolmates as potential rapists; to expect rape everywhere?”

That query hit a raw nerve for me, as it probably does for any woman who wants to move through the world independently, for any woman who has a daughter she hopes will be able to do the same.

Men shouldn’t. Boys shouldn’t. People shouldn’t.

But we know they sometimes, some of them, do.

How to know it and still live fully?