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Gender, Safety and Desirability

Streetsblog recently featured four different articles that highlighted the role of gender in the success of public spaces and practices. In the first post, traffic psychologist Ian Walker attached proximity measuring equipment to test how closely (i.e. how dangerously) motorists came when overtaking him. He found that they came closer when he wore a helmet than when he was bare-headed, presumably because they felt he would be protected if they hit him. But they gave him the most space when he wore a long wig and (he assumed) passed for a woman from behind.

In another post, the New York Observer reported that a new group of women are seen riding bikes in New York: young, attractive, and most importantly, forsaking jocky spandex for a host of femme signifiers: dresses, skirts, high heels, long hair, baskets, perfume, pink, Hello Kitty. They include famous actresses and models such as Naomi Watts, Chloë Sevigny, Gisele Bundchen and, most recently, Sarah Michelle Gellar. Streetsblog pointed out, however, that Copenhagen, um, women are way ahead of New York, riding bikes in skirts and heels in great numbers.

Today, in a discussion of the soaring popularity of cycling in Portland, Oregon, the comments turned to Portland’s concern with the numbers of women cyclists. “Women cyclists,” the city’s transportation office asserts, “are the indicators of a healthy bikeway network.”

Bryant Park (1960), Charles W. CushmanStreetsblog commenter Gretel pointed us to a New Yorker report about Danny Gordon, whose job is to count the numbers of men and women in Bryant Park, every day at lunchtime. The idea comes from a man named Holly Whyte, a sociologist and founder of the Project for Public Spaces. “Women pick up on visual cues of disorder better than men do,” Gordon’s boss, Bryant Park Corporation president Dan Biederman told the New Yorker. “They’re your purest customers. And, if women don’t see other women, they tend to leave.” New Yorker writer Nick Paumgarten added, “Presumably, a female preponderance not only emboldens more women but also entices more men.”

Paumgarten acknowledged that it’s not always easy to classify people by gender. “Sometimes I’ll make it a man, sometimes I’ll make it a woman,” Gordon told him. “And, if I realize afterward that I was wrong, I’ll change the next person.” For Biederman’s purposes it doesn’t matter if Gordon gets it slightly wrong, because what really matters is how many women are perceived to be in the park.

Biederman’s assessment of the role of women in the success of a public space is probably correct, but I would guess that when safety is an issue (as it was in Bryant Park in the ’80s, and as it is in cycling now), the critical issue is that women, overall, are more vulnerable than men, and are perceived that way, by themselves and by others. They pick up on visual cues of disorder because those are likely to be cues of danger for them. When people see a place full of women (who aren’t being held captive in some way) they take that as a signal that the place is safe. When people see women engaging in an activity, they take that as a signal that the activity is safe.

I’ll even go further than Biederman and argue that the women aren’t all equal in that regard: the femmer the women, the more vulnerable they appear, and the more femme women, the safer the space appears. If I see Bryant Park at midnight full of leather-clad women with crew cuts, I won’t get the same feeling of safety as if I see it full of women with long hair wearing high heels and dresses. (Of course, there’s no feeling of safety if the women appear to be prostitutes.) Similarly with cycling: a few frail-looking women in dresses indicate safety much more than a lot of athletic-looking women in spandex.

How does transness fit into this? I think it has a lot to do with passing. An FTM once told me that he knew he passed when he saw a woman cross the street to avoid walking past him. I knew I passed late one night when a strange woman curled up next to me on the subway and fell asleep. Maybe some women would be reassured by seeing a non-passing MTF in the crowd, maybe they wouldn’t. Something to look into, perhaps.

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