Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Familiar Fear: Why cycling is sometimes like existing as a woman* in a misogynist culture

Every time I ride my bike legally centerlane through SoDo (south Seattle) I find myself, without fail, afraid.

This fear strikes my body in a familiar way. My stomach flinches with recognition. “I know this feeling.” I think in conjunction with gripping the brakelevers a little too tightly. My wrists and elbows harvest the the all-too-familiar tension of traveling through space that was not designed for my existence. At best these roads accommodate my journey with retrofits. Often these artificial additions serve as triggers for the the rage many drivers feel toward cyclists in general and me in particular.

Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely thankful when a roadway opens up with a bike lane or announces me and my simple machine with signs or white symbols. But it is not enough.

If it isn’t apparent already, that fearful correlation I feel in my belly-- the one I am attempting to draw out here-- is a parallel between the twisted visibility & ever-apparent danger inherent in biking in spaces designed for cars, and the problems and challenges presented by navigating a misogynist culture as a female-perceived person.

Ask any cyclist you know and they will tell you story upon story of either being physically damaged, verbally harassed or having their journeys otherwise disrupted by drivers and their vehicles. Ask any female-presenting person 
you know (who has an awareness of what harassment/abuse looks like) and they will be just as able to tell you many stories about having their journeys disrupted by physical, verbal or other means.

You see, there is this thing about being a vehicle or gender (and gender is just a vehicle) in a system not designed for you (which at best accommodates you with retrofits): Our journeys and our bodies are constantly subject to the self-righteous scrutiny and disruptions of those for whom the systems were designed.

There is a special sort of visibility afforded to a cyclist or a female-perceived person. One which immediately appears to insight ridicule from those for whom the cultural/transportation system was designed. Cyclists and women* are expected to accept the fact that they are often gawked at and even to have their performance and appearance scrutinized and commented upon without invitation or permission. And so often the space a woman or a cyclist requests to take up is seen as merely a flashy nuisance. Most drivers/misogynists identify us as hazards within their system and not as full vehicles/people (which legally we are!).

The most prescient way in which these two types of fear connected in my belly was on the grounds of implicit but (usually) unintentional threats of harm. When a driver/misogynist does gawk, comment, honk or pass my body/vehicle too closely, there is always the implied threat of violence. Regardless of the intent.

If a car passes me and my bike too closely & the driver shouts or revs their engine, they might not mean to be saying so, but the message I always receive is very clear: “You don’t belong here and if I wanted to do something about it I could kill/physically damage you (with this machine).” This is the same sort of message I receive as a female-perceived person in spaces where violence against women and misogyny go unchallenged as the norm. I want more bike lanes and less oppressive drivers. I want better marked and maintained avenues for journeys free from gendered violence and misogyny.

*I use woman/women in shorthand here to be a placeholder for female-perceived persons. I do not believe these terms mean the same groups of people, only that these two groups are the most often subject to misogynist violence and disruption.

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