TW: sexual assault
I’m sure that by now, we have all heard the news about the killing of Sarah Everard. If you haven’t, hopefully this will give you more insight. If you have, I wanted to explain why I’m writing this: ever since I heard this story, it has hit me hard. I always grew up with my parents wanting me to text them whenever I get somewhere, or them teaching me what to do to be ‘street safe’. I remember my secondary school PE teacher once giving us girls a lesson on what to do if a car pulls up beside you, and telling us to keep our keys between our knuckles for self-defence. I’ve been taught to be what I thought was hyper-aware of what’s around me always, but this story more than ever proves you can’t be too aware, because there’s some really horrible people in this world.
Sarah Everard could have done nothing more: she called her partner on the way home; she walked in ‘sensible shoes’; she wore bright clothing that most people would remember seeing; she walked on a main road, yet look what happened. And the fact of the matter is that she could have been in the most ‘provocative’ of clothing, a 10 centimetre heel and walking on a side road, and this still shouldn’t have happened. What happened over a week ago just highlighted an issue that’s been around for decades: women don’t feel safe walking the streets, and now you know why.
We’re taught to let someone know where we are at all times, and always walk where there are people around. We’re taught to keep our head up so we don’t look as ‘vulnerable’ when approaching a man or group of men. We’re taught to dress ‘appropriately’ and not drink too much. We’re taught to be cautious even in Ubers or taxis, and share a live location with a friend or parent. We’re taught to keep one headphone out, or keep the volume on your music down low so we can hear people coming. We get nervous whenever we approach a corner of a street which is just out of a window’s glance – a blind spot where anything can happen. We’ve all made the phone call to a loved one, real or fake. We’ve all seen or saved that video on social media where a girl pretends to have a conversation with you so it sounds like you’re talking to someone. We’ve bought or thought about getting rape alarms, we’ve all planned our escape routes. Don’t believe me? Every woman you know has done most if not all of these things. Ask them if you don’t believe me.
I’ve never thought about all these things as a collective before. The disappearance of Sarah Everard has made me reflect on just how much we do to keep ourselves safe. We’re taught that these things will in fact keep us safe, and look what happened. Do you realise how scary that is? There’s no guarantee that all that we’ve learnt will keep us safe. But guess what? It should have never been our responsibility. As a society, we need to teach our brothers, our sons, our male friends and colleagues that they should do everything in their power to keep women safe. It is society’s and a man’s job to ensure that you can’t go around assaulting women.
And if there’s men reading this: yes, we know it is not ‘all men’. We’re not stupid. We don’t think that all men are going round harming women. But no one just randomly wakes up one day thinking “I’m going to kill this woman”. It starts the moment you don’t get challenged for your inappropriate and damaging views of women, and your behaviour towards women escalates with each encounter.
You don’t think this is common? In a survey conducted by UN Women UK, 97% of women aged 18-24 said they have been sexually harassed. 80% of women of all ages said they had been sexually harassed in a public space. But you know what’s even more hurtful about this? A YouGov survey of more than 1,000 women found that 96% did not report incidents of sexual harassment, and 45% would stick with that decision due to their lack of ability and faith in the UK authorities. Here’s why:
We’re not taken seriously, and we’re always asked “what were you wearing” or “what were you doing”. It’s either insinuated that it’s our fault as women, or there’s no blame put on the man. Trust me, this happens. I saw this post on social media yesterday about the way in which assault on women is described, and I believe it’s a huge part of the problem. It was taken from a Ted Talk by Jackson Katz called ‘Violence against women: it’s a men’s issue’: when it comes to violence on women, it’s always spoken about in a passive voice. We say “X amount of women were raped last year” and not “X men raped women last year”. We say “violence against women” with no active agent in the sentence. Men are never mentioned in the phrases, and that’s where it all begins! Ultimately, men are causing this to happen, so we have to change the narrative and believe what is coming out of a women’s mouth when she says she has been assaulted (and take action, if you’re in the position to – it was most probably a very hard decision for them to come to you).
When this story came up, I was thinking about my own experiences. I actually started to say “luckily, I’ve really only be cat-called-“, and then I stopped. Did I actually just say ‘luckily’? We’ve actually been wired to think that something like cat-calling is lucky, because we haven’t actually been physically harmed or touched. What sort of message is that? Do we, as a society, not feel ashamed about that?
And men reading this are hopefully thinking, “what can I do about that?” Well, let’s start with one that I think is really important: if you see your friends cat-calling, or continually harassing a woman when it’s clear she doesn’t want it, or you hear them making jokes about rape, please stop them. Stop with the “they’re just messing around” or “they’re just being friendly” talk, support a woman if she’s being bothered, call out your friends when they talk about women derogatorily – you’re not going to look ‘soft’ or ‘too sensitive’, and you could possibly prevent one of your friends assaulting a woman in the future, because you haven’t allowed these attitudes to continue. Call out your friends’ bad behaviour.
Be the man that keeps your female friends or girlfriends safe. Looking back now, I am so grateful to have had male friends who, when I was waiting for a lift, offered to stay with me until I was in the car, and kept insisting even when the car was a couple minutes away. I thank them for giving me a lift home, or walking me somewhere so I’m not by myself. I am so grateful to have a boyfriend that stays up till the early hours of the morning to make sure the Uber took me home safe from a night out. I thank him for staying by my side always and making me feel safe in every situation. Educate your friends, your sons, your brothers or any male you know to do the same. It makes us feel safe.
Don’t take offence when we say “no” – we may have had a bad experience in the past, or we feel threatened by you, especially if we haven’t met before. Or, just accept the “no” first time and move on – there doesn’t need to be an explanation.
If a woman is walking by herself, especially at night, make your footsteps louder, or even cross the road. Overtake if you can. Don’t walk at the same pace as us on the same side of the road – it can really make us feel threatened. Keep yourself visible to us. Move yourself out of the way if you’re on the same path, instead of trapping her possibly in between a wall and yourself.
If a woman comes up to you saying she’s been sexually assaulted, please don’t ask us what she was doing or what she was wearing. Don’t victimise her, but instead listen to her, support her, and encourage her to report. Go with her if you can and she wants you to. Don’t misrepresent it as nothing.
Talk to the females in your life about this story, and get some perspective. The truth is, you’ll never know what it’s like until you’re a woman. Understand what we’re saying and try and be better.
I want you to think about every woman you know: your mum, your sister, your girlfriend, your friend, and so on. Look the above statistics again, and think about everything that I’ve talked about again. This issue has affected the majority, if not all the women in your life. Think about that. Think about the power men have to change that. It’s men’s responsibility to change that. We, as women, shouldn’t have to live our life in fear.
Do you get it now?
You know what to do.