On Mollie Tibbetts And The Unease Of Moving Through The World As A Woman

For women, there is never really a moment where we can be in a public space and not on guard.
Mollie Tibbetts, in a moment of joy.
Mollie Tibbetts, in a moment of joy.
Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation/AP

There’s a scene in AMC’s “Dietland” that I can’t stop thinking about. A passing news report shows a 20-something woman gleefully telling a newscaster about how much she loves her new routine of midnight runs.

“Never done that before in my life,” she says, with a giant smile on her face. “It’s great.”

The news report works because it is so obviously fictional, a twist on real life. In “Dietland,” an all-female terror group has begun coming after male abusers, creating an atmosphere where powerful white men are afraid to be out in public spaces for perhaps the first time in their lives. Men bemoan the fear they feel just walking down the street, while young women learn to embrace a world where they feel safe enough to go on a midnight run. What would it take to make the women I know feel safe enough to go running at midnight?

I thought about that scene again after the news broke that Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old college student had been killed while on an evening run. According to police, a 24-year-old man, Cristhian Bahena Rivera, approached her while she was out jogging and began running behind her. She reportedly asked him to leave her alone and said otherwise she would call the police, and then she ended up dead. Much has been made by conservatives of the alleged killer’s immigration status, but this is a story about a woman who went out into the world, did not return a man’s advances and paid for that choice with her life.

Running is by nature a solitary activity, one where the runner can lose himself or herself in the run, drowning out the outside world. There is a freedom to running outside, unencumbered by whatever happened during the day at work or at school or in your love life. I hate running, and even I get that.

As my colleague Alanna Vagianos beautifully outlined in a Twitter thread, running is a lifeline for some people, not just physically but mentally, an essential form of self-care. But for women ― women like Tibbetts and like Vagianos, who was the target of an attempted break-in after she ran the same route regularly ― running can also turn into a liability.

Any woman who calls herself a runner knows just how terrifying the Mollie Tibbetts story is,” Vagianos tweeted. “The lengths that women have to go to protect themselves from being alone in public spaces is restrictive, exhausting, fucking terrifying.”

And therein lies the truth: For women, there is never really a moment where we can be in a public space and not on guard. (Despite the reality that private spaces can be far more deadly.)

So maybe running is dangerous. Or maybe it’s stepping onto the subway platform. Or maybe it’s walking into a bar. Or maybe it’s walking home from a bar. Or maybe it’s waitressing. Or maybe it’s filling up your gas tank. Or maybe it’s getting into an Uber.

Or maybe it’s wandering down the beach into an area that isn’t crowded, like I did when I was 18 years old. Maybe you’re laughing and chatting with two other young girlfriends when you pass three teenage boys. Maybe they lock eyes with you and you try to smile and be kind and not engage too much that you’ll invite attention or too little that you’ll invite anger.

Maybe when you turn around to walk back toward home those teenage boys follow you. Maybe you try to speed up, but you can hear their feet moving more quickly behind you. Maybe you feel one of their arms reach around you and tickle you, and then hit you across the face. Maybe you scream and duck and can’t tell if it’s your scream or someone else’s but when they decide to abandon their attempt to grab your purse, you run all the way home. Maybe even though you weren’t alone that day and you try to laugh off what happened, every time you walk down the street and sense a man’s footsteps approaching behind you, your entire body tenses up in fear.

When you experience violence ― or even perceive the threat of violence ― simply for existing in a public space, it changes you. It robs you of joy, of a carefree existence, of freedom of movement. (And as a white woman I’m fully aware that I can’t even possibly understand how these daily threats are compounded for women of color.) When you can’t walk down the street or into the subway or into a bar or down a running path without knowing in the back of your head that you might be putting yourself in danger, it irrevocably alters the way you move about the world.

“When you experience violence -- or even perceive the threat of violence -- simply for existing in public space, it changes you. It robs you of joy, of a carefree existence, of freedom of movement.”

Women hear these stories ― from our friends, from our mothers, from the news. We internalize the threat and act accordingly, going places in groups, or holding our car keys between our fingers when we walk through a dark parking lot, or looking down an alley before running past it to make sure no one is going to jump out at us, or wearing headphones without actually playing anything through them, or avoiding streets and places and activities altogether ― even activities that, as Vagianos put it, are “so integral to [our] well-being.”

What a world it would be if we could move through it without the weight of constant fear on our shoulders. What a world it would be if the women I knew could feel free to go on those midnight runs, music blasting, aware only of the rhythm of their own bodies.

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