A Place for Innocence on The Night Streets

A WOMAN'S PERSPECTIVE

THE hour is nearing midnight. I leave my office and step into a quiet city street. Under moonbeams and towering lights, I begin the walk to the subway - a stretch of five blocks. My eyes focus on the faint circles of light beneath my feet.

In moments, however, my reverie is broken by bursts of throaty laughter. Ahead of me, a cluster of large guys in baseball caps and varsity sweat shirts stands idle on the corner, blocking my path. I note five of them. Yards away, the tallest catches sight of me, and I pull my coat in tightly. In calculated steps I maneuver through them, and at once, their loud conversation stops. Five pairs of eyes are gazing at me.

Even after I have moved past them, I listen for footsteps from behind. I hear nothing, and after a few moments, my body slowly uncoils. But tonight, my customary ripple of panic has unexpectedly awakened a large question in me. It is simple and disturbing: Where is my place here tonight, as a woman alone?

Under this canopy of dark sky, I dig into my entrenched notions about men, women, and the evening hour. In moments, an idea takes form: "The best place for women on streets late at night is no place, because dark streets breed dangerous men who harm women."

It is a haunting and bleak dictum. What purpose does it serve? How long has this been lodged in me? And how does it darken my evening walks home, as well as the way I view myself and my world?

These questions are not easy.

I am certain that this cautionary rule is meant to serve as a tool for my survival - a rule I've learned that is nasty, narrow, and paranoid, but ultimately "good for me" because it ostensibly protects me from physical harm. I accept it without protest because I value being safe. And more subtly, I accept it because I value being good: Virtuous women, many feel, are those who are not to be found on the streets late at night.

But as I uncover and scrutinize this "good girl" doctrine of the evening hour, its sheen of reasonableness begins to fade. I realize something deeper and darker - I am reducing myself to prey and every male that passes by into a predator. This leads me to ask: Just how "good for me" is this safety creed that demands that I deny my own humanity, and that of every other person I see?

I turn my attention to the scene before me. As I dart along these shadowy streets, man after man brushes by - and I take note: I am preparing for an outbreak of war. I feel my body tightening and my face hardening. My mind is playing out terrifying imaginings that one of these moonlit men will harm me.

What feeds these dreams of terror? In part my own experiences, both on and off the street. But just as potent, I can't help thinking, are the bad experiences of other women portrayed in the media. Newspapers, television, and film perpetually serve me lurid pictures of women as helpless creatures, and men as vicious beasts. Often, these stories pull me in; and too often, I live them out vicariously.

My eyes sweep the open street once more. I am the sole woman in a sea of men - a gender balance noticeably out of whack with the face of humanity. I grow self-conscious about my female identity and feel pressure to look at myself as an object on display.

I look for other women. The few that pass by are linked to men. But up ahead on a nearby corner, I spot one alone. She is wearing her white stiletto heels and her barely-there clothes. She struts as an object for sale.

In my search for a place on these streets tonight, I know my first step is to reject the oppressive stereotypes. Without question, when I view my world as unfriendly - specifically, as a place that breeds male monsters - I am also cutting off the potential of a larger me and a larger concept of men.

When I obey a code of conduct that instructs me to put up walls and keep my face taut, I am squelching deep impulses to engage with the mysteries of the outside world. By doing so, I am pushed to turn off a very real part of me - a sense of playfulness and spontaneity.

Why do the principles of life change when the stars come out?

As I near the heavy doors to the subway, I feel reluctant to leave these dark, open streets. Though I am still unsure how to put my fears to rest, I am convinced this negative strategy I am told to cultivate "for my own good" weakens and paralyzes me.

When will I be able to linger on streets late at night and exchange eye contact, smiles, words with others?

I know I cannot wait for my world to change; to be sure, it must begin with me. But how? Should I overhaul my thinking, reverse the decree? Cultivate a view that dark streets are safe places? This would be naive; rosy pictures do not appease me. I must go further still.

Perhaps it can start here: To listen and respond to the deeper instincts that live and move in me - under any shade of sky - and declare my right to be free from shallower instincts learned from societal codes and fears. I am certain I must pay attention to these sacred, inmost instincts to both nurture my individuality and protect me on streets (or anyplace else).

My energy is mounting. I am ready to do something unexpected under moonbeams and towering street lights. It is time to break the silence and tell other women: Being good is not about being afraid.

Being good is about not being afraid.

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