News Editor Imogen Dixon discusses the Sarah Everard case in relation to rape culture and women.
This past week began with celebrating International Woman’s Day and ended with the tragic identification of Sarah Everard’s body after she was reported missing at the beginning of March. Along with fear and anger, I feel complete exhaustion. When will women be able to exist without fear?
According to a survey by UN Women UK, 80% of women of all ages said they had been sexually harassed in a public space. This figure rose to 97% for women aged 18-24. The vast majority of our female and feminine presenting peers have been sexually harassed, have some tale of being catcalled on the street or groped in a bar. After I got the notification confirming the identification of Sarah’s body during a walk around Hyde Park, I noticed a man cycling past give me the once over before turning round to follow me.
I laughed it off when I called my dad in an attempt to get him to leave me alone (thankfully he did), but my hands were shaking until I got back to my accommodation. The saddest part is that it isn’t even the first time a man has harassed me in public – and I know other women have multiple similar stories.
Clearly, women are not the problem. From childhood we are taught to take precautions when walking alone: keep your keys in your hand, wear sensible shoes in case you need to run, don’t wear earphones. Sarah Everard did everything she was supposed to in order to ensure her safety. In the end, it still wasn’t enough.
But this is what frustrates me about the narrative we perpetuate as a society, whereby a woman is made responsible for her own safety. What about the responsibility men have to not take advantage of someone’s vulnerability?
In 2017, when the latest figures on sexual offences were released, the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) estimated that 20% of women have experienced some form of sexual assault since the age of 16. This is compared with around 4% of men.
Not all men, the tone-deaf hashtag whines. Okay, maybe not all men are predators, but almost all predators are men. I feel there is some sort of entitlement many men feel, whereby they have an automatic right to a woman’s attention. Or her body.
Even if we are taught to take preventative measures to avoid assault, we don’t always have the chance to implement them. I know I didn’t when a man sexually assaulted me as I slept in my bed when I was volunteering in Chile in 2018. It was at a Halloween party. He had decided, it would seem, as he helped my friend put me to bed, that my consent was unimportant and came back after she had forced him from my room.
It was not an isolated incident. The older brother of the man who assaulted me had done the same thing to another woman previously. Our society is steeped in rape culture.
So, while it is wonderful that men are asking on Twitter what they can do to make a woman feel safer when walking down the same street, to me, this is almost putting a plaster on a gaping wound. Of course, reducing women’s anxiety by giving them space in the street is brilliant. Leaving them alone is great – but it isn’t the root of the issue.
Men need to challenge the potentially harmful behaviours they see in their friends. Rather than attacking a predator after the fact – prevent them from feeling comfortable enough to commit sexual assault in the first place. You would never hurt a woman? Good. But do you speak up if you see one of your friends, or even a stranger for that matter, exhibiting dangerous behaviour?
Another British volunteer I had gone to Chile with – a man – told me the morning after my assault that he had come upstairs to go to the bathroom and had seen my door open and someone inside. He didn’t do anything about it.
I doubt that my friend would ever hurt a woman on purpose. But he could have prevented, or at least stopped, the man assaulting me before my other male friend came upstairs, immediately noticed something was wrong and went to get help.
So, if you see a friend wolf-whistle at a woman in the street or ply a woman with a bit too much alcohol, or even notice them say something to a woman they would never say to a man, call them out. If you’re not actively helping tackle rape culture within your friend groups, then you’re part of the problem.
In order for women to be able to expect safety – the bare minimum – when they walk down the street, rape culture must be nipped in the bud. How hard is it to understand that women are human beings who have a right to walk home safely, at any time of day and in any state?
A serious overhaul needs to take place, from teaching boys in school about consent to calling out misogynistic behaviour in friends and family. Until then, I will be walking with my keys in my fists and my phone’s emergency alarm on, holding my breath every time I walk past a group of men. I am fed up with it.