NIGHTWALK

The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful. … The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves.

 

How beautiful a street is in winter! It is at once revealed and obscured.

 

That is true: to escape is the greatest of pleasures; street haunting in winter the greatest of adventures. Still as we approach our own doorstep again, it is comforting to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices, fold us round; and the self, which has been blown about at so many street corners, which has battered like a moth at the flame of so many inaccessible lanterns, sheltered and enclosed.

 

Virginia Woolf, ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’ (1930)

 

Nightwalking, just as it sounds, is the purposeless or purposeful walking in public space during the darker hours. Virginia Woolf called it street haunting, “the greatest of adventures.”[1] It was illegal in medieval London. Walking the streets at night was associated with deviousness and illegal adventure. The streets were dangerous, only to be navigated by men. Author George Sand (Amandine Aurore Lucie Dupin) illegally took to wearing men’s clothing to blend in on the Paris streets, to go walking without being noticed or bothered.[2] By the Victorian era middle-class women needed to be shielded and distinguished from the lower class and impurity so not to be mistaken for a “public woman” on urban streets.[3] Suburbs and rural estates were sanctuaries to keep women safe. Fast forward in time the Taliban have recently taken back power in Afghanistan, we see an extreme example of this control play out in real time where women and girls are so oppressed they must be accompanied by a male relative chaperone to leave their house. 

Here and now in suburban Australia, there is still a confusing and paradoxical dichotomy to how women[4] occupy space. The contradictions innate with private and public space are exacerbated for women. Public space seems the most threatening. Private space seemingly represents safety. Public space is the most threatened by women’s presence. Women’s safety is most threatened in private space. Domesticity, heteronormativity and suburbanisation delineate, limit and obscure women’s experience of both public and private space. The spaces contrived to keep us safe, the public suburb and the private home, are the very spaces that accommodate the most potential violence. 

 

Suburbs were planned to keep women attached to the home and tied to domesticity. Deliberately isolating, surrounded by homes occupied with equally isolated women. The suburban landscape’s power traditionally lies in maintaining women’s inward private focus, relying on traditional gender roles, increased domestic labour, dependence on a car to get anywhere, and low-paid or insecure paid work.[5] This isolation and repression, and the resulting affects, are exacerbated exponentially in rural Australia. As much as contemporary sub/urban design and town planning attempts to redress the imbalance of public space, building in signifiers for personal safety such as added lighting and wider paths, it can never truly address the overarching controlling social structures of patriarchal violence. “Neighbourhoods use [cishet, able-bodied, white] women’s comfort, pleasure, and safety as markers of successful revitalization”[6] but street lighting and surveillance cameras do little to fix the underlying issue and cause of gendered violence. 

 

In Australia, on average, 1 woman per week is killed by a current or former partner, a quarter of women experience sexual and/or physical violence and/or emotional abuse by a current or former partner, and almost ten women per day present to hospital with injuries caused by a spouse or domestic partner.[7] Family violence incidents reported in the last year in Moonee Valley have risen by over 3%; with the victims overwhelmingly female (74%) and offenders overwhelming male (77%).[8] The private space of the suburban home does not offer safety and sanctuary for all; it obfuscates women’s safety, it masquerades as a cosy safe haven offering protection from the evils of the outside world.

 

But the call is coming from inside the house.

 

It is much more complex than saying that women’s fear of violence is misplaced. Female fear, where girls and women have been socialised to fear for their safety in public spaces, despite the above statistics, is not irrational. Researchers from all disciplines have been studying the female fear paradox for decades. Female fear exists because we know through past experiences that we are unwelcome in public space, we have no right to it, we’ve been told through countless verbal, physical or sexual assaults that all form a pattern or a map and tells us we shouldn’t be here, we shouldn’t go there.[9] In turn, female fear directs us back to the supposed ‘safety’ of the home, “reinforcing patriarchal institutions like the nuclear family … for the appearance of security. In a vicious cycle, this stigmatizes violence experienced within the ‘safe’ space of the home and drives it further out of sight.”[10] The idealised suburban family home does provide protection, not for the victims of family or intimate partner violence, but for the violent perpetrators.

The contradictions of private and public space are indeed convoluted and our relationship to them complex. Suburban streets, parks and paths, especially at night, can offer solace in suburban solitude and isolation. The nightwalker may find safety in the dark quiet streets. The streets might offer much desired privacy and anonymity not afforded in the home. This again comes back to public spatial design. What is craved for in contemporary suburban public space and healthy municipal cities are places that are accessible and pleasurable for walking. These spaces are uncrowded, rejuvenated “areas of public open space” and “gathering space” with more trees “enhancing our urban forest.”[11] But this is a contradiction of needs and wants. These characteristics may signify and pose threats to safety. “A man crawled out of the bushes in the creek bed and followed me along the trail for several hundred metres.”[12] “Lovely park during the day, a little bit sketchy after dusk as there aren't many people around,”[13]  “I've heard bad stories about this place, [t]he behaviour of people here makes me feel uncomfortable.”[14] Public space at night offers the protection of invisibility and anonymity to both perpetrators and women alike. 

