Weren’t you scared?
This is a question that is asked of lots of travellers, hikers and adventurers. Especially solo ones. And particularly women.
The main cause of the fear projection seems to be wild camping; sleeping out alone in the countryside, with just the tent fabric between oneself and the ‘big bad’ out there. Weren’t you scared? What if you had had to go to the loo in the night? What about wild animals, or creepy insects, or strangers?!
Granted, unzipping all the warm layers and tiptoeing through dew-soaked grass for a midnight bush-wee is certainly not my favourite aspect of a wild camp. But mainly due to the discomfort and interrupted sleep, and the hassle of having to re-zip everything and get cosy again. And honestly, my night wees have been some of the best moments; alone under the gasping stars, crouched low, feeling at one with nature, doing it like they do on the discovery channel, as it were.
As for wild animals, I once camped in Malawi next to a river frequented by hippos. The safety measure was to take one’s headtorch and scan for particularly solid-looking shadows before leaving the tent. In South Africa, a leopard once strolled past our wild campsite. I shot bolt upright, but seeing how calm our guides were, figured all was ok. ‘She’s just passing through’, they assured us. Mind you, they had their guns cocked, just in case. In Britain, the most dangerous animals we have are cows, deer or perhaps a particularly enraged swan. There are the obligatory anecdotes about people waking up, their tent surrounded by a herd of cows, but the chances of being gored, trampled or flapped at by one of these savage beasts whilst camping are, I think we can agree, eye-wateringly slim.
And as for insects, spiders, slugs and general creepy-crawlies, and speaking as an arachnophobe myself, I suspect these fears are mostly social and performative in nature. If there’s a big group of us, and we can make a fuss, squealing at each other, flapping our hands about and exclaiming just how scared we are, then it’s all rather good fun. Then someone will bravely take one for the team and move the offending creature and we can collapse with relief and grateful hugs. I used to take girls from Kensington to Dartmoor for D of E and have witnessed this ritual many times. It’s a game we all learnt at school and is more about social bonding than real fear. Personally, I have noticed that my ‘fear’ of spiders is remarkably less paralyzing when I am the only one about. I mean, I still won’t like it, but if there’s a spider in my tent when I’m out alone, I might allow myself a little squeak, and maybe there’ll be an involuntary prickle along my spine, then I just remove it. Cos there’s nothing else to do, and no-one’s watching the performance of my fear, so I find I can easily contain it.
But the strangers. Here’s the sticking point. Because it is men we mean. Men who are a bit creepy or over-interested and annoy us. Men who are aggressive, rude or threatening. Men who will rape us. Men who will kill us. Men do all of these things to women sometimes, and a man we meet when we are alone in the middle of nowhere might find it easier to do these things to us than in our home towns.
So is wild camping alone as a female really dangerous to the point of recklessness?
No. It isn’t. It really isn’t.
Now, walking home alone late at night along a quiet, unlit footpath on the edge of town is perhaps somewhat risky. Lingering in a dark park, cutting through the woods, or taking a shortcut along the canal after an evening in the pub are maybe unwise strategies for a woman alone. But once you get out of urban areas, and into the wilds of the UK’s heaths, forests and hills, the chances of being pursued by a male attacker are vanishingly small.
The odds just aren’t good enough for the wilderness to be a strong option for a predatory male to lie in wait for his victim. It’s hard to get there, you have to hike everywhere, and there are always lycra-clad alpha male hero-types whizzing round corners on mountain bikes to disrupt your cunning plan.
Which leaves the possibility that it’s not a pre-meditated plan; that said man has hit upon his violent scheme only after seeing the lone woman setting up her tent. He’s a camper too, or a walker, out to enjoy the wilderness. But once he spotted you in your leggings and fleece, something clicked and he became a dangerous predator.
I just don’t buy it. Ok, he’s a bloke and he might come over and chat and be a bit too attentive, maybe a bit sleezy. He might make an inappropriate comment, or offer some sexist chit-chat. Any more than this I think is pretty unlikely. I reckon most people understand that the wilderness is a bit too exposing to make a fertile ground for sowing the seeds of a new relationship. You’re not there to meet people or date, and neither is he. The above situation happens from time to time with infinite permutations, but is an annoyance rather than a danger. We’ve all been there; woman cycles past, man calls out something sexist, woman carries on cycling and feels a bit pissed off until she stops for a banana an hour later and forgets about it. Woman stops for a breather halfway up a mountain, man offers to join her on her break and ‘show her the ropes’, woman refers to man-splaining and rejects his offer. Woman pulls her kayak onto a ‘deserted’ beach, man pops up from behind a rock and wanders over for a chat. Woman politely excuses herself to go for a swim.
confessions of a bad feminist
The #metoo movement is so necessary and has been long overdue. We are only just scraping the iceberg as to the ubiquity of assault. There is still sexism in the workplace, damaging gender stereotyping and inequality at play all over the world. Thanks to this movement, women are claiming their space more confidently, and men are growing more aware of how their actions might be negatively interpreted.
