The gut-wrenching, heart-breaking news came on Wednesday night that human remains were discovered in Kent where police have been searching for thirty-three-year-old Sarah Everard after she disappeared a week ago while walking home from a friend’s house in Clapham, London.
The idea of a woman going missing while on her way home, who did everything in her power to stay safe, is a real fear that women everywhere contemplate daily. Whether it’s avoiding dark streets or faking an on-going telephone call, crossing the street to avoid suspicious sounding footsteps, or keeping keys in their hands wherever they walk – women everywhere repeat these rituals to avoid the tragic fate suffered by Sarah. Yet, when conversations about women’s safety arise, it is too often women themselves who have to speak up.
As I am writing this, my feed and Instagram stories are filled with women sharing their grief. While united in fear and sorrow for the loss of Sarah Everard, they are not surprised. For, the constant harassment and threats of abuse women face from men every single day means it doesn’t seem too unthinkable that one woman somewhere would be taken from us at the hands of this threat.
This threat is one I hear women speak of every day. From my female friends, not a day goes by where they don’t tell me they have been whistled at, cat-called, touched inappropriately, followed, chased, shouted at, called names, asked where they were going or even masturbated at.
What angers me most about hearing these stories, and why the case of Sarah Everard has shaken me so, is the fact that this could happen to any woman I know: my younger sister, my best friends, my housemates.
We all know someone who has been sexually assaulted by a man, and among young women aged 18-24, The Guardian reported just yesterday following a survey from UN Women UK which found that 97% of women in that group have been sexually harassed.
Women have to endure so much every single day, and just hearing the vile experiences they have to suffer in their every-day lives sickens and angers me deeply. Just in the week of Sarah’s disappearance, we celebrated International Women’s Day, only to be followed by a mixed-race woman being dismissed after describing her mental health struggles. It isn’t hard to see the widespread suffering that women face.
While I have previously protested at the implications of blaming ‘men’ as a group for this injustice – my argument summed up by that now-infamous phrase ‘not all men’ – I have come to a staggering realisation.
Yes, it isn’t all men. But it is all women who have suffered from the violence and intimidation of men. So, while I have previously felt aggrieved at my inclusion in the category of ‘men’ who, as a group, are a problem for women and are to blame for their suffering – hearing their stories and the news about Sarah has taught me that, how many men are included in women’s distrust is much less important than how many men are included in the people who harass them. That is to say – it is usually all of them.
I now understand why women express suspicion about all men, even though it may include myself and other men who show women the best possible respect as I try my best to do, is because they have to. The men who harass women daily are indistinguishable from the men who do not, with the only consistent characteristic of their harassers being that they are male.
So, it makes perfect sense for women to defend themselves against men in general, even if there isn’t cause for suspicion: on the basis that an unforeseen harasser may be among those men. This conclusion has allowed me to understand why it is ‘all men’ who are the subject of accountability for the dangerous proportion of men within this.
However, as I remarked at the beginning of this article, conversations about the safety of women and the behaviour of men almost always occur among women. Indeed, the terrible case of Sarah Everard has generated ubiquitous conservation of women across social media who are sharing their stories of harassment they have endured at the hands of men. This began to both puzzle and concern me, for, it is men who have to change, not women. So why are men not talking about this?
Upon this concern, I shared an article by The Guardian columnist Lucy Campbell, entitled: Women Tell Men How to Make Them Feel Safe After Sarah Everard Disappearance. Sure enough, I was one of the very few men on my social media platforms to share their concern about the case of Sarah, and of the ten people who had liked my post on Facebook, just one of those was a man.
This then provided the answer – the entire reason why men can treat women with such indignity and inhumanity. Because they are being allowed to get away with it.
To turn this around, it shouldn’t be the responsibility of women to get men to change – it is us, the men, who should show leadership and lead by example. It is our responsibility, collectively, to make sure society is a safe place for women.
We can’t leave it for others to take on this role, we all have to play our part until it is no longer necessary for women to feel unsafe on the streets. We have to call it out where we see it and take small steps to give the women in our company the comfort they need to feel safe.
Don’t walk behind them; don’t block their path; don’t ask them where they’re going; don’t walk up to them in a hurry. These are just small things that could make a woman feel safer around you.
And to reiterate, this is not because there is something about you that makes you appear predatory – the immediate reaction to being asked of these things is to protest: “But I’m not one of them!” Which I sympathise with.
But as men, we must remember, she doesn’t know that. All she knows is that of the many times that day she has endured some grotesque encroachment, (the likelihood is) they have all been men. How does she know you aren’t the next?
So, if we are going to change society into a safe place for women, it is men who must make that change happen. We have to show responsibility and take action to ensure this happens, and it starts by talking about it instead of leaving women to speak up for their safety.
Fellow men, this is our problem – we must speak up to stop it.