It’s that knot of anxiety in the pit of your stomach when you walk down the street. You step off the train, your bag in front of your breasts, flinching lest the next passerby brush you “accidentally-on-purpose.”
It’s never knowing whether your boss is leaning just a little too close.
It’s turning the music up loud so you don’t hear the catcallers, or turning down an invitation to a work outing because the coworker who’s going has a reputation for getting handsy when he’s drunk.
In the course of an average day, women spend an incredible amount of time and energy attempting to avoid sexual harassment — and thanks to recent research, we now know how much. This time and effort is called “safety work,” and it is work: All those moments of self-censorship, of adjusting our behavior, of choosing what we wear or where we go based, not on our real desires, but on fear for our safety, aren’t just minor annoyances. They have a major effect on our mental health, from daily stress to effects as serious as post traumatic stress disorder.
A recent group of feminist researchers has elaborated how “safety work” exacts a toll on women’s everyday lives. UK-based researcher Liz Kelly has argued that safety work is the labor that women are forced to do in order to try to keep ourselves safe from domestic and sexual violence, in a world in which this violence is not an occasional incident but an overwhelming daily threat.
As researcher Fiona Vera-Gray writes in her work on street harassment, women are constantly forced to navigate the world anticipating invasive sexual or gender-based “intrusions” by men. While the women in Vera-Gray’s study reported experiencing street harassment on average once every couple days, anticipating these intrusions and planning for them occupied a good deal of women’s thought and time in public on a daily basis, thus causing them to alter their behavior — and subjecting them to near-constant stress.
We cannot ever truly prevent sexual violence and harassment, because it’s not our fault — it’s the choice of the aggressor and of a sexist society. Even so, the burden of assessing our own risk constantly falls on women’s heads, and we learn strategies to make ourselves feel more comfortable in the hopes of getting through the day in peace. When in public space, some of these strategies may be:
- Wearing headphones to prevent male strangers from talking to us
- Wearing sunglasses so men can’t see our eyes or facial expressions
- Changing our walking routes to avoid harassment
- Changing the way we dress in an attempt to avoid attention
- Arranging our facial expressions to look hostile, disinterested or neutral in the hopes of avoiding attention or even comments to “smile.”
Do any of these behaviors ring a bell? If they do, you may also find yourself undertaking safety work in other spaces — like the workplace and the home.
At work, we may avoid meeting certain male coworkers alone, dress a certain way, or hesitate to speak up. And for those of us who have struggled with physical, emotional, or sexual abuse in our intimate lives, we may adjust our behavior in the home as well — we may avoid certain relatives, walk on eggshells around volatile partners, and develop other methods to cope with violent domestic space.
As the research on safety work demonstrates, we’re not just hurt when sexual harassment happens — our mental health also takes a toll from the near-constant anticipation of harassment. Since our thoughts are always half-occupied with monitoring our bodies and the space around us, we lose the freedom to think about other things, to move and speak as we please, and to simply enjoy the solace of our own minds — a constant worry that Vera-Grey calls a “habituated external awareness.” This can in turn lead to negative mental health effects like depression, anxiety, body image issues, and can exacerbate the trauma we may have from other experiences of gendered violence.
And because harassment is so normalized in our society, it’s not only other people who fail to notice “safety work” — we often don’t even register the toll that trying to keep ourselves safe takes on us. While we can’t eliminate sexual harassment overnight, we can learn to give ourselves and each other support as we build a world where all of us can enjoy the basic right to safety and personal freedom. We can begin by allowing ourselves to acknowledge how much work we actually do, how much effort we’re making, and how those efforts really can drain us.
Next time you go about your day, ask yourself: Are you also engaging in safety work you might not have previously recognized? If you are (and many of us do!), don’t be afraid to acknowledge how you may feel — annoyed, exhausted, anxious — to yourself, to loved ones, and even to a therapist. And don’t be afraid to give yourself the care and understanding that you need. We all deserve spaces where we can drop our vigilance and simply enjoy the solace of our own minds.