One of the last events to take place in Folkestone before social-distancing restrictions were introduced to prevent the spread of Covid-19 was the Take Up Space Festival. The latest in a series of extravagnazas held in the town every March to mark International Women’s Day, it encouraged those who attended to think about what it means for women to take up space in the world.
At the time, few could have known how prescient the theme would turn out to be. Only a handful of days later, all of us – women and men alike – would be required to pay careful attention to the space we occupy in order to keep our (2m) distance from one another.
When I listened to prime minister Boris Johnson announcing the start of the UK lockdown on 23 March, many thoughts went through my mind. One of them was to do with safety. I wondered how it might feel for me to go out exercising in much quieter streets. As has already been highlighted by those campaigning to allow abuse victims to leave their houses and seek help during the lockdown, the restrictions had potentially devastating implications for some of society’s most vulnerable women. Might they also affect the safety of women generally?
In practice, this hasn’t been an issue for me. At the times I run – usually first thing or in the middle of the day – there are always a fair number of other runners and walkers out. I have not felt threatened; if anything, the requirement for people to keep their distance has made me less likely to question the motivations of those I encounter.
What has been interesting, however, has been observing the new etiquette that seems to be springing up around keeping 2m apart, particularly concerning who gives way to whom. I have only my non-scientific, personal observations to consider, but the impression I have is as follows: if the person approaching me is a woman, she is marginally (although by no means universally) more likely to make efforts to give me space than the men I pass.
I’m not sure of the reasons for this. It could be that women – socialised as we are to be good girls – are in general more compliant with restrictions or perhaps more given to worrying about catching coronavirus. It may be that patriarchal mores have embedded an expectation in the heads of some of the men I encounter that I ought to make space for them. Or it could be that, having been conditioned to defer to men, I subconsciously exhibit a readiness to give way in these situations.
From what I have observed, this gender divide around social distancing is relatively slight. I have seen plenty of examples of women striding aggressively close to other people and numerous instances of men stepping aside to accommodate me.
Indeed, the most striking behavioural distinction I have encountered so far has been dictated not by gender but by whether those I meet on the sea front are walking alone or in a couple. Almost without exception, those in company do not step aside on the narrow walkway to allow someone to pass 2m from them – so much so that, wherever possible, I have taken to running out onto the shingle whenever I see a pair of people approaching, even though there would be space for us to pass safely on the walkway if they were to walk in single file.
I don’t think this selfishness is deliberate in most cases. Rather, it displays a human trait: when our attention is focused on a companion, we have less capacity to consider those around us or to remember regulations, regardless of our gender.