Reacting to Sarah Everard's murder
I hate this phrase, but the last few weeks have been a rollercoaster of emotions for women. We’re gone from international women’s day, to the murder of Sarah Everard, and then back to Mother’s Day.
The tragic case of Sarah Everard is sadly all too common and as a result it has opened up a conversation around the daily sexual harassment/assault that women face.
Police chief Cressida Dick said it is “incredibly rare for a women to be abducted from our streets” but that just isn’t true. Stranger killings account for one in 12 of all killing of women by men. 119 women were killed by men they didn’t know between 2009 and 2018. To me, the phrasing of this has been chosen to try and make women feel safer by only looking at one form of threat but when you look beneath the surface, the threats are far from rare.
We need to remember that although the media has chosen to focus on Sarah, there are so many more cases just like her.
One statistic that has flooded social media is that 97 per cent of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed. More and more stories have come to light because of this.
Claire Barnett, executive director of UN Women UK, said, “We are looking at a situation where younger women are constantly modifying their behaviour in an attempt to avoid being objectified or attacked, and older women are reporting serious concerns about personal safety if they ever leave the house in the dark – even during the daytime in winter.”
The problem isn’t new, Sarah’s murder has just shone a light on the issue and pushed the conversation into the spotlight.
I’m definitely within that 97 per cent too. I have been groped many times when I’ve been wearing dresses/skirts now I’ll always wear cycling shorts so it means that when it happens again (which of course it will) I feel I have a bit more protection.
One case that I remember well is that I was walking home from a night out with friends, and we split up to go to our houses which meant I had a two-minute walk on my own to my house. I was faced with a group of three men in those two minutes and they were very quick to surround me and throw sexual comments at me.
Luckily (and I can’t stress this enough because god knows what would have happened) a man came up behind me and pretended he knew me to get me out of that situation and walk me home. Although I was massively grateful to him stepping in, the fact I had to be ‘saved’ by a man is so frustrating.
I constantly think, 'well that was my own fault' but it took less than two minutes and I was under threat! I had my keys ready for protection, my friends were checking in on me for when I got home, and I was walking alongside a busy road not a quiet alleyway, but it's still not enough.
This triggered me to talk to some others who have experienced sexual harassment/assault:
When I was about 13 I was waiting at a bus stop in town for one of my friends on a really hot day in the middle of summer. An elderly man came and sat next to me and talked to me inappropriately. I instantly felt uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to feel impolite.
He then physically assaulted me and was rubbing up and down my thighs. It wasn’t until two other men came and surrounded me that I ran into the shop opposite and waited there instead.
Security from the shop came to me because they saw it on CCTV and told me the police would want a statement and I should press charges. My friend (at the time, clearly not anymore) arrived and when I told her she laughed as if it was funny.
I really didn’t understand the implications of what had happened, even the day after when I went to a special police house to give my statement which then stood in court.
He got off with a £100 fine despite security telling me they’d seen this happen before. It was a busy Saturday in the middle of summer in the city and no one stopped it whilst it was happening.
It wasn’t until I had my first serious relationship that I broke down and realised I didn’t want to be touched in certain places on my body that this man had touched me and I’d hidden that pain for so long. I remember at the time someone saying to me to not mention I was wearing shorts in case it went against my case in court - I was 13 and it was hot. He was old and knew better, it didn’t matter what I was wearing.
I’ve healed now but it took a long time.
I never go to clubs but I did in first year of uni to make friends. I was on the stairs to the smoking area and a big guy cornered me and asked if I had a boyfriend. I said yes and he asked where, of course he wasn’t with me so he asked me to go to an ‘after party’ just me and him. When I said ‘I don’t
think so’ he leant into me and said ‘we’ll see’ and licked my cheek. I ran away.
Working in a pub in a town a group of old men started talking about my breasts in front of me while I served them. I’d known them as regulars and didn’t expect it, they openly asked me if they sagged when I took my bra off or stayed up. This was when I was 18 and working a lunch shift - they saw nothing wrong with it.
This is only a small handful of incidents I can single out, but I know that whenever it’s dark I walk with my keys in my fists, call someone to make sure nothing happens to me, and turn down the wrong street. I get comments about my body from people twice my age which makes my skin crawl. And people still think I’m the problem.
I guess I'll start with my general views. To me, saying ‘not all men’ is in the same tone as saying ‘all lives matter’. We know it's not all men, but it feels like it could be any man, at any time.
Additionally, too many men don't understand the problem. Women are the ones checking we all get home safe and going out of our way to walk different routes. Women take on the responsibility to not be harassed, rather than men who in the vast majority of cases are the harassers.
It should be up to men to a) not harass women, b) call out behaviour in other men that is unacceptable, and c) take on some of the responsibility of keeping women safe by accompanying them if they require it etc, until it is not necessary.
My own experiences are varied in scale. I have been cat-called many, many times. The first time I was 14. If I go running in leggings, men shout out their car windows and beep their horns. It has stopped me exercising in public in the past.
At 16, around three in the afternoon, a man sat next to me on a public bus and loudly (drunkenly) told me he wanted to cum on my face - nobody there tried to help.
