One evening last summer, I was cycling to a meeting in Hintonburg along the multi-user path (MUP) that runs just north of Albert St. I noticed another cyclist, a male, approaching on the path that comes south from the Ottawa River at Bayview. He joined the MUP I was on, and we cycled a little ways until we reached the intersection of Bayview and Scott. He pulled up beside me and said, “Hi. I was wondering when you were going to recognize me.” I laughed and we started chatting. It was a man I have known for more than 25 years, someone who is in fact part of my family. He was going to the same meeting, and we proceeded on our way together.
When he first spoke and I responded by laughing, in my head was the word NEVER, just like that, in large caps. I thought, “That’s weird,” and left that thought to the side for the moment. The next day I took it out to examine it and made a surprising discovery, quite aside from the fact that my internal monologue is rather insistent. I realized that if I encounter another person, either in a car, or on a bicycle, or on foot, I do a quick scan. If I think that the other person is male, I don’t look directly at him. I keep track of where he is by using my peripheral vision, but I don’t ever look at his face or in his eyes. This is what enabled me not to recognize my own brother-in-law on the MUP last summer.
Once I was aware of this, I noticed myself doing it all the time. In the summer when I leave the house I am almost always on foot or on my bike. Every time I encountered a man-like shape, I averted my gaze. How could this be, that a modern woman spent her time out in the world not looking directly at men? This did not feel like empowerment. This felt like me scuttling around feeling unsafe.
That’s exactly what it was. What’s more, I can identify the exact moment when this behaviour began. It was one summer when I was in university, so quite a long time ago, more than 25 years. I was working as a gardener at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club in Toronto. Every morning I biked down Sherbourne St, long before there were any bike lanes, to catch the club launch over to the yacht club on the Toronto Islands. One morning when I was between Dundas and Shuter, something went wrong with my bike. It was the chain, or a flat tire, and I got off to try to fix the problem. Out of the corner of my eye I could see someone approaching. I straightened and smiled, hoping they would be able to help. Instead, the man starting undoing his fly. I drew myself up to my full height of almost 5’4″ and said frostily, “I beg your pardon?”. (My sisters for some reason found this very funny when I told them). But it worked. He was abashed, stopped trying to expose himself, and went away after telling me I was asking for it and gesturing to my clothing. I thought, “I’ve heard that women are always blamed for what they are wearing no matter what they are wearing. But this is ridiculous. Buddy, I’m wearing a Laura Ashley pinafore dress.” (Forgive me for the pinafore. It was the early 90s.) I was wearing a dress to my landscaping job because women were not allowed to wear shorts on the launch and I did my landscaping work in shorts. Sometimes I wore a dress over my shorts, and sometimes I pulled on a skirt right before I got on the launch. I was the only woman on the horticulture team, and the only one who had to dress differently on the launch.
I wheeled my bike over to the nearest phone booth, found my emergency quarter in my back pack and called home. One of my parents came to get me in the giant burgundy station wagon. I went home, called my boss to tell him what had happened and that I wouldn’t be in that day, and spent a quiet day. I fixed my bike. The next day, I biked back down Sherbourne St. and back to work.
That was a bad summer. Then, like now, I biked almost everywhere. Frequently, when I was out on my bike, men called to me, commenting on my hair, my body. Each time I prayed that my bike would not let me down. It did not. It was that summer that I learned to avoid looking at men, as if doing so would prevent them fixing their gaze upon me. It didn’t, of course, but I suppose it subconsciously gave me enough of a sense of control that I could countenance going out into the world. I just adapted, did not even notice my adaptation, and kept on biking.
Fast forward fifteen or so years. I am married, a mother, and taking an evening course at the University of Ottawa. I’m not a young woman any more. I’m a grownup. I bike there, using the Cummings Bridge because the Adàwe Crossing for pedestrians and cyclists has not yet been built. I have to turn left onto the bridge from North River Road. It’s early evening in the fall, already dark and traffic is very light. I have my lights on my bike. I take the lane. A blue pickup truck turns onto North River from Selkirk St., revs the engine very loudly, close passes me on my bike, screeches to a halt at the intersection. The driver leaps out of the cab, and approaches me, shaking his first and shouting the most foul obscenities. His body is a lot bigger than mine, his vehicle is a lot bigger than mine and he is using both of them to threaten me. Just as the driver got close to me, the light changed and he got back in his truck and took off, speeding up the bridge. I had memorized his license plate, so when I arrived at the university I called the police and made a report.
A few days later, a male police officer called to tell me that he had given the guy a call and given him a warning. He also told me that in a situation like that I can’t ignore the laws of physics. I was legally allowed as a vehicle to make the left turn, but the truck, being so much larger, would always win in a dispute. I thought, but did not say, “I bet you say that to all the gals. Would you say the same thing to a 120 lb woman who had just gotten beaten up by her 200 lb husband? She is also very much on the wrong side of the laws of physics.” But I didn’t say anything. I just thanked him and hung up.
That incident reinforced my feeling of being unsafe and I stopped cycling by myself after dark except on very rare occasions. Of course I’ve had many other encounters when I was spoken to or touched in a way that I did not like and that made me feel unsafe, both inside and outside. Thinking about these experiences made me realize that all who live in a city live in a different city from each other. My city is full of men who might be creeps and vehicles that might run me over. Others live in a city mediated by their own experience of racism, or barriers to the handicapped, or bias against the LGBTQ community, or of being a child. Councillor Diane Deans is perfectly right to call out the city of Ottawa for its lack of gender parity at the highest levels of decision making. The lack of voices other than those of middle-aged white men in cars makes Ottawa a city that responds well to their needs and poorly to the needs of the vulnerable (not white, not straight, not male, not able-bodied, not in a car, not an adult…).
A message urging pedestrians and cyclists to make eye contact with drivers at intersections to make sure that said driver isn’t about to run over you doesn’t work for me. If I’ve identified the driver out of my peripheral vision as male, I’m not looking anywhere near his eyes. If I’m not at adult eye level, could I even see the eyes of the driver? Did the person who dreamed up this strategy not think about the perspective of a woman, or a child, or someone in a wheelchair? What I want when I’m on my bike or on foot is to be nowhere near cars at intersections but on dedicated infrastructure for my mode of choice. I don’t want to be making eye contact with someone who may or may not be a creep.
A campaign urging pedestrians and cyclist to “Be Safe, Be Seen” at night doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t matter how many lights I hang on my coat or put on my bicycle. Being seen outside at night is not the same as being safe. It is the opposite of being safe. Why is there no acknowledgement that the night is not the same place for a white able-bodied cisgender man as it is for the entire rest of the population? What I want when I’m out at night is to feel safe from the depredations of cars, but also safe from verbal assault and threatening by men. “Be Safe, Be Seen” doesn’t even come close.
Each time I urge myself to get out there at night on my own, I remember how I felt each time I was threatened or harassed: humiliated and terrified. Cities need to be designed for the most vulnerable so that they are welcoming to all, day or night.