Woman in black shoes walking through the city street in the night
Photo: Getty Images

Women feeling unsafe in Wellington is nothing new

An increase in violence in the Wellington CBD has councillors and MPs worried about a problem that Emily Writes says has always existed.

This post was first published on Emily Writes Weekly.

Content warning: this post discusses sexual violence and harassment. It may be upsetting to survivors. Please take care.

I live about 10 minutes from a cinema in Wellington. My suburb is I suppose safe – but I would never walk home alone. I won’t walk my dog alone. And when I’m in town I get a cab to the doors of Meow, walk with friends to Ivy, then get a cab home from outside Ivy. I do not go near Courtenay Place and if I’m going anywhere else, I leave before the sun goes down.

I wondered if I am extra cautious because every day I see the worst of men in my inbox. I wondered if it’s because I get rape threats when I write about things that annoy men (everything I write annoys at least one man). Once when I wrote about where to get the flu vaccine I was told “I hope you choke on a dick you fucking whore”. Another time a dude took a photo of a photo I’d shared in a story about dressing up. He’d jizzed over the picture. I can’t remember quite what it said, and it’s long deleted now, but it included the usual response. You know, that I’m a whore, slut, I need to “get raped” et cetera et cetera.

But to be honest, I don’t know that that’s the reason why I feel unsafe in Wellington. I feel unsafe simply because it is unsafe.

Through Instagram, I asked Wellington women if they felt the same way I do. Some answers included:

“I’ve been followed by single men and groups of men. It’s not uncommon to see fighting too.”

“I’ve been assaulted on the train and while walking. Ubers and taxis are expensive and buses don’t show.”

“I’ve been harassed three times in a week in Newtown after 5pm. It put me off walking alone”.

“As a woman, I don’t feel safe walking anywhere at night.”

For as long as I can remember I’ve felt unsafe in this city. I have stories, of course, like most other women and femmes about assault, harassment, groping and close calls, and so do my friends.

It’s not universal, this feeling of being unsafe. I’ve spoken to other women who describe themselves as feeling “invisible” or “able to fly under the radar”. And in some ways I feel less targeted as I get older (and I drink a lot less than I did when I was younger). I am still cat-called on the odd occasion – but it’s mostly just men reminding me I’m fat. When I was younger it was more sexualised.

I feel safer in that sense, but it’s not a safety I feel assured enough by to walk anywhere alone. Maybe it’s because I know if anything happened I’d be blamed, because that’s the culture we live in. But it might also be because feeling unsafe is so ingrained in me that I just don’t think about it any more.

At 35, I know never to leave a friend to walk anywhere on her own. It’s not even a question. After 20 years of living in Wellington, I know I won’t walk anywhere alone – it just doesn’t cross my mind. I know I can’t just go anywhere. I know I must flank my queer friends because the walk from Ivy to Fringe Bar is a fucking gauntlet that nobody wants to run – but sometimes you have to for gigs.

If you have to get from one place to another and you’re on your own, you get an Uber. If you can’t afford that, get a scooter or get on the bus – but walking? No, not unless you’re in a group.

When I walk onto the dance floor I can immediately spot the straights who are in the gay bar to grope and harass the women there. I can feel the slight change in the air when a man is hovering, heading your way, swaying slightly, and you just know he’s going to find a reason to brush past your breasts.

I know to wait until the bathrooms are clear and not to walk down the middle of a group of men waiting. To be honest, I avoid any places where there are big groups of men.

I’ve always just known that Wellington city has never been for me as a woman.

I run gigs all the time that exclude cis men and that’s how I get to dance without being groped. When I want to be with my people, I’ll head to Ivy, but even there you’re not completely safe from straight men. So you work around. You organise your own events. You go to each other’s houses and dance in the lounge. And if you see a movie and it lets out after dark, you drive five minutes up the road instead of walking

National MP Nicola Willis has talked about the problem, which I applaud her for. But the dog whistling around patched gang members and emergency housing was unnecessary and classist. Violence and harassment of women and the LGBTQ community has always been in Wellington. No matter the government or council – the city hasn’t been safe for women and queers. Just as we have damp homes, we have drunken men yelling at us from bars on Courtenay Place. And we’ve been saying that for fucking ever.

You can blame the issue of increased “anti-social behaviour” in the city on the poor, on the homeless, or even on gangs, or you can wake up and see what is really behind it: entitlement.

Men feeling entitled to the attention and bodies of women.

Men whose homophobia is barely hidden below the surface.

And a police force that, in my opinion, has never properly cared for the safety of the queer community and has always harboured victim-blaming attitudes towards sexual assault survivors.

Oh, what a hard pill to swallow! And how annoying that it just all comes back to that.

This isn’t a new problem. And it won’t be solved by public meetings. God knows I’ve marched in too many Reclaim the Night-style marches in the last 20 years. It won’t be solved by kicking out already vulnerable people from the city (if you feel unsafe, imagine how unsafe homeless people feel). It won’t be solved by banning gang patches. And it won’t be solved with political point-scoring.

Until we address the underlying culture of excessive drinking combined with entitled men and get the police on board, until we stop blaming people in social housing for the violence of boomers in suits drinking Heineken and popped-collar frat-boy wannabes drinking Pals, absolutely nothing will change.

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