My first job at 18, at a corner shop, an old man would ask me to marry him even day and smack my behind with his copy of the Daily Mail. My boss would also hold my waist and physically pull me out of the way when he needed to get past.
At university, when coming home from lectures I was followed by a man who was masturbating at me.
All these incidents occurred during the day, so the narrative that it's strange men at night when truly innocent women are at home is nothing short of a lie.
These experiences have made me feel a range of emotions. The general cat-calling is simply annoying, repeated advances in clubs makes you cringe and feel uncomfortable. But some are genuinely terrifying. And given that my most frightening experiences have all been in public in the light of day, with people around, it's disheartening and scarier still that nobody thought to help. They watched from afar as if I somehow invited this behaviour – ‘you made your bed, now lie in it’ kind of attitude. I am amazed this conversation still needs to be had.
I’ve been brought up in a society where when I’m assaulted, there is always an element of something I should have done that could have stopped it happening to me. But I’ve had enough of carrying this shame that’s not mine to have.
I remember being 11, getting off the train in my school uniform, when a man in his 40s told me to smile because it would make me look sexy.
I was 13 when a guy aggressively shouted at me to ‘get my tits out’ when I was walking home from school.
When I was 14 my all-girls school told me that I needed to wear a longer skirt, even though mine was the same length as my peers, because I had curves and it would ‘make the male teachers uncomfortable’. I was a child, and that is pedophilia.
I was 15 when I found myself standing next to a family at a train station because a man was following me down the platform.
At 17 a guy slowed his car down, drove at the speed I walked, rolled his window down and preceded to talk at me for five minutes straight as I tried to get home in one piece.
At 18 my breast was ‘accidentally’ groped on a tube. All of these incidences happened during the day, in populated and ‘safe’ areas.
I remember crying in M&S, unable to put into words to my mum while bra shopping that the reason why every time she suggested I tried on anything other than the plainest of bras I freaked out. I now know thanks to counselling that it was because at 11 I already knew that I was being sexualised, and I was so desperate to not wear anything womanly because I was forced to grow up before I was ready.
At university it wasn’t better. I was backed into corners of clubs when I got separated from my friends, only to somehow manage to slip away and hide in the toilets till my friends could collect me.
I dated boys who completely lost it at me when I asked them to stop during sex. I had a one-night stand with a guy who took the condom off during sex without telling me. Under UK law this is classified as rape. The worst thing about this experience is when I told this to some of my guy friends, they gave me stick for kicking him out ‘before he’d finished’ when I found out what he’d done.
I was woken up by another in the night by him penetrating me in my sleep. Again, although I had consented to the sex before we went to sleep, this time round is classified as rape. This guy had also been so rough with me even when I tried to get him to stop or even just slow down at least, that I bled for a week after from the tears. He was meant to be my friend.
*I May Destroy You looks into what counts as rape, and the grey areas of it. Check out a piece did looking at that here.*
I went into the corporate world, and within my first year I had multiple experiences of men sometimes twice my age crossing the line, with one case becoming so bad that HR became involved. No disciplinary action was taken because I didn’t want it to become public knowledge, because I know from watching female colleagues that you can get a name for being ‘too sensitive' and ‘not suited to the environment’.
The examples I gave are only a fraction of those I’ve experienced. If I’d hazard a guess, I think I’m well on the way to triple figures the amount of times I’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted. 97 per cent of women in the UK in my generation have reported to have also had similar experiences to mine, and although I’m not surprised, it’s not good enough. There have been many a time I’ve sat round with my girlfriends exchanging sexual assault experiences like war stories.
Girls, I write this candidly as a hope that you feel less alone in your own experiences.
Boys, I write this so you can understand what it is we experience as our normal.
Although I know these conversations are important, many of the wounds left by these experiences are still painful, and by writing this I hope to reach as many as possible, while not having to share them so many times over, for my own self-preservation.
Please understand that us women are always delighted to have you as allies, but sometimes giving you the “facts” of our own experiences on demand can be difficult, and that any story told to you is a gift of trust, not a given.
Periods of time like these, around news stories like Sarah’s, can also be difficult, as it can bring up uncontrollable emotion and pain from past trauma. Going forward, also understand that I’m not the only girl who’s anxious about going back out into the world after Covid, as I’ve had a year without having to leave my home and deal with situations like these, and I don’t feel ready to inevitably go back to it.
So please, my dear great men that I know, listen, empathise, and research what you can do for your female friends, to be able to support us without having to ask us to teach you. Because sometimes, I just want to be that kid I was before my childhood was stolen.
From all this recent coverage, I hope that if anything, boys/men realise the daily things girls/women have to go through and give it some more thought about how they can help.
Girls grow up being told how to stay safe and protect themselves, but are boys made aware of what they can do to make us feel safer? I don’t think so.
I saw a message that made it very simple. The phrase ‘protect your daughters’ was crossed out and replaced with ‘educate your sons’ and I think the first steps towards addressing this problem is to make men aware of what we go through every day.
I just hope one day that women can feel just as safe as men on the streets, day or night, but sadly I think this is a naïve hope.
The Home Office has set up a survey to get views on how to tackle violence against women and girls, the link to that survey is here.
Women's Aid provides support for women who are experiencing or have experienced physical, mental, sexual or domestic violence or abuse.
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