Women are not always safe, even in gyms. But fear is a good way to keep them at bay

I was totally mesmerized last week by a moment caught on camera at a gym in Florida. The woman – an Instagram fitness model named Nashali Alma – sees a man waiting outside the door and interrupts her workout to invite him inside. It’s evening. The two are now alone, locked in an empty room.

After a few minutes, a man approaches her, and then, shockingly, he starts chasing her around the machines. Then catch her. You think: that’s it, it’s over. But like one of those dramatic sequences in David Attenborough’s best films – an iguana hatched from a nest of snakes, perhaps, or an impala battling a dead crocodile – it’s not over. He fights and in the end – incredibly – he wins. The exhausted predator was outwitted by its cunning prey.

“I was convinced that I had the strength and the mentality to fight back,” Alma said later, for all the world like a victorious soccer player at a press conference. “I would tell every woman to always fight, to never give up.”

Inspirational stuff, I thought, but many would disagree. In fact, the video has caused quite a stir on the Internet.

After the Florida sheriff told reporters that the story would be “an inspiration to other women,” many reacted with fury. They felt there was nothing inspiring about a woman being assaulted – in fact the message was deeply irresponsible. The real and only message was that women are not safe in gyms – not safe anywhere.

Is it possible that this narrative – that women are constantly in danger in public spaces – does harm as well as good?

How should we talk about this video? Which message is right? The question reflects a discomfort I’ve long felt in the way we talk about women’s safety.

We hear many other messages: that women are not safe walking home at night, not safe on public transport, not safe in gyms. He gets it at every opportunity (even a video of a woman successfully fending off an attack seems to be an opportunity to tell us how insecure we are). Yes, it is important to advocate for greater protection against violence. But is it possible that this narrative – that women are constantly exposed to great risk in public spaces – does harm as well as benefit?

I should say that of course there is some truth in the message. Horrible things happen to women in public places. But maybe not as often as we think.

In England and Wales, women are far less likely to be murdered than men: in the year ending March 2022. 72% of murder victims were men. And when it comes to street safety, statistics suggest that the greater danger for women lurks in the home, from a current or former partner. In the same year, attacks by strangers accounted for only 7% of women and 15% of men. Only 15% of rapes are committed by strangers.

These are the facts. Yet they remain at odds with public perception, perhaps due to the cultural overreaction when that rare terrible thing happens to a woman walking home alone at night.

A year after the murder of Sarah Everard, a YouGov poll of British women showed that 66% of women either “always”, “often” or “sometimes” feel unsafe walking alone at night. About 25% felt similar fear walking alone during the day. Anecdotal evidence suggests that coverage of the death of Nicole Bulley produced much the same effect. Women are afraid to go out alone.

if the message is scary enough, the patriarchy’s job is done. Women police themselves

Isn’t it better to be safe than sorry? Does it matter if the daily risks for women are exaggerated, if it helps keep them safe? Well, here’s an argument that it matters. In patriarchies, theorists might say, violence against women in public places is not only a social evil – it serves a political purpose. It is used by the police. Tells women where to go and where not to go. When women are attacked in the streets, or in universities, or in the workplace, they realize that these places are not for them.

Informing women about the real risks is one thing, but exaggerating the dangers only helps convey that original message: stay off the streets, leave the city to the men, this is not the place for you. In fact, if the message is sufficiently frightening and widespread enough, the actual risk no longer matters. The work of the patriarchy is finished. Women police themselves.

In the world’s strongest patriarchies, there is not only cruel violence against women, but also a tradition of making threats. Women are told that they are weak beings who need male protection at all times.

That is why they have to stay in their houses, cultivate good relations with the family patriarch, wear veils, and even agree to the practice of mutilation. After all, it is about their own safety. (Studies in India suggest that cultural fear of crime, rather than actual statistics, is most strongly associated with women’s decisions not to accept offers from prestigious universities or to join certain jobs.)

Since time immemorial, nation-states have used fear – of foreign invaders, terrorist threats, even pandemics – as a shortcut to restrict the freedom of their citizens. Perhaps it is not surprising that the oldest energy system in the world uses much the same methods. A minister in the Indian government recently suggested that every woman should leave the house report to the local police station so it can be tracked. For her protection, of course.

Yes, Alma’s video is an inspiration – it counters the disheartening message that women are extremely vulnerable to men. It tells us that it would be worth investing in a few self-defense lessons. And it contains another message, perhaps no less important. Attacking women is not always as easy as it seems. Try and you might end up with the wrong person.

• Martha Gill is a political journalist and former lobby correspondent

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