On 3rd March 2021, Sarah Everard, a young marketing manager living in Brixton, left her friend’s house in Clapham at 9pm and was not heard from or seen again. The search for her continued apace for a week with no trace of her found save for a singular white hat on Clapham Common, which later was deemed not relevant to the case. As I write, a police officer and his wife have been arrested in connection with the disappearance, and Sarah’s body has very sadly been found. There has been an outpour of support for her family on social media, with many sharing images of her and begging anyone with even the smallest piece of evidence to come forward.
This murder is particularly frightening for women, myself included. Sarah Everard lives merely a few stops on the Northern line away from me. I have often walked home after dark, sometimes drunk, sometimes far later than 9pm. When cases like this happen and are highly publicised, it’s hard not to look over my own behaviour and reclassify it as reckless or stupid. Women reading about the Sarah Everard murder are, of course, hugely concerned and sad for her grieving family and friends, but also for themselves. It’s another chilling reminder that something as innocuous as going for a walk after dark is still inherently unsafe.
Sarah Everard did everything ‘right’; she was wearing bright and colourful clothing, she called her boyfriend for fifteen minutes, she was walking down main roads. And yet she still disappeared. This does not render her more worthy of our thoughts and efforts than if she hadn’t done all the ‘right’ things. But it does remind us that to tackle the issue of violence against women, we must address the perpetrators, who are too often cisgender men. As a young girl growing up, I was often told to keep my keys safely tucked between my fingers, not go out alone after dark, to carry an alarm or even pepper spray to stay safe. Victim blaming narratives like this completely miss the root of the problem, pretending that if all women changed their behaviour, street harassment and assaults would simply cease. But the truth is that a woman could be walking around in broad daylight, carrying five sets of keys, wearing a Victorian-length skirt, and still be attacked. Whatever we do, the problem persists.
The other sad truth is that Sarah Everard’s murder has received a huge amount of publicity that many other women in her position do not receive. The UK faces a horrific human trafficking problem, and it is estimated that 99% of those forced into sex trafficking are women, as well as 58% of those forced into other kinds of labour, yet these stories and disappearances are rarely covered in mainstream media. And we cannot forget that marginalised women are most at risk of being attacked in this way, but least likely to have mainstream press cover their case. Between 1990 and 2016, 180 sex workers were murdered in the UK, and 85 of them were street-based sex workers. Women of colour and transgender women are also at increased risk of being attacked or harassed, but are also less likely to receive attention from the media after they disappear or are subject to violence.
Another unfortunate response to incidents such as this is the consequent wave of ‘not all men’ which takes off on the Internet: cisgender men desperate to prove that women should not be afraid to see them on the street after dark, that they’re one of the good ones, that we should not tar all men with the same brush. But ultimately the focus cannot be upon ensuring women about the good nature of most men, when incidents like this could happen to anyone. There is no use in saying, “If a man is walking close behind you on a dark evening, don’t worry – he’s probably one of the good ones”. Instead we must address and overturn the very culture which results in tragic incidents like this.
What’s incredibly scary about this incident is that it lies at the end of a spectrum of behaviour. At the extreme end is women being kidnapped, attacked, or murdered, but at the other end is the normalised harassment and abuse women receive on the street every day. I remember being twelve years old, in my school uniform, when a man pulled up to me on my street in his car, driving slowly next to me and making obscene gestures for several minutes before he drove off again. Even at that age I knew to keep walking past my house so that he wouldn’t know where I lived. This happened in broad daylight. I remember being thirteen and a schoolboy a few years older than me grabbing on to my rucksack from behind me and shouting derogatory things about my body. This was at 3pm in the afternoon and I had two friends with me. I can still recall his exact words to this day.
At the moment, street harassment is not criminalised in the UK. Both these instances were totally legal, but in both of these experiences I was petrified that I’d end up being physically attacked, because most attacks on women start this way, with a strange man following you, shouting at you in the street, exerting power over you.
This kind of street harassment is all that most women experience – the kind which does not harm you physically even if it does terrify you mentally. The legal kind. Other women are not so lucky, and are subject to kidnap or physical violence just for existing in public. As I write, it’s dawning on me how perverse it is that I’m describing women as ‘lucky’ for only experiencing verbal harassment in public, rather than anything worse. To tackle the violent attacks, we must tackle the culture which allows them to happen, and it’s this same culture that allows men to shout obscenities or stalk a woman on the street and get away with it.
High-profile cases of violence against women, like that of Kim Wall in 2017, and Grace Millane in 2018, are terrifying reminders of the culture we live in. I’m not religious, but I find myself praying for a world in which this kind of violence is stamped out, not because women are now all carrying mace, or wearing long skirts, or locked in their homes after sunset, but because the culture that allows this to happen has to be permanently reversed. We need to criminalise all kinds of street harassment and ensure that women walking alone are no longer viewed as public property. We have not yet achieved equality and justice until anyone, of any gender or sexuality, wearing anything, can walk down any street at any time, and know that they are safe.