It’s 9:30 p.m. and the air is deliciously cool. The breeze urges my willpower forward as I race against the cursed sprinkler systems of two dozen greedy Californians. My sneakered feet pound the trusty suburban asphalt. I am so deeply cloaked in darkness that the occasional crunch my running strides produce could very well be empty snail shells…or simply tree appendages. But I don’t dare to stop to find out. Every five minutes, like clockwork, my pace slows to accommodate a frantic 180-degree head swivel. This practiced motion, a false comfort of safety, is a constant reminder of my prey-like state.

Prey. It’s the gendered role any and all women I know have played. It’s manifested into the universal experiences of being gifted a cutesy mace keychain, jogging with only one headphone in, or gripping your car keys like an off-brand Wolverine. These cautionary behaviors for women’s safety are socially conditioned into the play-by-play narratives of our everyday lives. The urge for women to adopt and embody risk-averse habits screams louder than assault prevention discussions.

Last semester I downloaded Noonlight, a personal safety app formerly known as Safetrek, after trashing an expired can of reassurance-mace. Like many other college students who waste away into the early mornings at libraries and department buildings, I held an insurmountable fear over the silent trek back home. The lure of Noonlight over other personal safety apps lies primarily in its simple and approachable interface: hold down its big, friendly button until safety is secured, and enter a PIN to confirm your status. If the button is released without a PIN confirmation, emergency help, including local police and your safety network, are notified immediately.

Similar free apps marketed towards women include Sekura, which provides the user with four buttons: calling for an emergency, sending your location, playing an intimidating alarm, and faking an incoming call. The fourth function calls to mind a TikTok trend in circulation a year ago, in which teens would create fake audios for Lyft and Uber passengers to use during uncomfortable situations. Following shocking assault reports covering 2017 and 2018, Uber introduced a number of new safety features, including ride verification and an emergency 911 button.

However promising these technological advancements may seem, I can’t help but notice the limited scope of sexual assault prevention within the broader number of problems that fuel threats to women’s safety, such as toxic masculinity or objectification of women. Where are the apps aimed towards holding perpetrators accountable and addressing gender role socialization? Why do we only impose upon women these imaginary curfews, dress restrictions, and behavior modifications? (Noteworthy examples include: avoid sleeping naked, avoid eye contact, and avoid “getting off at our bus or train stop if a man who has been staring exits at the same time.”) It puts the burden on women to keep taking on impossible, growing measures for their own safety that men do not have to consider. It normalizes putting us into a constantly fearful role of prey.

I shift into this role when I Google ‘Safety tips for women runners’, and briefly contemplate whether carrying a large stone in my hand (along with my GPS tracking cell phone, light-up personal alarm keychain, and 15+ self-defenses) will add or harm my choreographed escape from attackers. Like my dearly departed pet rabbit, I stiffen and adopt heavy breathing at the sight of approaching headlights or human figures; like prey, I scamper when harassed and flee when endangered. As a woman, prey has become my starring role–and this needs to change.

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  • Shannon Zheng

    Shannon Zheng is a multidisciplinary artist and designer studying Art & Design and Philosophy at the University of Michigan. She is interested in channeling art as a form of intervention, whether it be through constructing visual narratives to promote social change or designing confrontationally through an activist lens.

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