Margaret Atwood gave a lecture in 1982, in which she shared an anecdote about talking to men and women about safety. "Why do men feel threatened by women?" I asked a male friend of mine. "They're afraid women will laugh at them," he said. Then I asked some women students in a poetry seminar I was giving, "Why do women feel threatened by men?" "They're afraid of being killed," they said.
Being born a woman carries additional risks that many men never think about. On a daily basis, a frustrating amount of my mind space is occupied with thoughts of safety. Throughout the day, I make a number of decisions, both consciously and subconsciously, to try to keep myself safe.
I'm not alone. Most of us do it. And it starts from the moment we wake up.
In the morning, I think about what I'm going to wear. If I'm likely to be in meetings with men, I'm careful about how much skin I show.
When I'm driving, I'm subconsciously vigilant about cars behind me. If a car makes too many unusual turns and follows the exact same route, I become wary. If my final destination is home, I drive deliberately past my street, and take a winding route back, hoping I'll shake the car behind me. More often than not, it turns off and goes on its merry way. On two occasions that I can remember, however, my pursuer has continued to follow me despite my attempts to throw him off. Feeling somewhat panicked, I've pulled into populated service stations and they've finally sped away.
When I park my car, I make a mental note to check for nearby security cameras, and I try to park in the most well lit, highly visible spaces. If I park my car before sundown, and I know I'll return to it when it's dark, I think very carefully about whether the area where I've parked will be safe at night.
I don't take Ubers. I've read too many stories about women being assaulted, abducted and raped by Uber drivers. Taxis can be similarly dangerous, so I only take Corporate Cabs or Co-Op taxis. I'm lucky that I can afford to make that choice. If I'm in a taxi overseas, I enter my destination into the maps app on my phone and follow along to make sure that my taxi is indeed going where it's meant to.
I feel unsafe in no service areas, when I leave my phone at home, or when it runs out of battery. My phone represents a last lifeline, a recording device, and a geo-tracker. Without it, I feel on edge.
In trains, I make sure to sit in populated carriages. I subconsciously scan the carriage before I sit down, making a mental note of who is where, and checking for any threatening behaviour. I don't take the train after dark, because the Parnell train station is situated in a remote area that backs on to the Domain. It's not worth the risk.
When I'm walking down the street, particularly at night, I stick to main roads, even when a less populated route would get me to my destination faster. If I sense that a man is following me, I duck into a populated shop or try to cross the road.
In bars with my female friends, we stick together. We don't just go to the bathroom together to giggle and gossip. There's safety in numbers. When we leave after a night out, we tell our friends to text us when they get home. We don't sleep until we know that they're safe.
When I go on Tinder or Bumble dates, I make sure that a few friends know when and where I'm going. I choose popular bars and restaurants. I say no to suggestions of hikes or picnics in secluded areas until I know someone well.
In Nelson earlier this year, my parents came to watch me sing the national anthem at the rugby. We stayed in different hotels. We went out for dinner and when it was time for me to leave, my father insisted on walking me to my front door.
I shouldn't have to think about any of these things. The maddening part of this story is that I could take all of the safety precautions in the world and still be attacked. The majority of people who commit sexual assault know their victims. They might be friends, relations or spouses. Women have been attacked on populated streets, wearing baggy clothing, in supposedly "safe" neighbourhoods. We can never know whether our mental safety checklists will work. The potential for danger is ever present.
And yet, most of us go through our lives quite joyfully. The vast majority of the time, the safety decisions I make are subconscious; the result of many years of walking the planet as a woman. But when I hear stories of women being victimised, brutalised and murdered, those decisions become conscious again. I am reminded of just how vulnerable I am.
I've no doubt that some men will be offended reading this column. They'll think that they are good men, and if a woman crosses the street when they're walking behind her, will take that as a slight upon their character.
The thing is, when we're walking in front of you on the street, we have no way of knowing whether you're a good man going about his business or someone who wants to kill us. Our reactions are instinctive and ingrained. Our only motive is the desire to survive.
So don't tell us that we must be careful. Don't pontificate about the threats that we must avoid. We know. We've known for years. And yet, despite the many precautions we take, women are still killed.
We have some of the worst statistics for violence against women in the OECD. Don't tell us to keep ourselves safe. Step up and make New Zealand a safer country for us to live in.