Maybe it’s a guy who’s lingering too close, or one who’s across the room who constantly has his eyes on you. You probably can’t explain it well or put it into words, but your spidey senses are going off. And for the millionth time, you’re thinking, Why do I feel so paranoid around men in public?
I’ve worked with victims of sexual violence in the criminal justice system for several years now, and as a woman myself I know what this feeling is like from having experienced it over and over again firsthand. The real issue, though, is, are these feelings warranted? Should we immediately be wary of every stranger in public, or are we overreacting?
Some Paranoia Is Healthy
Even if it feels like it, not every guy sitting next to you on a plane or standing behind you in line at the DMV is out to kidnap you or assault you. But then again, as women know, some amount of paranoia is good for us, healthy even.
Paranoia is a protective instinct. The problem arises, though, when we let that instinct get the better of us, to an overwhelming degree. When our anxiety keeps us up at night or our worry prevents us from leaving the house, we’ve let our paranoia take charge of what’s supposed to be a gentle suggestion into a full-blown command of our decision-making abilities.
It’s natural to be paranoid in a new or unfamiliar place. But if we’re out for a good time, the last thing we want is to constantly be on edge or checking over our shoulder. To take it one step further, paranoia is a key symptom in several debilitating mental health disorders. Paranoia that leads to increased isolation, insomnia, feelings of powerlessness, development of depression, and drastic feelings of mistrust or suspicion are an indication that our paranoia isn’t tied to our feminine intuition, but something more serious.
The Real Statistics on Violence against Women
Knowing the hard facts about the perpetration of violence against women can help assuage our fears, or at the very least, make us more informed.
All the TV shows and movies typically portray violence against women the same way. The heroine is running late at night or getting into her car, and is abducted or suddenly assaulted by a masked assailant. As scary as this is – and yes, it does sometimes happen – the truth is we are far more likely to be assaulted by someone we know than someone we don’t.
This might be of some comfort to us, or it might not. Intimate partner violence, or violence perpetrated against female (or male) victims by their significant other is a pandemic in this country in and of itself. Unfortunately, IPV is affecting more and more younger women, specifically ages 15-19, and we also know that Covid lockdown measures only increased the prevalence of IPV by ensuring the isolation of victims and decreasing their access to supportive services and resources.
85% of the time, offenses are committed by someone the victim knows.
When it comes to assaults perpetrated by strangers, we just don’t know as much as we should. And furthermore, there’s a general lack of consensus on how we classify certain crimes, such as spousal rape or date rape, and what that means for exact statistics on stranger-based assaults. Sexual assault nurse examiner Laura Kopacz explains, “85% of the time, offenses are committed by someone [the victim] knows. Certainly they are committed by strangers, but that’s a very small portion. It could be a good friend, a family member, someone they work with, someone they just met, and most recently, someone they met online.”
Kopacz advises that both men and women use caution, especially when they’re out with someone they met online or on a dating app, and when alcohol is involved, when things could happen that might not ordinarily happen while sober and the situation evolves from an enjoyable night to a dangerous one.
We know that these crimes shouldn’t be happening, period, and we can argue continuously about rape culture and so-called toxic masculinity. But unfortunately, there are always going to be evil people in the world whose fixation with wielding power over others leads them to commit these heinous acts. Regardless, being aware of the kind of people you choose to be around and being vigilant when out in an unfamiliar place never hurts.
Our solution when confronted with paranoia might be to never go out in public again, but that really hurts us more than it helps. Staying safe is all about common sense.
If you’re the type who enjoys being active outside, always be cognizant of your surroundings. Your Twitter or Instagram thread might be engrossing in the moment, but it’ll be just as enjoyable in the car or at home than it will on a bike or jogging path. Pay attention to the people who always seem to be close to you, especially if you notice them following you, or having their phone or camera aimed at you or in your direction.
One of the hardest things we as women need to learn is to put personal safety above our fear of confrontation. Make a scene and be loud if the situation calls for it. Turn around and confront the person if you feel you have to. Any person intending to do you harm will count on your politeness to get what they want, so don’t be the type that lets manners overwhelm your gut instincts. Having worked criminal assaults like this before, I can easily say that in cases where the assailant happened to be a stranger or acquaintance of the victim, 9 times out of 10 they were counting on that person letting their guard down or being too polite in order to take advantage of them.
One of the hardest things we need to learn is to put personal safety above our fear of confrontation.
Ask someone you trust to look out for you, especially if there’s drinking involved or you’re walking to your car or house alone. If something ever feels off, chances are it probably is.
It never hurts to be prepared, either. Carrying pepper gel or spray, a knife, or even a firearm can help you feel more empowered to protect yourself when out and about. Just make sure you read up on and practice firearm safety beforehand!
Most of all, don’t let your fear stop you from enjoying life. Yes, there are people out there who are only too willing to take advantage of a sticky situation, but we have the means and ways to protect ourselves and ensure that if the circumstances call for us to defend ourselves and put a stop to a potential crime, we’re ready.
A distrust of strangers in public doesn’t mean that we hate men or that we’re stupid for being so mistrustful. These instincts are a form of self-preservation, and very often, we can make things worse by potentially placing ourselves in bad situations. It never hurts to be choosy about who you spend your time with, and only rely on people you absolutely know to have your back if something were to happen. It also doesn’t hurt to be mindful and vigilant when we’re out to have a good time, or to be rude when the situation calls for it. Being paranoid might be natural, but it shouldn’t stop us from living our lives.
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