Content warning: This article contains references to and details of sexual harassment, abuse and violence against women that some may find triggering.
By Harriet Seedhouse
The case of Sarah Everard, the 33-year-old who disappeared in South London last on 3 March, has saturated the media, with the police and family and friend’s of Sarah all appealing for any information or camera footage from the night she went missing.
Sarah was walking home from her friend’s house in Clapham at around 9pm and was seen walking to her home in Brixton on a journey that should have taken around 50 minutes. Through the police’s investigation, footage from security cameras saw her walking through South London although it is unclear if she reached her home.
Sarah’s family earlier this week had expressed how worried they were about her and that it was “totally out of character” for the young woman to not have contacted her friends or family.
The most recent update in the case is the news that a serving Met police officer was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping and later of murdering Everard after human remains, identity unconfirmed, were found in woodlands. Since this update hit the news, many have taken to social media to share their stories and experiences of feeling unsafe and showing just how much the narrative needs to change in cases like this.
The hashtag #saraheverard has been the number 1 trending item on Twitter in the past 24 hours, with the vast majority of tweets under this being from women who are sharing how they go out of their way to feel safe when leaving their house.
Not walking alone at night. Walking with no music playing through their headphones. Choosing to call a taxi rather than get on public transport after a certain hour. Making sure that when they do get a taxi they don’t share their real address but rather one nearby. Holding keys in our hand so to make a weapon should someone attack us. Avoiding alleys and parks by staying on well-lit streets. These are all actions that women are told will prevent sexual harassment and assault.
Most women and female-presenting people I know do these, and so many more, as second nature. You are not sat down and told to cross the road if someone comes too close behind you or to make sure you have someone on the phone to you when you are out alone – you learn these behaviours over your life in an attempt to lessen the fear that comes from harassment and assault.
Sarah Everard did all of these things. She was walking on well-lit paths, wearing brightly coloured clothing so she would be seen, and sensible shoes made for the journey so she wouldn’t have had to stop at any point. She was even on the phone to her partner as she passed through Clapham Common (what some are saying is the only questionable part of her journey) at well before midnight and she was still abducted. You can do all of the right things and be told to take all of the precautions and still have horrific things happen to you.
Whilst social media is full of people tweeting and sharing their experiences – highlighting how women have been taught from such a young age to be in fear of this happening to them – this was followed by the trending of the hashtag #notallmen. A rhetoric used by men to shift blame and to prove that not all men will assault or harass women.
It’s a phrase you hear time whenever there are allegations or cases or sexual violence or harassment, yet it never seems to be raised regarding other gendered stereotypes (men are better drivers than women or read maps better, for example).
Men seem to have no issue with these generalizations, and maybe this is because they a) benefit or compliment men or b) they understand that people do not mean that every single man is a good driver.
Yet when women discuss sexual violence or gendered crimes against women and girls, they become on edge and must demonstrate that they and the men they know would never do anything of the sorts.
#notallmen offers no proof that you would never commit these crimes and adds nothing to the conversations of women and girls. All it does is derail the conversations surrounding this violence and dismisses the experiences that many women go through.
UN Women UK recently released data from a survey that found 97% of women aged 18-24 had been sexually harassed and 80% of women of all ages said they had experience sexual harassment in public spaces. Male media commentators expressed their shock and surprise to these statistics, but most women who saw this found it horrific – but fairly unsurprising.
These are the types of incidents that when people speak up about public sexual harassment they are told that people mean nothing by it or that cat calling should be taken as a compliment. Yet when 84% of university students have experienced public sexual harassment, it’s no surprise that people have to go out of their way to feel safe and protected when they leave their homes.
These statistics also do not account for the fact that our streets are even more dangerous for women of colour and trans women and trans women of colour who are oftentimes excluded from these discussions.
Whenever there is a large case in the media that makes headlines about a crime of harassment, sexual assault or violence against women or girls, the police and people in authority positions are quick to tell women to not walk alone until the perpetrator is found or to only leave the house in groups.
There is never any headlines telling men not to harass or assault women. In the news this week, London was told that police presence had been increased following the disappearance of Sarah Everard which in theory should ease the minds of those having to make a last-minute trip to the shops alone in the dark. Yet when the news broke that the person arrested in connection with the case was a MET police officer, it just illustrates how even those you are supposed to trust with your safety can be the issue.
So when people are sharing their outrage at this case and at these crimes that occur way too frequently and many men have reactions that not all men will do this, they are right, not all men will. But too many men will commit these crimes and too many women will feel scared to leave their houses, especially at night because of this fear of this happening to them.
Activist and Campaigner Gina Martin did a TedX talk last year about her experiences with public sexual harassment, amongst other things, and spoke about how too many men, “whether through action or inaction are perpetuating a culture of sexism that breeds inequality and that leads to violence”.
She discusses it so well – I highly recommend watching her Ted Talk – in that whether you are a man that is committing these crimes or not, if you do not call out your male friends for their sexist behaviour, or look up how misogyny really operates in order to dismantle it, then you are not contributing to the solution any more than you are contributing to the problem.
If men understood the challenges that women face making calculations on which route to take home or how to react when someone begins to harass you on the street then maybe they would want to “solve it with [us] more than [they want to] prove that they are not the problem”.
Many of the men on social media who are not posting about #notallmen are still contributing negatively to these discussions. There have been lots of tweets from men regarding Sarah’s case and the accusations of why she was walking alone so late at night, had she been drinking or why she did not have her headphones off so she was aware of her surroundings. Women should not have to wear different clothes or stay on certain streets in order to feel safe. We should be able to go anywhere at any time wearing anything and feel safe doing it.
For those men tweeting about what they can do to help many are responding with the comments that this is not an isolated incident and just because you or your friends do not commit these crimes doesn’t mean that you are not contributing to the longstanding societal issue. You need to be calling out sexist behaviours when you see it and challenging it with your friends but you also need to be having these conversations around women’s safety/consent with your sons.
Not all men harm women, but it’s enough men that nearly every woman has a story of a time she was in fear of her safety due to a man. This is what people need to understand.
These conversations on social media at the moment and women expressing their own experiences and fears are not happening so that other women know what is out there. Women already know. We experience it daily. They are happening so that men understand just how common situations like this are and realise why holding others accountable for their actions is necessary if you want women and girls to feel safe.
The horrific case of Sarah Everard has brought these issues to light in the media but men need to see these posts and know that it is not an isolated incident. It happens to a lot more women than they think and by a lot more men than they would assume.