<i>Daily Life</i> columnist, Clementine Ford.
Daily Life columnist, Clementine Ford.
There are certain lessons women are forced to learn from a very young age, and many of them involve safeguarding ourselves against sexual danger. Don't wear short skirts or revealing outfits, don't speak to strange men, don't flirt, don't drink too much alcohol (and consider drinking none at all just to be safe), don't kiss men you don't know, don't encourage them, don't walk down dark streets, don't go out without your friends, don't go home with someone unless you're prepared to follow through, don't don't don't.
Because we grow up absorbing all of the don'ts we're expected to adhere to, it becomes especially galling each time we're admonished yet again for being somehow unaware of the risks the world poses to us. Typically, this occurs in response to yet another man enacting violence against one of us - because of course the burden of responsibility for preventing gendered male violence must always fall to those of us most likely to be subjected to it.
When a man tells a woman she has to behave more sensibly to prevent risk, he never means around him.  
When will you women learn that the world isn't safe for you?
McIver's Baths in Coogee.
McIver's Baths in Coogee. Photo: Edwina Pickles
The great irony is that women, chided as we are for behaving as if we might have the right to move through the world like autonomous adults, are also punished whenever we take overt and declarative steps to actually enforce the preventative measures expected of us. A good example of this comes in a recent news story detailing the Mother's Market in the Indian province of Manipur. Dating back to the 16th century, the market is reserved solely for the use of women and acts as a safe and sexual harassment free zone for local women to gather, commune and do their shopping. Despite being established by women as a means of taking back control of their safety (as we're so often directed to do), it's still treated by far too many people as some kind of misandrist nightmare in which the men of India (and by extension, the world) are subjected to horrifying sexism and exclusion.
I encounter similar responses whenever I laud the McIver's Baths in Coogee, NSW. For over 100 years, they've provided a safe space for women and children under 12 to swim and sea bathe in peace. And yet, my praise of them is always met by a proportion of people outraged by what they say is blatant discrimination. In a world that tells women we have to be careful about how we present our bodies to men and how we act in public (but also ridicules us for speaking out against harassment and abuse, if not disbelieving us entirely), having a private sea bath in which those women can do those things freely and safely is apparently gender discrimination of the worst kind.
Then there's the issue of who gets to control the dialogue. Despite being force-fed the narrative of danger that, for example, warns us against speaking to strange men lest we somehow give them the 'wrong impression', women are also demonised whenever we express concern or caution about being alone with men we don't know. To do so is to express the most violent of misandries against the innocent, unassuming gentlemen who would never, not in a million years, how dare you even suggest it you vile she-beast, ever do anything to harm a woman. "Not all men!" come the cries, usually from the same outraged mouths that will, without a moment's reflection or awareness, defend their right to offer unsolicited commentary about the various things we silly women do to invite danger upon ourselves and demand that we pay more attention.  
The only conclusion I've been able to draw from this is that women, despite being constantly told what we MUST do to avoid danger, are actually not allowed to be in control of what those preventative actions might look like. Establish women's only spaces and you're discriminating against men. Talk openly about the risks you face (risks that men feel completely entitled to opine on) and you're inflicting a perverse and paranoid view of masculinity on the world that's 'unfair'.
The deck is always stacked against us. Do the 'wrong' thing, and we'll be blamed for being silly enough to invite risk. Take preventative measures (and worse, talk about what those measures might be), and we'll be blamed for lumping all men into the same box and perpetrating equal if not greater sexism against the poor, beleaguered blokes out there who don't deserve to all be tarred with the same brush by feminists who are probably just upset no one wants to f--k them.
But when a man tells a woman she has to behave more sensibly to prevent risk, he never means that she should behave more sensibly around him. He retains the right to not only view himself as non-threatening to her, but also to insist that she treat him this way to avoid insulting him by association. This ability to control the dialogue is removed the moment women are given the freedom to determine who and what we consider to be a risk to us. And what happens when men are denied the opportunity to decide who and what women are allowed to be afraid of? They face being implicated in those decisions.
I'm sick of having to coddle and mollify the people who have no compunction dictating women's behaviour as potential victims but balk at acknowledging the reality of men as potential perpetrators. If women have to be told constantly to take responsibility for avoiding risks in a world that's hostile to us, then men can start accepting responsibility for being part of the structures of power that make that world unsafe. I'm well beyond the point of caring whether or not this hurts their feelings or bruises any misjudged notions of 'equality'. Women are used to no one listening to us when we complain about the actual ways the world hurts us. Perhaps it's time men start getting used to being ignored when they complain about the fictional ways they feel maligned by it too.