The greatest danger is not “out there.”
We’re all familiar with the “stranger in a dark alley” scenario.
It is a universal story, which invokes similar shades of fear in women and girls (and other vulnerable populations such as transgender and indigenous people) around the world.
Replace “dark alley” with “deserted beach,” “remote hiking trail,” or “city apartment,” and you’ll have summarized the news headlines broadcasting assaults on women in every corner of the globe—if they broadcast them at all.
This mythic figure lurks outside our doors and across the bar. They are faceless and terrifying. They are always in the shadows, awaiting the perfect opportunity to strike. Invoking the danger of crossing their path is enough to make us stay home, call a cab, change our clothes, postpone our solo trip, clutch our keys tightly in one hand as we walk, guard our drinks, and forget our power.
And none of those actions are “wrong.” Any practical steps we can take to minimize our vulnerability to attack make perfect sense.
Personally, I regularly go out alone, travel alone, and walk through cities alone at night, but I take measures to minimize risk, such as telling friends where I’m going and letting them know when I arrive, watching my drinks, and staying hyper-aware of my surroundings.
However, that’s beside the point. All this advice we give to women to “keep safe” just doesn’t give the full picture.
Because the “stranger in the dark alley” is not the (only) enemy.
Globally, it is estimated that 1 in 3 women “have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence.” Some claim that the numbers may in fact be much higher. “Other research indicates that as many as 70% of women worldwide have experienced some form of sexual violence.”
The Empowerment Self-Defense Global movement writes, “By conservative estimates, about 120 million women worldwide—about the total population of Japan—have been violently forced to endure unwanted intercourse or other sexual acts by their chosen intimate partners.”
It is furthermore estimated that, “Of 87,000 women who were intentionally killed in 2017 globally, more than half (50,000—58 percent) were killed by intimate partners or family members.”
I could go on. The statistics do not get any cheerier.
As an empowerment self-defense instructor, I share physical and verbal techniques for de-escalating dangerous situations, setting strong boundaries, and—when necessary—fighting back. But I also facilitate conversations about abusive relationships, domestic violence, and saying “no” not just to strangers, but also to the people we love most.
Without a doubt, there are dangerous people in the streets, in the woods, on trains, buses, and empty beaches. I hear those stories only too often. These are the monsters of news headlines and gruesome crime novels. They are easy to condemn and make for highly clickable stories.
Yet if we consider the statistics, we women are in greater danger much closer to home. Our adversaries are friends, lovers, spouses, family members, and coworkers. Our battleground is the bedroom, the workplace, and the neighborhood bar—as much as, or more than, the shadowy streets.
So, what can we do?
We could stop dating, stop trusting, and stop loving. That would be the logical path to take, wouldn’t it? Our friends and lovers are literally killing us.
I propose an alternative: let’s flip the script.
Let’s get real about the reality of violence against women—and then do something about it.
Change comes from all sides: sharing tools with vulnerable populations to defend themselves against violence. Teaching about consent in schools, in the home, and everywhere else. Raising children to hear and respect a “no” and wait for a genuine “yes.” Treating domestic violence and known abusers with the same severity that we treat the “stranger in a dark alley.”
I could stay single. The numbers tell me that’s my best shot at a violence-free life.
But I don’t want to do that.
I will keep dating, keep trusting, and keep loving.
I will not perpetuate myths about violence that disempower women and blame them for their experiences, because they were not careful enough, smart enough, or strong enough. I will continue having conversations with anyone who cares to listen about the true shades of violence and how they show up in our daily lives.
And I hope you will too.