We cross the road when we see them coming towards us. We wear bright clothing, making sure to walk past CCTV cameras. We wear comfortable shoes, made for running. We constantly look over our shoulder. We leave our headphones in, but don’t play any music. We choose the well-lit path; the one with plenty of exit points, so that we can get away quickly.
We take the long route – no matter how much longer it’ll take – because we know it’s busier, with more street lamps, and corner shops with street-facing cameras. We call someone so that we’re not alone. We walk past our front door and loop back round, just so they don’t know where we live. We’ve sent more ‘home’ texts than we can count; we’ve felt that deluge of relief when we receive the same message back from our friends.
Since we were teenagers, we’ve carried rape alarms. We’ve scoured the contents of our bag, working out what could potentially be used in self-defence. We’ve clutched our keys between our fists so tightly they’ve left marks on our skin.
Women are taught that it’s not safe to walk alone before we’re barely in secondary school.
Just like Sarah Everard did that night in south London, we do all of the ‘correct things’. We do everything we are ‘supposed’ to do. We do all of this, and yet we are still not safe to walk home.
So why are we still talking about what women can do to stay safe, and not what men can do to stop threatening our safety? Why is the accountability on women not to be vulnerable to assault, and not on men to stop assaulting us?
Why are girls taught how to defend themselves from such a young age, but boys aren’t taught the importance of respecting women and how to be non-violent and non-threatening?
If we continue to tell women to adjust their actions to stay safe, we are not addressing the problem. We are not solving anything. We are just passing the danger on to another woman.
During door-to-door enquiries following Sarah’s disappearance, police officers reportedly told women living near Clapham Common to not go out alone. It’s the exact same instructions women received in the wake of the Yorkshire Ripper murders – ‘don’t walk alone at night’, ‘stay at home after dark’.
That was in the 1970s.
It’s been five decades. Why are we still feeding into the dangerous narrative that the onus is on women to protect themselves from violent men, instead of holding men accountable for harassing, intimidating and harming women? In 2021, why are we still playing the ‘but how short was her skirt’ card?
Sarah’s tragic case has shaken every single woman in the country. It’s not only reminded us that everything we have been taught to fear since we were children is real, but that we are blamed for it by society.
By encouraging victim-blaming, we are not only showing abusive men that there are no consequences to their actions, but we are telling female victims that they won’t be believed, and that they will be the ones condemned, sidelined and ignored.
New data from U.N. Women shows that 97% of young women have been sexually harassed. Last year, the number of people prosecuted and convicted for rape fell to the lowest level since records began. Police recorded 55,130 cases of rape, but there were only 2,102 prosecutions and 1,439 convictions in England and Wales between 2019 and 2020.
55,130 reflects the number of victims who felt able to come forward and report it to the police. In a society in which victim-blaming against women is so rife, and in which violent men are so rarely held accountable, let’s take a moment to imagine how high that number really is.
So, men, this is on you. Instead of using victim-blaming language as a way to justify violence against women, ask why we exist in a world in which every woman and girl lives in fear. Ask why almost all women know a victim of rape, but no men know a rapist. Ask what you and the men around you can do to help make women feel even the tiniest bit safer in a world in which we are not.
Because we are all Sarah Everard. And we are all terrified.