Back in January of 2011, a police officer from Toronto got up to deliver what he thought was an important safety message. His message echoed around the world: “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised”. I think the reason the police officer said what he did is that he had a picture in his mind of the 'typical' rape: a young woman wearing a little black dress in an alleyway. The problem is, he had it all wrong: there is no 'typical' rape, and even that exact scenario is not about the girl in the dress. It's about a criminal, and a desire for power and domination; wearing jeans and a jumper won't change that. But I'm not here to write that article: plenty of others have already done that.
I want, instead, to look at a different issue. I want to deliver the message that police officer should have delivered.
Life is about risk, not safety. When we step outside our home, we expose ourselves to risk. If we stay inside, we expose ourselves to different risks. If we play sport, or we travel, or we fall in love, we're risking. We risk our emotions, our health, and our safety every day. When a gay teenager comes out to his classmates, he's risking. When someone asks their lover if they will marry them, they're risking. And yes, when a girl wears a short skirt, she is risking. She is showing off who she is, and risking how people will take it. When a guy shaves his legs; when a girl shaves her head; whenever we are ourselves, we risk.
Risking is living. The risks we take, and how we take them, make us who we are. When that police officer told women not to dress like sluts, he didn't only demean women for how they dressed; he asked women to give up their freedom, their identity. Even if dressing conservatively could protect women from assault - and it can't - it's not an OK trade. It wasn't just the wrongness of the idea that made it so bad, or even the insult. What made it worse was that the very police force that trained that man and put him on the stage that day exists for the opposite reason: it exists not to constrain our freedom in return for safety, but to protect our safety, as we remain free.
In light of that, what can a woman to do if she wants to improve her safety? It's a delicate question, and the answer is both everything and nothing. You could fortify your house, hire armed guards, and never go out; you'd be very safe, but you wouldn't be living. No risk, see? No life. Conversely, you could change nothing; you'd be less safe than you might be, but you'll be being you. That's not my advice either, though.
There are things you can do to improve your safety without compromising who you are. In fact, some may even enhance who you are! A good example might be taking a self-defense class. I've been studying taekwondo for nearly fifteen years now; I took it up for the self-defense aspect, but I grew to love it, and it's become very much a part of who I am. Most martial arts will not only boost your abilities and fitness, but also your awareness and confidence, and you get to meet new people and have fun at the same time! If you don't like the idea of a formal martial art, there are plenty of classes aimed specifically at teaching women self-defense skills: Brisbane City Council is currently providing free classes about personal safety.
There are lots of things you can do to be safe, but they should all work to protect who you are, not to smother you. The first step is to be yourself, and don't let fear become a prison. Thinking about going for a run by yourself at night? It's a risk. If you're the sort of person who enjoys a run at night, go for it! If you don't really want to anyway, but feel you should 'to keep fit', you can look for less risky ways to keep fit. Or, you know what? We're in a modern, mostly-safe society. Go for that run anyway! Perhaps you have a neighbour with a dog you could offer to take out. Look for ways to improve your safety which fit in with who you are.
The final thing I want you to keep in mind is that these are the things you can do to improve your safety. Can. If you change the question to "What should I do to improve my safety?" the answer becomes even simpler: nothing. There is nothing you should do. Be yourself. Live life. Bad things happen, and so do good things, and ultimately there is no guarantee. If you want to take a self-defense class, or start running with your neighbour's dog, go for it! If you want to stay how you are now, do that. We're all different, and it's our diversity that makes us a society worth living in.