A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
Women’s Socialization and Safety
Last summer in Berlin, our corona-incident rates were low enough that the city eased COVID restrictions so Berliners could go out and play.
And Berliners did: after making it through the first, grim lockdown of 2020, the city poured out into the parks, to the lakes, to the streets — socially distanced of course. But still, the city was full of people picnicking, playing frisbee, hiking, biking, and of course, running.
That was in May.
In June, reports of rape were starting to circulate: first in Facebook groups (“Ladies: there is a rapist attacking joggers” was the common message), then in the news, and soon enough it was everywhere. A serial rapist was attacking women who were out either running or biking alone.
Women are well aware that we are at risk of harassment, assault, rape and getting killed every time we step out of the house. We spend about 50% of our energy strategizing how to stay safe. And we’re generally really good at it — so good at it, in fact, it’s a trained, subconscious reflex at this point, in the same way you put your hands out if you trip, to break your fall.
You don’t think about it. You just do it.
But this guy seemed like he was on a mission to rape as many women as possible before he was caught. In a period of only 18 days — a little over two weeks — he attacked seven women. Women were being snatched off the path, dragged into the woods, threatened with a weapon, and brutally raped. The fear was palpable. And it was spreading through the city.
The police were actively looking for the man. His image had been caught on CCTV. A few women in Facebook groups even claimed to know him, and were encouraged to submit his name to the police.
At the same time, women were frustrated: no one wanted to curtail their freedom of movement because of this guy. The resentment was as palpable as the fear. We wanted to be able to go for a jog, or bike home, unmolested, unthreatened. We wanted to be able to move through the world with the same freedom as men.
But no one wanted to get raped, either.
So Pretty Deadly decided to offer a couple of free self defense workshops for Berliners. Me and one of our trainers, Liliana Velasquez, wanted to share a few strategies and tools specifically for the way this guy was attacking women.
That meant research: we needed to know how the rapist assaulted his victims so we could work out appropriate defenses. The only details being reported were that the victims were always dragged into a wooded or more secluded area. But our question was: how did he grab them? And how did even he get a hold of them in the first place?
One of the most important things I’ve learned over the years is that perpetrators are incredibly good at sociology and human psychology. They have a deep understanding of the social contract, and how we as humans are socialized — especially women. For women, that socialization is centered around helping others, especially when politely asked: for a word of advice, for a helping hand, for directions.
Liliana and I had to really dig for information about the way the Berlin rapist was attacking women. Newspaper reports were filled with grim details, focused on supporting the victims and police hunt for the man. Finally we found an account of one of the earliest victims, who had been held and raped for three hours, until she managed to get away.
By July, despite a city-wide man-hunt, the Berlin rapist still hadn’t been caught. We conducted two free workshops addressing the rape attacks: our participants role-played every aspect, from getting approached and what to say (and not say), from being grabbed, being pulled and dragged, being pushed down, pinned down and even being raped and getting away, focusing on what we had learned about the strategies that had worked for the one victim who had managed to escape.
Hours after our second workshop ended, the rapist had been caught in nearby Potsdam — after raping his 8th victim.
Our research had revealed that, sure enough, the rapist’s modus operandi was exactly what we suspected: he met women head on, walking his bike towards them, politely asking for directions, and then continuing on his way.
For this guy, he knew that getting women to come to a full stop to talk to him, meant they would take a few seconds to get moving again: re-inserting earbuds, rewinding music or hitting play again before resuming a run; getting back onto the seat of the bike, etc. — while he continued on his way past them, putting him directly behind them, which positioned him for his attack.
But we’ve all had interactions like this countless times: once the person moves on, we figure the interaction is over and pick up where we left off. Of course we do. Why wouldn’t we?
Why shouldn’t we trust that most human beings do not wish us harm?
We can trust that, actually. We can trust that most human beings do not wish us harm just by the fact that there are nearly 8 billion of us on the planet. We would not have reached this number if we were actively trying to harm each other all the time.
But that doesn’t diminish the impact that one single person can have on an entire city, whether it’s by gripping Berlin with fear or London with outrage. It does not diminish the level or frequency of violence against women. It does not diminish the lives broken, destroyed, taken. Not one bit.
The MO of the Berlin rapist plays on very subtle socializations of authority and the reverse-psychology assumption that all women use, that tells us: “if this man is approaching me in a calm manner, then obviously he’s not a threat.”
It’s the more polite version of abuse of authority as being approached in a car park and ordered to “get in the car.” The percentage of people who actually don’t obey an order from a random man is so small that the crime is worth the risk. Whether there is a knife or gun present or not, the real weapon being wielded in is the authority.
And it’s the very same abuse of authority used by the London Metro police officer suspected of killing Sarah Everard. This man knew that white women in particular are socialized to believe that police are there to protect them. He knew that, as a police officer, as a person in a position of authority — in this case, an authority on law and order itself — he already had her trust.
There’s no question that police officer abused his authority — as every police officer does, who uses force against individual citizens who make up the very society police are sworn to uphold; as every man does, who commits violence against women. What makes these men, the rapist in Berlin, the London cop, the Australian politician and all the men like them, so heinous is that they use women’s basic human trust against us in the most inhuman way.