“Being born a woman is my awful tragedy. From the moment I was conceived I was doomed to sprout breasts and ovaries rather than penis and scrotum; to have my whole circle of action, thought and feeling rigidly circumscribed by my inescapable femininity. Yes, my consuming desire to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, bar room regulars — to be part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording — all is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always in danger of assault and battery. My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. Yet, God, I want to talk to everybody I can as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night…” (The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 77).
These words written by the eighteen-year-old Sylvia Plath in the summer of 1951 sound horribly contemporary. Her yearning for unconditional access to public space, to feel safe, to do what she wants when she wants without men interfering or threatening her, is the same old story that spawns through the years decade after decade.
There is rarely a time when women’s bodies are safe or free from scrutiny or judgement. Any body. Any shape, size, colour, age, physical ability, physical wellness, dressed or undressed. It is hard to know what the female body would be that managed to escape this critical, threatening surveillance. But the female body does not exist in a vacuum, it exists at multiple points of intersection. A white woman’s body is rarely safe. A Black woman’s body is even less safe. A transwoman’s body is extremely high risk. A lesbian body is unsafe (especially if it is a lesbian body showing affection to another lesbian body in public space). The intersections are endless, but they all amount to the same thing: lack of safety.
Location too. All of these women’s bodies are not safe in public space. A woman can be going about her day-to-day business; shopping, at a concert, walking down the street, and be violated. That could be verbally, or physically. All uninvited, often unexpected, always shocking. Many women feel unsafe walking home, especially late at night. But many women are frightened to take a taxi alone at night. Public transport, busier, could be seen as safer, but the last time I was on a night train, a man stood in front of me and dropped his trousers. I won’t use night trains. So, for many, if we’re out at night, we don’t want to walk home alone, we don’t want to get a cab, and we can’t get public transport without feeling uncomfortable or unsafe.
Many heterosexual women are not safe in their homes. They may have verbal, emotional or physical abuse directed at them every single day. They cannot leave. If they do leave, that is when they are most at risk. If their partner drinks, their safety is compromised. If the national football team is playing, they are unsafe. If the national football team is playing and lose, they are even more unsafe. There are myriad ways and contexts in which women are not safe at home.
Women’s bodies are not safe in schools or on university campuses. They are not safe in places of work. There are so many places where women’s bodies are not safe. In busy places, in quiet places, indoors, outdoors. Walking. Moving. Standing still. Where do we get to feel safe?
What about in virtual spaces? Are women safe online? No. Death threats, rape threats, unsolicited pictures of male genitals, men explaining women’s own areas of expertise to them designed to question and belittle, messages about selfies that leave you so humiliated you delete them from your social media account, bodies too fat (“Who ate all the pies?” “When’s it due?”), bodies too thin (“You need to eat more pies”), too much make-up, not enough make-up, too slutty, too frigid, never “right”, never safe from comment, judgement, remarks and opinions casually tossed out without a thought of how they violate, how they hurt, how they encroach and make space – any space — unsafe or uncomfortable. The lasting damage. The absolute unthinking privilege and entitlement of hegemonic masculinity.
Is there any space where women can feel comfortable? “…to have my whole circle of action, thought and feeling rigidly circumscribed by my inescapable femininity.” Increasingly I think, no. There is no truly safe, comfortable space for women to escape from all of this in day-to-day life. From male strangers, friends, lovers, family members. Yes, I know it isn’t “all men”. But it doesn’t need to be all men for so many women to be, and feel, unsafe. It is suffocatingly depressing. Because in the end what all women are entitled to is to live as freely as many men enjoy. To be able to fulfil Plath’s 1951 longing, that she never achieved, and that so many of us never will either:
“But, God, I want to talk to everybody I can as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night…”
This, it seems, is the impossiblity.