Lockdown has taken away many things from our lives. We have all had to confront a number of tangible losses, be they as simple as not being able to have a haircut, the challenging reality of shielding, or the heartbreak of women having to postpone treatments like IVF.
But the seasonal change of this third lockdown is forcing women, in particular, to confront another loss – this time of safe spaces outside, in which to exercise, walk around or even date.
The closure of gyms has meant we are turning to outdoor fitness and, at this time of year, that can mean running in the dark. For women, that’s far from appealing. “I work such long hours that the only time I can go for a run is at 10pm at night,” says Natasha, 35. “I try and stick to bright streets where I live in West London, but ultimately, it’s dark. And it’s scary. I’ve had moments where I feel my heart beating in fear when someone runs past me, and though nothing’s happened, I know there’s a risk. But I really need exercise for my mental health so I have to keep going.”
The importance of exercise – and getting outside – for mental health is well-documented. But during the pandemic, on much quieter streets, it can come with the loaded risk of sexual harassment. This was an issue in the first lockdown, with women reporting a huge rise in “sexual comments while exercising,” as Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism Project wrote for the Telegraph at the time. Now that the season has changed, that isolation is accompanied by the fact it gets dark at around 4pm.
It is also becoming a problem for women who are trying to date during lockdown. The restrictions mean the only option for a first date (typically arranged on an app, because how else do you meet someone in a pandemic?) is to go for a walk. And with people still working office hours from home, those dates often take place after dark.
“It’s so hard because I don’t really want to go for a walk in the dark with a total stranger from Tinder,” says Sarah, 30. “But I refuse to put my dating life on hold for an entire year because of the pandemic. I’ve had situations where dates have tried to get me to walk with them in dark alleyways, and it’s really not cool.
“But what choice do I have? I have friends who are breaking the rules to go to someone’s house for a first date because it’s too cold and dark to be outside. But to me, going to some Tinder guy’s house on a first date is even more terrifying than going for a walk.”
“There are definitely dangers out there,” agrees Nimco Ali, an independent government adviser on tackling Violence Against Women and Girls. “You’re living on the edge. Just before Christmas, I was saying I have to be off my calls by 3pm because I have to go out when it’s light. I don’t want to walk in the dark. But if you stay in you get depressed. Loneliness can also mean we make more rash decisions, like going over to someone’s house.”
The bubble system also means that those experiencing feelings of loneliness can quickly escalate relationships with people they barely know. A bubble is also the only legal way to visit someone else’s home, which could see people ignoring potential red flags and taking that step much sooner than they would in normal times.