 

A paradox also exists in the hyper-visibility of women in public space. Traditionally public space is designed for men, so women simply daring to be in this space attracts the male gaze and are ‘asking for it’. Ogling, cat calls and unsolicited demands to smile lets us know we are in their sights.[15] The night offers some protection from being seen. It is a calculated decision to be out in public space at night, particularly alone, particularly on the quiet suburban streets. I know a woman who only runs at night, so that she doesn’t have to deal with being seen exercising. It is more enjoyable for her, and safer. Another of my female friends walks her dog only after dark, it’s easier that way. They’ve weighed up the risks, for them safety is found in the darkness of night. But women have been conditioned to not use public space in the same way men do. Do men avoid jogging during the day, or even at all, to avoid unwanted stares or attention, or because they feel they aren’t entitled to? Do men find it more pleasurable to walk their dog after the dark? Do men even consider these things?

 

Women make all sorts of decisions daily to avoid threats to our personal safety. Almost 90% of women have experienced verbal and/or physical street harassment and have changed their behaviour as a result.[16] Imagine having to decide the safest way to get home after a night out, not just the quickest or easiest route. If you’re a woman, chances are you’ve had to weigh that up before. For many years after experiencing sexual harassment from a taxi driver I chose to walk. I would always walk with my phone in my hand and my keys threaded through my fingers. The fear of being attacked, kidnapped, raped or killed was very real; and I would question my decision again when Jill Meagher was attacked in the very street I walked;[17] when Eurydice Dixon was murdered walking home at night; when a young women was raped on a bridge I walked over every day and frequently in the dark; every time a woman was attacked walking along a suburban bike track; and when Sarah Everard was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a police officer in South London earlier this year. The sensationalist reporting and the justifiable public outcry of these horrendous crimes reinforce and reimagine the violent stranger girls and women have been taught to fear. The paradox here is that men are more likely to be physically assaulted by a male stranger in public.[18] It’s the conditioned female fear and the onus of the female victim’s choices which are supposedly the crux of how we experience public space. It’s as if getting home safely is a choice, and victims choose not to. Whereas the only real decision lies with violent perpetrators. 

 

Text me when you get home safe.

 

Women’s safety is not a black and white issue. It is complex, layered, steeped in power relations and paradoxical. It cannot be solved with added streetlights. But women’s enjoyment of public spaces may. As Virginia Woolf attests, to nightwalk as a lone woman is “to escape, it is the greatest of pleasures.”[19]  Nightwalking, enjoying the quiet darkened streets, without fear and purpose, with permission to take it all in, to be a flâneuse, is to have the same rights and access to public space as men. Then when we return to our homes, we return to a sanctuary, a place of safety that “fold us round;” we are “sheltered and enclosed.”[20] For all the paradoxes and contradictions, for all the light and dark, the suburban flâneuse should expect safety walking the suburban streets, as she should expect to be safe in the suburban home.

Jenna Corcoran, 2021

[1] Woolf, V (1930), Street Haunting: A London Adventure, http://s.spachman.tripod.com/Woolf/streethaunting.htm

[2] Elkin, L. (2019) ‘Stepping out’, Architectural Review, (1459), pp. 36–40. Available at: https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=shib&db=afh&AN=134992334&site=eds-live

[3] Kern, L (2020) Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World, Verso, London, p16.

[4] I use this umbrella term inclusive of cis and trans women, non-binary and gender diverse people.

[5] Betty Friedan (1963) and Jane Jacobs (1961), cited in Kern, L (2020) Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World, Verso, London.

[6] Kern, L (2020) Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World, Verso, London, p88.

[7] Our Watch (2021), ‘Quick Facts’, Our Watch, https://www.ourwatch.org.au/quick-facts/

[8] Crime Statistics Agency, https://www.crimestatistics.vic.gov.au/crime-statistics/latest-crime-data-by-area

[9] Hille Koskela (1999) cited in Kern, L (2020) Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World, Verso, London, p118.

[10] Kern L 2020, Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World, Verso, London, p118.

[11] City of Moonee Valley (2018), MV2040 Strategy, https://mvccdocuments.mvcc.vic.gov.au:7979/EasyShareWebAuthentication/Redirect.aspx?docKey=OVNVbVBPU2RJRjdFNkg3OXgrSVRBVE5FM1hnRlJMbUF5U1NQa0FGaDJsTlBZbHM1d21jTzRZUUdXQTQrbHNUY1o2TS9CWjBsVURKbitHbWlyd2hBS2c9PQ2

[12] Yourground (2021) ‘Moonee Ponds Creek Trail’, yourground, https://yourground.crowdspot.com.au/place/411433

[13] Yourground (2021) ‘Queens Park, Moonee Ponds’, yourground, https://yourground.crowdspot.com.au/place/408736

[14] Yourground (2021) ‘Woodlands Park, Victoria’, yourground, https://yourground.crowdspot.com.au/place/412303

[15] Older women, on the other hand are often invisible.

[16] Australia Institute, cited in She’s a Crowd https://shesacrowd.com, Yourground https://www.yourground.org

[17] The irony for me was that I was living with a violent man at the time of Jill Meagher’s rape and murder.

[18] “In the most recent incident of physical assault by a male, men were most likely to be physically assaulted by a male stranger (66% or 873,100). The location of the incident was most likely to be either a place of entertainment or recreation venue (28% or 370,700) or an outside location.” Australian Bureau of Statistics (2016) Personal Safety Australia, https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/crime-and-justice/personal-safety-australia/2016#key-findings  

[19] Woolf, V (1930), Street Haunting: A London Adventure, http://s.spachman.tripod.com/Woolf/streethaunting.htm

[20] Woolf, V (1930), Street Haunting: A London Adventure, http://s.spachman.tripod.com/Woolf/streethaunting.htm

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