30 Sep 2012, Comments (4)

Taking back the night, tethered goats, and Perfect World chimeras

Author: Helen

Image of Andrew Rule article. For text, follow link in post

Image via Clementine Ford on FB. Full text, with “no follow” tag, is linked in the post


In the light of a young woman’s recent abduction and murder, there have been many comments – both in the press and in comment threads on social media – implying that women who walk in dark places have it coming to them. But it’s not only the tabloid jocks and the comment thread meatheads. More sensible people have been panicked into calling for a curfew on women.

Because that’s what it is. If you say that women are impossibly reckless for insisting on walking home less than a kilometre from the pub or workplace, or inhabiting the university campus, or radical things of that nature – then you’re calling for limits on womens’ freedom of movement and association, no more, no less.

If you still insist this is a fundamental right, they will deploy their best argument. One I’ll call the Tethered Goat argument. Remember the goat in the movie Jurassic Park, tethered in the clearing as a tasty lunch for the Tyrannosaurus? So, they say, we can argue all we like that women have an equal right to move freely about the city, but this is just idealism. In reality, if we try to act on our theoretical freedom, we are setting ourselves up as the tethered goats for the tyrannosauruses walking our streets. These tyrannosauruses don’t care about your feminism. So suck it up.

These statements are often accompanied with “Well, in a perfect world…” which implies that the Tethered Goat argument is in touch with reality, while its opponents are hell bent in following ideology in the face of all evidence.

It’s a compelling argument, and it has a visceral logic to it. I don’t blame people for holding it. If we look at the facts as they really are, we must reject it. Here’s why.

When we say women have an equal right to the city, we don’t advocate simply taking a tethered-goat stance. Women have written before on the lengths we already go to, all the time, to try to minimise danger. What I’m objecting to is the view that women need to be more defensive than men and that that defence needs to take the form of vacating the space. We know that men need to be careful, as well. The city has dangers for men. Different things tend to happen to them – instead of the abduction-and-rape scenario, we have the random-stab or king-hit or knocked over with head on kerb scenario. What we don’t get are the calls for men not to walk alone in the city. The blame is directed squarely at the perpetrators (e.g. calls for crackdowns on crowds and nightclubs) and not on the victims. Comments of the “he was at the Wrong Place At the Wrong Time” sort are made in the spirit of homespun philosophising on the Randomness of the Universe, not the culpability of the target of the violence.

So let’s advocate street smarts and defensive behaviour and cunning all we want – but let’s advocate it for everyone, and let’s not tie it to a limitation of movement for one gender. Notice that the tethered-goat theory is also based on woman as irresistable prey for male biological urges. This is watered-down Wahabism.

The other reason why the tethered-goat theory is harmful is that the numbers are against it. Do I have to point out that the statistics are overwhelmingly clear that, here and elsewhere, most male-on-female rapes, assaults and murders are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, and/or in the home? The home, not the streets, is statistically the most dangerous place for a woman to be. This conflicts with the visceral rightness of stranger danger and the look of the dark alleyway, but this point has been made time and again. We just haven’t internalised it, perhaps because the Law and Order SVU genre is so popular.

I didn’t know about those statistics when I was a participant in the wonderful resurgent music scene of 1980s St Kilda. I remember asking the question of myself while bumping drums out to the scary carpark of Hosie’s hotel, a notorious bloodhouse of the time, at 2 AM, and thinking, what is the alternative? Giving up? Yeah, really, fuck that.

The tethered goat theory is put forward as the realistic option, but if you want realistic, the idea that all activities – from skydiving to walking home from work – carry some risk is more so. Everything we do in our lives is a matter of weighing up risk and reward. Sure, there will be that one guy out there and there is a vanishingly small statistical probability that you may meet him in a vulnerable situation, but there are more drunk drivers out there and a much higher statistical probability that you will be hit and killed by them while walking or driving with your muscular husband. To forgo opportunities and life experiences because you give undue weight to statistically unlikely events, and, worse, to deny them to others and blame them for lightning-strike adverse events, is a counsel of despair.

Comments (4) »

  • Elisabeth says:

    Wonderfully well said. Somehow for me at a tangent, the recent comments from the likes of Alan Jones about Julia Gillard make life dangerous too, not just walking the streets alone. Somehow such comments fuel a climate of hatred, one we can do without.

  • Megan Otton says:

    After all the Take Back the Night rallies and protesting judges who suggest dressing provocatively provokes rape, i canno believe this argument still has to be raised, but it does.
    And on a related note, i have been watching with horror what Julia Gillard has had to endure just because she is female.
    I live in Canada, a supposedly enlightened country, where the Status of Women minister (female) voted in favour of redefining when life begins (i.e. Anti-abortionism), against her own party’s policy. Sigh.

  • Kath Lockett says:

    Well said Helen.

    I’ve followed the JM case from a distance (of course) and think that the intense reaction was because a lot of us did know/assume that most rapes/murders were done by someone known to the victim and this case would yet again convince the faint hearted that random crazies were the main perpetrators.

  • Helen says:

    Sorry you got stuck in moderation there Kath – I’ve put the r-word on the moderation list.

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