Muggers don’t carry umbrellas. Murderers don’t carry briefcases. Kidnappers don’t carry Tesco bags. These are the sorts of utterly illogical things I have been known to tell myself on a ten-minute walk home from the Tube station in the dark (past well-lit houses, on familiar roads, in a ‘nice’ part of London) as I try to stop my heart pounding quite so violently when someone happens to be following me down an otherwise empty street.
Once I shut my front door behind me, I let go of these thoughts, along with the breath I hadn’t realised I’d been holding. And I think no more of it, until the next time. I had always assumed this was unique to me and my overactive imagination. But the way women everywhere have responded to the Sarah Everard case has shown that I was wrong.
The 33-year-old’s disappearance as she walked home in Clapham last week – and the subsequent arrest of a Metropolitan Police officer on suspicion of her kidnap and murder – has deeply affected every woman I know. The conversations it’s inspired have been shocking and saddening: there is barely a woman out there, it seems, who doesn’t have thoughts like mine as she makes her way home alone. Our generation might think nothing of travelling the world or shattering glass ceilings, but sometimes we’re frightened of walking down our own street.
On Tuesday night, a man called Stuart Edwards wrote on Twitter: ‘I live less than five minutes from where Sarah Everard went missing. Everyone is on high alert. Aside from giving as much space as possible on quieter streets and keeping face visible, is there anything else men can reasonably do to reduce the anxiety/spook factor?’ His tweet received more than 21,000 likes in the first 24 hours.
Among the thousands of replies, the list of things we women do to ‘protect’ ourselves when we’re walking alone came thick and fast: carry keys clenched in your fist in case you need to use them in self-defence. Phone a friend or partner, or pretend to. (Sarah reportedly made a 15-minute call to her boyfriend on her walk home.) Take a detour to make sure the man following you doesn’t find out where you live. Share your movements with friends on WhatsApp or let them track your iPhone. Ask them to call you if they haven’t heard from you by a certain time – and if you don’t answer, to call the police.
Some women shared stories of why they behave in this way: their experiences of being mugged, assaulted, attacked, followed home after they got off a bus or train. Countless others thanked Stuart for bothering to ask the question at all. There was also plenty of advice for him: ‘I find it reassuring if a man walking behind me whistles, jingles his keys, talks on the phone… generally drawing attention to himself indicates that he’s probably not a threat,’ wrote one Twitter user. ‘If a woman is walking towards you, let her stay in her path and get out of her way rather than making her move,’ suggested another. ‘Slow down if you are getting too close. If you need to overtake, cross over the road. This can make a world of difference. You can also tell when we are scared because we will pick up speed,’ said a third.
To read all of this, you might wonder how some of us even work up the nerve to leave our homes in the first place. But the fact is that much of this behaviour is unconscious; in the same way you might look both ways before you cross the road without thinking about it, we look over our shoulders and reach for our keys instinctively. And most of the time, it’s not something we want to stop to think about. For those who grew up with ‘girl power’ and Gloria Steinem, feeling vulnerable by virtue of our gender is a difficult thing to admit, even to ourselves. But if any chink of light is to come from the darkness of this week, we must admit this — and start having conversations about how to fix it.
Instead, though, a backlash has begun against ‘hysterical’ women tarring all men with the same brush. On Wednesday night, after police searching for Sarah announced they had found a body in woodland in Kent, #NotAllMen began trending, higher up Twitter’s chart than #SarahEverard. On Thursday morning, criminologist Marian FitzGerald told Today: ‘Perhaps I’m entitled to say as a woman, we should not pander to stereotypes and get hysterical.’ She added that the level of risk to women ‘hasn’t changed in a long time’ and that ‘this particular instance shouldn’t make people any more fearful than they have ever been’. While she’s correct that the threat to women’s safety hasn’t increased overnight, she’s also entirely missing the point. We’re not feeling more unsafe than we were last week, or last month, or last year – we’re just finally talking about how unsafe we’ve felt all along.
And while the risk may not have risen, it hasn’t diminished, either. On Radio 4 on Thursday, Labour MP Jess Phillips said six women and a little girl had been reported killed at the hands of men in the time since Sarah Everard went missing last week. Later that day, at a debate in parliament to mark International Women’s Day, Phillips read out the names of 118 women and girls killed in the UK by a man in the past year. A survey by UN Women UK this week found that 80 per cent of women of all ages said they had been sexually harassed in a public place, rising to 97 per cent among those aged 18 to 24. Needless to say, there are no figures for the kind of low-level intimidating behaviour that makes women feel deeply uncomfortable on a daily basis (the man who comes and sits next to us in an otherwise empty Tube carriage, for example, or who slows his car right down alongside us). Yes, the number of killers stalking our streets is vanishingly small and yes, we shouldn’t assume all men in darkened streets are out to hurt us. Believe it or not, every woman knows it’s #NotAllMen. But it only needs to be the one man who’s walking behind her.
Perhaps the most disturbing response to Sarah’s disappearance, though, has been from those questioning whether she was ‘right’ to have walked home alone in the dark. Some asked why she didn’t get a cab, or go home earlier. It was 9.30pm, in the most populated city in the country: would the darkness of 6.30pm have been any safer? What about being locked in a taxi with a stranger at the wheel? This kind of victim-blaming is no better than the old, lazy narrative that women who wear short skirts are ‘asking for’ sexual assault. Sarah should have felt safe: should have been safe. She just wanted to go home.
On Saturday, more than four decades since the first Reclaim The Night march in Leeds following the Yorkshire Ripper murders, a Reclaim These Streets vigil is being held in Sarah’s honour in Clapham. For now, my friends and I keep doing what we’ve always done. We pick well-lit routes and tell our friends and loved ones where we’re going. We carry flat shoes in our bags so that we don’t have to walk home in heels, not just because they make our feet hurt, but because you can’t run in them. We keep an eye on which houses have lights on as we pass in case we need to ask for help. We don’t wear headphones so that we can hear if someone approaches.
We make it our business to ‘protect’ ourselves, but of course, if a woman is attacked, the only person who’s at fault is the attacker. Ultimately, I think that’s the reason the Sarah Everard case has left women everywhere feeling so shaken. It’s reminded us that we can do all of these things, make all of the mental calculations Sarah will have made that night, and it still might not be enough. Because leaving a friend with the words ‘text me when you’re home’ is no use if you never get there. Because those irrational thoughts that flit through our minds suddenly become terribly, terrifyingly rational if our worst fears are actually realised. Because she could have been any of us.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.