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some thoughts about sarah everard & sexual harassment

TW: rape, murder, sexual harassment & assault

I feel a bit like by writing this I’m just contributing to the overwhelming mass of noise in the media at the moment. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. This needs to be talked about, and I have a lot of emotions to process at the moment. The more people who start conversations, the better.

In case you didn’t know, last week 33 year old Sarah Everard went missing walking home from a friend’s house in London. Human remains have now been found, and a Met police officer has been arrested on suspicion of her murder and kidnap, alongside a woman suspected of assisting him.

This case has, as you’d expect for someone abducted from the streets of the capital city, garnered a lot of media attention. It’s also exploded on social media, with women sharing their experiences of sexual harassment, speaking out in solidarity for Sarah and discussing ways they have adapted to the realities of urban life as a woman. It’s really touched a chord with a huge range of women – a massively high proportion of women I follow on Instagram have either written or shared posts about Sarah and how to stay safe, and I’ve already had several discussions with friends and housemates about it. I’ve spent a chunk of time in the last couple of days setting up various apps like OneScream and Hollie Guard alongside enabling the Emergency SOS function on my phone to give me a little more reassurance and options when I’m out walking alone.

For me, and many of the women I know, this tragic story has hit so close to home it’s physically affected us, making us feel uneasy and on edge and overwhelmed with fear and anger. It’s reminded me of how many actions I take on a daily basis, almost subconsciously, to try and keep safe – when men can live their lives with barely a second thought. How a priority when I moved out of university halls was to get a rape alarm, how I could never walk home from a club alone, the blind panic if I’m accidentally separated from my friends on a night out because I feel so unsafe surrounded by drunk men. How any walk home with friends in the dark is carefully calculated to ensure we’re in the largest group for as long as possible, and my friend who lives a barely two minute walk away from me will call me between my house and hers to feel safer. How even getting an Uber doesn’t feel safe, and involves me sharing my location with a friend, making sure people know where I am, and tracking my route on Google Maps to make sure I’m not being taken somewhere I don’t want to go. The conversations my friends and I have had, kinda light-hearted and kinda serious, discussing the best ways to fight off an attacker – not with tips learnt from school, but from films and TV (in my case, Miss Congeniality). How whenever I have to answer an unexpected doorbell, my mind automatically runs over how quickly I can slam the door shut or what I can use in self-defence if I need to. The refrain of ‘text me when you get home’ whenever I say goodbye to a friend. How I’ve been told to shout ‘fire’ if I’m being assaulted, rather than ‘help’ – because people are more likely to pay attention, that’s how little women’s bodies are worth. The way I hold my keys so tightly when walking alone, sometimes even when it’s light, and the wild scenarios my overactive imagination plays out when I hear someone walking just behind me and I can’t get away from them, rapidly working out who I can contact and what I would say if I have to knock on someone’s door and pretend to know them. Except this past week has shown that those scenarios aren’t necessarily a product of an overactive imagination, and rather a well-calculated evaluation of potential risk.

I’ve realised how much emotional energy I’m expending every time I leave the house alone, especially when it’s dark, and how much more fear women have to live with than men. And it doesn’t just happen when we’re alone – multiple times in the last few months alone I’ve been catcalled walking to the supermarket with a friend or meeting someone for my daily exercise. I’ve even been filmed by a random driver when just trying to go for a run with a friend. And that’s without bringing alcohol into the equation – the majority of my friends have been sexually harassed in one way or another on a night out, whether that’s by a man not leaving them alone, someone ignoring consent or becoming violent when they said no, or being groped in a club by someone generally seen to be a ‘nice guy’. I’ve had to run home from nights out because of old men giving us weird looks and following us home from the traditional post-club takeaway, and been catcalled walking in a group of girls to or from a night out – regardless of how many people are around. Notably, this has never happened when there’s been a man in the group.

All of these experiences are such an innate part of my life that I don’t really think about them, except to consider whether I’m safe to go out for a run on my own or checking the time before I meet a friend for a walk to make sure we’re back before it gets dark. I’m sick of having an unspoken curfew, especially in the winter when it’s as early as 4pm. I’m fed up of men thinking we’re being overdramatic or oversensitive when we talk about our experiences, or rushing to say they’re not like that and nobody they know is either, or excusing things on the basis of alcohol. 97% of women aged 18-34 have experienced sexual harassment, yet so many men claim to have no idea who would do such a thing. Something doesn’t add up.

Alongside all this anger and fear, I’m so incredibly frustrated. Despite everything in the media these last few days, and several prominent female figures speaking out about the topic, I have no faith anything will change. The first ‘Reclaim The Night’ march to protest women’s right to use public spaces after dark happened in 1977. If they are still needed in 2021, 44 years later, why should I have any hope that anything is going to change any time soon? Why is the response to a tragedy like this the same today as it was back then – that women need to stay inside after dark and not go out unaccompanied? When are men going to start being held accountable?

When you propose the idea of men needing to drive the change – because after all, women – including Sarah Everard – are already doing everything they can to supposedly protect themselves – excuses such as ‘not all men’ and ‘these people are evil anyway we can’t change them’ start being thrown around. This is patently untrue. If nearly all women are experiencing sexual harassment, and a huge proportion of them not reporting it due to a lack of faith or previous bad experiences with the systems designed to protect us, then this is clearly a widespread, systemic problem that has deeper roots than ‘a few bad apples’. Abductions and murders don’t come from nowhere – they come from a society that has bred a kind of culture and belief system that allows sexual harassment and misogyny to prevail, making it evermore easier for those ‘bad apples’ to slip by unnoticed. Men need to start consciously thinking about how they can help women feel safer on the streets, and they need to start actively identifying and calling out toxic behaviour among their peers. From sexual jokes, catcalling and body-shaming to groping and assault, men need to start paying attention to their friends and colleagues rather than turning a blind eye.

Systemic change is needed too. Women need to feel like they’re going to be believed when they report harassment, and the law desperately needs updating – for example to make street harassment illegal in the UK. One of the most terrifying aspects of this horrifying case is that the accused is a police officer, and a women is thought to have assisted him. That takes away two key sources of safety – the police, who we’ve always been taught are the ones to go to in times of trouble, and who to ask for help if we’re lost or in danger; and women, who I always believed would have an innate level of understanding and willingness to help others in such a situation.

None of what I’ve learnt about how to protect myself has been taught to me in school. I’ve either picked it up in passing, been told by my parents, or seen it on the internet. Talking to my friends, it’s almost a rite of passage for young women to be sat down and told how to avoid being raped, or the importance of consent. How many parents teach their sons how to avoid raping someone? How many young boys are taught the damaging impacts of sexual harassment on women? If anything is going to change – and I’ll admit I’m not hopeful – these topics need to be made part of mandatory education, not only teaching girls how to stay safe but teaching boys how to behave appropriately. As Jess Phillips told the Commons, the fact that women are going to be murdered has been ‘accepted’ by society. This is a terrifying realisation, and I hope men feel the same shock and horror at this as all the women I know have, and decide to actively try and begin bringing about change.

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