But one consequence is that women are sharing, in presumably personally helpful but perhaps socially unhelpful ways, every negative interaction. For clarity, I am not talking here about formal reports to the police or authorities; rape and assault are shockingly under-reported, and I am certainly not advising women to keep quiet about such crimes.
But in the name of feminism, women are speaking up and sharing their stories vociferously in what can sometimes be the echo chamber of the internet, to an audience of already converted sisters, ready to avidly assimilate the latest entry into the catalogue of fear. Sites like the everyday sexism project list all examples of interactions which have been received by women as sexist. Social media enables women to share their stories of every misogyny and receive an outpouring of messages of support and approbation. Negative, scary or unnerving experiences make for dramatic telling, and garner a great number of appropriate emoticon reactions, sisterly comments and sympathetic virtual hugs. Which has the effect of creating a distorted view of the dangers for other women, and can easily become sensationalist scare-mongering.
Social media can certainly have a warping effect on our view of reality. International communities mean that posts such as this are interpreted without an understanding of perspective, context or culture. I recently read a feminist twitter feed about the common precautions women take whilst out jogging which men will never understand; carrying their keys in their hand, live-tracking their location on an app shared with a partner, never wearing a ponytail for fear of it being grabbed in an attack. Seriously, I thought? Who are these women and where do they live? This is not my experience, and I admit I laughed to read it; these suggestions sounded ludicrous to me. But it feels un-feminist to disagree.
I mean, presumably these women aren’t lying. Why would they? So I ought to support them. And in the name of the cause, and because I know the struggle is real and agree it is far from over, I ought to add grist to the mill and throw in my tuppence worth of #metoo.
But I wonder if any women have, like me, ever felt required to over-state the extent of the dangers or oppressions they feel from men, in order to support the feminist cause? Why should my sister’s experience of being harassed by men be more valid than my experience of never having been? Why do I feel compelled to share her narrative whilst silencing my own?
Speaking to a considerate and normally enlightened male friend who questioned me about the privileges I saw men as having, I rattled off a list of oppressions facing women, many of which concerned physical safety: “Men don’t have to worry about walking home alone. Men don’t get judged for what they’re wearing. Men don’t need to lie to taxi drivers about which building is theirs.” I harangued. I know the script, and I had recently read an article listing these very factors, so I was confident in my delivery.
But these things are not true for me. I don’t fear walking alone, I don’t police my outfits for their effect on men, I go wherever I like whenever I like. And I know I am not alone. I have never had a conversation with female friends about these things. I have never heard women I know complain that they feel constantly oppressed by these factors. I don’t know any women who carry rape alarms or feel too afraid to wear headphones out running. It’s just not my experience. I don’t feel fearful of being attacked, by men, beasts or anyone else. I don’t second-guess and over-prepare for every excursion as a preventative measure. I don’t feel threatened or harassed by men when I’m out alone.
And here’s my really guilty secret; at times I have almost felt jealous of this fact. Like, is it cos I’m not hot enough? When men approach me when I’m out hiking, it’s more likely to borrow my map or enquire about the grub in the nearest pub than to make untoward advances. I don’t get wolf-whistled or hit upon or sleazed over.
Now I know rape isn’t about attraction, or hotness or even about sex; it’s about power and violence. And of course I know it’s not a compliment. And I get that I am lucky and privileged to have lived a life so free from such occurrences. But sometimes (whisper it) I have felt a somewhat boastful undertone to these #poorme posts. Telling other women that you get harassed, chatted-up or propositioned every time you leave the house seems an unhelpful exaggeration, if not rather (and my goodness this sounds such an old-fashioned word in our over-sharing culture) conceited.
Or maybe it’s the victim positioning which bugs me. There seems to be a trend for women to position themselves as the victim perhaps too readily. To emphasise how scared, vulnerable and helpless they felt, and to almost enjoy the image of fragility that this creates. Perhaps this is simply another level of acquiescing to patriarchal stereotypes; painting ourselves as fragile lilies in order to appeal further to the male gaze? But whatever the reason, I worry that it is a bit snowflake-esque, over-dramatic and disingenuous. And for other women, this cataloguing of the perceived dangers out there can be really damaging since the scare-mongering can dissuade others from getting out there to see for themselves, thus the myth is perpetuated.
I recently heard about a spate of dog poisonings which was happening in my city. I was cautioned to be careful and advised to warn other dog owners. The next day, meeting a woman walking her pups, I passed on the news. She was spectacularly un-impressed. I wondered why and figured there wasn’t really much one could do about it; our dogs need to be walked, and they’ll occasionally eat things they find on the ground. If an evil person wanted to kill my dog, they’d probably succeed, but the chances are extremely remote. And knowing about it doesn’t help me to prevent it. I decided to stop passing on the rumour.
