Josie is a master student in Contemporary literature, culture and theory
In the middle of winter, the night wraps itself around the day like a heavy blanket, muffling light until only an imperceptible sliver remains. In this sliver we must take our walks, go for a jog, buy groceries, take in as much fresh air as we can. For when night falls (at like 3pm) the world becomes full of shadows and the echoes in your head tell you to hold your keys between your fingers, take out your earphones, walk facing the direction of the traffic. The night is full of beauty. Frost glitters on the bonnets of cars, windows show warmly glowing snapshots of occupied living rooms, and your breath billows in white clouds into the darkness. But it’s hard to appreciate the night when it’s a time fraught with dangers and fear. As the days get shorter, women and femme-presenting people find themselves confined to their homes more and more. The meandering, lazy strolls of summer are a wistful memory as we speed walk the distance between the bus stop and our front doors.
When darkness falls, we need to find a reason to leave our homes. Walking has to have purpose now, a direction and a safe location at the end. Virginia Woolf experienced this in 1927 and in her essay ‘Street Haunting’ she describes the experience of leaving the house under the pretence of buying a lead pencil in order to explore London at night. She recalls saying “‘really I must buy a pencil’, as if under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest pleasure of town life in winter-rambling the streets of London”. Her joy in chronicling the varieties of people she encounters on the streets and the beauty of the shopfronts is mitigated by the constant imperative to find a pencil. She can’t wander to her heart’s content because she must commit to her excuse. This, she identifies, is “nature’s folly” as each of us has “instincts and desires at variance” to our main being. Despite their role in society as confined to the home, and despite the danger which may greet them outside, women still have the urge to experience the world around them.
This issue isn’t just confined to women like Woolf. Gendered street harassment affects femme-presenting men, non-binary people, and poses a disproportionate threat to people of colour. Kimberlé Crenshaw has theorised in her essay ‘Mapping the Margins’, that mainstream feminism has ignored “that race was playing a role in making some women vulnerable to heightened patterns of sexual abuse. And it was also the case that anti-racism wasn’t very good at dealing with that issue either.” The charity Stonewall UK has found that three in ten LGBT people avoid certain streets because they do not feel safe there as an LGBT person. Street harassment impacts vulnerable people in a myriad of ways and it is a severely limiting factor on how they can live their lives.
In a questionnaire on my instagram, I asked women and femme-presenting people to tell me what they would do if they could go out at night without fear of harassment. These are their answers:
“Out in the woods at night! Running through the trees in the dark out into an empty clearing to watch the stars”- Hattie
“To go out wearing makeup etc and not be scared of getting attacked at every corner I turn”- Mason
“I’d go for a walk in the park with my headphones on full blast”- Emily
“The beach, city walks, big forest/ lake walks/ hikes with no fear”- Aimee
“Go for a walk at night through a park or along the river. Explore the ‘dodgy’ side alleys”- Yvonne
“Go for a run/ walk with earphones in”- Mirabelle
“Go for a walk and sit on the beach”- Laura
“Either go star-gazing/ camping by myself or just explore city streets with friends”- Deleth
“Swimming on a hot evening”- Shaheena
“I would wear sequins, get on a train really far away and go to a bar by myself”- Myssi
“I’d hike a mountain and watch the sunrise”- Elizabeth
“Go to the beach and star gaze all night long and wait till sun rise”- Hannah
“I would go to the forest at night, or to the beach and swimming, just be in the dark by myself”- Bethan
“Go on a run when it’s dark by myself with earphones in”- Liv
“For a walk. Wish I could just walk & be aimless without the fear of being followed”- Ella
“I would ride my bike in the road in the city centre like a ten year old with a BMX”- Rhianne
To essentially have a curfew imposed upon such a large proportion of humanity is an injustice. The fear of the night and those who wish to cause harm under the cover of it makes us shrink. It builds a barrier between us and the things that create the most joy a person can find in life: loud music, fresh air, the sun and the stars. Maybe one day gendered violence won’t be a danger, but until then winter traps us in our homes while we wait for the long, gentle days of summer to return.