Safety Work

Published on December 2, 2021

Photo by Todd Diemer on Unsplash

By Caitlyn Robinson

Gender-Based Violence, or GBV for short, is still a threat to the freedom of Australian women. In Australia, GBV can look like being cat-called on your afternoon walk, having a man rub his leg against yours on your morning commute, or having a car follow you home. The sad reality is that women learn to live with these experiences, keeping themselves as safe as possible when they navigate public spaces. It begs the question- are public spaces really public? In the last few years, I have come to learn that women are very in tune with their presence in public spaces. They understand the importance of being aware of their surroundings.

The different ways in which women protect themselves in public is collectively known as ‘safety work,’ a term coined by Vera-Gray and Kelly in 2020. The term is new, but safety work behaviours have been around for years. Women may identify with safety work behaviours; changing routes on your way home, selectively choosing where to sit on the bus, and even physically reducing oneself in public by wearing headphones and sunglasses. Safety work behaviours act to keep women not only hyperaware of their personal space, but ultimately to make us invisible to those who could threaten our safety.

Women are pretty tired of carrying the burden of safety work and we are calling on male allies to lighten the load. I recently read an article by ABC News (2019) where Patrick Wright outlined ways that men can be allies in public, here are his tips:

  1. Keep your distance; as a woman it can be scary if we think people are following us. You might consider crossing the street to signify to a woman that you are not a threat.
  2. Be a mindful runner; avoid running up behind women, especially at night, jog past at a good distance, or even use those few metres to take a walking break.
  3. Play the tourist card; if you think a woman is in an unsafe situation but you are not sure how to interrupt the interaction, ask for directions to a certain location. Asking for directions is a great way to shut down a conversation without being threatening.

Safety work is exhausting for women. Male allies sharing that burden helps us move towards a world where public space is free for all to enjoy. GBV remains an issue for Australian women, but we have the power to make small changes to how we interact with public space that ensures inclusivity in our local communities.

Sources used:

Vera-Gray, F., & Kelly, L. (2020). Contested gendered space: public sexual harassment and women's safety work. International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 44, 265-275. doi:10.1080/01924036.2020.1732435

Wright, P. (2019). Women don't feel safe in public spaces — and it's up to men to do something about it. ABC News.

Photo by Todd Diemer on Unsplash

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