In a recent Lincoln commercial featuring Matthew McConaughey, we see the actor finishing up a run and then thoughtfully approaching his SUV. His workout has taken place in a beautiful forest. Tall trees. Gentle wind. Sunlight streaming down through the branches. And no one is around. Just McConaughey and his vehicle.
As I watched this commercial, though, I really wasn’t thinking about the car or the actor. My initial thought was “it wouldn’t be safe for a woman to be off running in the woods all by herself.” That’s where my mind went. To those lessons that I heard starting when I was a girl. Check the back seat of your car. Hold your keys between your fingers in case you have to defend yourself. If you’re driving alone at night, wear a baseball cap so no one can tell you’re a woman.
And whenever there was a news item about a woman being sexually assaulted while out running or walking in a local forest preserve, I inevitably heard “what was she doing out there alone?”
So, sadly, I’ve internalized that thinking. Looking at places not just for their qualities but for their risks.
As women, we’ve been taught that we’re responsible for our safety. And when I see McConaughey running in that lovely forest alone—enjoying the solitude and experience—I’m not gonna lie. I’m a bit resentful. I want to be that carefree. I'm angry that a part of me believes that I wouldn't be safe in that setting. Is that experience accessible to me? Why can't I be free like that?
Now, I realize plenty of women enjoy these experiences and are perfectly safe doing so. And that men are victims of assault as well. But most victims of sexual assault are women. So I don’t think it’s that outlandish to assume that women think about these safety issues more than men do.
In my therapy practice, most of my clients have sexual trauma in their past. Often from multiple perpetrators. Their stories are chilling, and the trauma weaves its way into the fabric of their relationships, mental health, self-esteem, and physical health. For many, a safe home was not a given. A boyfriend or husband could be a loyal partner one moment and then a predator the next.
The hurt doesn’t stop when the assault ends and many carry pain and hypervigilance and mistrust and dysregulation with them for many years.
And there is also resilience and survival. Safe relationships are found. Self-worth reclaimed.
We should all feel safe enough to run or walk alone in a magnificent forest. To be free. Let’s keep talking about how to make that happen.