More Dangerous to Be a Woman
We were walking through the streets of New York City with bags of water, toiletries, and food, handing things out to those we saw who were homeless, when Rory commented, “There don’t seem to be many homeless women, Mom. Most of the people we talk to are men.” I agreed that yes, most people on the streets openly homeless were men; I tried to explain that there are many women and children who are homeless, but women are much more likely to stay in shelters and avoid being out on the streets at all. I said simply, without much thought, “It’s much more dangerous to be a woman on the street.” And, in a moment I will never forget, my eight year old daughter looked at me bewildered, completely uncomprehending, and said, “Why would it be more dangerous to be a woman than it is to be a man?”
The innocence and purity in that question hit me like a slap across the face. It makes tears well up in my eyes to write it down. One million emotions flooded up in that minute. At first, I was shocked; it was as if she was asking what color the sky was. Then, happiness and relief, that she didn’t yet know that being a woman in this society is inherently dangerous, that I’ve been able to keep her safe this long, that somehow I have managed to shield her from not only actions that would tell her that being a woman is unsafe, but from words and messaging telling her so. Then, on the heels of that relief, the sadness and fear hit me so hard in the chest that it took my breath away. “Not much longer,” a tiny voice inside my head said. “It can’t possibly be too much longer before she deeply knows why this is the case.” The truth of this voice breaks my heart into a million pieces.
Most statistics estimate that 90% of women who are homeless have experienced severe physical and/or sexual assault during their lives. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I think that estimate is low. I want you to take a minute to let that sink in… At the very least 9 out of 10 women on the street have experienced severe physical beatings, rapes, and assaults that tell these women that their bodies are not their bodies; they are the property of the men around them, who will do what they please with them. The vast majority of these women have had these assaults happen more than once, and it’s estimated that at about half of them were children when they were first abused. Women are so vulnerable to abuse on the street that they will often choose to enter into a relationship and offer sex to a man just to receive some kind of basic protection against the inevitability of another man’s assault if she were to be alone.
I can’t tell my eight year old daughter any of this, of course. I can’t explain to her why women would be in more danger on the street, any more than I can explain to her why women are in danger more in the world. What’s the answer to that question? There might be answers, but there are no good answers. There aren’t any answers to this question that are in any way valid, or logical, or based in anything besides the explaining away of behaviors and a general societal attitude that should never, ever be explained away.
I can’t answer her, and I also can’t assure her that she’s safe, that this is only an issue if you lack the security of a house with a door you can lock, because of course, it isn’t. I know that the number of homeless women who are assaulted is higher than 90% because I know that the number of women who are assaulted is higher than 90%… It’s just that we so often don’t consider these instances to be “real” assault. Every woman I know could tell you of a time when a man inappropriately touched her in some way, making it known to her that her value lies in her body, in her sex, in her looks, in the way she pleasures him. And I know that it is only a matter of time before my eight year old daughter has this happen to her. It’s only a matter of time before she would never dream of asking why it is more dangerous to be a woman than it is be a man. It is quite honestly a miracle that she doesn’t already know this by the age of eight.
Over the last couple of days, millions of women have taken to Twitter to talk about the various sexual assaults they have experienced, in response to audio of a certain public figure saying that because he’s a celebrity, he can grab any woman by the pussy and she will let him, and in response to the idea that saying such a thing, that talking about assaulting women, is just “boy talk” or “locker room talk.” While I am not engaging in politics on this page, I feel like it dishonors my daughter, and all women, who are all someone’s daughter, those in homes and those without them, to not take this opportunity to stand up and say, NOT OKAY. It is not okay that at least 90% of women on the streets have experienced severe physical and sexual assault. It is not okay that it is more dangerous to be a woman who is homeless than it is to be a man. It is not okay that it’s more dangerous to be a woman, period, in this world. It’s not okay that my beautiful young daughter is going to find this out for herself soon, and it’s not okay that I’m honestly shocked that by eight years old she hasn’t figured it out yet. It’s not okay that by eight I definitely did know this, that in fact I cannot remember a time in my life where I didn’t understand that being a woman in a man’s world is the most dangerous thing I can think of.
When you see a woman on the streets suffering from homelessness, please remember that you’re seeing a woman who has likely suffered unbelievable trauma because she is a woman unprotected in a man’s world. And please, know that there is never any excuse for such violence. There is never any excuse for discussing women like they are objects solely for your pleasure, casually joking about sexually assaulting them. Every single time a person explains this type of behavior and language away with comments like, “Oh that’s just locker room talk,” or “Boys will be boys,” what they are really saying is, “Be scared, little girl. It’s not safe to be a woman in a man’s world and we aren’t going to do anything to change that.” They are saying it to my eight year old daughter, who hasn’t yet gotten the message, and to all of our daughters, to each and every woman. And that, is NOT OKAY.
Stand up for each and every woman you see on the street. Stand up for my daughter; stand up for yours. Stand up for what’s right. Because the only acceptable answer to, “Why would it be more dangerous to be a woman than it is to be a man?” is that it shouldn’t be, and that each of us should be doing every single thing possible to make sure that some day, it isn’t.