Today, right now, I am so very angry. Or, not angry. What I feel is defeated. I feel all out of answers and like I can’t muster up the necessary energy to try to find any.
Just over a week ago — on Wednesday, 3rd March 2021 — a young woman named Sarah Everard went missing in London. She had left a friend’s house in Clapham at around 9 pm and her walk home to Brixton should have taken about 50 minutes, but she never arrived home.
This was very out of character, and she was swiftly reported missing. Posters sprung up all over London; my social media feed was quickly dominated by pictures of Sarah’s sweet, smiling face. Through this blanket appeal, more of her route was pieced together, as people on her route with doorbell cameras came forward with footage that helped the police establish she had crossed Clapham Common safely and reached a street nearer to Brixton. But that’s where the trail ended.
Sarah Everard was 33 years old. She was walking alone in the dark but if we’re ticking off a cliched list of how to do that safely, she did everything so right. Her route was well-lit; it was not late at night; she was wearing bright, conspicuous clothing; there is no suggestion she was drunk; and she spent a lot of her walk speaking on the phone, as we women often do when we want to give ourselves the illusion of safety. Yet she still disappeared.
Within 6 days of her disappearance, a Metropolitan police officer living in Kent was arrested on suspicion of abducting Sarah. And a day later, human remains were found in woodland close to his house. No official statement has been released to confirm that the remains are hers, but the statements that have been given are pretty conclusive. It looks like Sarah Everard was abducted and killed by an off-duty policeman. It’s a tragedy of the worst kind.
Of course, there has been a media frenzy around this case here in the UK, even before the suspect’s day job was identified. Sarah Everard is a pretty young woman whose face was always going to make headlines. But that’s not what really chilled me. What really disturbed me, in the immediate aftermath of her disappearance, was the fact that police officers knocked on doors in the vicinity of her disappearance and advised female residents to stay at home in order to stay safe.
We are currently still on a Covid-19 lockdown here. Staying home to stop the spread of the virus is what we all have to do, male or female, most of the time. Do you know what we areallowed, though? We’re allowed to exercise outdoors. We are allowed, alone or in pairs, to walk or run in the streets around our homes (we are not permitted yet to travel anywhere outside of our local area to take that exercise).
It’s a tiny concession but it is absolutely vital for mental health — which, no doubt, is why it’s been permitted even through the strictest of our lockdowns. But when a man interfered with the safety of that freedom — when a woman disappeared on a safe street at a safe time of day — who was told to pay the price of being even more restricted, even more trapped? Women. Women were.
Never mind telling men to stay at home after dark until the case was solved, for fear their bulkier, taller silhouettes might be perceived as threatening on dark streets. Never mind telling everyone to observe a curfew for a while, until the perpetrator was caught. No, from the point of view of the police, men could carry on living exactly as they liked. Women had to carry the can again, to suffer a more restricted way of life again, and this was portrayed as the police caring about our safety.
Once, years ago, as I stood on some steep steps leading to an underground nightclub I felt a large sticky hand attach itself to one of my breasts, having inserted itself through the draped folds of the short wrap dress I was wearing. When I swung round to confront the man — twice my age — who stood on the step above mine and had just unashamedly put his hand on me, he just laughed. “You can’t wear a frock like that and expect me not to take what’s on offer,” he chuckled. Everyone around me chuckled, too. Ha ha ha! The whole queue laughed, and I ended up laughing along. Hadn’t I asked for male attention, choosing a dress like that?
I had not. Of course, I hadn’t. But blaming me and my outfit choices for the actions of a man I didn’t know — that victim-blaming mentality — that is exactly what the Metropolitan police were doing, as they advised women to stay at home in the hours of darkness in case their very presence on the streets encouraged a repeat performance from a violent, angry man.
Every woman I know has a whole mental folder full of stories like mine. Every single woman I know has been on the receiving end of some kind of slut-shaming, victim-blaming behaviour from men, and it never changes. On Twitter as the truth of what happened to Sarah Everard began to reveal itself over the past couple of days and news headlines grew more sombre, the hashtag #notallmen was trending higher than #SarahEverard.
Women do not need to stay at home to stay safe. Women need to be front and center of the world, living unapologetic lives without the pulsing core of fear we’ve all learned to ignore, to push down, from the first time we pretended to be on our phone until a man had passed us or the first time we crossed a road with our keys sweaty and tight in one fist, heart hammering and wishing we weren’t wearing heels. It is not women who should be hiding right now.
I don’t know how this changes. Right now, it feels like too much to even imagine a world where the narrative is “men should not assault or attack women” rather than “women should not put themselves in a position where men can easily attack or assault them”. It’s so tiring, that this is another job for us to figure out, another burden to place on the shoulders of women who have already fought for so much.
But I know that it does have to change. Surely, it has to.