Again I make a distinction here between posting a specific localised warning about a place likely to be frequented by others, and a retrospective venting about an encounter which is unlikely to be repeated. Speaking one’s truth on one’s personal feed is of course a matter of individual choice, and I would not want to censor anyone’s voice, least of all on a topic where women have only so recently found theirs. But there is perhaps reason to be cautious of sharing one’s tales of chance encounters on forums which are meant to encourage wilderness activities. There is an important distinction between posting a warning of suspect figure X in Y central park at Z o’clock, and sharing the story of something that happened last summer on Dartmoor. I choose not to share on wild camping, swimming or hiking social media groups if, emergency notices aside, something a bit scary happened to me. We are all adults who can well imagine what the dangers might be. Constantly talking them up serves no-one.
It reminds me of how I feel when women speak in public of how badly their periods affect them. When women refer to awful mood swings, tearful pyjama days and crippling cramps I think ‘Shhh, don’t let them know!’ It wasn’t long enough ago that women were diagnosed as ‘hysterical’ or ‘irrational’ and ‘unclean’ during menstruation to be confident we won’t find ourselves banned from operating heavy machinery, voting or sitting on juries at certain times of the month. This may sound like far-fetched fiction from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, but I don’t feel we have come far enough down the line to be confident admitting such ‘weakness’ yet. These are surely still the days of strength!
Yes, it fricking hurts, but let’s feel the pain and get on with it anyway. And in a hundred years, when equality has truly been achieved, then let’s invent a machine which enables men to really experience the full horror of menstrual cramps. “Queen Victoria, Billie Jean King and Marie Curie did all that whilst feeling this!?” they’ll shriek. “Yup. Ain’t no thang.” we’ll shrug, as we claim our rightful positions as CEOs, presidents and board directors.
feel the fear and do it anyway
I remember years ago on an Outward Bound course being challenged to scale a giant ‘Jacob’s ladder’ as a team. I was to be the person near the top, offering helping hands downwards, and guiding my teammates over the highest rung. I climbed first, to get into position, and not liking heights, immediately I got above head height felt very scared indeed. I opened my mouth to call to my team, to let them know how I felt, and in that moment decided not to say it, because what was the point? It wouldn’t lessen my fear at all, and it kinda felt like stating the obvious. So I said nothing, and just did the job of helping everyone up and over. Afterwards someone gave feedback about how brave she’d experienced me as being and at that point I confessed; I’d been terrified all along. But I explained how I’d chosen not to say it, and it felt like a pivotal lesson for me, that I could choose to contain my feelings; to silently suck up my fear. And if bravery is just seeming unafraid, then it raised the possibility of my being ‘brave’ a lot more. I reasoned, maybe no-one brave feels brave; they just get on and do it without revealing their fear. Bravery is all an act. Brave people feel afraid. They just do it anyway. This was an enormously powerful life lesson, and later gave rise to the mantra I use to encourage myself and others in the outdoors arena; feel the fear and do it anyway.
I love reading scary books and watching horror films. As an English teacher, I used to teach an A Level module about gothic literature. We concluded that one of the primary pleasures of the gothic genre, which has ensured its continuing popularity across the centuries, is that it enables us to practice fear in a safe space. We get to feel the prickle, the frisson, the thrill of cortisol flooding through our bodies, whilst rationally we know we are cocooned on the sofa, defensive cushion clenched in hand. Thus we are both physically and psychologically prepared to face any real fears which life might throw at us. We are practising feeling the fear and being ok.
The truth is, I do sometimes feel afraid. Not very often, and not usually for very long. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times in my life I have felt truly afraid of a real and present danger; a near-drowning, a bizarre semi-kidnapping, a gemstone scam turned hostage situation, and a running out of petrol on an army base in Turkey episode. And against these real and complex situations, the short-lived frisson of hearing a twig snap near my tent, the surprise of seeing a stranger when I thought I was alone, or the annoyance of being compelled to share my picnic space with a slightly odd chap pale in comparison.
Feel the fear and do it anyway. And, if you can bear it, just try not mentioning your fear in advance. Suck it up, just for a bit. Remember, silence sounds like bravery from the outside. It’s just possible that a brave silence will have empowered others more than any gushing confessions of anxiety might have done, despite the comments, likes and shares being fewer. And when you have got back and survived, you’ll see that your pre-emptive fear has disappeared, replaced with bravery, because you FTF and DIA.
So the next time someone asks, ‘Weren’t you scared’, try saying ‘No’, even if it’s not true. Because they might mean ‘Should we be scared’ and the answer to that is definitely ‘No.’