The Geography of Fear

In a previous post, I glossed over the term “geography of fear.” Paradoxically, this isn’t something that is possible to just gloss over for many women, including myself. The geography of fear affects me everyday, and it’s something that is always in the back of my mind.

Woman standing on street alone in the dark.

Before I give you a text book definition. Let me tell you about something that happened to me last week that has been haunting me.

My apartment building is under renovation, which means there are numerous construction men and contractors coming in and out at all hours of the day. Typically, they go about their work without interaction – except the occasional hello. Then I saw a new face. Every time I walked through the hall, or in and out of the building, this man insisted that he either make some sort of comment to me, or try to engage me in conversation.

The first few times was okay, and came off friendly. Then it became more intrusive. Which brings me to last week.

He stopped me to ask me a question, which I entertained. But then he asked me which apartment was mine. I was uncomfortable, and didn’t want to be impolite, so I answered him, and immediately regretted it. Shockingly, I told a man that I did not know, who had been giving me creepy vibes, which apartment was mine.

I began to fear that he would come knocking on my door. Or that he would use the master key to enter my apartment. I was happy that I was housesitting for a few weeks, because the last thing I wanted to do was sleep there.

What is the geography of fear?

The geography of fear is a concept that arose from sociology and criminology studies which demonstrated that women, as a gender, are more fearful of crime – often related to a sense of physical vulnerability to men. We warn women from going certain places alone or at night, simultaneously forcing responsibility for their own fate onto them. We make assumptions about women’s lack of freedom to be in public spaces and at certain times. And that assumption is that we shouldn’t be.

My grandfather told me many times that I should not go anywhere alone. That I shouldn’t travel alone, or drive in certain areas alone. And that I especially shouldn’t do any of that at night.

woman alone in parking garage, clutching purse

I have heard these messages from a very young age, as I’m the case is for other women. I know that I have internalized them. If I see a man that I perceive as threatening, walking towards me, I cross the street. I get my keys out and place them in my fist when I walk to my car at night, then look inside my car before getting in. Sometimes I pretend to be on my phone to give the guise that I would have a witness if anything happened to me. Or I actually call someone while I walk home in the dark because I’m scared.

And I do all of this resentfully. Because I’ve watched my younger brother not have a curfew, or warrant the same concern from my parents when he’s out late. And I wish sometimes that I felt powerful enough to go where I would like to, freely. But my geography of fear might be a little more heightened than the rest.

Violence Against Women

I’ve always wondered where my generalized anxiety came from. And recently in therapy I’ve figured it out (therapy is cool).

When I was in seventh grade, my favorite dance teacher was murdered. I was extremely distraught and confused, but I was also scared. They didn’t know who did it. In fact, they didn’t find her killer for a few years. I had this sense of impending doom that something could happen to me, or someone that I love, at any time.

My teacher also lived alone, with the exception of her dog. She was a woman, alone. An an older woman, a strong woman. Yet there was nothing she could have done to prevent what had happened to her – in her own home. The majority of gun victims and sexual assault victims know the perpetrator. Someone she knew killed her.

Ever since then, my life has been marked by extreme anxiety. But a large part of that relates to the geography of fear. And the fact that even my own home could be a place that I shouldn’t be alone. I’ve struggled with insomnia for years, and the only time I’ve ever be able to sleep through the nights soundly, was when I was in a relationship.

In conjunction with other things that have happened to me in my life, sometimes I sleep with the light on. Sometimes I keep a knife at my bedside. Or occasionally, I check all the locks on my windows and doors, look under my bed, and inside my closet. Finally being diagnosed with PTSD helped me to make a lot of sense of what I was going through – and what I still sometimes fall back into.

Stay sexy, and don’t get murdered.

At the same time of my diagnosis, and my moment of clarity about the start of my anxiety – I started listening to the podcast My Favorite Murder with Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff. It really wasn’t until then that I started to feel more powerful.

Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark

A 2010 study found that women are more likely to be fans of true crime than men are. Karen and Georgia attribute this fascination as being related to a women’s desire for self defense. And I concur. By listening and learning to story after story of violent crimes against women, you learn how to (1) deal with the fear and (2) think about how you would act if you found yourself in a similar situation. The same study suggests that it is a way for women to deal with the deeply engrained misogyny in the world.

Karen and Georgia continually assert that women should fuck politeness. That we shouldn’t feel obligated to be accommodating and nice to everyone, especially when we are uncomfortable. Notorious serial killer Ted Bundy lured too many innocent women, usually by faking injury with a cast. As women we feel obligated to be helpful – but if we get a bad vibe, we shouldn’t push through our discomfort. We should say no.

Let me tell you, I wish I would have fucked politeness, and told the construction worker in my building that I didn’t feel comfortable giving him that information, and to let me come and go without interruption. But more often than not, it’s hard to take your own advice.

fists that read "fuck politeness"

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